Interview with Peter Bottomley of White Paper Games

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Posted May 27, 2015 by Chris White in Video Games

Every once in a while, a game comes along and challenges your perception of what a video game is and how it can make you think. Ether One is a game that took me by surprise and really affected me. The subject matter hit quite close to home and the themes explored really took their toll on me. The game was highly emotional; the consequences of dementia on the mind can be life-changing and to those that love the people affected, it can be a real struggle too. My gran suffered from dementia and for the final few years of her life, she had to take pills to help her hold onto any semblance of normality. I remember the sad times when she was afflicted with the disease but I also remember the great times and it is always important to think about the person beneath the illness, regardless of how hard it may be. Whilst playing Ether One, I thought about what my gran’s life was like growing up and if it was similar to that of Jean’s life in Pinwheel. I thought about her first love or the upbringing of her children and whether or not she had seen similar things to Jean. It was an incredibly cathartic experience—one of joy and sorrow that is still replaying in my head almost a week after finishing it.

The game itself is a smart and well written story that pulls you into its beautifully haunting world. Like Gone Home or Dear Esther, you only truly get the most out of Ether One if you explore every corner of the game and read every note and clue; Ether One is a heart-warming tale about love, loss and community that lets you explore at your own pace and the puzzles aren’t overly challenging, but they don’t need to be. As for the village of Pinwheel and its residents—they always feel familiar, even though you never get a chance to meet anyone there. Ether One is a small game with a big heart and the people that created it are really nice, down-to-earth people.

I was lucky enough to interview Pete Bottomley of White Paper Games about Ether One and ask them some questions about its creation, music, actors and all the hard work that went into making it.

 

WTN: One of the things I love about Ether One is the way it involves you emotionally and affects the way you play by being invested in Jean’s battle with dementia. I cared greatly about this poor lady’s struggle and with every memory, I found myself fighting back a tear or two. How did you come up with the idea and why did you choose to tackle dementia in the video games medium?

It was a pretty organic approach. We didn’t start off by saying ‘we want to make a game about dementia’. It was something the whole team had in common. Each person of the team has experienced a family member with the illness. We also have people in our family that work in the medical field. It allowed us to create a personal approach with Jean but also a more clinical one with Phyllis. I think it created a pretty interesting dynamic in the game.

WTN: As someone who has seen someone I love struggle with the disease, how did you research dementia and what were the challenges of bringing it to the story of Ether One?

It was pretty tough to be honest. A lot of our own personal experiences went into it. We also realised pretty early on that dementia was a big topic to tackle so we based a lot our game on ‘validation therapy’. It allowed us to have a focus in the game of how the treatment was approached. There was a lot of writing and re-writing until we managed to tackle it and it was approached very much in layers. We had the beginning, middle and end in place. And then we wrote in the puzzle dialogue which represented each memory. We then wrote the ribbon narrative to thread the whole story together. The ending was re-written many times so that it tied off everything nicely.

WTN: The fictional village of Pinwheel is a beautiful place. With the nature of the game however, I found it a haunting and uneasy place to explore. How difficult was it to create and are you pleased with the way it turned out? 

Well we definitely didn’t set out to create a haunting and uneasy place but I think that was the natural consequence of the game so it was kind of cool how it worked out. We had a lot of back and forth with the environments we were designing and it was very much a constant back and forth between designer and artist. The puzzles are the driving factor but I really don’t like it in games when it presents and area and says ‘OK this is a puzzle area’ which is kind of abstract and doesn’t really fit in with the games narrative. So whenever we redesigned a puzzle (or removed entirely) that didn’t work we’d have to re-art the area also. This obviously isn’t the quickest way to make a game, but I think the attention to what the world was asking for worked out. We also worked really hard on making sure each place had a purpose, whether narratively or for gameplay. So all the people lives in Pinwheel tie in together and depending how deep you want to go, there’s a lot to peel back. May 1st in the game with the May Day celebrations was actually a really interesting day in Pinwheel and was a core drive throughout the narrative. It’s something not a lot of people pick up on consciously but it makes the world have an existence which is kind of cool.

