Justin Keever | Jul 2, 2014
There’s a line in the television show True Detective where Detective Rust Cohle says the show’s setting, Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, “is like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory is fading.” Had this line been uttered on our television screens about a year earlier, I would be thoroughly convinced that this line was the conception of Ether One. It’s the perfect elevator pitch: remove Cohle’s resolute cynicism and any semblance of metaphor, and the entirety of Ether One lies dormant in the words: the contemplativeness, the frustration, the nostalgia, the subjective filter of reality, the grief of losing your grasp on your happiest moments. White Paper Games chooses to tackle the fading of memory head on, (supposedly) setting their game literally inside the mind of woman with dementia, and (supposedly) casting the player as a “Restorer,” a person with the necessary ill-defined ability to withstand the process of being transported inside another person’s mind for the purpose of treating mental illness – specifically dementia. Whatever concerns given rise by the bizarre sci-fi conceits of the game’s opening are alleviated through the sheer force of aesthetic wonderment: a painterly style with a focus on deep blues, warm oranges, and delightfully earthy greys and browns combines with a minimalist piano score and precise diegetic sounds to create a lovely portrait of a small British port town. The story becomes equally enticing: the game expands from its starting point – the dementia patient Jean – to include the entirety of the town, allowing the player to glimpse into the trials and aspirations of the majority of Pinwheel’s denizens, witnessing for themselves the interweaving relationships and acting out moments both pivotal and typical. Ether One presents its experience with a level of subtlety and nuance that far outshines last year’s Gone Home, by presenting the core narrative with a level of heightened ambiguity that prevents it from ever completely overshadowing the embedded mini-narratives. Until the ending, that is. For a very long time Ether One commits to its ideas, until it appears to become frightened of its own accomplishments, eschewing complexity and ambiguity for a rushed finale that misunderstands the game’s own fiction and structure, favoring an overt thrust at starting a discourse around dementia at the cost of everything else, not realizing that it had already started the conversation hours before.
At its best, Ether One isn’t about dementia. Rather, at its best, Ether One is not about dementia overtly, but allows the mental illness to fester in the background; not the answer at the end of the nightmare, but a presence that lurks behind us that we dare not look back to, a monster waiting to devour us if we should stop, its tendrils occasionally extending in front of us, a subtle reminder of its refusal to go away. Dementia waits behind and Pinwheel lies ahead, and it’s much better to look forward. Granted, the Pinwheel we see in Ether One does feel like a fabrication, the product of a mind: the aforementioned “painterly” stylization of the game’s art reflects the way in which Ether One invokes the ethos of idealization found in Western Romantic-era landscapes. Pinwheel begins to feel as unreal as it actually is simply through the force of its own contemplative beauty, a form of degraded perfection where the people are reduced to faded whispers and the buildings look as though they were immune to the ravages of time, as though a gardening crew fought back the weeds in continual preparation for your inevitable arrival. In fact, the obfuscation of time is one of the monster’s largest, most violent tendrils. Letters between an aged Jean and Thomas exist alongside journals of strangers describing them as children exist simultaneously in the lifeless instant the player explores, and smaller stories occurring in different years me further muddle the sense of time: Alexander Graham Bell is inventing the telephone here, while the local movie theater goes out of business. Early on, the confusion is overwhelming: I felt lost as I explored Pinwheel harbor, unsure of when I was. When my grandmother had dementia, she would often call my mother in the early morning, unsure of what day it was, and what time it was. That Ether One is able to mirror that kind of confusion on a macro level is its first big success in addressing this disease.
Of course, I didn’t feel lost forever. Eventually the wandering became a beautiful thing, and as I opened myself up to Pinwheel, it opened itself up to me. I discerned what I was exploring: an amalgam of time, a limbo between a version of Pinwheel where everything was happening at once, and nothing was happening at all. Ether One tasks the player with 2 goals: collect a series of ribbons – physical representations of “core memories” – in each area of Pinwheel, and locate/fix broken projectors that can only be repaired by solving multi-step puzzles within the environment. The former is the more basic of the two, and the only activity the game requires for completion (more on that later). It’s also the closest the game comes to superficially resembling Bioshock or Gone Home, since finding each ribbon is solely a matter of exploration, and each one triggers a bit of voiceover from the doctor who is in charge of the Ether project the player is taking part in. These voiceovers further the narrative proper, each bit of narration clarifying the stakes of the project and explaining the nature of the relationship between the doctor and the restorer (whose identity I’ll address later). This first level of gameplay is the demesne of nothing, of Pinwheel as a still-life. I compare Ether One to Gone Home and Bioshock for their commonalities of relatively non-linear exploration and radio-drama narrative method, but to be honest, this component of the game begins to feel more like Dear Esther, as you drift through a beautiful land of uncertain make, a ghost in a land too empty for ghosts. But Ether One defies its own sense of ontological emptiness through its sensation of movement. Unlike a lot of first-person games, walking in Ether One doesn’t feel like drifting forward across a plane: it feels like walking. It’s the appropriate slowness, the slight camera shake, and the difference of speed when you move from a flat surface to stairs: you don’t feel like a mobile perspective, you feel alive. It’s this sensation that gestures toward the latter half of the gameplay: the projectors.
