This is one ether you should consume immediately.
After Myst came out, a lot of developers tried to capture its essence. The smart ones created unique games of note, such as The 7th Guest and Zork Nemesis. Still, others created generic clones that plopped you in a mysterious fantasy setting with little explanation and asked you to solve odd puzzles in the hopes that you’d feel like you just played Myst.
It wasn’t until last year’s Gone Home that I felt the same essence I felt playing Myst as a child, mostly due to the convincing setting and exploration. Ether One, the first offering from White Paper Games, brought me even closer to that feeling without forfeiting a unique character all its own. Although the execution isn’t perfect, I’d still highly recommend this game to fans of lonely adventures and crafty puzzles.
The developers offer you two paths: play the game and absorb the emotional story without puzzles (beyond the tutorial level), or take it upon yourself to solve the many mysteries of Pinwheel, the British setting you're whisked away to. Someone's mind projects Pinwheel itself and you, as a “Restorer”, get tasked with trying to cure dementia, of all things. Thus, it shouldn't be surprising that events take several turns towards the surreal.
In performing actual restoration you solve puzzles to fix various broken projectors which reveal memories tied to the patient. However, Ether One rivals Myst and its progeny by ensuring the puzzle solving isn't immediately apparent. Puzzles are so organically tied to and integrated into their environment that realizing you have puzzles around you is a puzzle itself. You rarely find yourself staring at an otherworldly device; instead, clues and answers wait for you to pay attention to your surroundings.
You often need to recreate the daily life of Pinwheel, which includes activities like getting ornaments for a girl’s holiday outfit or preparing a shipment to be exported to America. Although a number of these were harder to accomplish that I’d have imagined, I loved White Paper's focus on the mundane. They reinforce how important the minor nuances in one’s life are to the greater landscape of memory.
Of course, you can continue ignoring these nuances should you so choose. Collecting mementos strewn about Pinwheel to unlock significant memories drives the narrative, but finding them also results in commentary from another character involved with the meta-story. The mementos are not hidden like collectibles in other games, but they do force players to actually explore the large areas the developers designed in order to collect them.
Each significant memory results in narrative sequences that feel both highly interesting and deeply flawed. On one hand, cool events transpire and you find yourself whisked about in utterly surreal machinations of the patient’s mind. On the other, these sequences offer no control or choice. When you spend so much time discovering unsolved mysteries, the idea of a cut-scene feels undesirable.
The delusions created in these moments do not seep into the game’s core gameplay whatsoever. For all intents and purposes, Pinwheel maintains the illusion of being real with startlingly few reminders that it is technically imagined. The decomposition caused by dementia is generally absent. I’d contrast this to Fez, where the world noticeably degrades as the player finds anti-cubes. I wish we could expect something similar in a tale related to the degradation of the mind.
Regardless of that narrative flaw, the world and its characters drew me in easily. Aside from the main protagonists, you can find all sorts of letters and journal entries too. By the finale, you feel like you know everybody’s name, where they lived, and what they did for a living before entering this veritable museum. For people you never see, this speaks volumes about the developer’s tender care for the world they created and enhances the finale's moving events especially for those close to someone suffering from dementia.
This would all be for naught if the world weren’t worth looking at or interacting with, but Ether One does not suffer in this regard. Admittedly, the cel-shaded graphics moderately surprised me at first, but the vivid colors and bold lines actually added charm to the presentation. Some objects, such as beds and bunches of apples, appear stiff but these don’t detract from the overall experience.
There are almost too many remarkable objects to pick up and the inventory system is a bit peculiar in that once you hold an item, you can only get rid of it by swapping it for another item or leaving it in "The Case", a black mat area with locations throughout the world. It took me a good while to figure out what items were actually worth storing; sometimes a bottle of beer is just that.
I found the path devoid of puzzles a dubious gaming choice for players. Like any good first-person adventurer, I racked up the hours finding that last clue. If I didn’t bother, I’d have blown through the narrative in a few hours. Ether One would still prove itself a touching story, but it is doubtless that the crux of the game I played was restoring the projectors and learning more about Pinwheel.
Those who don’t bother will miss a significant portion of the experience. Thus, even though the developers let you choose either one, I only recommend Ether One. At least you can finish the story if you get frustrated.
Review based on PC version. Code provided by publisher.