Echo (2017) presents us with a game within a game. En is a lone intruder in an immense and labyrinthine palace, searching for a mysterious prize with which to regenerate her dead companion. A sophisticated defence system tries to eliminate her by populating the otherwise deserted palace with hostile clones of herself. En’s behaviour is monitored by the palace systems and after each monitoring cycle a subset of her previous behaviour will be adopted by her clones. If she is to claim the prize she must sneak, fight, and flee through the palace interior, every move reverberating with unintended consequences. This defence system was not created to repel intruders efficiently but to challenge them; it is a game awaiting a player.
The narrative sets all this up as one act in a greater space opera, but the ludic mode is based on an abstract rule set that could function just as well without contextualisation. Echo uses narrative embellishment to give mystique to its mechanics, much in the same way as does chess, a game of two battling kingdoms based on a precise and formalised rule set with no resemblance to the reality of warfare. En is to all intents a game piece: a figurine with perfect milky complexion and clad neck to toe in black armour, she could have been carved from alabaster and ebony. She is our piece in the game, a queen placed on the board amongst an opposing force of queens who cannot recall their full move set.
The palace unfurls into a series of play spaces assembled from pristine architecture that tessellates to the vanishing point. Each room is furnished with art assets that are plainly replicated. We are subtly taught to think in terms of a grid, of move and counter-move. Like chess, Echo can be played perfectly, but the chance of doing so is vanishingly small. Instead every minor misstep calls for improvisation and adaptation to avoid the misery of a self-inflicted demise at the hands of opponents who use our own tactics against us. We are given a gun, the all-purpose problem solver of video games, and left to discover for ourselves that using it is usually the worst option because when we shoot the clones, the clones learn to shoot. There may be moments of action, but for the most part Echo is a game of wit.
We learn to think twice before we execute, never to teach the clones more than we can help and to make the most of the intervals when the palace reboots its defence system. Do we hunker down as the environment falls into darkness and we lose our situational awareness, or do we risk it all and strike out with impunity between monitoring cycles? Little by little, the game reveals its full complexity. In response we refine our technique and increase our skill – until abruptly the game finishes with a shrugged off ending that resolves nothing and gives answers to none of the plot’s mysteries. In contrast to most video games, Echo is eager to cut loose the flesh of its narrative and be remembered for the clean bones of its gameplay.