*This article was originally published on The Game Bolt in August, 2016*
[“Trigger Warning” – is a piece dedicated to showcasing video games which focus on mental disorders as well as emotional and psychological trauma. It is my hope as a lifelong gamer and sufferer of various psychological disorders to combine my greatest passion with my greatest weakness to benefit the gaming community at large. These pieces are meant to applaud games that I have found to appropriately exemplify such issues in the human condition. Some of them are visceral and violent games that take a liberal approach and are not for the faint of heart. Others take a lighter approach to the whole affair and can apply to a much wider audience. Hopefully, those who do not suffer from such afflictions can look at these games as a chance to grasp at something otherwise intangible. While those who do suffer from psychological afflictions can look to these pieces of fiction for hope and catharsis. Without further ado, enjoy. 🙂 ]
[By the way, this is the trigger warning for the article: domestic abuse, dementia]
Ether One, In Summation:
Ether One is an interesting game from the group over at White Paper Games. At first glance, Ether One presents itself as a puzzle game. After having played said game, I would suggest it has shades of Gone Home’s walkthrough simulator style as well as puzzle solving elements that remind me of games like Myst or Riven. If you’re just looking to experience the game’s story, you can play through it in about an hour by simply meeting the minimum requirement of collectables in each level. There are no obstacles between you and your goal so it’s just a matter of making it through the level itself, much like Gone Home. However, if you want to challenge yourself there are hours upon hours of puzzles and hidden collectables that expand upon what is already a solid story. These are completely tertiary but if you’re into puzzle games that require deductive reasoning then there is quite a bit of fun to be had here.
The game places you in the role of a Restorer, a person tasked with going into a virtually simulated world constructed from the fragments of a dementia patient’s mind. The world itself is in pieces and it’s your job to explore and collect memories of the patient’s life to hopefully help them piece together their memory. You find yourself in the recreation of the fictitious British coastal town of Pinwheel, just before the local festival. As you explore the memorial ghost town you come across various notes that reveal what each villager was planning before the festival. Each building has a broken projector in it that relates to a puzzle you must solve using context clues from the environment. Solving the puzzle rewards you with an audio recording from the patient’s case file in the world outside of the simulation. All of this leads up to the climax where you as the player figure out what memories the patient has locked away, but even though you have come to that realization, the patient still has not.
So it’s up to you as the Restorer to traverse the patient’s mind and help them see what they’ve been forgetting all these years.
The Guardian at the Gates
When you enter the final core memory you are dropped off at the town’s lighthouse and are greeted by the voice of the patient’s spouse. They reveal what your progress has confirmed at this point. When the two were in love as children it was obvious that the patient’s family was in constant turmoil and he was victim to a great deal of abuse and neglect. So the patient got tired of it all one day and ran away to the light house you are now scaling. This is the true memory you were looking for all the time.
As you go up the steps on the island and go through the light house keeper’s abode, the patient’s wife is talking directly to him. She’s saying that yes, the trauma he experienced is terrible. It’s entirely understandable as to why the patient would have locked it away behind a subconscious barrier. But even painful memories are important to the formation of a person. Sometimes they can even lead to a good memory. When you arrive at the top of the light house you find a small hut clearly constructed by a child. Here, the spouse reveals that this is where she sat to comfort him on the night he ran away. She reveals that yes, the memory that was locked away of his father’s abuse was terrible. However, it led to something beautiful, their young love.
What’s even more shocking is the truth behind the town of Pinwheel. [Minor Spoiler’s from here on out] The town itself never existed. The recreation you are traveling through is the abstract way the patient’s mind has collected the various memories it tried to hide.
Dementia and You
Dementia and its effects are fairly new to my life. I had never really had a run in with anyone who has even early stages of dementia until very recently. That being said, I only have an overarching picture of the true nature of dementia, so please don’t take my word for it without doing your own research on the matter. More on that later but for now I want to expound upon dementia in brief for the sake of Ether One’s presentation of the disorder. Dementia is a blanket term that refers to various different diseases that can degrade the human mind, Alzheimer’s being the most common. It can start with almost imperceptible symptoms that simply come with aging and progress as time goes on.
What is happening is that the mind of the dementia victim is slowly starting to shut down. It starts off attacking the part of the brain that has to do with taking in and storing information. Various advanced forms of dementia can entirely shut down a person’s involuntary bodily functions, cause entire lapses in memory, or cause a person to lose any sense of their immediate surroundings/actions. It’s a slow fragmentation of the mind that can lead to any shred of a victim’s personality and ability to function being torn away from them.
It’s that fragmented mind that consists of scattered, far off memories that makes up the town of Ether One’s Pinwheel.