The projectors are where Ether One begins to open itself up, where the game allows itself to breathe. They are a contraction and an expansion, the smallest point of an oscillating narrative focus, reducing the act of expansion and discovery – often to reducing the relevant space to a single building – whilst creating a more complete picture of Pinwheel, one that extends vastly beyond the narrow scope Jean and Thomas’ relationship. Fixing the projectors doesn’t require complex bouts of logical thinking, nor does it take the foreknowledge of which 2 obscure items the developer believed should be combined to proceed. The puzzle elements of Ether One are more straightforward, simply tasking the restorer with carrying out the actions (mundane or significant) of a citizen of Pinwheel. Mail this letter to receive a replacement ankle bell for the May Day festival. Go to your window, look out at the buoys, and tap out the tune they play that inspired you. Poison your boss’ coffee because he refused to give you time off. Put a toy boat on a stream. To restore the projectors in Ether One is to be Pinwheel’s agent of life, the last gasp of a place that faded not just from one person’s mind, but from the world. The slow death of Pinwheel is Ether One’s most prominent, effective tragedy simply because it is the component of the narrative that the player is the most active in. I know that heavily resembles the player-centric rhetoric that I criticized just last week, but that’s not the intent of that statement: I’m not valuing the projector puzzles over the ribbons simply because they represent more traditionally active puzzles. But, by their nature as active puzzles, they demand focused attention and narrative consideration in a way ribbons and the varying voice overs just don’t. Even the voiceovers that play when a step of a projector puzzle is completed, which feature a little girl speaking ambiguously about life in Pinwheel and the effects of dementia, fade into the background. Deciphering the projector puzzles is deciphering the fate of Pinwheel: it’s understanding what these different people did each day, how they all moved hand-in-hand towards obsolescence, through self-destruction or willful indifference. As the necessary items and codes required to complete the various projector puzzles become more and more widespread, the interrelatedness of life in Pinwheel slowly becomes more apparent. The centerpiece of the Pinwheel village, the World War I memorial, doesn’t feel obligatory, nor does it seem particularly personal, as if only a few families that suffered losses lobbied for its construction. It stands tall, conspicuous and constant, a testament to the fragility of Pinwheel: every death, every departure from the town weakens it severely. The tragic irony of Pinwheel is that its fragility is its appeal: finding letters from a businessman describing how his view of Thomas and Jean playing from his office window inspired him to write an ode to Pinwheel, an ode that the audience heard emanating from the tavern across the bay hours ago is an emotionally potent experience, as well as one that serves as a synechdochical summation of the kind of neighborly intimacy that Pinwheel epitomizes, an ideal as alluring as it is antiquated. The signs of Pinwheel’s demise are omnipresent: the cinema is closing, the children all want to leave, and the local export business, which accounts for most of the village’s employment, is being sold to an American Corporation. But even without this evidence, Pinwheel’s demise, or at least the demise of this romantic nonpareil, is foretold in the very beginning of the game, when the doctor describes the collapse of Brimclif Mine, an accident that killed 23 workers. The death toll is large enough to shake the town severely, revealing the fragile foundation the small community is based upon, and it is a massive blow to the town’s ore export business. But this accident is not a sudden twist of fate; it’s a quick release from a slower demise.
