Despite the massive medical breakthroughs made in recent decades, the complexities of the human brain still provide several enigmas that have yet to be fully understood. We understand how chemical imbalances or genetic defects can lead to learning and mood disabilities, and how various activities stimulate different areas of the brain, but the aspects of the subconscious mind are still greatly unknown. What are the components of dreams, emotions and memories? What triggers illnesses like autism and schizophrenia? The curiosities of the mind have inspired many works of speculative fiction providing its own perspective on these questions, and video games are no exception. Psychonauts, To The Moon, Alundra, and Remember Me are just a few of the titles that have offered unique interpretations on psychological phenomena, some more successfully than others. The most recent game I played that delved into the nature of the human mind was Ether One, the debut title from White Paper Games. Going in I didn’t really know what to expect, but once I had finished I was absolutely stunned by how beautiful it was.

The Ether Institute leads the field in the treatment of memory disorders. Relying on a revolutionary technology known as “projection”, they are able to allow specialized staff members referred to as Restorers to directly interact with the minds of their patients through a form of artificial telepathy, allowing for therapy far beyond what conventional medicine offers. You are one of the Restorers, tasked with probing the subconscious of Jean Thornton, an elderly woman afflicted with Lewy body dementia. Under the guidance of Dr. Phyllis Edmonds, you will explore the broken recollections of Jean’s past, depicted by her mind as her childhood hometown of Pinwheel in Cornwall, searching for the cause of her ailment to eliminate it. As you delve deeper into Jean’s memories, you’ll discover more than just the root of the dementia. There are many secrets locked away in her mind, hidden revelations that shed light not only on her life, but on the history of Pinwheel and the Ether Institute itself.

In my analysis of Remember Me, I discussed that the use of fictional technology to interact with and view peoples’ minds is rooted in actual science. Direct neural interfaces, while still far from advanced as the Ether Institute’s projectors, have been advancing greatly in recent years. New developments are allowing for clearer visualizations of perceived or imagined stimuli in subjects, and cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick has even succeeded in transmitting mental signals between humans through biomedical implants in a simple version of synthetic telepathy. There’s much to be obtained from this field, even if we’ve a long way to go until we reach a point where we can actually see the thoughts of others. On that note, there was an inconsistency in how this equipment was described in the game that nagged at me for a while. After projecting for the first time, Dr. Edmonds says that while you can see a virtual environment formed from Jean’s subconscious, all she can observe are brain scans. Yet every time you come to an important area, she’s able to describe what you’re seeing as though she had a clear visual representation as well. I’m not sure if this was just something that was overlooked, or if the developers intended for her observations to eventually become as clear as those seen by the Restorer. It doesn’t hurt the story, but it’s an odd oversight.

Unsurprisingly, the idea of using technology that connects to the human mind has raised significant ethical concerns, such as the potential for manipulating recipients of brain-computer interfaces, altering their behavior or violating their privacy by directly delving into their memories. Ether One chooses to focus on the possible hazards to the health and welfare of the subjects. Before you begin the restoration process you’re free to explore the Institute’s laboratories. If you take the time to look at the memos and computer monitors you’ll read about the various procedures and the risks they pose to both test subjects and Restorers – hemorrhaging. Strokes, further memory loss, diminished sensory recognition, and organ damage. Restorers could even become lost in the minds of the subjects they’ve linked with or go insane. While the staff is aware of the danger, they still press on with the hopes that in the end, the breakthroughs they’ve achieved will prove to be greater than any harm that was caused, that the sacrifices of a few are acceptable if it leads to the good of many. It’s a subtle critique on the need for ethics in scientific research that never belabors the message to the point of annoyance.

Making a game about the problems of dementia hit home for several team members at White Paper, including lead writer Benjamin Hill, who have family that were afflicted with the disorder. That pain carried over into the final work with an incredibly powerful depiction of how it ravages minds. As you work through Jean’s thoughts you’ll often hear her speak about events from her past pertaining to the area you’re in. Several times these comments are about the problems she’s had holding onto her memories, even the joyful moments she wants to keep intact. Journal entries describe the sadness and frustration she feels when she loses time or can’t recognize a friend she only saw recently, pages found out of order to further reflect her disordered mental state. Occasionally there will be a cutscene where you still retain control of the Restorer but are unable to react to a force that carries you through voids and disjointed tableaus patched together from random parts of clashing environments. It reinforces not only the dangers posed to those who undertake the procedure, but also the feeling of powerlessness in a fight against an illness you have no control over. It evokes a strong empathic connection with those who suffer from dementia, even though it can’t effectively depict how hellish it truly is for those living with it.

