How repetition defines the masterful world of Echo

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When I first started playing Echo I was reminded of London’s tube network. Down there, meters below street level, the rules of space seem to deform. There are corridors that seem to go on forever, winding passages that twist left and right at random, and emergency staircases that feel so long that you begin to wonder if the space itself has started repeating.

Echo is the first offering from Ultra Ultra, a small group of Danish developers with a history at Hitman creators IO Interactive, and it’s a truly strange stealth game, obsessed by the uncanny qualities of repeated space.

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Repetition is an inherent part of game spaces – in any one game we constantly walk past the same models of pots, crates and chairs, seeing them a hundred times over. It’s part of how games tell us what is important, by concentrating new items and detail in areas of interest while filling out spaces of transit with the same old patterns. The art lies in masking and spacing these patterns so that they don’t become too distracting or conspicuous.

Echo, in service of a sense of terror, throws all that out the airlock, and instead employs this language of repetition to keep the player in a state of overwhelming oppression. Its repeated patterns are so obvious, so constant as to be unnerving, and its level of detail saturates the player’s vision. An elegantly designed HUD means this never gets in the way of the player’s actions, but it constantly underscores their mood.

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The setting is an icy planet that holds a near infinite palace, and the opening descent into it is your slow-boil introduction to a world of huge neo-classical halls and corridors that feel as if the palace of Versailles has been copy-pasted all the way to the horizon. It’s that descent that brings the London Underground’s emergency staircases to mind. Many a rushed commuter sick of waiting for a lift has regretted using them – they feel like mountain climbs on the way up – but it’s on the way down that they are most unsettling. Level by level you can feel the weight of the city gathering on your shoulders, and by the time you reach the platform it’s hard not to remember the tonnes of masonry that sit precariously above your head. Multiply this feeling a thousand-fold and you have the opening to Echo.

The palace is a space that constantly offers up a sense of unease, through both its vast scale and the minutiae of its detail. You might inspect the carefully arranged and beautifully modelled place settings that lie on its ornately carved tables when you first encounter them, but once you find them stretched out across a banquet hall the length of five football fields you start to feel a little dizzy. The result is a masterclass in architectural manipulation, the classical language of pillars, orders and composition pushed to an inhuman extreme.

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And the repetition carries through to your actions in the game. You’re navigating levels stalked by copies of yourself that learn from every action you do. Use your weapon, and after the palace “reboots” (a gut churning audio and visual cue that smash-cuts to black) the AI will be able to start shooting too. The result is a rhythmical push and pull, as you slip constantly between the huge groups of enemies that patrol these perverse halls.

Like the uncanny spaces in which the action occurs, it is a game structure defined by repetition and recursion, a clockwork machine that you must ceaselessly navigate. The result is an experience that feels like nothing else; fluid and overwhelming, sophisticated and yet deceptively simple. The fact that the game’s narrative, which casts the palace itself as a sort of vast marble chess set, also manages to provide a clever frame for the contrived elements of doors and keys, guards and puzzles, feels like a bonus.

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In the end Echo is that rarest of things, a game that is both sophisticated and self-aware while being thrilling, unnerving and unrelentingly tense. Like descending into the depths of London’s crooked underground, it is a distinctly memorable experience, and one of the most original and exciting games of the year.

Echo is available now for Windows, via Steam for £18.99.

17 Comments

  1. JakeOfRavenclaw says:

    That was a great read :-) I’m always interested in games with a focus on unsettling architecture (NaissanceE comes to mind, though the platforming in that one unfortunately proved too much for me). Would love to know if anyone has any other examples (and I’ll certainly have to check out Echo too).

  2. astareus says:

    What a brilliant way for a small team to turn a limited number of art assets, including just a single character model, into an essential component of not only their game’s mechanics but also its narrative, themes, and ambiance. Clever, clever stuff, at an incredibly compelling price point to boot. Looks like a playable indie sci-fi horror flick.

    • April March says:

      Yeah, I remember after watching a earlier trailer I commented on how it looked like an alien intelligence had tried to build a human settlement from nothing but a badly damaged tourist brochure for Neuschwanstein Castle.

