Electron Dance
3Oct/176

The Sleeping Palace

echo-opening

The big gimmick of ECHO (Ultra Ultra, 2017) is cited in every review, interview and video about the game: you’re trying to stealth and shoot and jostle your way through hundreds of opponents who all look like you and learn from what you do. But don’t go rushing in expecting the world’s best enemy AI - just a clever mechanic.

The big gimmick of ECHO that ain’t cited in every review, interview and video about the game is how long it takes to get to the action. It’s War and Peace long. It’s heat death of the universe long. But it’s not just long, it’s good.

I’m still fumbling through ECHO, but whatever happens in the remainder of the game won’t take away that brilliant opening.

One of the eternal problems with SF&F is that readers just don’t have any context for the story, unlike the real world where everyone knows about crappy bus services, tensions in the Middle East and The X Factor. SF&F works in TV and film usually resort to injecting hideous exposition dumps like collagen into the structure, to help give the audience a quick primer. The Terminator explains the war against the machines in a text dump although I’ve argued that it is probably unnecessary. David Lynch’s Dune deploys a long, opening monologue to set out a universe that Frank Herbert’s source novel takes chapters to slowly assemble. Outside of a few decent examples, many expositions come across as self-indulgent and po-faced, especially as the whole thing is often just smoke and mirrors for “good vs teh bad peeps”.

ECHO belongs to that tradition known as dropping the reader in the deep end. It’s very show, not tell. Who is the protagonist En? Why has she been asleep for a long time? What was she running from? Who is London and why does he have an attitude towards En? The dialogue is carefully sculpted to provide answers to these questions without being explicit and leaving some aspects gently ambiguous.

Some might criticise how Ultra Ultra insert cutscenes, occasionally grab control of the camera or even rob the player of any agency within the story. But ECHO has a deft and confident touch and I never felt manhandled. I trusted the game because of one simple fact: it starts out proper Dear Esther (Chinese Room, 2008).

echo-structures

That bit involving all the hiding and shooting and being generally terrified, what some would call “the real game”, doesn’t get started until 40-50 minutes in. And you’re still not even allowed to run at this point. En literally limps and it takes for-evah to get anywhere.

How is this different to a game like Bioshock (2K Boston, 2007) which starts out entirely free of challenge? Bioshock gets to action in under 10 minutes. Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013) takes way longer before the game goes all sharp spinny thing in da face, but the world is alive with activity giving you coins to steal from the get-go, vigor testing and journals to listen to. ECHO offers practically nothing to do except follow a linear yellow brick road spruced up with a few cul-de-sacs. En’s hobbled pace also makes this spin-up feel that much longer.

This has important consequences. First, it gives the game a chance to let En and London chat to their hearts’ content without action getting in the way. Second, it slows the player down, encouraging them to engage with the environment instead of sprinting to the next Notable Event. The visuals are definitely filed under “breathtaking”. Later, when the action kicks in, you’ll find it harder to admire the chandeliers which means the environment degrades into what it usually does in action games: mere scenery. I also suspect that slowing the player down means the gradual acceleration towards action feels all the more terrifying.

It’s possible some players will not find this to their taste and I have caught wind of complaints that it stays “walking simulator” for too long. But with word that Assassin’s Creed Origins will include a “tourism” mode, it is at last being accepted that plenty of players just love pottering about in virtual places. If anything, ECHO’s real flaw might be repeating the same challenges too much and an overreliance on “collect several shiny things under extreme duress”. Hey, I don’t know, I’ve yet to get there.

For now, I treasure that sense of trepidation as I walk En through what appears to be an “infinite palace”, a place that lay dormant until her arrival shook things up. And that creeping dread, that slow drip drip, that fear of things about to go horribly wrong because you’ve seen the trailer already… I’m tempted to consider it the most evocative opening to an action game since the tram ride.

ECHO comes to us from devs who belonged to the Hitman studio Interactive IO. The game is supposed to be an indie title, yet it flaunts AAA quality in the visuals, solid voice acting and AAA design principles in the interface. While the canny recycling of assets is the signature of an indie budget, it is the blatant “walking simulator” opening that gives the game away. There’s your mark of indie.

ECHO is currently available from Steam and GOG.

echo-dark-palace

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Comments (6) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Not having a chance to run around “ECHO” (I’m betatesting Manifold Garden atm, and it’s magnificent btw.) – but I have two kids, a 5 and a 1,5 years old. And the learning process of the smaller one reminds me stricktly on En clones. The big sister use the chair to get higher to the bookshelf – so does the small brother. The big sister starts jumping around – and so does the small brother. He observes what she does and acquires it immediately. So you have to tell big sister to be cautious, because her little brother may repeat her deeds still without keeping in mind the consequences…

    Anyway, cannot wait to roam around the endless palace one day.

  2. I’m envious of your Manifold Gardening but at the same time I am happy to wait for final release! I didn’t know you had two children but yes for sure there is that phase where the younger one emulates all sorts of risky things the older one gets up to. Eg juggling knives, inserting nuclear reactor rods into plug sockets etc etc

    I would caution your roaming excitement over ECHO as it is strongly linear (later it is like moving from arena to arena) and I’ve read complaints that the environment doesn’t change that much as you progress through the game.

    If I know you, Merzmensch, you’ll probably seek a mod allowing you to explore more freely :)

  3. Oh yes, you know me perfectly! I hope, there is such mod! :D
    I already enjoyed the ghostly flying about German Autobahns in European Truck Simulator (even without any interests to the actual game). And I am soo glad, Assassins Creed people will satisfy people like us with free walk mode!

    P.S. Kids are amazing. They learn so quick. My daughter, as she was 4 years old, he played a pretty well Mekorama and beat many levels. At one difficult level she was stuck and literally bit into my tablet. Fortunately, without injuries regarding her teeth, but tablet cracked. Now it’s secured with bulletproof glas.

    In Manifold Garden I’m helping out with localization in Russian, German and Japanese. And beta-testing the bugs, but haven’t found any so far. This will be fully new wonderful experience /And now I stop to spoil :)

    Btw. I found for me – surely you already know – http://warpdoor.com/? They have twitter as well: https://twitter.com/WarpDoor
    They observe indie games and post so many amazing newcomers – I am lost in archives!

  4. That story of your daughter biting the tablet is… scary? So angry I’m gonna eat THE HARDWARE! TAKE THAT SILICON BRAIN! I can imagine your reaction afterward – AAARGH Are your teeth okay!??!

    Yes, I do know about Warpdoor but too many things to play. I remember when I gave up trying to play everything on “Free Indie Games”. Right now, I’ve started fiddling with HyperRogue and I’ve yet to finish ECHO. These are all little time commitments…

  5. Armand pointed ECHO out to me and it looks really intriguing. I’ve got to say, it didn’t surprise me to see you check this out! :) I saw the desolate mega-structures and haunted halls and thought: Joel. Glad you chose to write about this aspect of it (particularly if it’s skimmed over elsewhere) but I’m curious to hear how you fare with the rest too.

  6. Gregg, it was a bit of a surprise that I picked it up. It’s not my usual cheap-as-in-indie price point I grab without thinking… but something caught my eye. The story is absolutely vital to the atmosphere and I enjoy listening to En and London make observations and guesses about the nature of the palace.

    The game is like one long tutorial – slowly introducing new skills and features. But I love the pacing, slow but not glacial. It gives me time to ponder and get scared. I haven’t played for a couple of weeks but I’m currently at a point where the action is getting truly nervewracking.


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