The bulk of Ether One’s story is told through the environment, offering varying levels of depth depending on how much time and effort players want to invest. Those looking for a quick, scenic experience only need to seek out the important memory fragments, represented as red bows flowing in the breeze, to access four core memories from crucial moments in Jean’s life. But there’s a much more intricate tale awaiting those willing to explore and test their wits. Each area contains several broken projectors that can be repaired by solving puzzles. As the puzzles are completed you hear Jean reminisce about other aspects of her personal history like her wedding and her family moving to the United States. Once a projector is restored it sheds more light on Dr. Edmonds’ treatment methods. Actually solving these riddles can prove rather difficult as I’ll describe later, but it serves an additional narrative purpose besides enriching the world; it symbolizes the struggle those afflicted with dementia have in trying to remember important information.

Many notes and journal entries are scattered throughout the mentally recreated Pinwheel to provide greater insight into Jean’s past. By taking the time to seek out this additional data you learn not only more about the patient’s history, but those of her friends and neighbors, about how a small, closely-knit town struggles with industrial decline, the sadness and anger that rises up in the wake of a mine disaster that kills nearly two dozen who were like extended family to everyone else. As with the audio logs in BioShock or the personal journals from The Last of Us, these notes aren’t simply there for trite exposition, but to further flesh out the world and provide a greater sense of immersion. That being said, second-hand accounts can only draw you in so much. Ether One runs into the same problem that Gone Home did by never allowing us to actually experience some of the key events we learn about, though occasionally we hear faint echoes of what happened during those times or from their aftermath, so I felt I had at least some sense of being there for those important moments. I also thought that the game could have borrowed an idea from To The Moon and had people present, but have their features blanked out or distorted to better represent the effects of Jean’s decaying mind.

Like Inception, Jacob’s Ladder, and several of Philip K. Dick’s works that also deal with the fragility of the mind and memory, there are several moments in Ether One that lead you to question how much of what you’re experiencing is, for lack of a better word, real. As I previously mentioned, if you’re willing to explore you’ll find notes that provide information on people and events that Jean couldn’t have known about since it was unlikely she was present when they happened. Posters and equipment from the Ether Institute will appear in buildings they clearly don’t belong. Answering machines play messages from Jean’s son Jim expressing his concern over what the Restorer is doing, and some of Jean’s lines could be interpreted as being directed towards the Restorer; are their thoughts blurring together? Several of the puzzles left me perplexed as to their ultimate significance, most notably one where the objective was to poison the mine manager’s coffee. It led me to wonder if there was a darker aspect of Jean’s past that she was trying to keep hidden, or if this act suggested that the mining disaster may have been deliberate rather than an accident. Without spoiling anything, a few of the more tantalizing questions are sadly left unresolved. The developers at White Paper have said they planned to include more in the game, but when it became too large they chose to split it into two installments rather than remove crucial elements. I hope we receive all the answers in the second part because, as intriguing as these mysteries are, I would like to know the truth.

None of the characters are ever seen, which helps enhance the enigmatic nature of the story. The Restorer is a faceless silent protagonist, and again this is one of the rare cases where it actually compliments the game rather than simply coming across as a lazy design decision. Even though the Restorer never speaks, you are able to infer some information about him through dialogue directed towards him. And while I was able to figure out who I was actually supposed to be, I was still floored when I learned why I was playing as that person.

Dr. Edmonds is almost always with you, constantly pushing you forwards to carry out the treatment no matter what. She makes it clear that the Institute’s funding is dependent on your success, not so subtly attempting to guilt you into carrying on even when it seems like you might be causing more harm than good by suggesting that she’s been let down many times before, and now she’s put all her faith in you. It’s clear that her motives are far from altruistic. There are times when you overhear her harshly speaking with others who question the procedure, expressing enthusiasm over the results of experiments that proved to be physically and psychologically harmful to the subjects, and in one section she cuts off contact with you entirely, raising suspicions that she has a more sinister agenda. But Phyllis isn’t completely amoral – she’s driven by personal trauma, aware that many would see her work as cruel and even acknowledging her own conflicting beliefs over whether the possible harm to some is worthwhile if it benefits the greater good. This again helps the game deliver a nuanced discussion on the need for ethicality in science without condemning one side or the other.

