A fleeting shadow. Someone - or was it something? - turns the corner. Just in time to catch a glimpse, fast enough to not be able to recognize it. Then, the door in front of you opens, and you capture a fragment, a memory long lost.
ECHOPLEX is Output Games' maiden release - a first venture into indie games by the independent studio based in Johannesburg, South Africa. A puzzle game with deep and challenging mechanisms, ECHOPLEX combines a rich narrative with minimalist visuals to tell a puzzling story set in a dystopian future.
There is more to ECHOPLEX than meets the eye, its simple graphics a veil hiding its depth. Game Lens got the chance to play the indie game and discuss the design process behind it with Tyron van Vuuren - Output Games' founder and creative director, who brought his filmmaking expertise to ECHOPLEX.
ECHOPLEX opens with a live action video, portraying confusing scenes of protests, masked figures rebelling against the Continuum project - a mysterious program by the ominous Clonochem Corporation. Then, an engineer and a doe-eyed protester trade fleeting looks.
The video cuts abruptly. A contrasting view takes its place; a pristine, unadorned room, a cross between a laboratory and a hospital room. A man in white, wearing a protester's mask stares right back at you from a mirror on the left. In front of the bed, a strange door beckons - the simulation.
When players exit the room, the clock starts ticking. To quit the simulation, players have to look for the abstract pieces of a larger puzzles - memory fragments. They are not alone, however. Accompanying players are copies of themselves, doppelgängers that mimic every step, every jump with a slight delay.
Like the room, the levels are bare. Bereft of details, even the colors feel like a privilege. The walls, like the floor are unsullied, like none of your previous runs even existed. It feels like the simulation feels your urgency and the weight of your mission, and took away all distractions.
And that is all. It is almost like the full-motion video exhausted the game's energy, draining the environment of its story-telling potential. ECHOPLEX continues along the same vein, with a story that is largely told through full-motion videos and puzzles set in the unblemished, minimalist environment of Clonochem Corporation's own simulation.
Beyond the game, it turns out that the Echoplex is a very real device - a tape delay effect used with musical instruments to reverberate sounds. In this game, however, the Echoplex is not merely an apparatus, but in a way, the game itself. By and large, ECHOPLEX's gameplay revolves around a mechanism built on this idea.
"A challenge that we did not expect was matching the Echo's movement to the player's movement. The player controls the game from first person point of view, while the Echo is seen in third person. And it turned out that these require completely separate types of movement."
Getting out of the simulation is no mean feat, and in many of the puzzles, impossible on your own. ECHOPLEX lends you copies of yourself that follow you around like loyal disciples with a short delay, not unlike the Echoplex device. This unusual mechanism gives way to interesting possibilities, including locking your clones out, making them take the fall for you or using them to open inaccessible paths.
In Tyron's account for Game Lens, he recounted how the doppelgängers, or Echoes, were not without their challenges. Under the hood, the Echoes are not the same as the players, which posed problems to the studio. Whereas players go through the game in first-person perspective, Echoes operate in the third-person realm. This necessitated changes to how animations work for everything to mesh together.
Tyron explained to Game Lens how this problem manifested itself in ledge climbing, for example. It is a problem with wide ramifications, the filmmaker-turned-game developer told us - "for the mechanism to work, the timings of the two paths needed to match exactly. It took a lot of trial and error to figure that out." These issues are also evident elsewhere throughout the game.
Timing is of the essence in ECHOPLEX, but it is not only the Echoes that have to be in sync with the player, but also the environment. For instance, in the last puzzle, players and their Echoes have to meticulously navigate around or over noisy barriers that would spell their demise. It is a time-sensitive procedure, but since the barriers are not perfectly synchronized with the Echoes' spawn time, on occasion levels have to be repeated until the doppelgängers survive the test.
Beyond the allure of its genre, one the main selling points of ECHOPLEX - and perhaps the one thing that best distinguishes the game - is its story told through full-motion videos. In reality, the short clips that tell the story can be cryptic at times - a narrative largely left up to players to interpret and decipher. However, it is also around these live action videos that the story revolves.
"Play testing taught us a lot about what players needed to get through the game. We always try to strike a balance so that players reach that state of flow - challenging enough that you are engaged, but not so challenging that you want to quit."
