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.