Elspeth Edmonds provides the voice not only for Dr. Edmonds, but also for Jean Thornton, and does a stellar job differentiating the two. While Phyllis is stern, authoritative and analytical, Jean’s emotions are never restrained. Her joy, her sorrow, her despair and fear are natural, never forced. I thought it was a very impressive decision to have her lines delivered in a child-like voice, again reinforcing the problems caused by her dementia by suggesting a mental regression. The only other voices heard in the game are those of Jean’s husband Thomas Fletcher, performed by White Paper audio designer Nathaniel-Jorden Apostol, and their son Jim voiced by Ben Britton. While they don’t have that many lines, they still make a strong contribution to the story.

As a first person adventure focused on solving puzzles contained to separate environments, Ether One clearly draws inspiration from the Myst series, though it’s not as open ended as the games in that franchise were. Rather than being able to access almost every location from the outset, it follows a linear structure where a new area is unlocked only after completing a previous one. Most of them are interconnected to allow for travel between them, with certain items or clues found in one area that can only be used in another. A key in the pub basement at the harbor unlocks the village cider mill, while codes taken from the industrial center are necessary to reach lower levels in the mines. It makes the world feel more unified while emphasizing the close communal nature of the small village you’re exploring.

The puzzles all consist of multiple steps, many of which have to be completed in a specific order to obtain the solution, usually barring you from making further progress until you’ve unlocked a door or activated a machine. There are some exceptions though; the challenge centered on a vigil for miners killed in a collapse requires you to locate Bibles for the memorial service and light the appropriate number of candles, either of which can be done before the other. Audio cues including comments from Jean and the sound of a projector coming together will alert you when you’ve made some headway so you won’t feel stuck wondering if there’s still something more to do for the current step. Occasionally you’ll find an object you need before coming to the stage of the puzzle where it’s required, so you may need to check on your progress in the hub, where the completion of crucial steps is recorded, to work backwards in order to figure out where the item is needed and when it should be used.

When it came to crafting the puzzles, designer Pete Bottomley drew on his love for challenges that test the player’s critical thinking rather than control-based skills or willingness to put up with trial and error problem solving. There are no item pairings based on absurd logic, coded messages that can only be unraveled through guesswork, or equations that require knowledge of arcane mathematics. All the information needed is given to you through the environment and journal entries. Just look around and you’ll find the necessary combinations, instructions, and items required to progress.

Don’t expect the game to be a breeze however – the difficulty increases considerably after the introductory stage. I was deceived at first by how easy it was to find solutions at the start: a note reading “Miners eat from metal plates” tells you that the combination to unlock the mine door is found on the bottom of a metal dish, and once in the mines you find a hydraulic press and a large glass bottle along with a sheet of paper where someone wrote that they needed a way to cut the ventilation pipes on the air compressors. Simple to figure out, but once that area was out of the way I was truly put to the test. The most complicated puzzles I faced involved translating a telegraph message using a Morse cipher, ringing church bells in the proper order, and finding information about the crews working in the mines, including the depths they were stationed at, the number of men at each depth, and how much ore was produced by each team. I won’t lie; I did have to consult a walkthrough at a few points, but when I was put on the right track the solutions made sense rather than coming off as illogical jokes. One conundrum I was stuck on for more than an hour because I fell for a red herring didn’t feel like a cheat because, looking back on the true solution and the information provided to me, it was easy to see why what I thought was the right answer was a trick and could have been avoided if I’d paid more attention to the clues.

If you’ve played many traditional adventure games then you may be thrown off by Ether One’s approach to puzzle solving. Information can be readily found in the environment, but you can’t always tell at first glance which is relevant to a puzzle and which is just there to flesh out the story. Dates, times, even Bible verses could all be the combination to open a safe. This could lead to a problem with simply trying every four-digit number until you find the right one through guesswork, but with the information given about the area where the safe is located it shouldn’t be too much trouble to determine the answer. You can’t assume that something is trivial because there’s a good chance it will be necessary later. I fell into this trap twice, once when I failed to figure out how to open a locked door in a workshop because I ignored the significance of a poster offering a variation on the phrase “when one door closes another opens,” and later when I had to find the name of Pinwheel’s local brew, which required backtracking throughout the harbor to find a bottle with the corresponding label. I’d been ignoring bottles, food cans and other items because I’d assumed they were just there as distractions like in L.A. Noire. While traipsing about in search of the beer I needed was a bit annoying, it enforced the notion that players who want to get the full story can’t overlook anything and that answers can sometimes be found in the most unlikely places. You made the mistake on your own, but the game allows you to correct the error rather than unjustly punishing you. It teaches players without shunning accessibility, something that’s rarely seen in games focused on providing a serious challenge. It also encourages you to write down any potentially valuable data you find since there’s no internal system for recording information. Some puzzles are practically unable to be solved unless you take notes, such as one where you need to press a series of pistons down in the correct order, determining the sequence by looking at them from an upper and lower level at different perspectives.

