Aug 142014

Video games act as a gestalt between many different kinds of art. The player’s experience depends on visuals, on writing, on music, on acting, and of course on the mechanics and dynamics of the gameplay. That these elements can be in tension with one another has been recognized for a while—”ludonarrative dissonance” is a term that encompasses a subset of possible conflicts. Special terms haven’t been invented for instances where the art and level design don’t work with the narrative, or the art style interferes with the player’s assessment of dynamics, and perhaps they need not be. Developers, however, should always be thinking about whether the various elements of their game actually make sense together. Ether One, a competently-made first-person walker/puzzler is a case in point. It has lots of little bits that could make a pretty good game, but it doesn’t assemble them into a coherent whole.

The conceit of Ether One, as it begins, is that the protagonist is a participant in a loosely-defined psychic program, delving into the memories of a person who is suffering from dementia. This program gives him access to a “case” that serves as a combination of home base and inventory, since he can only carry one item at a time. The case is also home to some doorways that open into specific memories where the player’s task changes. Rather than wandering around and solving puzzles, the doorway memories ask the player to wander through a small area and take photographs of important locations. From the case, the protagonist can access five areas (one only temporarily), all of which are seemingly literal recreations of specific locations from the dementia patient’s past, surrounding the town of Pinwheel where the character grew up and lived for a time.

The visuals seem to be in tension with this idea immediately. The harbor area and Pinwheel town seem so normal and mundane it’s hard to buy the game’s fiction that they’re the creations of a subjective mind, much less a damaged one. The shattered industrial area and especially the weird, minimalist mine area give a more powerful impression of being imagined, but they are still very plain. More troubling, these places are entirely devoid of people. While I can remember many places I have been, it’s almost impossible to think of them without recalling the people who were associated with them. I can remember my grandmother’s church with great clarity, but not without remembering my grandmother. The lifelessness of the game’s landscape makes the game ring false as a representation of memory.

Each of the various zones has a required goal and an optional one. The optional task is to solve various puzzles embedded into the environment. In one, for instance, the player is supposed to figure out what equipment a maypole dancer is missing, fill out an order form for it, attach postage, mail it, and put the item in its proper place. Some of the puzzles are a bit more complex and mysterious, but essentially all of them amount to mundane tasks that the dementia patient himself might have performed in the real world. That said, these often involve information that the character could not possibly have known—personal letters, locker combinations, and official memos he had no way of accessing. Although explainable (these documents could represent the character’s suspicions and perceptions rather than reality) these episodes also make the events of the game feel at odds with its conceit.

The essential task for progressing in each area is to collect red ribbons that are placed throughout each environment. Finding all of the ribbons opens a music box back in the case that activates a doorway back in the case. These doorways pose their own problem. Going through them, the protagonist is suddenly equipped with a camera that he can use to take snapshots of particular items that will spur some memories. However, the memories he explores in these dream-worlds have nothing to do with the the spot that unlocked them. Every doorway memory concerns the character’s unhappy childhood with a drunken father who chased off his mother. While that seems to work well with Pinwheel town, where the house associated with the memories is located, it’s less clear why these memories are unlocked by exploration of the harbor, industrial area, or the mine. In fact, when actually playing through these areas, the most critically important event appears to be an accident in the mines, making the childhood focus of the doorway memories seem even more odd.

The end of the game also leans heavily on these formative memories, to its detriment. The story emphasizes the idea that the goal of the experience is to use old memories as a foundation to bring the dementia sufferer forward in time. However, the focus on childhood actually moves the patient backwards in time, almost to the very beginning. This retrograde motion makes the whole experience feel like a failure.

Of course, reaching this point also involves a major twist. Near the end of the game, it is revealed that the sci-fi storyline involving a special machine that allows for a psychic connection is actually entirely fabricated and the protagonist is the dementia patient. This is the game’s worst narrative move. I don’t think a twist like this is bad per se, although the reveal was too abrupt and the explication far too literal. The larger problem is that the sci-fi story doesn’t feel at all organic to the character, who is a miner-turned-artist. The game never gave me a sense that he had the kind of imagination needed to generate a story like this, nor does it really build towards the moment of revelation. Rather than unfolding a coherent story in an unexpected new direction, the twist feels like a misaligned joint where two completely different stories were awkwardly welded together.

The individual pieces of Ether One work reasonably well, but none of it works well together. The environments and the puzzles are fine, but their depopulation and mundanity are at odds with the kind of subjective, remembered spaces they are supposed to be. The process of using some memories to unlock others makes sense. However, the memories the game links together don’t seem to be connected and the way the game works backwards through time feels counter to the apparent goal. The twist that makes the game more grounded and realistic in its final moments isn’t a bad idea intrinsically, but because it lacks any grounding in the characters or their history it comes across as a cheap trick. In isolation each aspect of Ether One is decent enough, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

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