  3. Kingseeker Camargo says:

    So, is there gonna be a WIT for this one? The closest to a RPS verdict (before this piece) was:

    In practice, however, this could be as simple as the bot enemies doing a small list of simple things. Vaulting, shooting, running, kicking. We might have somebody take a closer look but consider my eyes a-squinting.

    … when the game launched.

  4. Dominic Tarason says:

    Mechanically, Echo is a pretty simple but tightly designed game, not so much of stealth but of phase-based evasion.

    What really works about it for me is the story and characters. The developers are clearly Ian M Banks fans. The setup is pure Culture, right down to the interplay between ‘Snarky young woman with issues and her millennia-old sentient spacecraft/partner in crime’.

    That is 100% my jam.

    • Partialist says:

      I really want to actually get good at this game just so I can get more of the story/ world-building!

      Currently having the good old ‘repeat the same area several times because you suck’ problem, however.

    • GernauMorat says:

      Yup, Culture is the first thing I thought of as well, and the dialog is well written!

      • Dominic Tarason says:

        It really feels like a Banks-inspired short story in videogame form. One location, two characters, constant hints at a much broader and more complex universe.

        Even if it was just wandering around and looking at abandoned alien megastructures while those two characters argued, I’d probably want it.

        • GernauMorat says:

          I would play the hell out of an Iain M Banks walking simulator! Just wonder around an orbital and argue with one of the more eccentric drones. Maybe Flere-Imsaho.

    • ooshp says:

      Well I was kinda on the fence about buying this, but you’ve pushed me onto the winning side with the Culture reference.

      Pass the jam?

  5. Tiax says:

    Echo was way too stressful for me, but boy did I enjoyed its introduction. Albeit slow and linear, you really feel like you could walk the palace corridors for centuries without seeing everything.

    I also LOVED Naissancee, I hope to see this theme of being inside a megastructure applied again.

  6. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    You’ve given me a new, unexpected reason to visit London with that description of the Underground’s staircases. :)

    I’d replace “oppressive” with “wondrously grandiose” both here and in descriptions of the feeling of the game’s descent elsewhere on the Internet, but perhaps that’s just me. Unnerving, however? Why yes, I’ll keep that one in, thank you very much! And elevate it to “disturbing” whenever I’m pinned down for those most inept of clone hugs.

    Nice write up, and interesting timing for me, as I finally got back to playing the game today and actually got to sample a good chunk of the main course this time. Pretty unnerving on the whole, and slightly frustrating until I started treating it like an action puzzle game where the puzzles are what actions to take and when and where to take them. It’s slower that way, and it still gets tense and (yeah) unnerving; but at the same time, it feels more playful, it feels more involved than straight-up action or stealth, and I’m rather enjoying it that way. Still haven’t caught anyone but me eating grapes, though. ;_;

    Oh, right, and the architecture: I can’t offer any semblance of a literate critique of it myself, but I do think it’s fair to add that it’s even more stunning when the lights are properly on, and even more intimidating when they’re properly off. I could look forward to playing more of this one for the visual spectacle alone, but luckily I’m liking the rest of it, too.

  7. Merry says:

    I played this a few days ago and loved it until well before I encountered any clones.

    It’s all exploratory until a dead end where you’re forced to leap down over a balcony and are invited to find four tuning forks (I forget what the game calls them). I searched systematically for an hour and found only three, and am pretty sure there were no more.

    I gave up at that point. Is the fourth supposed to be hidden in a completely different way from the first three?

  8. AyeBraine says:

    I was reminded by this piece of Diamond Dogs by Alastair Reynolds. A forbidding remote moon to be explored. An impossible, alien internal space to be traversed, following its obscure rules. And ultimately, the need to change yourself in order to get deeper.

  9. KingFunk says:

    Off topic, but the video adds just under ‘Browse our tags’ on the right hand side are causing me huge havoc in Chrome today. The page leaps about at will and scrolling can be a real pain in the a$$…

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