The inventory system reflects the intention of eliminating trial and error gameplay. You can only carry one item at a time, which is automatically replaced whenever you pick up a new object. Sometimes the interaction detection system doesn’t register an initial response however, so at times you may need to try picking something up from a different angle. There are surfaces spread throughout the world where items can be temporarily put down, but most of what you find will be stored in The Case, the hub from which you enter all major locations and which has much more storage space. The Case reduces the need for unnecessary backtracking by holding everything you consider crucial in one area and because you can travel there at practically any time simply by teleporting, returning to the spot in the overworld that you left just as easily. It’s convenient, but in areas where you pick up many potentially useful items, constantly warping back and forth breaks the flow. This is especially true for the papers you find, as only a select few are held in The Case, usually instructions for operating equipment. It’s another reason why keeping notes is recommended for quick consultation, even though you will most likely fill up the papers very quickly. The only item you find that can be carried at all times is The Artifact, a lantern which serves as a portable light source for dark areas and can be used to restore damaged portions of the memory (identified by an engraved plaque) that reveal much deeper aspects of the plot. The Artifact is also required to destroy the amyloid build-ups said to be causing the dementia, represented as ethereal rocks, but this feature is ultimately unnecessary as it’s only used once, and could have been removed without affecting the overall game.

Some puzzles require you to type in a solution, but this is where I ran into a significant bug in my version of the game. When you use the zoom function, either to look at something in the distance or automatically when turning safe dials and writing, there’s a risk that the visuals will become distorted, eventually resulting in the screen blanking out entirely. It’s not a game-breaking error, but it can be annoying if a lot of progress has been undone by reloading from an earlier point. Hopefully this will be patched soon, but until then I found a way to work around the problem which should help anyone else who encounters it. Just save right before you have to type or turn the safe wheels, then save again directly after returning to the normal camera perspective. This way, if the glitch does happen, you can reload to a point directly before or after you solved the puzzle without losing your work. If you’ve entered the right answer it should automatically save your progress which is also helpful. You’re also better off using a mouse and keyboard control system; trying to type with an Xbox controller can take too long which increases the chance of this error happening.

The game’s low-polygon, hand-painted aesthetic gives it a stunning visual flair that compliments the dreamlike nature without appearing too surreal, as well as providing another strong connection between narrative and design since you learn that several patients at the Institute have been participating in art therapy. The world is brimming with color, each location having its own distinctive, memorable design. I did have a bit of a problem with the layout of the Brimclif Mines however, as the rocky tunnels tended to look too similar between levels, though the supplementary items and rooms made it easier to tell when you were on a different floor. Texture details aren’t the most advanced, but simple touches like wood grain, marble patterns, and reflections in the water that distort slightly with the waves make everything pop. Light sources are fixed with the exception of the Artifact, though they can be altered by blowing out candles or switching a lamp on, resulting in fairly realistic shading effects. On the few occasions where you need to use a black light to reveal hidden writing, it casts an impressive fluorescent glow. While exploring the corrupted core memories everything is cast in a hazy filter that only becomes clear once you’ve uncovered the information you were looking for.

NJ Apostol went out of his way to provide truly unique audio direction. Interested in creating sound effects that hadn’t been heard before, he took recordings at beaches, museums and industrial centers to try and find natural sounds that he could replicate authentically. Even your footsteps replicate what you’d hear as you walk on different surfaces like stone, sand or water. Apostol also employed some more experimental techniques to further enhance the more surreal, nightmarish moments of the game. Inaudible whispers distorted by an electronic filter play on and off as you explore the world, and the screeching mechanical clanks heard when the projection process starts were inspired by torture scenes from several films to reinforce the feeling of being imprisoned by a mental disorder. In certain areas you’ll hear an acoustic guitar playing to provide a calming, ethereal sensation, while in other locations an out of tune keyboard reinforces the notion that something is wrong with the mind you’re travelling through.

It’s possible to rush through Ether One and complete it in less than an hour, but if you do that you’d be missing out on so much. This is a game that asks you to take things at your own pace, to be willing to search and discover, to test yourself even if it gets frustrating at times. If you do, then you’ll be rewarded with an incredible emotional experience. This is without a doubt one of the best indie titles of 2014. The team at White Paper Games are off to a great start in their career. I can’t wait to see how they finish the story of the Ether Institute, and what other ideas they have planned for the future.

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