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Exploration Game Ether One Is A Head Trip Well Worth Taking

I’m walking through Pinwheel, a sleepy English seaside village. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining, and I can almost taste crisp ocean salt mingling with the rich air exhaled by the trees up the hill. There are no cars to be seen on the town’s winding stone roads. Just a bicycle here and there, and a small clutch of boats resting in the harbor. The quiet is broken only by occasional trill of birdsong, or the sound of the gentle river rushing. This is a town I want to live in, I think. This is how towns should be.

Except there’s nobody there. I’m not walking through the town itself, but through decades of memories, fragmented and fading. There’s a painful quality to this place, like thinking back on good times shared with a family member who has died. The colorful bunting, the birthday presents, the guitar resting by the window. Pleasant remembrances, but ones that represent something lost. I don’t know these memories, but part of me wants to let them lie.

Ether One casts you as a Restorer, a memory maintenance specialist who enters the minds of others. Your patient is Jean, an elderly woman suffering from dementia. Your task is to make sense of her memories, collecting fragments and searching for clues. It’s a trippy, dreamlike process, but I’d expect nothing less from a game that begins in a clinic that looks like an unholy mix between Aperture Laboratories and a Napa Valley spa.

Accompanying you through the game is the voice of the dubiously trustworthy Dr. Phyllis Edmonds, who guides your progress. I don’t want to color your conclusions about her, so I’ll leave it at this: she’s complicated. In a good way. There’s also the heartbreaking addition of the voice of Jean’s younger self. Young Jean is rarely anything but pleasant and curious, which made it all the worse. I was reminded of a college friend of mine, who volunteered at a nursing home. She told me about one of the patients there, a woman in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. She sat in a chair all day, clutching a teddy bear and singing one chorus of a song, over and over. One chorus. “She had a life,” my friend said, staring at the table, drinking wine in generous gulps. “She fell in love, had friends. And all that’s left of it is that stupid song.” That story has haunted me for years, and it came back strongly as I explored Pinwheel, listening to young Jean’s disjointed commentary, finding modern-day notes mixed in with old-timey letters. Lock the door before going to bed, the notes read. Check the date on the milk before drinking it. Don’t put sugar in the fridge. I found a note with simple instructions on how to turn the shower on.

In some ways, this is the scariest game I’ve ever played.

But it’s a beautiful game, too, an absolute gem for people who love to explore and solve mysteries. Ether One pulls off that environmental trick I admire so much: the evocation of nostalgia for a place I’ve never seen, all through the use of detailed artwork and a few well-placed props. It’s got desks full of stuff, too. I’ve never been able to turn down a desk full of stuff.

It’s impossible to not compare Ether One to Myst and Gone Home (it gives a nod to the latter — I found a lightbulb with the brand name “Fullbright”), but what impressed me was how neatly it did away with those games’ barriers to entry. I have friends who despised Myst, frustrated by the fact that the puzzles prevented them from ever finishing the game. I also know folks who were bored with Gone Home, who were itching for something to do. Ether One solves both of these “problems” in one fell swoop, opening the gates to players on both sides. If puzzles are your jam, there are bucketloads, and every one of ‘em is a real doozy. The solution may involve something you picked up an hour ago, or something you won’t find for a while. Like Myst, Ether One expects puzzle-solvers to obsess over every detail, to throw nothing away, and to make out-of-the-box connections (I recommend having a notepad on hand). If, however, you just want to explore, no puzzle will impede your path (except the introductory one, which is relatively simple). Puzzle solutions offer extra details and insights, but you’ll understand the story without them. If all you want to do is poke around and pick up memory fragments, you’re welcome to do so. And for those who enjoy a middle ground — say, a reviewer who adores tough puzzles but is also on a deadline — you can pick and choose as you go. Solve puzzles when you want to, skip them when you get stuck. After the story ends, you’re free to go back and muddle through the stuff you missed (as I have already begun to do).

The value Ether One places in letting you find your own pace is reflected in The Case, a private sanctuary that exists outside of Jean’s memories. The Case offers inventory storage (extremely important, since you can only carry one item at a time), a map, and displays of all the important documents you’ve found. This is all housed within a small home, complete with a bed, a kitchen, and a functional shower. The aesthetic message is clear: Take breaks whenever you like. Stay as long as you need to. If you love to sit quietly and think, this place is for you.

My main quibble with the game concerns a period of mistaken identity. At the beginning, there was no explanation of who I was. No name, no indication that I was a predefined character. I assumed that, like the Stranger in Myst, I was simply me, visiting a strange world. This is not the case, as I learned about halfway through, in the moment I was referred to as “he.” It pulled me out of the game — briefly, but discernibly. There turned out to be a very good reason for keeping me in the dark about who I was, but it didn’t undo that earlier feeling of narrative disconnect. It was a forgivable hitch, in the end, and I don’t have any good ideas on how it could’ve been done differently. Still, if you pick this up, keep in mind: You’re not you. You’re a male character. And everything will be explained.

As with all games of this sort, Ether One is best played a little at a time. The plot gets steadily more surreal as the game goes on, so regular breaks and some time to ponder are necessary here. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself writing emails to people you’ve lost touch with afterward. This is one of those stories that makes you care all the more about the things you have in the real world.

Ether One is available for Windows. A PS4 version is being discussed, but not confirmed.

Becky Chambers writes essays, science fiction, and stuff about video games. Like most internet people, she has a website. She can also be found on Twitter.

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