Ether One and the Perils of Porting
Originally, my intent was to write a review of Ether One, the critically acclaimed PC title that had made its way to the Playstation 4. This was a title that was on my radar – a first-person puzzle game that attempted to tackle the subject of dementia, and did so without resorting to violence or graphic imagery. Ether One is a peculiar game in many ways – it at once stands out in the crowd, but is also part of a wave of non-violent first person games, seemingly following in line with The Stanley Parable and Gone Home, two games which expertly present new ideas on game design and storytelling (allowing gamers to break a narrative, and highlight the importance of contextual stories). It was asking a lot for Ether One to follow in their footsteps – not every game can signify a new way to play or design games, but sometimes it’s perfectly fine for a good game to be just that – a good game.
Fortunately, the fine folks at Sony agree, and when the Playstation 4 port was ready, it was released as part of May 2015’s Playstation Plus Instant Game Collection. Long story short – Playstation Plus subscribers can pick up Ether One for free. I quickly jumped at the opportunity, and within minutes was sitting at the main menu, ready to explore the shattered memories of Jean Thompson. But I quickly noticed a few issues with this port, issues that would prove to be too much for the game to overcome, and instead of learning how powerful dementia can be, how damaging it is to the psyche, I instead learned a lesson in the importance of porting, and how something as simple as looking up cannot be guaranteed.
What is Ether One?
To understand how the Playstation 4 port of Ether One so fundamentally changed the game, you need to understand what developer White Paper Games intended with this release. As mentioned, Ether One is a first-person puzzle game, focusing on non-linear design. The gameplay is slow, with no enemies to defeat or avoid, taking place entirely in a digital recreation of someone’s memories, in this case a woman by the name of Jean Thompson, who suffers from dementia. The player acts as a Restorer, charged with going into Jean’s memories and fixing them. This translates to a world in which the player aimlessly wanders around, and only after intense scrutiny or blind luck, solves numerous puzzles (the solutions often challenge preconceived notions of video game puzzle design). Solving puzzles in Ether One is actually helping Jean with her dementia – by moving items in the world into their “correct” position, or by fulfilling certain requirements that set the world right, Jean’s memory will be complete, which is represented in-game through a broken projector which magically becomes fixed. These projectors display an intense and powerful image from Jean’s past, and the more projectors the player is able to fix, the clearer her memories become. In addition, the player is tasked with finding a number of hidden ribbons – after a set number have been activated, a new area opens up for the player to explore.
If this sounds strange and vague and confusing, that’s the point. Ether One does an admirable job of conveying what it’s like to live with dementia, or what it’s like to take care of someone who does. Ether One is a rare example of a game that is confusing while playing it, but suddenly becomes clear when explaining it to a friend. And the reaction is always the same – everyone I describe the game to immediately wants to know more, and experience it first-hand. In many ways, Ether One is far more interesting to discuss than it is to play.
That’s not necessarily a knock against White Paper Games – many of the design choices in Ether One are made to elicit that exact response. Describing the game and critiquing it shines a light on how meta it is – for example, I initially was going to complain about the limiting nature of the inventory. Throughout the world, there are many objects that the player can pick up and carry with them, but the player can only hold one at a time. This choice puzzled me, until I was in a home, trying to fill out a shipping label, and I needed a stamp. I remember seeing one in the kitchen, so I run to get it, and as I pick up the stamp I automatically put down what I was carrying – a gold key. “Why do I have a key?” I wondered aloud. “I don’t even know what door it opens. I don’t even know what it does.”
It wasn’t until I discussed this scene with a friend that the concept hit me – I’m in the mind of someone suffering from dementia. Why should anything make sense? Maybe this key is important, maybe it isn’t. Who knows? And how can I be expected to carry all of these items around with me, if I don’t even know what a simple key does?
This is the success of Ether One – it puts the player into the role of a person and their circumstances, a situation that the majority of players will never experience. It helps to build empathy for a vulnerable population, helps to create understanding. That is an admirable aim, and the game does accomplish this. But as I kept playing, I began to struggle with some rather odd design choices, and coupled with some glaring flaws and bugs, began to question everything, and not in an intriguing, engaging way.
Is the Struggle Real?
