IF Comp 2015 Guest Post: Lucian Smith on Ether

This post is part of an ongoing project to bring more voices to the IF Comp conversation. I have been reaching out to players and authors who aren’t part of the intfiction community, and also to some veteran intfiction denizens who might not have time to cover the whole comp but who are likely to have especially useful feedback in particular areas.

Lucian Smith — now becoming a bit of a veteran of the guest post format — writes here about Ether by Mathbrush.

“Ether” is a delightful game, and you should go play it if you haven’t already.
Back already? OK, let’s talk about what made the game delightful. We’ll include some spoiler space, just in case…


So! IF has two traditional axes on which it is judged: story and puzzles. Even Graham Nelson’s old description of IF as ‘a narrative at war with a crossword’ breaks down the genre this way. Ether’s story is simplistic, and its puzzles are trivial. And both are almost beside the point, because Ether concerns itself with neither axis, instead delighting in a third: exploration. Even here, it departs from most exploration-themed IF where the point is to explore a location: here, the point is more to explore movement within an environment, and to explore the abilities of the PC.

The PC is, since I seem to have skipped the bit where I describe the game itself, a sentient alien chambered nautilus, aloft in the skies above an alien planet, perhaps a gas giant. The map is completely open in three dimensions, with the character of each ‘room’ changing in three different ways along the east-west axis, north-south axis, and up-down axis. The game consists of wandering around this environment, picking things up (you can see anything on the entire map from anywhere on the map), messing with them, and unlocking the next section of the game.

It’s hard for me to describe why I had to much fun simply typing ‘>NEU’ as a direction meaning ‘north-east-up’. Some of it was akin to the pleasure found in wandering around the map of a videogame with a quality, highly-responsive controller: it’s as if you need only think, and your avatar responds immediately. Some of it was probably the departure from the normal confines of traditional grid-based IF, where 1-3 exits is the norm, and where any more than that starts to feel almost oppressive: even if you weren’t mapping before, if you get to a room with eight exits, you reach for a piece of paper to start taking notes, since there’s no way to keep all that in your head at once. But here, with 26 directions open to you all the time, the idea of mapping never even enters your head: the entire map is at once knowable and explorable. The ‘highly responsive controller’ feel is also augmented by the fact that you can ‘GO TO [thing]’, which is ridiculously helpful, and that each directional axis also has its own synonyms relating to the character of the environment in that direction: cold/hot, mild/fierce, and thin/dense. *And* you can abbreviate and combine the synonym axes, too, and being able to go ‘>CFD’ for ‘cold/fierce/dense’ is just… I keep using the word ‘delightful’ because there’s really no better single word that means ‘causes a goofy grin to appear on my face’.

Just before glomping around the skies gets old, the PC is given some new abilities. Those abilities can then be employed to further the game and gain still more abilities, in a process RPG enthusiasts like to refer to as ‘levelling up’. Appropriately, the environment itself levels up at the same time you do, first presenting simple obstacles to your movement, before finally becoming more personally reified as the game’s main antagonist.

The game certainly knows what it’s doing, too: there’s a coherence of vision here that’s refreshing to see. It knows that it wants you to spend the majority of the game moving around, so it goes all-out in making that as easy and intuitive as possible, and just as interest might be waning a bit, it changes things up: rogue storms might blow you across the map randomly, and new abilities make moving around even easier. The final scene is a coda to the first, giving you a brand new environment to explore, now with no hazards, much the same way as the beginning of the game. It spins out a little more plot, and then is done, ending before overstaying its welcome.

Partway through the game, it struck me that it shared some of its features with ‘Bad Machine’ by Dan Shiovitz (1998). In both, the entire purpose of the game is to let you inhabit the world of an alien being; to experience a snippet of a very different life than yours. ‘Bad Machine’ is the more ambitious of the two, and it does this by going all in on the puzzles: the stressors in that game are multiple and deadly, and learning how to interact with your environment and gain new abilities are keys to survival. Here, one learns and progresses merely on a whim: nothing pressing is urging your forward other than your own desire to see something new. A more-ambitious version of ‘Ether’ could have been fantastic—I feel the environment and abilities on display here still leave room to be explored—but it’s still a very satisfying experience on its own terms.

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