White Paper Games' Ether One may be one of the best video game adaptations of The Wizard of Oz, despite having absolutely nothing to do with it. In the classic 1939 film, a young girl leaps between the dreary physical world and a dreamlike dimension of color, wonder and magic. Ether One too has its player leaping between worlds, one being the painful reality of dementia and the other being a hand-painted, cel-shaded vision of a pristine harbor town called Pinwheel.
You play as a Restorer, someone contracted to dive into peoples' minds and repair them from within. The patient you're helping is suffering dementia, and their memories are fragmented. Your job is to travel through the patient's recollection of Pinwheel, scavenging these memories as represented by red ribbons. Collect them all and, in theory, the mind will be restored. Dementia, for all its agony and seeming invulnerability, will be cured.
Once you're inside the patient's mind, the uninhabited dreamscapes feel almost haunted; there is a constant, pervasive feeling that something is not right here. The disembodied voice that guides you shifts from authoritarian taskmaster to concerned ally in a way that makes it feel untrustworthy, and eerie sounds roll in from all around you. Walking around in a diseased mind means you can't trust what you see, and the idea that this is someone else's mind creates both a sense of intimacy and invasion; like you're a foreign substance in the body and any minute the white blood cells are going to come swallow you whole.
You explore an empty town that's in the middle of its May Day celebration, with the sun shining and birds singing, and, somehow, it's terrifying.
If you want to take a break from ribbon hunting or find yourself intrigued by the town of Pinwheel, there are a wealth of puzzles to solve. Solving puzzles repairs broken projectors you find scattered throughout the world, and once they've been reassembled, they reveal more about Pinwheel and its inhabitants. These aren't necessary goals, but if you find yourself disappointed in the main quest's three-hour length or if you're just curious as to why this town has engineering notes from Alexander Graham Bell lying around, they're worth teasing your brain over. Even the simplest puzzle, however, must be thought through thanks to Ether One's unique way of handling inventory.
Like Gone Home, Ether One is littered with items, many of which are mundane and only a few of which will help you out. You can't carry more than one item at a time, nor can you drop items off anywhere you please. If you find something you think will be important, you can teleport at any time to the Case, a special area that's neither the real world nor the memory world, and store it there for later use.
This is immensely helpful, as some riddles require items from other areas of the town, while others have solutions that would be too difficult to remember without some way to manage all the items you come across. You might uncover a power cord in the attic of one building only to find the broken wiring it's meant to replace in an entirely different place you discover 30 minutes later. Pinwheel is stuffed to the gills with puzzles like this, so the Case helps you know where one puzzle ends and another begins.
It's impressive that White Paper managed to cram so much into the world, and this attention to detail makes everything feel deliberate and thoughtfully-placed. It's not unlike the classic adventure games of the Myst series, which often encouraged players to take physical notes on a piece of paper to track progress. Ether One trades physical notes for the Case, but the purpose is still the same: to help players keep their thoughts organized.
Ether One's story, meanwhile, is simultaneously its greatest strength and most sizable weakness. You begin the game in a facility that looks like the lovechild of Aperture Science and Weyland-Yutani, led by a disembodied female voice that, while not explicitly villainous, doesn't exactly inspire trust either. As you collect memory fragments, her tone changes, shifting from an authoritarian boss to a concerned sister and back again.
One moment she'll reprimand you and your predecessors for not helping her research succeed sooner, while the next she'll be concerned for your well-being or borderline weeping over how difficult her life is. It's obvious from the get-go that she's more than she seems, but the game never quite connects the dots to explain her behavior or make her true identity clear.
Ether One also drops several plot threads seemingly willy-nilly, then proceeds along as if they never mattered in the first place. The first area ends with you finding a physical representation of the patient's dementia: a black rock with blue crystals jutting out from the edges. You're supposed to destroy it, but something happens that not only prevents you from doing so, but suggests that destroying the object might actually be harmful.
It's an explosive, almost frightening scene that makes you question everything about what you're doing. When you see the strange object again, it suddenly seems to act like nothing more than cobwebs to be swept away. It feels like Ether One plays fast and lose with its own narrative, and is often jarring in its scene transitions. The game shifted gears so much and so dramatically that at times, it felt like I had dementia.
Being mysterious and complex – which Ether One is – isn't necessarily bad, but there's "complex" and there's "watching-Inception-with-the-sound-turned-off confusing." Ether One can definitely feel like the latter if you don't take a break every now and then to make sure you've got the story straight. That being said, despite its sometimes convoluted structure, the plot hits all the notes it really needs in order to make players empathetic to the Restorer's plight.
The world of Ether One is a superbly detailed and well thought-out place. The gameplay hearkens back to an age when you needed three pages of notes to solve a single puzzle. The story is both heartbreaking and horrifying, as well as intriguing and enigmatic. When Dorothy pulls back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, she's shocked to find not an all-powerful sorcerer, but an ordinary man, spinning wheels and pulling levers. Ether One likewise hides a surprising revelation behind its own metaphorical curtain, but whether players find the truth to be a brilliant twist or pretentious gibberish will depend on how thoroughly they've invested themselves in this Oz-like world.
This review is based on a Steam download of the PC version of Ether One, provided by White Paper Games.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.