Justified then, is all of the excitement and anticipation surrounding White Paper Games’ debut title, Ether One. A game that on the surface seems to take many of the same elements of To The Moon and renders them in the UDK engine with a first person view. Shared between both titles is the fact that the main character and therefore the player is tasked with heading into another person’s mind, via a machine capable of such a thing, and travelling through their memories to perform a certain task. In Ether One, you play a “Restorer” and as such your job is to fix the mind of a woman named Jean. So far we’ve had a few teasers in the form of a few snippets of information and a trailer, but much of the game and how it will actually play out has been kept quite close to the chests of the developers.
“In Ether One you are a Restorer. An individual with a lost identity who is sent into the minds of mentally ill humans to restructure their broken memories. Tasked with restoring the mind of a client named Jean you must explore the depths of her memories in order to rebuild the fragile structures within.”
Today that changed. They let me in, and they wanted me to piece together Ether One from what they were willing to share. Specifically, I entered the mind of Pete Bottomley, the co-founder and game designer at White Paper Games. I was to play the Restorer in this case, and was offered fragments of gameplay ideas and narrative movements from which I was to form a whole. Though what I have is still fragmented, we now have a much better grasp of what Ether One is about, how it will play and what we can look forward to. Or at least I hope that’s the case.
Before we get on to the conversation between him and myself, you need to first watch the new gameplay trailer for Ether One because it’s important and will be our entry into this unique title. And while you’re at it, make sure to give the game a firm thumbs up on Greenlight, of course.
The first thing that Pete tells me about the above gameplay trailer is that this is not the character you play as in Ether One. This trailer is an effort from the team to show gameplay from another Restorer’s perspective. He knows the system and is jumping in and out of memories restoring them as he goes. Not all of them are memories though, the small island is actually the game’s hub world, what Pete refers to as the “safe place”. While there, this character finds a radio, and these act almost like gateways – “jacking out point” – where ‘they’ can pull you out of the memories. Which to me seems to be equivalent to the use of phones in The Matrix, that pull you in and out of the computer program.
When the radio switches on (you can hear it), the character realizes that he’s no longer inside a safe place and upon going through the door he ends up on the pier where the lamp is. This lamp is the same one that the playable character in Ether One carries around. What has happened in this moment in the trailer is that Jean (the woman whose memories we’ll be entering in the game) has pulled this Restorer into her memory, but before they can reach the lamp ‘they’ pull him out. What you see at the end is this particular Restorer being terminated by the machine inside the Ether institute that takes Restorers into another person’s memories. This is where Ether One begins…
“They terminate him? Seems pretty dramatic”, I suggested to Pete. To which he responded:
“Can’t have too many restorers running around [laughs]. But no, it’s just the element of threat designed into our game – we don’t have health systems or anything like that, so technically you don’t die, but you can get dragged out of Ether which is what helps us pace the game and create tension. These radios and terminals will be placed around the game, could already be on and the player may know about them, some may switch on when you’re close by. You need to be vigilant in the game.”
An unexpected element added to the game there – a sense of threat, which I wasn’t actually expecting but can appreciate what it may bring to the pacing. Odd though, that every day items can represent danger in Ether One. Truth be told, it seems to be a game that creates a very tactile relationship between the player and the objects. From the previous trailer and in this one, there is an emphasis on exploring the environment and picking up objects to look at them from different angles. Also, the Restorers themselves are referred to by the object they carry – it is part of their identity when inside memories. Pete calls the character in this new trailer the “camera Restorer”, while the character we’ll be playing as in the game is associated with the lamp; it’s more than just a means to light the way.
The “Restorer’s artifact” is used to break the hold from the machine that takes them into these memories. And with this lamp the player will be tasked with charging it up at designated bases they’ll find through exploration. Pete acknowledges that this is a well-known game mechanic but he’s hoping that Ether One contains a slightly different take on it. Part of that, it would seem, is not having a “full fail state” despite the lamp’s need to be charged. It’s more that the player is tasked with challenges but they can be skipped if desired, but that would mean potentially missing out on information that may help piece together the story and its mysteries. As such, progression is always possible but the outcome of the game and the player’s knowledge and perception of its narrative would be fragmented should they not dwell on the pieces. Puzzles in Ether One are therefore rewarding but not restrictive. Progression can always be had. You could even go through the whole game without solving a single puzzle, and the reason for this has a very warming origin.