Ether One should be commended for many things – in addition to its portrayal of dementia, it also features amazing art and sound design (and the soundtrack backs up the visuals nicely). It looks and feels like Myst, but with Dishonored’s visuals, and a dash BioShock Infinite’s primary setting, Columbia, thrown in for good measure. Of course, it is not a perfect game, and I did stumble a bit at numerous points. The puzzles are very vague and mysterious in nature, so much so that I would often wonder if I was even solving a puzzle, or if I was just randomly pressing buttons and running around like a lunatic, trying to make a door open that was never intended to open. At other times I would run past a room that seemed to have nothing in it, only to later find out that this was part of a puzzle I was trying to solve someplace else. It was all very difficult to keep track of, because the world sprawls out like a maze, and with no map or inventory it can get overwhelming immediately. I understand that, on the one hand, White Paper Games wanted to convey a true sense of memory loss, but some of my gameplay sessions with Ether One were less than productive – I ended up running around in circles for twenty minutes, convinced that this stick I found was integral to… something, and would eventually give up when no clear solution for progress presented itself.
This serves as a prime example of how Ether One is far more interesting to discuss than it is to play. But the ultimate goal of any developer is to get people to play and enjoy their games, and the convoluted nature of the world in Ether One can and often is a barrier against progress. Ether One could benefit from more concrete gameplay design to help carry the player through these events, instead of relying on an overwhelming sense of mystery.
At a point in which I still intended to review the game, I decided to do something I tell all reviewers and authors never to do – I read other writers’ reviews of Ether One. At first I was shocked – shocked by how much other gamers loved Ether One, and shocked at the things I was apparently missing. I began to question whether I was playing a poorly designed game or an expertly designed one, which led me to question whether or not I even understood what the game was about. Very few games have triggered such a strong sense of self-doubt, and it made me want to play the game even more, to get past what I initially thought were poor design choices, to understand the art everyone else was seeing. But I noticed something about these reviews – they were all conducted back in 2014, when the PC version was released. I wondered if, maybe, I was experiencing some issues with the game because of a poor port, and not me completely missing the point of the game?
I was ready to dismiss that line of thought, and try to brute-force my way into understanding Ether One. I then pressed a button, and the entire game crashed.
Before going any further, I should point out that, yes, White Paper Games has announced that a patch for the Playstation 4 version is incoming, and that it should fix many of the issues I am about to explore. That’s great – after all, an attentive developer can take a game that is considered good at release and, through patches and downloadable content, can turn it into a great game. It has been done before, and Ether One can certainly be a game that benefits in the same way.
But for every Fallout: New Vegas, which succeeds with its post-launch content, there are games such as Lair. Released for the Playstation 3 in 2007, Lair was hyped by Sony as one of the reasons players should pick up their new console. It was easy to see why – Lair tasked players with fighting dragons by mounting other dragons and waging war in the sky, with fire and explosions and all kinds of mid-2000s awesomeness surrounding them. That description isn’t too far removed from what many players spent hours doing in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a game that is still heavily played nearly four years after its release.
So how come no one still plays Lair (if they can even recall it to begin with)? Because at launch, the game was plagued with bugs and glitches, so much so that the experience developer Factor 5 intended for gamers was downright impossible to achieve. By the time a patch was released that fixed the numerous bugs and glitches, restoring the game to Factor 5’s intended state, the gaming world moved on, and a promising new franchise for Sony was forgotten.
My worry is that a similar fate may befall Ether One, that the impression it might leave while on its brightest stage yet will be too much to overcome with patches.
To start, the game is poorly optimized. Texture pop-in is noticeable, a glaring flaw that mars an otherwise beautiful game. Coupled with this are some of the longest load times I have had to endure this side of the elevators in Mass Effect – the screen will go black for so long that I often wonder if my Playstation 4 has died, and will have to hit the home button just to be sure nothing terrible has happened. Each time, after a couple minutes, the game will magically reappear, as if load times of that length are normal. Granted, one could argue that this is intentional design, given the game’s subject nature, and I may be willing to buy that with the texture pop-in (a literal translation of someone’s memories slowly coming back to them, I suppose) but when looked at alongside the inexcusable load times, I begin to suspect that there is nothing intentional here.
