Ether One is a first-person adventure game developed by White Paper Games and it was released in 2014. It’s a rare accomplishment in narrative design, and there are several things you can learn from it.
The player assumes the role of a Restorer whose job is to explore the mind of a patient diagnosed with dementia, and collect fragments of memories. The exploration of the mind is possible through highly advanced technology that creates a 3D simulated environment from memories (this technology is built by Ether Institute of Telepathic Medicine). The project is lead by Dr Phyllis Edmunds, who is constantly in touch with the player character, but we only hear her voice.
If you don’t know anything about this game, it’s a puzzle adventure / immersive simulator, very similar to games like Myst and Gone Home. And while it certainly takes inspiration from both approaches, it also takes only the best elements that those games have to offer.
1. The elliptic narrative
Ether One doesn’t tell its story directly, although it doesn’t throw the player immediately into an enigmatic environment either: the goal, the setting, the characters are well defined, if you listen carefully.
Then you transition into the simulated world, and you’re free to explore. The main goal is to collect memory fragments symbolized by red ribbons, and by doing so, you’ll access core memories. Also, finding and artifact and restoring damaged memories grants you little scenes. You are free to move all the time, so these aren’t cutscenes you must watch, your attention can wander. And most probably, it will.
Collecting memory fragments is enough to complete the game, you can miss and skip an entire chapter, that takes up at least 20% of the game. This is a bold move from the developers. The entrance to the optional area is well hidden. The optional puzzles are more difficult than getting the ribbons. The design seems very unbalanced, but I will defend this choice: the ultimate driving force in this game is curiosity (if not completionism).
The narrative is strengthened by the fact that the game rewards free exploration with answers, sometimes contradicting previously discovered information. The simulated world is constructed as a real place that was inhabited once, now you can only look at what’s left behind (letters, notes, the environments also tell a story). This is an excellent example what the immersive simulation genre can offer (another great examples would be Gone Home and maybe Thief II, although Gone Home doesn’t have such a big place to explore).
And yes, it is possible to not listen to the dialogues and not inspect all the items, and you can still complete the game. But you will miss on the narrative. But it’s not a problem.
2. There’s no significant dissonance between gameplay and narrative
The main focus of the story of dementia, which is a heavy and serious theme, but it also means that the player should experience what it feels like. Being unsure what to listen to, what to inspect, what puzzle to solve adds to that experience.
Here you can witness a basic design principle: your boundaries can be your strengths. Ether One lacks an inventory system, a quest log, a quest marker, it doesn’t record anything you read or hear. You could say that it’s a major weakness by today’s standards, but it actually enhances the sense of disorientation and the feeling of losing memories. The uncertainty is a major narrative element here.
This could be a deliberate choice, but if your game has any limitations or lacking features because of budget, time, etc., you should always find a creative explanation, and solve it through the narrative. Remember Antichamber? It’s main feature was a bug once.
One more thing: the game doesn’t feature any animated characters, faces – now this is clearly a limitation of budget and time. But the haunting voices from the past, the excellent sound design make up for this: the player will feel very isolated, alone, yet somehow very free. The implication of events and the clues left by characters inhabit the world of Ether One, and it’s all very well executed.
If you break down the game, it builds an atmosphere and narrative using almost only static objects and places (not entirely, but it could have pulled it off). The interactive, moving set pieces are used sparingly, but when the player encounters them, it’s very effective and chilling (like the Artifact’s restorations).
3. Parallel stories
There are two storylines you can explore in Ether One: the patient’s memories, and the sometimes aggressive and contradicting instructions by Phyllis, who urges you to not take your time exploring, and focus on the task of collecting memory fragments.
This is actually brilliant. If the player has the freedom to rebel, they will, and by doing so, the game rewards the player with a more complete experience. Portal did a similar thing, but most of the information there was laid out on a preset path. Here, it’s up to the player to explore.
Ether One manages to juggle a very obscure narrative and a very direct storyline, and it’s certainly worth taking notes and breaking it down. The dramatic timing of very quiet and very loud scenes is also superb.
For example: the so-called core memories have the player explore a dark, empty house. It’s silent. But by taking photographs, scenes of memories come alive with loud and bright flashes. These core memories don’t offer any direct narrative explanations, but again, they have audiovisual clues that imply something bigger.
You can play safe and make a very well executed game that doesn’t offer anything new (and still become critically acclaimed, like The Last of Us), but once in a while, you should be exploring new themes, and Ether One takes that step. It’s far from a perfect game (its glitches will drive completionists crazy), but it dares to explore new narrative possibilities outside of the comfort zone of the average games. This is a very mature piece, although the science-fiction parts need a little bit of suspension-of-disbelief, as they are bordering on science-fantasy, but the game’s narrative and themes make the story unique and interesting.
You should play it.