“It actually came around when my mum said she loved puzzle games, but got stuck on them too often. We both used to play the Myst games, and with that style of difficulty where you could write things on paper and come back to them opened up the gameplay a lot more, so I’ve tackled the puzzle/level design with that mentality.”
He tells me that the game’s design has been an effort in trying to break as many gameplay rules as possible. These are lines I’ve heard before when conversing with Alexander Bruce about the design of his mind bending puzzle game, Antichamber. And while Ether One is vastly different, especially with its focus on character and narrative, Pete says that he’s looking to infuse the game with as many unconventional puzzles as possible. We didn’t talk to much about this, but in the game’s features list it mentions restructuring the world around you with the “powers of restoration” and solving “cryptic puzzles of the mind”.
Puzzles aren’t the only way to learn of Ether One’s narrative of loss, hope and freedom, though. Exploration and interaction are equally as important to the game’s telling of its story, as well as finding secrets that would otherwise be hidden.
“Regarding the narrative design, we’ve tackled it in a fresh way. The first implementation was very static – I didn’t like it. It felt like you were hitting triggers and were getting sound bites instead of a feel for the characters. So we’ve gone with a different approach. Instead, we now have quite a lot of back story of Ether throughout the game – if you’re spending an hour in the harbour instead of 10 minutes, you’ll find out more information – some not necessarily revolving around puzzle solving or anything, but it just gives you more of a feeling. It’s not only Jean who is talking, we have two other people – Phillis and Sebastian – they’re running the Ether experiments. and are the two people speaking in the trailer.”
Ether One not only has a narrative inside the memories of Jean, but there’s an underlying narrative that occurs outside of this. Above I was referring to ‘they’, who pull you out of the Ether machine that lets you enter another person’s memories. ‘They’ are Phillis and Sebastian, and they’re employees at the Ether institute. Pete tells me that this institute was founded in order to restore the minds of the mentally ill; those with “alzheimer’s, and elements of psychosis or dementia”. So this gives reason as to why Jean’s mind is fragmented in the first place, and gives further cause as to why you’re tasked with restoring it. Importantly, the Restorer that the player controls has lost their own identity, and in healing Jean they should hopefully find themselves once again. This Restorer is unique in this respect, and only by playing the game will we find out how they were selected for the job.
Part of the challenge for Pete and the rest of the team has been in finding a way to get all of these different narrative elements into the game without making a terrible mess of it.
“We realised we had a huge back story and it just wasn’t being told in the game. So we’ve included all that information, almost like an audio book in the game, as we found that people were spending 2 hours in areas we thought would only take them 30 minutes. And during this there was just silence which detracted from the experience. We have ways to control the audio so that people don’t get annoyed with the talking, but it’s there for a richer experience and brings everything together nicely – not everything is told – some things are left up to the player to decide.”
Mostly, that’s all I managed to drag out from Pete about Ether One at this moment in time. Not that I expect for him to open up any more as he’d rather have us play the game to find out more. I did manage to move the topic on to Ether Two very briefly though, and in doing so I found out that the second game is more than just part two. Essentially, Ether One and Two are separate games with their own narratives with different perspectives set within the same universe.
“Part two will be a much quicker development time since we know exactly what the game is now, all the core mechanics. We know what we want to achieve in Ether Two, what exactly that means narrative wise and the points between A and B are yet to be determined, we’re leaving a lot of things open for now, but we definitely know what the outcome will be.”
Pete’s looking forward to getting player feedback when Ether One is hopefully released some time in the Summer of 2013. Once they find out what worked and what didn’t with Ether One, they’ll ensure to take it all on board and start piecing together Ether Two.