The stealth game doesn’t rush its story.
By Tom Marks
At first glance Echo, a third-person stealth game from some of the developers behind Hitman, seems straightforward enough: You sneak around choking out patrols while trying to covertly complete an objective. But when I asked game director Martin Emborg about why every enemy looks like you and what the deal with this beautiful white mansion we were sneaking around was, it became clear there’s more going on than just another stealth game.
The clearest twist from the classic Hitman formula shown so far is the way its enemies learn from your actions. Whenever you do anything – vaulting walls, killing guards, or even just stopping to eat a grape – it’s logged and remembered by the AI. After you do enough actions, the room goes dark, all the enemies are rebooted, and they learn know how to do whatever you’ve done since the last blackout.
It’s a clever mechanic that rewards cautious play. You don’t want to blow all your good moves (like an insta-kill pistol) in one go, because then your enemies will be just as strong as you were after the blackout. You can also prime the AI to be worse in whatever area of the level you know you’re heading to next – for example, avoiding water for a round will mean your enemies don’t know how to traverse it in the next one, which can be helpful to plan for in areas boxed in by pools.
Whenever you do anything, it’s logged and remembered by the AI.
It’s a very cool and interesting twist on stealth games, But Emborg tells me story – which we’ve so far seen very little of – is just as important as Echo’s tricky stealth mechanics. He told me that he thinks some games nowadays push players into their ‘core gameplay loop’ too quickly, not taking enough time to set up the world and ease players into the story.
Emborg then made a surprising comparison for the game, one I wasn’t expecting given all I’ve seen of Echo so far is stealth action: Gone Home. He said the members of the dev team are big fans of the “walking sim” genre, usually short narrative-driven games that let the player wander through a story without too much agency. Not exactly what I think of while choking out clones of myself.
But Emborg says that while he enjoys most walking sims, he felt they ended before any actual “game” began. So while he tells me the first hour and a half or so of Echo is modeled after something like Gone Home, an experience with less agency as you learn the world’s story (or rush by it if you just want to get to the choking), after that it shifts into what we’ve seen in gameplay demos and trailers.
It’s a fascinating idea, but one that leaves me a bit worried, as the time you have to hook a player is getting shorter everyday. I can’t speak for the story yet as Emborg remained tight-lipped on the specifics, but those copycat stealth mechanics are what really excite me about Echo.
Having not seen anything from that first part of Echo yet, I find myself left with a lot of unanswered questions, but my curiosity is definitely piqued. From what I’ve seen and played so far, it’s a pretty game with a lot of interesting ideas. I appreciate that it’s trying something new and I look forward to finding out the answers to my long list of questions.
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