Hands-on with gravity-bending platformer Etherborn

Every year, we see dozens, if not hundreds, of new platformers pop up on every game platform around. Some of those tinker around the edges of the familiar platform structure; some using that familiarity as a jumping-off point to push boundaries of the types of stories games can tell. Most are content to just take a timeless formula and remix it with new characters, new worlds, and new challenges.

But every now and then, along comes a game like Etherborn: a game that reimagines the very foundations of what makes platformers tick, and turns the whole genre on its head in doing so.

Jumping and falling lie at the heart of any platformer: you jump over gaps between platforms; you jump over (or on) enemies; you jump to climb obstacles, solve puzzles, and reach new areas. Etherborn, too, is all about jumping and falling, but the key difference here is that gravity is relative. So long you’re running along a surface, you jump and fall as though that surface is the ground—even if it’s a vertical wall, or the side of a bridge, or the underside of a rocky outcrop beneath a toxic waterfall.

In practice, it works like this: you start on a flat surface, perhaps with some ledges to climb up or gaps to jump over, as you would in any other platformer. As soon as you run into any hard edges, that’s as far as you can go—you can’t jump from floor to wall, and stepping off a ledge will see you fall, usually (but not always) to your death. But when two perpendicular surfaces are connected by a smooth curve that you can run across, that’s when gravity will come with you. Suddenly, what looked like a wall becomes the floor, and any jumping and falling you do is relative to that.

It’s tricky to explain, but deceptively simple in how it all works—a curved surface means you can change gravity, and probably should; a hard edge means you can’t. Etherborn‘s surreal levels always make it clear what is a hard edge and what is a gravity-bending curve, and the camera is surprisingly good at keeping up with the constantly changing perspective, preventing the sort of disorientation you might expect into a non-issue. Instead, you can simply focus on using this changing gravity to your benefit as you navigate MC Esher-like mazes in search of the exit.

And this simple concept lends itself to some ingenious puzzles, too—though, thankfully, not overly abstract or obtuse ones. Things start of fairly simple, like finding a curve that leads you from the floor to the wall, then drop off the edge of that wall to reach another wall that you couldn’t get to while gravity was pointed to the ground. But by the third level, you’ll be running around the many surfaces of a complex geometric abstraction, looking for different ways to climb and jump off different sides, until you finally reach the goal. You’ll be retracing old steps in new ways, finding that what was once impassable obstacle suddenly becomes the way forward, so long as you find a way to get onto a different side of it.

Indeed, changes of perspective seem to be at the core of what Etherborn is trying to achieve. The game is full of little sparks of inspiration, not just from figuring out the solutions to puzzles but from little things like seeing how the level all fits together; it’s a fascinating moment when you realise that a level has brought you right back to where you started, but on a different face and seen from a different point of view.

That idea flows into Etherborn‘s narrative, too. Obviously, a preview build isn’t enough to get the full picture, especially for something dealing very much in surrealism, but the early cutscenes begin to weave a story that wants to challenge the way we process information and try to understand our own existence. “Unable to fathom everything there was, humanity began to name everything they feared … and thanks to that, what threatened to crush them submitted to their ego and was reduced, without thinking about it, to language.”

With its clever twist on the classic platformer formula and its MC Escher-inspired levels, it’s clear that Etherborn wants you to see the world in new ways. If that’s the takeaway from an hour-ish long preview, I can’t wait to see what the full game has to say when it launches later this year.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.