Death is but a door, time is but a window

20200619_104503FromSoftware have something of a habit of creating worlds filled with darkness and ghosts, desolate spaces still reeling from the aftershocks of horrific events long since passed (as well as their natural creative companion… action-sims starring giant mecha), and 1998’s Echo Night is no exception, surrounding leading man Richard Osmond with the spirits of those killed before their time in a place that has only the most tenuous grip on a half-forgotten reality.

As this is a game where almost everyone besides the main character is already dead, it’d be easy to assume that the focal point of fear is going to be the ghosts themselves: Humanity’s never been too keen on the idea of the dead coming back to mingle with the living after all – these guys made a whole career out of it – but Echo Night’s central scare is even more primal than that unholy scenario: Echo Night wants players to be afraid of the dark.

And oddly enough it goes about this in a backwards kind of way: Most rooms are or can be well-lit, and by and large the ghosts found trapped within the game aren’t dangerous at all – they’re benevolent lost souls fixated on a single fear or regret they can’t overcome without outside assistance, or yearning to complete one last job left undone. Helping every single one of these harmless spirits find their way to the great beyond is not required to complete the story but as many will leave behind vital plot-progressing items if Richard gives them that final push it’s always worth listening to their requests, especially as whatever you need to find or do will at worst only ever be a short distance away (and sometimes even in the same room). That’s all rather lovely and a fairly novel way of solving personal woes while simultaneously uncovering disconnected scraps of a larger mystery but what these sad-but-peaceful spooks are really doing is putting up a false veneer of safety – even creating a routine of sorts – as you move from ghost to ghost, a veneer that is about to be utterly shattered by the sudden appearance of a viciously malevolent spectre.

This is true even though there are just four undead opponents, all faced individually (with one small overlap) and in order, all game. They don’t appear often but when they do – all ghostly laughter, strange powers, and blank-eyed stares – they instantly become an immediate and deadly threat, happily making short work of Richard’s health and your nerves (mine too). There’s no way to protect against their attacks short of running away, no weapons or spiritual accessories to help and only one way to push them back – with light. And there are no torches, lanterns, or flashlights in sight. So investigating the mystery of the Orpheus and the disappearance of Richard’s father soon becomes a simple case of entering a dark room, locating the light switch (always marked with a bright red light if it’s off), and then making a beeline for that point before any angry apparitions have the chance to manifest. Enter room, hit the lights, investigate, move on. Enter room, hit the lights, inv-the lights haven’t turned on. It’s a terrifying rug-pull when this happens, not only are you now in danger but it also plants an unnerving little thought in the back of your head – nobody ever promised you the lights would always work, did they? In a stroke of scary genius this lack of illumination doesn’t automatically mean you’re about to get a face full of phantom… but you might. These places are always potentially dangerous, which is a far more powerful feeling than opening a door on a dim room and thinking “Here we go again…”

Other inventive subversions of this core rule rear their head throughout Echo Night’s labyrinth of visions within visions to keep you on an uneven keel: There’s an entire floor without lighting save for a lone sailor patrolling with a weak lamp, patiently waiting for another crew member to finally relieve him of duty. Several rooms have you rush to a working switch only to still hear a ghostly giggle come from behind as a dead girl with murderous intent flings you across the room… because there are two light switches for two lights. And on one spine-chillingly memorable occasion you triumphantly flick switch, the room immediately brightens, and the ghost makes the bulbs shatter anyway. Knowing the difference between danger and safety in a horror game creates a brilliant shroud of dread, forcing players from comfortable places out into the unknown. Knowing the difference and then knowing that safety can leave you at any point without warning turns even the most nondescript corridor into an eerie hallway where danger is always right behind… yet never there.