As mentioned above, the game crashes on numerous occasions, tossing players back out to the Playstation 4’s home screen, asking if they would like to report the error that just occurred. As a fan of Bethesda games, I have grown accustomed to my games crashing from time to time, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it, and when the rest of the game performs so poorly, every restart at the main menu feels all the more painful. But the crashes aren’t even the most annoying glitch players can run in to – every time I paused and then unpaused the game, I lost audio, a real shame considering how integral sound is to building the game’s atmosphere. I can restore sound without having to leave the game – I just have to leave the zone I am in and move into one that has to load up, and when I do, the sound returns. But I’ve lost count of how many times I ran in a circle, looking for a new room to enter, hoping that it would bring the audio back.
Somehow, the glitches get even worse from here. At numerous points in the game, the player will have to fill out a form, whether it’s to check in at a facility or mail a package out. Whenever a form is activated, a keyboard will pop up on the screen, allowing players to enter in the correct text to proceed. There’s just one problem – this virtual keyboard does not highlight the currently selected key. This may seem like a minor nuisance, but it’s a major pain. Doing something as simple as writing out the word “Bell” takes a few extra moments to figure out what key is selected, and to count how many spaces over to move to select the next one. I spent more time trying to figure out where I was on a virtual keyboard than I care to admit. But once I entered my best guess into the form, once I restored the audio, and saved in case of a random crash, I then encounter one of the worst bugs any puzzle game can have – the puzzles begin to solve themselves.
Early in the game, the player stumbles upon the workshop of an inventor, a Mr. A. Bell. His workshop has random mechanical parts scattered throughout, and at the center is a broken projector. On the opposite wall is a door, but it is locked. I remember that I once had a key, and maybe that key opens this door, so I set out to find it again, retracing my steps. But when I return, the projector has been fixed, and the memory it holds is ready to be displayed. Thinking this was odd, I decided that I didn’t understand how puzzles worked in Ether One, and would violate one of my other rules – I went online and read a guide to see how I solved this puzzle. As it turns out, I didn’t – in order to solve it, I needed to get through the locked door, not with a key, but by closing the door I used to enter Bell’s workshop. I know I never did this because through that door was a long room with three bells at the end, and a note about how the inventor likes to look out into the harbor, and watch the buoys. This is how the player repairs the broken projector – by watching those buoys, they learn that the lights on each go off in a specific pattern, and if that pattern is replicated by ringing the bells in this hidden office, the projector will be restored. Hopefully, I would remember going through all of those steps to solve this puzzle; I do not. This means I either read a faulty guide online, or the puzzle is bugged. Given the number of results returned when searching for a solution to this quest, it is safe to say that the latter is the cause.
Yet somehow all of this pales in comparison to what is the biggest oversight with the Playstation 4 port of Ether One – there is no option to invert the Y axis. I’m not interested in arguing which is the “correct” way to play – it’s all a matter of personal preference whether a player wants to invert the Y axis or not. I have always played 3D games this way, and after nearly two decades of pulling the analog stick down to look up, I am not going to rewire my brain simply for this one game, no matter how unique or compelling it is. As a result, simply maneuvering throughout the world is a chore, and when combined with a keyboard that doesn’t highlight the currently selected key, or a puzzle that mysteriously solves itself, I don’t feel compelled to deal with those glitches and oversights – I want to turn the game off and never come back.
Calling Everything Into Question
Ether One is designed to make the player question everything – their surroundings, their motives, everything within the game may not appear to be what it seems. But this message can be lost or muddled thanks to poor optimization, glitches and a lack of options that have been standard in first-person games for over a decade. At best, this creates a frustrating experience, but at its worst, it means that some of the clever puzzles or design elements can be written off as bugs, and the player may miss experiences that define Ether One. It’s maddening that I have access to a game so unique, one that tackles a very real illness in a way that creates empathy and understanding, but I am locked out of that experience thanks to what appears to be a rushed, poorly-handled port.
Video games are often ported to allow more people to experience them, to add in new content that was missed the first time or even revise the original release. Either way, a port should equal, if not exceed, the original release – it should never regress, especially if that regression means that the core of the game is fundamentally altered. Ether One is a fascinating game, especially if played on the PC. Sadly, this is not the case for the Playstation 4, not yet at least. Let’s hope Ether One will be remembered long enough for gamers to come back to it when the patch is live.