As players complete puzzles and collect memory fragments, the story continues to unfold. It is only towards the end that the story reaches its climax, tying all the pieces together. As players progress through the levels, the game tugs at the player, inaudibly begging to be completed. How do you ensure that a puzzle game is easy enough to complete, but tough enough to offer a worthy challenge?
ECHOPLEX is characterized with its gradual learning curve - a puzzle game that teaches you the ropes, slowly expanding your repertoire. Output Games did not stop at that either, as Tyron told us. While waiting for levels to load, hints that are specific to the next puzzle are shown to players. Moreover, the usual room preceding levels also contains a mini-map, helping new players to visualize the maze's layout, and more seasoned players to plan their winning strategy.
Play-testing had a lot to do with this optimization, Tyron told Game Lens. In fact, these "hints and the maps both evolved from player requests," he explained, and it shows. Even while playing, the game does everything in its power to accommodate players.
Throughout the playthrough, ECHOPLEX's level design is simple and memorable without resorting to cheap tricks to shackle the players. It is also for the better that the game is rather short in length. An experienced puzzle gamer could probably finish the game in three or four hours, ensuring that the complex story can be digested in one or two sittings.
Unexpectedly, in what may be the most underappreciated feature of the game, players can 'pause' the game at any point in time to activate the 'premonition' ability. This allows them to stop time and wander, look around the corner, or simply stop for a moment to consider the best course of action.
The stark polarity between the minimalist levels bathed in vivid colors and the live action videos serve to separate the two purposes that ECHOPLEX aims to serve - telling a deep narrative, while simultaneously serving players with the focus that the puzzle game demands.
Full-motion videos are uncommon today, but that did not stop Output Games from making the technique the flagship in ECHOPLEX. As an independent game development studio, Output Games had a limited budget to create a live action story. However, reading through Tyron's website, it is easy to see why the Johannesburg studio opted for this line of storytelling.
An award-winning creative director and filmmaker, Tyron brought his experience into ECHOPLEX. Shortly after release, Tyron and the rest of the team and cast explained how they maneuvered through their financial limitations to create emotionally-charged clips to back the narrative. In their behind-the-scenes video, the studio delved into the process, including how they shot all the cutscenes in a single small room and engaging their friends and family members to act. Why would a small indie studio go to all the trouble though?
In our interview, Tyron described the one thing that a live-action video contributes to an otherwise sterile and minimalist environment - emotion. "Although it is challenging to integrate full-motion video into the world of a game," Tryon told Game Lens, "I think that live actors bring real emotional depth to the piece." Indeed, the cutscenes, although enigmatic initially, quickly fall into place, and it is evident that they aim to serve a higher purpose than just being bling.
The fact that the story takes place in a simulation certainly helps Output Games' case. References to the outside, living world can be observed regularly, such as the main character wearing that persistent white mask. Tyron also went on to outline his studio's efforts to reconcile the two worlds, including by intersecting them in the full-motion clips, but also in-game.
"The process of joining gameplay and FMV story took a long time, but it was very important to me that the world of the cut scenes and the world of the gameplay feel unified. As we developed the game graphics, we would go back and adjust the FMV scenes to make them feel more consistent."
As a result of the studio's efforts, the extreme difference in aesthetics between the live action clips and the in-game simulation are quelled without breaking the bank. On occasion, the game breaks character, but it is for a good cause. Cast into Clonochem Corporation's laboratories, players cannot help but feel like they are now part of the full-motion video, actors in a parallel world.
Having settled the argument of how to deliver their story, Output Games could pursue their initial, prototype look and maintain minimalism. "As we developed the game and players requested more of a story, we worked to maintain the minimalist aesthetic even as we introduced the FMV scenes," Tyron explained to Game Lens. According to him, "it was an organic process - we were feeling our way through the aesthetic as the project grew." Ultimately, this decision gave the game its unique look, helping it stand out.
You hastily turn a corner. A bot awaits you. You know it is too late before it even turns around to face you. You hear the zap and almost immediately, your vision starts to darken. Perhaps your next Echo will have better luck than you.
Game Lens would like to thank Tyron van Vuuren, who took this website behind the scenes of Output Games' latest creation - ECHOPLEX. The indie puzzle game was released on Steam for Windows and Mac OS X on the 15th of March, 2018.