In September of last year, a game called ‘Echo’ was released, the best way for me to explain Echo is that it’s a surrealistic sci-fi stealth game about adapting and outsmarting an enemy that is always observing and learning from every action you take.
Echo’s biggest (and strongest) mechanic is the fact that the “Palace” you are in is filled with “Echoes” which are creatures who mimic the way the Player interacts with the world. The Echoes learn what to do because they are fed the information via the “Palace”, which plays an almost omnipresent observer role, no matter where you go or try to hide, the Palace will always be watching and monitoring you.
If the Palace observes the player sliding over waist-high walls and constantly crouching to navigate the area quietly, the Echoes will be fed this behaviour and will begin trying to avoid being spotted by the player in the same way the player tries to avoid being spotted by the Echoes – by crouching down constantly and sliding over waist-high walls. This is initially demonstrated to the player by bringing them into a room with four sections, each separated by a body of water. The Echoes will walk to the edge of their sections as if to follow the player, but then stop and watch them walk across the water with no problems, this then teaches the player that initially all the Echoes can do is walk across normal surfaces.
Initially one might think “Well why not just kill every Echo at every present opportunity”? Well, if the Palace observes you pulling out and firing your weapon (which is also a one-hit kill) then the Echoes themselves will be able to pick up on that behaviour and begin firing their own guns at the player. If you throw environmental objects at Echoes to knock them out, the Echoes will learn to throw environmental objects at the player. If the player kicks Echoes over ledges and sneaks up to break their necks? The Echoes will also learn to do just this. In Echo, you are your own worst enemy and ensuring you can get through the games various environments becomes a question of “How can I get to the necessary spots without killing anybody?”. A fascinating thing that the Palace will pay attention to is if the player stops to interact with the environment – playing Pianos and Harps or eating Grapes, are all behaviours that the Palace will record.
It may seem silly really, to teach the Echoes how to eat grapes or play instruments, but these behaviours are a weapon that the player can arm themselves with in order to outwit their AI doppelganger, just about to enter that room? Maybe you should go a different route because you can hear someone playing the Harp, or perhaps there is an annoying Echo patrolling this corridor you desperately need to go down and all of a sudden the pesky patroller stops to indulge herself on some lovely grapes in the room the corridor leads on to. If you run around breaking necks, smashing open heads and firing your gun, you’ll be dealing with a nigh impossible foe to face down, however, you can use their strength to your own advantage.
This creates a very interesting, almost puzzler gameplay feedback system, as you have to question the impact of every action you take, if allowing the AI to vault is worth getting to this one item or if it’s better off to take a longer, riskier route. This firmly cements Echo in my mind as a gameplay mechanic that, while unique, feels somewhat limited by its own strengths. The biggest limitation, of course, being that this isn’t machine learning, this is the AI copying what the player is doing, meaning there’s only a finite amount of interaction the AI can have with both the Palace and the Player.
Earlier in this article when I said that the Palace was an omnipresent force that is always observing the player? Well there are weaknesses to exploit for this seemingly immortal opponent: when the Palace has learned a sufficient amount of information about the player it will ‘power down’, during this time the section the player is in will have all of its lights turn off and all the clones will not learn a new behaviour – this is the most opportune time for the player to pull out their pistol and fire it if their situation calls for it. The player can also encounter a black mass in the game which, the best way to describe it would be a ‘glitch’ in the Palace, by touching a ‘Glitch’ the player can reset the behaviours known to the Echoes.