This is the transcript of a Youtube video, which can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/GWMzG6cuvVk
“Yet, here I am. The place I spent my whole life escaping.”
These are En’s first thoughts as her spaceship touches down on a cold, distant planet. On her back she carries a cube which she believes will grant her access to the planet’s mysteries.
And so begins ECHO. Since it came out in 2017, quite a bit has been said about this game’s stunning art design and brilliant virtual architecture, but I’d like to take a different perspective. In this video, I’m going to analyse ECHO as a story of personal growth, in which En confronts her past, discovers her humanity and achieves redemption and transcendence. And I’m going to examine how the game draws on religious themes and imagery to tell this story.
With that, let’s begin our journey.
En’s journey here hasn’t been easy. She was raised by a man she calls her “grandfather”, the leader of a violent cult. His quasi-religious teachings promised eternal life for those who survived his barbaric trials, the horrors of which are only ever alluded to.
However, after seven years of running from the strange cult of her maker, of denying and rejecting his doctrines, En has arrived here — at the gateway to what might be the eternal afterlife her grandfather preached about. She is seeking a palace, and the skeptical voice of her on-board companion London confirms that it’s an impossible thing to hope for in this desolate place:
“I’ve had my fair share of hauls based on wild speculation. It doesn’t matter if it comes from desperate need or delusions of grandeur, there’s never anything there but bitter disappointment.”
Researchers in the field of positive psychology consider hope to be a transcendental emotion, because it asks us to reach beyond our immediate selves and motivates us to pursue positive goals.
En’s arrival here is an act of hope, albeit a hope born of sheer desperation. She believes the cube she carries holds the soul of Foster, the man who sacrificed himself to help her escape imprisonment by her maniacal grandfather. She has come here to try and bring Foster back, even though she has no reason to believe she can, nothing but rumours and a set of coordinates. En’s journey is nothing short of a pilgrimage in search of life after death, and her story begins with an almost religious decision to have faith that she will find it.
And as she enters this strange, enormous structure, En’s faith is redeemed.
Like an echo, the Palace and the planet it resides beneath are nothing but empty repetition, infinity without meaning. The rhythm of the game is determined by the cycles of the Palace and the Artificial Intelligence which controls it. Every few minutes, the system reboots, resurrecting everything inside, including the echoes — hostile copies of the player. There is no control over when the reboot happens; the only way to make it through the palace is to learn the system and work within it. En is powerless in the grip of this infinite cycle of repetition, which is reflected in the structure of the Palace itself: the intricate tessellations of the floor and walls, the identical columns and arches which repeat themselves endlessly. Time after time, the lights go dark and then return, the echoes are re-awakened, the corridors stretch… on and on.
Religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism view life as an endless cycle of death and rebirth, or re-incarnation, called samsara. It’s said that the Buddha saw a vision of all his past lives as he meditated under the Bodhi tree, and Buddhist temples reflect this sense of infinite repetition in their recurring shapes and patterns and intricate architecture.
En was born as one of many. She was created and raised as a Resourceful. It’s never explained exactly how a Resourceful comes to be — something involving genetic engineering — but it seems that there are many of them, and that their patriarch the “grandfather” treats them as disposable. He pits them against each other in brutal competition and uses deadly contraptions to test their bravery and skill. Just like the Resourcefuls in grandfather’s deadly trials, the echoes die in front of our eyes, and are replaced. They are ghastly reminders of En’s past life, a time when she was one of an identical caste of slaves, denied a mind and will of her own by her creator.
“All our songs were about it. A magical place of life without end. A Palace of untold wonders. But only for the worthy. So our lives were desperately dedicated to qualify. Pinpoint perspective on the great reward.”
If the Palace and the echoes suggest aspects of Eastern philosophy, the religion of En’s grandfather is decidedly Old Testament, all egocentric vengeance and cruelty. He uses the promise of eternal life as a way to control others, to be the gatekeeper of their suffering and salvation. To the Resourcefuls, whom he created, he is a God-like figure.