WTN: Elspeth Edmonds did a wonderful job of bringing the character of Jean to life. How did you find her and how do you feel about her performance in Ether One?

We had a friend in common named Niall McGuinness. We had spoken to him in regards to some Liverpool events we were doing at the time and he mentioned he knew of a good voice actor from LIPA (where Elspeth studied). We pretty much took her on board straight away and she became Jean (And Phyllis!). There were a lot of variations of Jean and we have about 2 other games worth of Jean dialogue scrapped which we could make a couple more games out of (which we won’t do don’t worry!). It was awesome having her part of the team so early on because as the game changed she could adapt so rather than finding voice actors when the game is nearly complete it was good to have her input at the start and we’ll definitely be following a similar process for the next game.

WTN: Throughout the game, the music brings the world and story to life. Another nice touch were the radios and guitars that you can interact with? How was the music written and was this an important part of the games creation for you?

I’ll leave this one to NJ Apostol as he’ll have a much better answer for this …

We really wanted all sound to be a big part of the game from the moment we started designing. I didn’t want the music of the game to interfere with the player’s concentration time with each puzzle, so all of the radios could be turned on when the player wanted to listen to music without forcing it. I was really keen to have a reason for every choice, so the themes of jazz and classical music on the radios also tie in to the story.

Because most of the puzzles occur ‘indoors’ the main theme music of the world kicks back in when the player leaves a house. If the player isn’t inside for long, the transitions feel seamless, but if it’s been a long session of puzzle solving it can really help to freshen the tone of exploration and the atmosphere of the puzzle free path.

WTN: I would be incredibly proud of the whole game if I was involved in its development but for you, what is your favourite part of Ether One?

Oh wow, that’s a pretty big question and I honestly don’t think I have an answer that could do it justice. This was honestly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. Forming a small studio, scraping money together, working in a small team, constant iteration, long hours, worn thin tempers. Everyone’s lives went into this game and for me it’s still too raw to pick out the good parts. It’s a lovely feeling when you receive an email of someone that completely fell in love with the game and connected with the narrative. We even get emails about parents playing with their children which is incredible. I really can’t see it with fresh eyes at the moment though and all I see are the flaws – ask me that question again in 5 years 😉

WTN: When developing Ether One, was it always planned that the game would be released on PlayStation or was the first priority getting the game out there on PC? Also, will you be planning to release more on consoles?

Playstation wasn’t even a consideration. We were just 6 guys in a small box studio in Manchester and our focus was just getting a great game out there. When we were Greenlit by Steam it was like a whole world of opportunity had opened up. We were then accepted by GOG and Humble as well which was great of them. A couple of months later we got an email from some guys at Sony which later became our developer relations contacts asking us if we wanted to release on PS4 – the email came out of nowhere and took us all completely by surprise. I was never allowed to play video games as a kid. I remember the day my mum and step dad took us to Toys R Us to get a PS1 and I got DOOM – That point pretty much changed my life. A few years later when I was off sick from school one day, we went to Currys (Now Currys/PCWorld in the UK) to buy a new TV – when we were walking out the store my step dad asked me to hold a bag – it had a PS2 in there. These were incredible memories for me and to be asked by Sony to be a part of their platform was a huge honour. We’d love to work with them again in the future if they’d have us.

WTN: Finally, what’s next for White Paper Games?

That’s a very good question! One we’re not entirely sure about. We know its first person. We know it will have a strong narrative theme and tackle something important to us. I don’t think it will be emotional the way Ether was however I think it will stir up emotion in another way. It will have similar characteristics of what Ether had in terms of narrative exploration however it will also have another level of emergent gameplay which will react to how the player is moving throughout the environment and less scripted. We’re also hoping to have a few AI characters in there in a similar way to how Elizabeth moves through the environment in Bioshock (in the storytelling sections). Also no guns. A very vague answer but we’re hoping it will be another interesting world for people to explore!

 

You can go to Steam or the PS Store (which it is free on PS Plus for the month of May) and download it now—you won’t be disappointed. For more information on Ether One or White Paper Games, you can visit the website or head to their Twitter and Facebook links.

 


About the Author

Chris White

Rock n' Roll Nerd, Gamer, Writer, Lover and procrastinator.