The concept of the human mind being an explorable place is far from a new idea. In film, we’ve seen the personified minds of characters in The Cell and Inception. In gaming, Tim Schafer’s cult classic Psychonauts had us physically delving into the minds of several characters, only half of whom were sane. Ether One, the first offering from indie studio White Paper Games, has us wandering through a human mind as well, though with much less drama and violence than we’ve seen in the past. It’s an excellent debut which, despite some unintuitive (but entirely optional) puzzles and somewhat odd mechanics at times, creates an immersive world that contains some truly touching moments.
Ether One begins in an elevator at the Ether Institute, a company that, if their numerous posters are to be believed, can help heal the mentally sick through the restoration of their memories. After checking in at the vacant front desk, you are greeted by a doctor who introduces herself as Phyllis. She does so over a loudspeaker, however, and instructs you to make your way down to the lab to help begin the treatment for an elderly patient named Jean. By reading notes scattered around the facility and listening to the occasional statements by Dr. Phyllis, you come to realize that you are a “restorer” – an employee of the facility whose job it is to actually project yourself into the minds of others to help heal them from the inside. However, certain notes indicate that this procedure isn’t without risk, both to the restorer and the patient, and there are other subtle indications that not everything is as it seems.
After beginning the session, you find yourself transported into a small series of rooms called “the case”. This is explained as a safe haven for your mind in case any of the scary things you’ve read about actually happen during your stay. These rooms almost look like a small apartment, with a bed and some comfortable chairs, plus a bathroom and shower. By pressing the “T” key on your keyboard you can whisk yourself in between “the case” and Jean’s mind proper pretty much any time you please. When you do so for the first time, you find yourself on a cliff overlooking the ocean and a scenic little village you learn is called Pinwheel. The bulk of the rest of the game involves exploring Pinwheel and its relationship to the patient.
This relationship is sometimes vague, as the stories of the denizens of Pinwheel, while touching, don’t always seem to connect to the patient much, other than being aspects of daily life in the town. Jean herself occasionally chimes in with a non-corporeal voice-over as you walk around the village, commenting on various things like how that schoolyard is where she played as a child. Other comments of hers are a little less specific and a lot of reading between the lines needs to be done in order to pin down the tragedies in her life and what specifically happened to her. Much is revealed towards the end, but there will still be holes in the story if you haven’t been paying close attention. In fact, it could be said that Ether One has some replay value, in that many of the things you read and hear in the town will take on whole new meaning in light of the things you learn later in the game.
Exploration works much the way it does in a first-person shooter, minus the shooting. You control your restorer’s viewpoint with the mouse and physically move yourself with the WASD or arrow keys, though these can be remapped as you see fit. You can jump with the spacebar and crouch with the left Ctrl key, but these are almost never used. Left-clicking will attempt to manipulate whatever is in front of you, either by picking it up or activating it. Right-clicking will zoom in slightly, giving you a better view of small print or simply things that are hard to see. You can also press the “E” key to look at whatever object you happen to be carrying.
The inventory system is one of the odd aspects of the game, as you can only carry one item at a time. Pick a second object up and it will exchange itself with the one you’re holding. There are black mats on desks and tables around the village that objects can be placed on to get them out of your hands for a while. There are whole shelves of these mats in “the case”, so you can essentially store as much as you need in a room you can always warp to with the touch of a button. This removes a lot of the inconvenience, but not the awkwardness as you essentially teleport out of the world whenever you want to change items. That being said, the whole system seems designed to eliminate the immersion-breaking presence of an inventory screen and it’s hard to fault that decision in a game that relies on immersion as much as Ether One does.Continued on the next page...