Now for all the tension Echo Night is at heart an adventure game, and in far too many adventure games when you get things wrong you die instantly – your punishment for failing to solve a task as the developers intended or for letting curiosity get the better of you and heading off somewhere you’re not supposed to be yet. Here ghosts and a few other puzzle-hazards are designed to take your health before they take your life, and the game actually feels more menacing for going for what might be seen as the kinder, easier, choice. It’s actually far more nerve-wracking to know you can be gravely injured and left to hobble around in that unfortunate state, all your healing items spent on the previous life-or-death encounter, than it is to know if you’re not in the middle of reloading your most recent save after yet another instant death trap then you’re completely fine and nothing short of giving the wrong answer to a cryptic clue will change that. Yet for all the game’s frequently rewritten rules on what’s safe and what’s not backed up by a quartet of unkillable enemies it never crosses the line into outright annoyance. These corrupted souls can’t be reasoned with, attacked, or defended against but they also can’t doggedly pursue Richard through doors and nearby walls or rush in for an up-close kill either, so there’s no tedious kiting them around a corridor just to safely reach the one place you want to get to or having to draw them to the other end of the ship just to have enough time to properly explore a new room. Even in the most desperate situations, with a powerful spirit blocking your path and dragging you closer…and closer… and closer… you’re always given that breathing room to search for a light switch, heal up, or simply make a break for the nearest exit.

This is thanks to Echo Night understanding that, much like Resident Evil 3‘s Nemesis, ghosts are at their intimidating best when they’re hovering around the edges of the game, a constant pressure looming large over your decision making more often than they’re actually physically present. A terrible unstoppable threat makes for a more easily panicked player and a better game than a terrible unstoppable presence.

But that’s enough about ghosts for the time being, it’s time to take a look at the setting as well as the nuts-and-bolts of this first-person investigate ’em up… after a slight detour to praise one small feature nestled away in the options menu (at least in the Japanese original – I’m not sure if this survived the translation process): A comprehensive choice of fonts. There are six each for the Japanese as well as the English text; some plain and clear, others curly and cracked, and players are free to select any combination of the two they prefer. Why would FromSoftware bother adding something like that, other than to revel in the expanded capabilities that come from making a game on a more powerful console (remember when old games had to make everyone TALK. LIKE. THIS.)? It’s simply a welcome case of consideration for the end-user: Those that find these games more immersive or enjoyable with a “horror like” font can use one and those that don’t – or those that would but find From’s pick uncomfortable to read – can choose something that suits their eyes better. As I’ve said before Echo Night’s an adventure game, and with much of the storytelling and atmosphere conveyed through text all of that effort would be for nothing if the person on the receiving end had a hard time reading it.

Events largely play out on a passenger ship called the Orpheus; although there are no storms to weather, hull breaches to slowly flood the lower decks, or near-capsizes to slide everything off to one side… so why set it at sea? The reason is grandiose ships are the perfect setting for a horror story in any medium – there’s the stark contrast between the extravagant passenger entertainment areas and the hidden away workmen’s rooms, they’re filled with people from any and all walks of life, possess cavernous cargo holds housing absolutely anything the writer could imagine, and they’re ready-made capsules of utter isolation. You can run around this place for days, Smarty-Pants Gamer, unravelling every mystery and unlocking every door, but no matter how hard you try or how clever you are there is still nowhere to escape to, and nobody is coming to help.

So seeing as you’re stuck aboard this floating coffin with nowhere to go you may as well wander around and have a good poke at things, taking the time to appreciate all of the fine furnishings and tasteful décor. The guest lodgings look appropriately plush and luxurious, with glass light fittings shaped like delicate flower heads and decorative tiles lining the bathroom walls. Further in giant metallic pistons gleam in the bowels of the ship and the radio room as a Morse code machine set up and ready to use. Remarkably many small details aren’t painted on but properly modelled in 3D space – drawers, lockers and cupboard doors may often open to reveal nothing at all and most movable furniture can be safely left right where it is, but these interactive additions – including loo seats within “pointless” bathrooms that can be lifted purely because that’s what you do with a loo seat and a variety of light switches that must be twisted, flipped, or pushed to operate – create a world that feels believably tactile.