Missing Pieces of the Puzzle
The revelation that Pinwheel doesn’t truly exist comes during your climb at the game’s ending sequence. The patient’s spouse explains that Pinwheel is just the way the patient’s mind has put together various events of their life. Their mind needed something concrete to attach to the memories you’re searching for, so it manifested in Ether One as an unassuming seafaring town. It makes sense when you go back and look at the big picture. Many of the little stories attached to the townspeople also relate to the background info you dig up on the patient. Essentially, the townspeople are each represent a different aspect of the patient’s life. There are also notes scattered around the game world that act as simple reminders of how to do basic tasks (writing reminder notes is a way to help dementia patients with memory troubles). Notes that say things like “toothpaste does not go in the fridge” or the basic steps on how to mail a letter are mixed in with diary entries of the villagers of Pinwheel.
In some cases the documents you find are told from the point of view of the villager but are clearly related to the patient whose mind you are in. For example, there are notes left by a painter who refers to their attempts at painting in relation to therapy sessions they’re attending. They discuss how they’ve started painting after a time of not doing so, and they connect this with a personage saying how painting could help them. It’s not too much of a jump to assume that this is a specific instance in which one of the villagers of Pinwheel is just a fragment of the patient’s mind coming to fruition in this fictitious world.
And here lies the beauty of Ether One. It has to be viewed as a whole to truly understand the concept of not only the game, but the mind of a dementia patient.
What Can One Gain from Ether One?
The most important take away of Ether One comes from the physician, Phyllis, who is guiding you through the game. While you’re in the simulation, Phyllis is confiding in you that the success of this particular patient determines whether or not she can continue her research for Ether One and helping dementia patients. What makes her story so compelling actually lies in the various audio logs that are hidden behind the game’s puzzles. Each audio dialogue shows the painstaking process Phyllis is undertaking in order to help cure the patient. It’s her persistence in those audio logs that is most compelling because she still chooses to see the human trapped behind the scattered ether of an afflicted mind.
Dementia can be horrifying to behold as what was once a perfectly functioning human being is slowly turning into a husk. Imagine, if you will, the severest cases of dementia in which everything that made a person unique are eventually stripped away. Now imagine further the family and friends that watch this happen, sometimes shockingly quick, others over a grueling number of years. How many of them can stay emotionally sound over such a long period of time? And as they attempt to fight against something that’s as cosmic and unpredictable as a mental disorder or disease that is seemingly unstoppable?
Well in the case of Ether One’s town of Pinwheel and Phyllis’ resolve in trying to cure the game’s patient, we can grasp the importance of memory. Both ours and a dementia victim’s, because these memories are how one stays strong for those who cannot for themselves. Much like our patient from Ether One, the memories that helped form a dementia victim are locked away behind an ever increasing barricade of broken synapses. It comes down to our own memories of said victim to help fuel our care for them. That’s where the beauty of Ether One comes in. It shows how memories can be the very thing that saves a dementia patient.
We can learn from Phyllis’ drive that our memories for loved ones are a powerful tool in helping care for them.
Your dear writer’s thoughts on Ether One…
I alluded earlier that dementia is a rather new factor in my life. I had never had anyone close to me affected by Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, or the like until one of my grandfathers was diagnosed with Parkinson ’s disease. One of the symptoms that can develop out of Parkinson ’s disease is in fact dementia. I had never really considered the impact it can have on the lives of others until recent discussions with my grandmother.
Over the last year she has detailed to me the various ways her husband is slowly losing his sense of self and the world around him and it’s utterly heartbreaking. He leaves lights on and doors open. At times he forgets why he’s doing something or forgets what he’s doing right in the middle of a chore or activity. He loses various items all the time. His involuntary bodily functions are starting to shut down as he often forgets to blink so his eyes dry out. He’s becoming a shadow of what he once was. But the very thing that grants me strength to support my grandparents, grants my grandmother strength to take care of her husband is memory. When we can dig into our memories of someone and remember why we loved them in the first place, it helps renew our resolve and find strength when we previously had none.
Ether One served as a reminder for all the good times I had with my grandparents. Playing through the game helped me to realize that even though the immediate situation is tough and the future is unclear, you can still rely on the memories of the past as a solid anchor for progress. When you finally ascend the lighthouse, you come to understand that the town of Pinwheel is a town of the past and of memories. It’s those memories of the past that saved the patient in the end and helped them regain themselves before it was too late.
Our mind is a precious, fragile thing, and even if we cannot remember ourselves, others can do it for us and give us the strength we need to move forward.
Trigger Warnings for Ether One: Ether One is a fairly easy game to digest. Although the content in the game is heavy, it takes a careful tone in its delivery and doesn’t have any imagery that might be too inappropriate for someone sensitive on the subject. If you’re looking for a decent puzzle game with a solid story about love and its effect on our lives, I would highly recommend Ether One.