It’s awfully hard to make player death scary in games. I adored this spring’s Resident Evil 7, but it’s hard to maintain a sense of dread when you know in-game “death” just means restarting from a nearby checkpoint. The impermanence of death in games—this virtual save-and-reload immortality—doesn’t capture the terror of uncertainty and discontinuity that death provides us all at least once in our lives. It can’t.
ECHO, from developer Ultra Ultra, doesn’t try to make death itself scarier than your standard survival horror title. The nominally stealth-driven action game instead takes one of the usual coping mechanisms surrounding death and twists it against the player. This makes ECHO, intentionally or not, one of the more unsettling games I’ve played this year.
But ECHO doesn’t present itself as a Resident Evil-styled horror game. A good 20 minutes of conflict-free dialogue and world-building set the stage, as the game’s two main characters—professional gambler En and a sentient, bounty-hunting spaceship called London—go on and on about genetically engineered “Resourcefuls,” the regal “Palace” where the game takes place, and a couple of other proper nouns I’m probably forgetting. It’s all preamble to En being hunted through the stark white mega-structure filled with humanoid constructs out to kill her.
Pieces of you
Stellar voice acting helps keep these heady concepts from sounding too silly, but what really grounds ECHO is its focus on tangible characters and objects. It’s quickly clear that the primary pair used to be a trio and that En is partially responsible for the death of London’s late partner in crime. En and the ship cope with his loss in different ways, but both involve the peculiar human tendency to pour meaning into objects.
London continues to work with En because of a common cigarette lighter passed on to En from her departed partner, a sign the ship takes as an ultimate evidence of trust. Meanwhile, En carts around the late human hunter’s actual remains, compressed into a shiny red cube like a science-fantasy urn.
There’s nothing logical about the importance our heroes place on these objects, and ECHO draws attention to this with clever juxtaposition. London is basically a computer—what we’d normally assume to be a cold, logical machine. Yet he puts his faith in a little gewgaw that a being without fingers, lungs, or nicotine cravings can’t even use. Meanwhile, En is human (or at least transhuman, as the exposition reveals), but she believes some half-scientific myth that claims the Palace can use the cube to bring her friend back to life.
Sentimentality bridges the gap between these characters and their motivations. En specifically states that she ran away from her people’s obsession with the Palace. Why should she believe it now? London is a great big robot. Why should he believe something just because of a lighter? It’s silly for either of them—any of us—to put so much stock in the inert artifacts people leave behind. But people, artificial or not, are nothing if not silly.
Connected to the past
En’s and London’s rituals remind me of a green beaded lampshade that has long been linked to the only grandmother I ever knew. She had hung the tacky bauble up on her living room lamp to mark St. Patrick’s Day, and it was still there when she passed shortly after. It was more than a decade before grandpa let us take the cheap thing down—and only then when it was time for him to move to a new house.
To my knowledge, nobody in my family has any particular fondness for St. Paddy’s Day; certainly not grandma. She was just the kind of person to mark out little events like that. But after 50-some years of marriage, my grandfather liked having the lampshade as an unequivocal document that showed she had affected the world. She didn’t pour any special meaning into it. That was all grandpa.
Artifacts like my grandmother’s lampshade, not to mention En and London’s lighter and cube, aren’t just comforting reminders of time gone past. If we put meaning into those objects in the here and now, then it’s easier to tell ourselves that what we leave behind will be just as important.
That comfort of “permanence” is the weapon ECHO’s titular enemies use against you.
It takes a while to get there, but the meat of ECHO has En dodging clones of herself scattered throughout the sterile Palace. Her mute assailants learn from her every action. If she uses a gun, they’ll shoot at her. If she vaults over balconies, they start chasing her down the same routes. The creatures can’t even open doors or wade through water until they see their role model do it first.
The ramifications are intense all on their own. Every single thing you do in ECHO that might save your life also provides a way for an enemy to take your life later on. There’s a bit of breathing room thanks to periodic resets (the clones can hold only so many tactics before they have to lose some skills). But the very way you move through the Palace is its own kind of resource management.
What’s worse is that this twists En’s sole comfort against her. Despite all the futuristic trappings, she and London are just looking for confirmation that their existence in the big, wide galaxy has meaning—that the fact that they were here will continue to echo throughout time. And even though the “echoes” are tangible proof of that kind of immortality, those same clones are also trying to strangle En in the moment…
Layers of distress
In something like Resident Evil 7, that threat of virtual violence brings diminishing returns as you pop out of checkpoints and poke at different angles of attack to proceed. In ECHO, that very trial and error is stress-inducing. You might find a way through by gunning down homunculi and traipsing through waist-high water, but you know you’re only poking out one eye to spare the other.
I find myself second guessing every move I make in ECHO, often dropping one tactic in favor of another. I don’t feel like I’m getting better at any single thing. I feel like I’m tying my own noose as I walk from room to deadly room.
Even that kind of tension doesn’t last forever, of course. ECHO might start to hold me back any time I get too comfortable with a single tactic, but eventually working within those limitations becomes its own skill. The disempowerment slowly erodes, and my nerves settle down with it.
That doesn’t change the themes ECHO forced me to confront, though. En’s manic “children” are still off-putting. The little rituals we use to cope with mortality look horribly fragile next to the game’s huge, fantastical galaxy. That thematic distress has much longer legs than gaming’s usual “reload and restart” view of death.
ECHO doesn’t bill itself as a horror game, but it still takes that genre’s explicit fear of death and stretches it well past a single checkpoint.