Much of En’s past is only hinted at, however she mentions that the place where she and the other Resourcefuls were raised and trained was called the gardens, an allusion to the garden of Eden, where God created and watched over his children. And, like the garden of Eden, the price of residence is a steep one — ignorance and obedience. When En is tempted to leave the gardens, her grandfather tries to dissuade her, saying there’s nothing out there but evil and sin:
“I was six the first time I ran away. I hiked for weeks to see what was beyond the Gardens. When I finally reached the wall Gramps was there waiting for me. “There’s nothing out there but people living like animals, fighting to please their immediate needs and desires. They have no ambition, no perspective. Why fight to get the best out of the little time you have on Earth, when you could be fighting to have much more.”
And like God’s damned children, En commits the sin of disobedience and falls from grace, tumbling into an aimless life of gambling and obscurity. However, En’s journey to the mysterious planet is a redemption narrative. She arrives wounded, broken, incomplete. But through her actions and decisions in the Palace, she will become much more.
Body and Soul
The echoes, slaves to their programming, can do only one thing — mimic. Every time the system reboots and the lights come back on, the echoes are able to take any actions that En took in the previous cycle — run, shoot, climb, open doors. Any action you take in the present moment to make things easier for yourself will quickly come back to bite you in the next light cycle as the echoes can now do that same thing in their pursuit of you.
A central tenet of religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism is karma, the idea that actions you take in this life will have consequences in the next. Whatever you do now, will come back around.
These philosophies also teach that we are destined to remain trapped in the process of infinite reincarnation, until we obtain the self-knowledge and freedom which lie on the road to enlightenment. The Palace, in its endless, cyclical repetition, represents a life without enlightenment, a life of emptiness and meaninglessness. Upon touching down on the planet’s surface, London muses that it must been a mining planet: “the planet is most likely depleted of all resources: an empty shell”. This is a soulless planet, an empty shell filled with empty shells — frightful doppelgängers of En which act as reminders of her past life, when she was a slave to her creator.
Throughout the game, there’s a saying that En keeps returning to:
The flesh and the soul shall enter the Palace through separate doors.
This mantra, which the Resourcefuls are raised to recite, speaks of the dichotomy between body and soul. En’s journey is one of soul-searching, in that she must find that which makes her human, which separates her from the automatons that bear her likeness. Part way through her journey, En makes a confession to London: Foster only helped her escape because she coldly manipulated him into doing so:
“He was good, Foster, but I was better. He saw me and felt sorry for me because I designed it to be so. Showed him strength, showed him weakness — ultimately showed him trust. He didn’t stand a chance against me. No one really does. I don’t gamble, cause I’ve always already won.”
In this moment, En realises that her rejection of her grandfather wasn’t a true rejection of his values of cruelty and selfishness. She may have obtained her independence, but she hasn’t achieved freedom. This realisation will lead to her final decision at the end of the game, to sacrifice herself so that Foster can live.
Escaping the Cycle
In the 1930s, psychotherapist Kurt Goldstein wrote that “every individual, every plant, every animal has only one inborn goal — to actualize itself as it is.” A shadow of this thought seems to cross En’s mind when she first arrives at the Palace: “We are created to come here”. She, like all of us, was born for this purpose — to conquer her demons, to find out who she is and to become fully human.
In En’s final decision to give her life for Foster’s, she transcends her past and becomes her own self. Whereas her grandfather coveted the power over life and death so that he could use it to control others, En seeks it as a way to rectify her mistakes, to alleviate others’ suffering, and to be a saviour in the true sense, by sacrificing herself for others.
Philosophies such as Buddhism and Hinduism speak of an ultimate goal called nirvana, or moksha, a state of enlightenment which releases one from the cycle of endless reincarnation. It is a transcendence of the endless cycles that keep us trapped in destructive thoughts and selfish behaviours.
Throughout ECHO, every step that En makes is a step toward breaking the cycles that have defined her life and achieving enlightenment — from her initial decision to have faith and to stop running from her past, to her decision to embrace her humanity and find a new path. En’s quest concludes, appropriately, with a death and a rebirth. She gives her life so that Foster — the man who sacrificed his life for hers — can be reborn. The last we see of En is her disappearing into the light.
In May last year, fans of this underrated gem received tragic news. The developers of ECHO announced that their studio would be closing down. But I like to think they’ve achieved a kind of transcendence. After all, their game will live on, and its influence will hopefully continue to echo for a long time.