And these minor investigations that lead to nowhere don’t feel like a waste of precious time even with an entire passenger ship to freely roam around (certain roadblocks excepted): The ship is not as large as the opening FMV makes it appear, and the whole thing’s separated into clearly defined areas with each one designed as sort of “chapter” to clear and then move on from – the upper deck, the guest room corridor, the crew area, and so on. So there may be a time when you rifle through three drawers and find nothing in any of them, but there’s a very high chance there’ll be the only three drawers in the whole room. Mundane details like working lockers and a visible ship’s compass make all the difference in a tale that repeatedly asks players to believe the unbelievable and empathise with the dead.

These ordinary objects also work as a useful grounding point for a story that’s keen on whisking Richard away into other people’s memories. A game peppered with fragmented half-stories spanning centuries could have easily become too disjointed to bother with, so Echo Night addresses this by making these plot-splinters small and linear vignettes of a single soul’s past with just one goal in mind that directly relates to the current part of main story – and once these segments are done they’re gone for good. This means that even when the plot twists make it feel like reality has become something of an optional extra you’re never left stumbling through a dozen previously completely past events wondering if there was a special token, key, or book you missed the first time or if something has silently changed in them since you last looked. They’re great as micro horror stories too: That awful nightmare-like flip as a flashback to a ghost’s murder suddenly sees their too-close attacker’s attention turn towards to you and you pray this is the part where you wake up; or the time you discover a fresh corpse in an underground maze and realise the perpetrator’s now standing in the only exit, blade still in hand.

Like Shadow Tower, Echo Night’s obvious limitations turn out to be some of its greatest strengths: The slow walking speed and clumsy controls force you to take notice of your surroundings and also make it just that much harder to escape anything that wants you dead. Blocky human-like shapes, often lacking any distinguishing features at all, suit a game where most of the cast aren’t even alive and reality is frequently called into question. Scattered slivers of plot, collected out of order from deceased people who don’t understand the events swirling around them, create a dreamlike atmosphere, somehow leaving players with more unanswered questions than Echo Night ever asked. There are many games with a higher body count than this old Playstation game, and plenty with stronger shout-out-loud moments of terror, but few really capture the essence of being trapped within a nightmare as beautifully as Echo Night does.

6 thoughts on “Death is but a door, time is but a window

  1. I quite like the Echo Night games. Can appreciate them certainly more than From’s other PS1 games. Who would have thought their atmospheric tales click better with me when you put them in something that is almost a walking simulator instead of including much in the way of gameplay ;P I do prefer the second game, tho, since I think the writing ist stronger in it.

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    1. I’m really looking forward to playing the second one! I just need to find a copy that’ll definitely ship to the UK without costing the earth (international post is even more expensive and less reliable than usual)… :S

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      1. Ah yes. Sadly gone are the times when I could get Sakura Wars 3 for 8€, in a condition like it freshly sprouted from a flower bud despite being 2nd hand, and delivered without a hitch from Japan within a week or two.

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  2. I only remember the name ‘Echo Night’ from its sequel(?) on PS2, Echo Night Beyond. Back in the day it was one of those games that was part of every bargain bin for what felt like years, I never picked it up, since I went with the rather similar Project Zero instead. I never knew this was a FromSoftware game, but then again if someone had told me back when this was new, my answer would most certainly just have been “Who?”.
    It looks interesting, nothing I’d rush out to immediately find a copy, but something to keep in the back of my mind if I ever see it cheap.

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  3. Ooh, that “light switch that doesn’t actually work” thing would END me. Super scary. Give me a million demon lords to kill, no problem, but mean ghosts that do THAT? *shiver*

    I looove the font options, though. A lot more games need size and font options for text. I’m old ;w;

    (the ghostbusters reference is not surprising but no less appreciated~)

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