If you’re a regular voter on Steam’s Greenlight system, you may have heard of a title called Ether One, as it appeared quite a while ago on there with a very intriguing trailer featuring a camera, a lighthouse and some trippy story elements. After disappearing for a while, it recently came back with a renewed vision. The game, as creative director Pete Bottomley puts it, is “a first person adventure game that deals with the fragility of the human mind.” We got the chance to interview him recently, and he had quite a bit to say about the indie project.
Firstly, players should know that “all puzzle solving is completely optional” in Ether One. Crazy, we know, especially considering how much effort White Paper Games are putting into them. However, Pete claims that this is for the best. “I honestly believe it can be played by anyone,” He says. “I know that’s a very PRy thing to say, but we’ve really worked hard on making Ether One accessible. It’s for anyone that is interested in a games narrative and/or puzzle solving. You don’t have to do anything like run and jumps or complex controlling. Everything is logical in the world and if you can’t do a puzzle you can just move on.”
Naturally, this has made development quite daunting for White Paper Games. “You can finish the game in 4hrs or so and only discover 20-30% of the world,” according to Pete. “If you watched a movie and missed out 70% of the content then it would make no sense, however, in the case of Ether One, we make sure that whichever way you finish the game, the narrative experience feels rich and complete.” The goal, it seems, is to make puzzles and extra environmental details feel complimentary, something that enhances the narrative and of which the player can control how much they add to their base story experience.
“We’ve had people play the game… around 10-12hrs,” claims Pete, indicating that there’s a lot of meat here for those who want to seek everything out. The game “very much relies on you taking in the environment around you and the stories told within it. Nothing is spoon fed to the player.” And he really means this; Ether One is to be subtle game, both in its storytelling and its teaching of game mechanics to the player. “We just teach the controls and how you interact with the game and then you’re left to explore the world around you. We try to keep a core set of mechanics really consistent and use them in interesting ways… so by layering mechanics instead of introducing new ones we try to keep things fresh.”
When it came to designing the game’s levels, Bottomley emphasized inventiveness while also wanting to maintain consistency. “I like to break a lot of the rules of game design but never break any of the rules we establish in our own game,” he assured us. “Personally I love verticality in level design, and that’s definitely played a key part in the design whilst keeping visual landmarks always in sight.” Seeing as there’s no major platforming in the game, it will be interesting to see how he applied this design choice. He also states that “Pretty much everything in the world of a ‘pickupable size’ will be pickupable.” You’ll be able to rotate these objects to look for useful clues.
Pete has also had an interesting time seeing people test the game. “The best thing for me when I’m watching people playtest is the different types of play styles,” he says. Witnessing the various ways in which players view the game’s world and interact with it has definitely influenced his approach to design. “Some people just hold down sprint and do a type of FPS style strafing and collecting all the small objects and narrative, whilst others just walk around and take in the whole environment. It’s great to see and there’s no right way to play!”
When it comes to the creative spark behind the story, Pete stated that it came from a very personal place. “The story was definitely inspired by the people in our lives. Dementia is something that affects a lot of people and some of our family members have worked with or even had the disease themselves. We may not be experts… but it’s almost the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. So we did our very best to approach it as respectfully and as informatively as we could.”
It was far from the only source of inspiration, though. Even everyday life has provided Pete and the team with many excellent ideas. “You can be inspired at the least expected moments! Even walking in the Lake District in the UK has given me so many ideas… People that have played our game have linked it to things such as Half-Life meets Shutter Island with a hint of Myst, so that’s a huge compliment to receive!” Myst is a particularly big influence for White Paper Games, as in previous interviews they considered it to be one of the grandfathers of adventure game storytelling.
White Paper Games also wanted a memorable and haunting soundtrack. Their sound designer, Nathaniel Apostol, “has an experimental music degree, so films such as Contact and Vanilla Sky were the key influences to the sound design and composition.” As for the game’s title itself, Pete said that it originated from an initial plan to make two games. “The name Ether One was designed so that we could make the scale of game we wanted by releasing it in two parts (which we’re not doing anymore)… we decided to put all of our focus on releasing one game… the name could imply many things, but we felt we wanted to really deliver an entire story without any breaks in the immersion.”
You may be wondering if the game has changed at all, and to what degree, during its lengthy postponement. Pete says that it has. “The game has had some pretty big changes… Originally it was just a small narrative experience. The culmination of getting Greenlit, being at Rezzed and then having the trailer explode on Reddit made us realise we were on to something.” He went on to state that the extra time allowed them to take a long hard look at the game, renew their focus and unifying the story themes in the process. “We decided to spend a lot of time re-working the environments and what message we were trying to convey. More than anything we wanted it to feel like a rich complete experience that people felt impacted them in some way.”
Don’t forget that the game will be fully voice acted. “We have two great people to voice our characters named Elspeth Edmonds and Ben Britton, who have really added another level of class to our game. It’s amazing the transformation the characters took… they slid into the characters really well.” The entire game will be “based around the town of Pinwheel,” which “plays a key role to the individuals mind.” That individual is Jean, the person whose mind the player is tasked with delving into and ‘repairing’, if you will. However, Pete said that there are “three other characters you will interact with along the way which will play a key role in the story,” so be ready for some surprises.
Ether One is set to release on March 25th for PC and Mac, with Oculus Rift support as well. However, Pete assured us that a Playstation 4 version is a likely possibility, as they are in talks with Sony. “We definitely have plans to release Ether One on the PS4… once the PC and Mac versions are done.” In two weeks, ready yourself for this emotional, psychological thriller. “More than anything,” Pete said, “we wanted it to feel like a rich complete experience that people felt impacted them in some way.”