Electron Dance
4Jan/184

When Good Luck is Bad Luck

Last year, I wrote a little on first-person stealth game ECHO (Ultra Ultra, 2017) about how its slow, undemanding opening was to my taste. I didn’t talk much about what happens when the action picks up, unless you happened to catch the end of the second Electron Dance Transmission.

I’ve now completed ECHO and find myself considering how I often squeeze through skill-based games with luck - and how I wish I didn’t.

I don’t think it’s spoilery to talk about ECHO’s mechanics, because they were splashed across every review and trailer from here to Andromeda. ECHO takes place in a palace, populated with copies of you which the game refers to as "echoes". The echoes appear to have a single goal: to kill you. The palace studies your actions then reboots, supplying all the skills you've demonstrated to the echoes. The palace reboots periodically giving the game a certain rhythm and the echoes only possess skills that you've used in the previous cycle. If the echoes are shooting at you right now then provided you abstain from shooting back, they won’t be able to shoot at you after the next reboot.

And that’s more or less it. The list of skills and behaviours the echoes can inherit is longer than you think which makes things more interesting than just running and shooting.

The first real test in ECHO is essentially a scene from a traditional zombie movie. The echoes are slow and aren’t yet learning from you but they are tenacious and legion. You have to touch some hotspots to open up the next section because, reasons, so you have to keep on the move and not die - not once - until you’ve completed the task. A checkpoint insists on this.

I died countless times trying to make it through. You don’t have to hit every hotspot, but just enough, to make it through. Naturally I decided I was better than that. When I eventually reached the minimum threshold for success, I pressed on to 100%... and died some. Each time I had to start from the beginning again.

This “touch the hotspots” scenario is revisted several times with increasing difficulty. The arena is bigger, the echoes more deadly, the hotspots more numerous. I found the climbing numbers aspect frustrating as it dissuaded me from attempting to 100% the later hotspot arenas. ECHO does go on to offer players some control over the checkpoints but it still feels a little... rinse-and-repeat. Some have been forthright with their gripes: "a long arduous slog through identical environments fighting identical foes"; "your approach to level 2 is almost identical to your approach to level 7: sneak around a bit, kill people from behind, jog a lot, grab the McGuffin, maybe shoot some clones, and bail."

Space Invaders was a long time ago. Today, we all have those moments where we think the game is copy-and-pasting a bit too much. And it's not just the twitchy action games, because we even get that deja joué feeling during cerebral puzzlefests. We want the game to evolve yet ripping out what we perceive as padding has a downside.

You may be hot stuff at Thief: The Dark Project (Looking Glass Studios, 1998) but those skills have little currency in ECHO which is less about stealth and more about improvisation - the player must be nimble, a shapechanger. Sometimes you need to take down enemies silently. Sometimes you need to go in all guns blazing. And sometimes you’ll need to shout for attention.

What worried me about my seemingly rapid progress through ECHO's earliest trials was that I wasn’t actually going through any git gud. I saw the game as this wonderful stage on which to perform but I kept surviving with a simple formula: run and hide, shoot when the dung hits the fan. But I wasn’t terribly careful and when I took risks, more often than not, I made it through. The key hidden ingredient in my formula for success was luck.

Sometimes, I’ll find a game shifts gears before I’ve mastered a particular skill meaning one of two things happen: either I’m awarded an ability upgrade which becomes my new favourite thing or the challenges become frustrating as the developers assume you’re now a professional. Luck is not a bad thing and not something to be eliminated, but it is something developers usually have to manage. So many times I haven’t a clue what I’m doing in a tutorial but grease through it on luck. And in a game of skill, that luck can set a player up for future failure.

ECHO seems to put the player through minor variations of the same scenario over and over again but it’s carefully tweaking up the difficulty, eliminating the possibility that the player is relying on luck. You can’t keep on being lucky forever. Thus I improved and developed a more fluid and safety-conscious approach to ECHO.

The hardcore alternative is the Dark Souls (From Software, 2011) route and deploy frustration deliberately as part of the design: repetition is foisted on the player and it’s unlikely you will defeat a boss before mastering the hazardous route from the nearest bonfire.

I am sure there are some players who felt that the progression of difficulty was too slight but I appreciated the how Ultra Ultra upped the ante with cautiousness. This is not to say ECHO is a special case as developers are always worrying about whether players understand the basics before being allowed to escape tutorials. Luck can be a curse, the prelude to a bad review.

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  1. I had a similar feeling just a few days ago playing the opening Siwa section of Assassins Creed Oranges. You’re supposed to run around for a while doing side quests till you hit level 5 and then go kill Medunamun in a big temple with a lot of guards. I used the eagle/drone to find the target but didn’t really pay attention to the marker. I just ran around the side of the temple and up the most obvious spot on the wall and onto the roof. The first guard I saw was on a balcony below, so I jumped on his head. As I was getting up, I spotted movement inside the doorway behind the guard, so I tapped the Y button again and all of a sudden I’m in a cutscene with the target and the deed was done. He never saw me coming? I never saw me coming.

    I don’t think it’s quite the same problem you were describing as it seems unlikely that the game will get very hard (and I’ve played many of the ACs before and the stealth systems seem much the same), but I feel a little disappointed that I didn’t get the thrill of the hunt through that lucky kill.

    Game has heaps milieu though…

  2. MILIEU MEME ALERT

    There have been moments, kfix, when I’ve felt like I didn’t work a moment, an experience, properly. Where it was a pushover when it was clearly meant to be hard – and I do them again. Inevitably, the second run is tougher and I get something out of it which was missing the first time around. I worry more about the journey being right than getting to the destination because, after all, it’s where you spend most of your time :) And the destination rarely lives up to the hype, right?

  3. Huh. I’ve certainly repeated a level in games like Dishonoured, but that’s usually when prompted by an achievement or in-game scoring system. I don’t recall repeating a level for that kind of reason.

    Although I suppose I have replayed the whole game in Dishonoured or Dark Souls many times on higher difficulties or with different and more challenging play styles in mind. And I know I’ve repeated tracks in the various Trials games because I wasn’t happy with my form, rather than specifically to try to do it faster.

    And sorry matt w for riding your creative term into the ground :)

  4. “A pushover when it was clearly meant to be hard” – this does resonate with me. I dislike feeling like I’ve been lucky. It seems like not the best version of the story, and a potential difficulty trap.


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