I mentioned that during the projector puzzles that the rest of the narrative (read: the dementia narrative) falls into the background. The word “background” is key: just because it is not literally at the forefront of the experience during the game’s most mentally taxing moments does not mean it vanishes entirely, or even ceases to be important. In fact, Ether One’s specific brand of mental taxation becomes the most interesting way in which the dementia subtly manifests as a central theme. One of the characters (to the extent that those voices are “characters”) has a line describing the early onset of dementia. It’s the little things, she says, that go at first: things like where you left your keys. Ether One is a game of little things being out of place. Charts are incomplete, wires aren’t fixed, and stamps haven’t been put on envelopes. The mixture of the puzzles’ mundanity and the nostalgia that Pinwheel evokes creates a sense of frustrating familiarity, where solutions should come to you naturally, but lie just beyond the scope of your comprehension. Simply put, Ether One is a game about losing your keys. It doesn’t model dementia through its projector puzzles (it couldn’t), but it does model an experience something like dementia’s early onset, capturing the tragic confusion of losing one’s grasp on the familiar. There were points while playing Ether One that the simple of act of discovering a solution brought me close to tears, not due to any narrative context, but simply because discovery no longer felt like discovery: it felt like I was recovering memories. This is where Ether One most succeeds in creating a discourse around dementia, in its ability to make dementia a looming presence, rather than a plot device.
It’s rather odd, then, that the projectors are entirely optional, especially when the game goes to the trouble of demonstrating their value in the tutorial level. In fact, the projectors are the only element of the game that is even remotely tutorialized: the ribbons receive no such treatment, and are only explained briefly via a bit of narration when they are first encountered. It’s a bizarre creative choice that the team was kind enough to provide an explanation on in their game’s description, where they outline a desire to make the game “accessible… for people not wanting to get stuck and frustrated on the harder puzzles.” Taken superficially, and without foreknowledge of the game, this desire is commendable: perceived difficulty of games is often seen as a barrier to entry for new potential audiences, and a game like Ether One, with thematic content that is can potentially appeal to people who wouldn’t self-define as gamers, can be an excellent entry point for people who are either normally intimidated by or otherwise skeptical of videogames. However, Ether One’s puzzles don’t provide the sort of challenge that turns barricades games off from other media. Millions of people willingly engage in mental challenges for fun: think of the newspaper crossword, or the Sudoku craze that began years ago. I can’t help but feel that White Paper Games has misunderstood what is so threatening about video game challenge; you can’t die in Ether One, and there are no situations where continuation of the game requires the player to react with preternatural gamer instinct. It just requires careful thought, which – if reaction to proper game analysis in the mainstream is any indication – seems to be more feared by gamers than the rest of humanity. So, as I was egged on by the mysterious doctor to continue despite the broken projector in front of me, I couldn’t help but feel that Ether One was neutered for the gamer, not the videogame inductee. I don’t mean to cynically speculate about true intentions, I just think that good intentions may have been misplaced, and the final product may represent an underlying fear about reception.
Regardless, the projectors are not something with blocking off behind player agency. The core of the easygoing, explorative experience the group apparently wanted to would have been the core of the game if the projector puzzles were required: completing the projectors requires that the player first find them within each level, which encourages environmental exploration, and completing the puzzles requires careful consideration of the environment, maintaining the game’s deliberate pace. Ultimately, locking off the projectors behind the question “do you want to do this?” cheapens the experience, and smacks of a profound lack of confidence. The optionality of the projectors encourages a superficial relationship with Pinwheel, simply because it removes the necessary cognitive application required to navigate it otherwise. Ether One is rich with discoverable material, but the game itself devalues it by implying that most of it is not truly worth discovering, that our attention should be directed elsewhere. That Ether One devalues what is far and away its most interesting aspect is downright bizarre; I almost believe that White Paper Games simply misunderstood or otherwise misinterpreted what exactly worked about its own creation, an accusation that would seem absurd were it not for all of the game developers already showing a similar obliviousness. I would choose the more unfortunate, but less cynical option that the devs simply weren’t confident enough to assertively author their game in this era of repetitive indie roguelikes, but two significant choices at the end reinforce my former diagnosis of muddled creative vision.
