Indie Horror Month 2015: 'Dark Echo'

Dark Echo drops you into a pitch back maze and then renders your core tools of navigation into something quite life threatening.

It’s October and it’s Friday, which can only mean it’s time for Indie Horror Month to begin! This year we’re starting out with another mobile game or at least a game that I played on a mobile device. It’s also available on PC, but surprisingly the mobile version is the better experience.

Dark Echo, made by RAC7 Games, is the kind of game that’s easy to take for granted. It’s so minimalist and unassuming in its presentation that it becomes easy to to miss it or to ignore it. Each level begins with an entirely black screen. Empty, that is, save for a small white pair of footprints at its center. There are no control indicators, no objective markers, and no story text, just you and the darkness.

That darkness is persistent and always total. You’ll never see a single light in the game, yet you’ll be expected to navigate mazes while avoiding traps and monsters. To survive, you must create echoes. Every sound in the game is represented visually as an explosion of lines. They’ll emanate from a source and fade visually as they fade aurally, bouncing off any nearby walls as they go. This allows you to briefly “see” the room before the dark and quiet take over once again.

The game does an excellent job expanding and complicating its simple premise and minimalist presentation. Everything may be represented as bouncing lines, but sound and color are used to highlight new environments and dangers. Water creates blue lines when you walk through it, monsters give off red lines as they growl, switches reflect yellow lines, and the exit is represented by bold white lines.

The controls expand with the colors. The first few levels are all about navigation, using the sounds of your footsteps to create a blueprint of the maze and to find your way to the exit. Then you learn about stomping, which creates a massive wave of lines that travel farther than your normal footsteps, giving you a more comprehensive view of your surroundings and of things ahead. Then the monsters are introduced, attracted by sound and far faster than you. Suddenly walking and stomping become dangerous, your core tools of navigation are rendered life threatening. However, this is when you learn to sneak, to move lightly and not make a sound. You won’t know where you’re going, but you’ll be safe. This is central conflict of Dark Echo: safety versus knowledge. You need sound to navigate, but every sound puts you in danger.

This is probably the best representation of darkness I've seen in a video game. The dark here is not an absence of light. It’s a presence all its own. It’s a constant obstacle, something that informs and affects your every decision and move. It’s not, however, an annoyance, a trap that many indie horror games fall into -- using darkness to hinder progress. In Dark Echo, the blackness is always there, but it’s also always navigable since your echoes are the equivalent of having a flashlight. The trick is knowing when to use the flashlight and how to avoid the monsters it attracts. Progression is always possible but it always involves putting yourself in danger, which creates an effectively suspenseful gameplay loop.

As I noted, Dark Echo is available on PC, but I played it on iOS. I think that's actually how the game should be played. You walk by holding your finger at the edge of the screen, you sneak by tapping the edges instead of holding, and you stomp by pressing on your footprints for a second and letting go. They're simple and evocative controls, but I especially love them because they're not as precise as buttons -- they allow for mistakes.

For example: Monsters don't growl if there's no sound for them to investigate, so you'll often know the general area where one is lurking but not it's precise location. This makes for a nerve-wracking time sneaking towards the creature that can kill you, tapping quickly, but not too quickly. The longer that you hold your finger, the larger the step you take, but hold it too long and you step loudly. It's a control scheme that forces you to control your fear, to always be aware of how your body is moving, to not panic when you “see” a monster within elbow's reach. It won't hear you because you tapped, so keep calm and keep sneaking, but for the love of god, don't tap too fast!

In the PC version, you sneak by holding down a button. This is probably a more precise means of control, but it removes the physicality and responsibility of the iOS controls. Dark Echo is far more exciting when you're in direct control of literally every step you take. I'm also gonna say that the smaller the phone, the better the experience, as that just adds to the sense of claustrophobia the game creates.

Dark Echo is available on Steam for $2.99, but you should really get it on iOS or Android instead. It’s a buck cheaper for that version in any case.

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70. The Horrors - "Machine"

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"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

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Album: From A Room, Vol. 2

Artist: Chris Stapleton

Label: Mercury Nashville

Release Date: 1 December 2017

Rating: 8/10

2017 was a year in which it seemed everybody wanted to put out more than one album. From Future's back-to-back releases to King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard's four (maybe five coming?) LPs, hyperactivity has been a definite key to success in our hyper-saturated music market. And although this marketing trick has seen most of its use in the hip-hop market, Chris Stapleton is here to show that it's just as effective in the country scene as anywhere. Just seven months removed from From A Room, Vol. 1, the ragged-bearded outlaw bard is back with another 32 minutes of heartbreak, folk storytelling, and of course, staggering vocal chops.

The move to release Stapleton's 18 songs over two volumes and seven months is exceptionally effective as consumers continue driving towards a single-listening mindset. It allows the first volume's songs room to breathe and sink into our memories and playlists just long enough before getting hit with Volume 2. With a delayed look at Volume 2's songs, any repeated themes or forms feel fresh and less like filler.

For example, Volume 2 begins with "Millionaire," a Kevin Welch cover with a modern country vibe similar to Volume 1's kickoff track "Broken Halos". Releasing these tracks separately allows them both to serve as strong openers. "Millionaire" also features one of Stapleton's greatest strengths, his tight harmonies with wife and fellow songwriter Morgane Hayes-Stapleton. If Chris's voice is a lion's roar, Morgane's is sweet Southern honey.

And the combination is perfection, as heard on "Scarecrow In the Garden," which also features some of Stapleton's best lyricism thus far. On the surface, it tells the story of a West Virginian farm passed down from Irish immigrants through years of prosperity and fear. But below that, Stapleton comments on an America that was once "green as dollars," but now is plagued by evil. "I've been sitting here all morning / I was sitting here all night / There's a bible in my left hand / and a pistol in my right." The song ends vaguely as the narrator is either depressed with what his land has become, or else ready to act with prayer and intensity to see restoration. Either way, never have Stapleton's lyrics been so captivating and Dylan-esque as on this track.

Vol. 2 was also able to capitalize on some of the weaknesses of Vol. 1. Where "Death Row" felt like a under-developed missed opportunity for an outlaw prison song, "Midnight Train to Memphis" comes in with rumbling ferocity as the doubled guitar/bass solos elevate the song to an instant blues-rock classic and one of Stapleton's most exciting tracks to date.

Gospel influences show up here as well on the Pops Staples-recorded "Friendship" and the regret-filled "Tryin' To Untangle My Mind" as Stapleton laments, "If you see me, and I'm lonesome and stoned / So far down, the devil's looking high / I'm just trying to untangle my mind." As always, Stapleton is able to balance biblical weightiness with a relatability akin to Johnny Cash. This is seen again on "Drunkard's Prayer", as he anguishes "I wish that I could go to church / But I'm too ashamed of me / I hate the fact it takes a bottle / To get me on my knees."

The warm, room-like closeness of the entire album lives up to its name. Whether intimate and vulnerable acoustic guitar-only ballads like "Drunkard's Prayer" or Southern rockers like "Hard Livin'", the music is produced and engineered to make you feel like you're part of the music. And that's an essential key to really experiencing Stapleton's words and feelings as he portrays suffering and hardship. But comfort is found even in the midst of it, as Stapleton shares on "A Simple Song", "I love my life / Man, it's something to see / It's the kids and the dogs and you and me / It's the way it's alright when everything goes wrong." It's Stapleton's grasp on the constant joys in life despite the troubles that makes his music essential and enduring.

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