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).
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.