First is that Ether One allows the player to skip an entire quarter of the game. An entire area, and its ribbons and projectors, are not required reading before attending the conclusion. What’s more, it is wholly possible to skip this section without realizing you could: I should know, seeing as that’s what happened to me. This is, first and foremost, the most severe way in which Ether One disregards its own narrative, or at least Pinwheel’s narrative: the final level is the Brimclif Mine, which, as was aforesaid, collapsed, killing 23 people and irreparably devastating the town. Arriving at the Mine is the logical conclusion of Ether One, seeing as it is the location of arguably the most significant (and most heavily foreshadowed) event in the history of Pinwheel, and in the lives of Jean and Thomas. To not include that location within the game’s linear progression of levels, especially when a visit is promised by the game’s own hubworld and structure, seems a pointless, harmful omission: without the mine the story of Pinwheel lacks a climax, and becomes a tragedy without a catharsis. And the sudden warning that it can be skipped, spoken by the formless doctor, is one of the game’s great contradictions. The game’s hubworld, called the Restorer’s “Case,” contains 4 doors: one for Pinwheel harbor, one for Pinwheel Industrial, one for Pinwheel village, and one for the Brimclif Mine. The player travels to each of the first three locations in a linear order, obeying the direction of the authored narrative, returning to these doors to access a “core memory,” each of which furthers the plot. Until the end of the game, this structure is a constant, a truth, and there’s never a reason to doubt it. The doors become reassuring, telling us where we’re going; giving us direction as the ambiguous narrative slowly unfolds. The doctor is, more often than not, the source of that ambiguity the Case counteracts. She’s made unreliable within in the game’s first minutes, where she instructs us to destroy a crystal while a little girl begs us not to, saying the doctor’s lying to us. Her unprompted changes in her perception of the restorer further the mistrust. So, when she warns us that when we access the third core memory that we won’t be able to go back and explore the rest of Pinwheel, what are we to trust: the mysterious voice with potentially malicious motives, or the structure that has, thus far, remained a constant? I guessed the latter, and the answer was the former. I still haven’t gone back and played through Brimclif Mine. As much as I’d like to, I can’t help but feel unmotivated: how am I supposed to care about it when the game itself says it isn’t worth my time?
Secondly, there’s the twist. The final, insipid plot twist that reveals its existence within the first 5 minutes of the game, then taunts us for the remainder. You are not a restorer. You are Thomas, Jean’s childhood friend and husband. She doesn’t have dementia, you do. Also, the Ether program does not exist, it was all an elaborate fantasy in your mind. Ether One positively sprints through these revelations in its final minutes, which I admit I had difficulty paying attention to as I overcame the shock of unintentionally skipping an entire section of the game. Admittedly, the Ether Institute’s falsity can be discerned, like I said, in the very first minutes: a conspicuous, improvised tent appears in an otherwise pointless room in the Ether institute, and reappears not 2 minutes later in the first area of Pinwheel you explore. The taunt? Pinwheel’s lighthouse, which lies just off the shore, almost always visible, and serves as the game’s final location. Posters of the lighthouse litter public areas, with text that reads “What Secrets does the Lighthouse Hold?” I suppose that’s Bioshock Infinite’s legacy, then: it’s not the controversy over its failure to address themes of racial segregation, nor its metacommentary on the intersection of emergent and authored narrative. Instead, it taught us that plot twists live in lighthouses. In fact, Ether One’s entire ending plays like Bioshock Infinite Lite, complete with myriad plot twists (concerning the identity/history of the player character, no less!) and videogame metacommentary explained in the general vicinity of a lighthouse. But for all of Bioshock Infinite’s problems, at least it delivered on its fiction with a sense of honesty, able to rip its diegesis asunder without dismissing itself. I left Ether One feeling I had been lied to. As the doctor urged Thomas, and me, to abandon this harmful “fantasy world,” I found myself lamenting the inability of games to simply be: to commit their fiction, to be confident. Ether One’s is absurd. But it led to real beauty, and I wish the game was confident enough in its premise to just let it be, and let those experiences stay genuine. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind doesn’t end with the revelation that the memory-erasing machine is a construct of Joel’s mind, nor should it. Ether One’s endgame feels desperate not only in its attempt to include a both a twist and a neat resolution of its plot, neither of which it earns (or even needs!), but in how it so directly addresses dementia in its final moments, as if frightened that we’ve forgotten why we’re here. And in foregrounding dementia, Ether One demonstrates how little it appreciates its strengths. I had spent 15 hours fixing those projectors. Nothing else needed to be said. And it would have been plenty easy for White Paper Games to ensure that each and every player had that experience before the end, if they hadn’t conceded the game to the agency of the player. On the other hand, maybe they just didn’t want people to explore their game to its full extent: the doctor does say we need to let go of that fantasy world, after all. That’s too bad. Sometimes fantasy is worthwhile.