Review: Etherborn (Switch)

“Unable to fathom everything there was, humanity began to name everything they feared; they mastered the sky, the earth and the entire world. Still in fear, they tied up what nobody else was able to see, they put it in order and they enclosed it inside a concept, regardless of its endless nature. And thanks to that, what threatened to crush them submitted to their ego and was reduced, without thinking about it, to language.”

Etherborn is a game that wants to challenge your perspective on the world. So much of our understanding of everything we see and do and touch and feel and experience comes down to the language we use to understand it; it’s how we fathom the unfathomable, and make sense of the infinity of existence. We compartmentalise, categorise, and define everything as a way of parsing something more expansive than we could ever conceptualise. We reduce everything, without thinking about it, to language. 

In Etherborn, we play as a nameless, voiceless figure who on a journey to find a disembodied voice. It’s an adventure through an abstract world built on the seemingly endless boughs of a tree too big to ever be able to see the whole thing (or maybe it’s the millions of intertwining threads of a human nervous system, or maybe it’s nothing at all, or maybe it’s all of the above). But despite the apparent endlessness of this… whatever it is, the figure’s journey is a short and linear one. The more they try to find their voice and, by extension, understand the world by reducing it to something as limited as language, the more confined their journey becomes.

You see this, too, in the puzzles that make up the majority of the game. Etherborn is essentially a puzzle platformer, with each new limb of the aforementioned tree-thing whisking you away to a strange little world that can only be escaped by throwing everything you know about perspective out the window. In Etherborn, gravity is relative to the surface you’re walking on: when you’re walking upright on a flat surface, you’ll jump up and fall down as you would normally, but follow a curve that leads up a vertical wall, and suddenly “up” and “down” become different variations of sideways.

Related: For a more detailed breakdown of how Etherborn‘s puzzles work, see my earlier preview of the game.

That leads to puzzles that force to really reimagine how you look at the world before you. What might be an impassable wall when approached from one direction might suddenly become a platform, crucial to your progress, when you approach it a different way, with your gravity tied to a different surface. A gap much too far to jump becomes a lot more manageable if you can find a way onto another face of the level, thereby twisting gravity so that you can simply drop off the edge and fall from one side of the stage to the other.

This requirement for changing your perspective, for abstract thinking outside the normal rules of gravity, makes Etherborn‘s puzzles fiendish and at times frustrating—but that’s deliberate. Get stuck, and trying to bash your head against the game will rarely lead you to a path forward. Meticulously mapping a stage doesn’t really work when you’ve got potentially six different gravitational forces to factor in, so heavy focus and careful planning won’t get you far.

But approach each level with a more open mind, and things start to click together. If you’re prepared to just take it slow, exploring each new area and experimenting with its little quirks, you’ll find things start to fall into place. Ironically—deliberately so—trying to “solve” Etherborn‘s puzzles tends to be far less effective than simply drifting through and playing around with what’s in front of you until the pieces fall into the right place.

Maybe that doesn’t sound satisfying—after all, aren’t puzzle games meant to be solved? Aren’t they about that “A-ha!” moment when you the answer finally clicks, and you can feel like you’ve triumphed? Etherborn has those moments too, but they don’t come from finding the solution so much as letting the solution find you. 

Which brings us back to the stuff about language. The words we use to describe things help us to understand the world; they shape our thought structures and influence how we experience reality. But the reality of existence is far more complex than could ever be confined to words, no matter how expressive or expansive the language in question. By taking all that and boxing it up, defining it word by word—reducing everything and nothing to language—makes the infinite finite.

Maybe it’s OK to not understand everything, sometimes? To not need a word for every concept, or a concept for every fragment of reality. Maybe if we just stepped back every now and then and stopped trying to use language as a way of bringing order to the chaotic infinity of existence, we’d find meaning and understanding that we never knew we were looking for?That’s Etherborn‘s humble suggestion.

Or maybe it’s just a nifty little puzzle platformer built on the fascinating concept of twisting gravity to your whim, with an abstract story and a series of surreal locations to go with it. Either way, this is a game that’ll get the brain ticking, in the best possible way.

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.