7 October 2008
There is something haunting about the posable wooden human figures designed for artists. The head a smooth blank mask; expressionless and sexless, the human body reduced to its geometric essence. Echochrome’s protagonist is one of these mannequins, hinting perhaps at an allegory of the relationship between player and game. The wooden doll in the artist’s shop is a mere tool, a puppet to be manipulated in the service of a project about which it knows nothing.
When you play a videogame, are you an artist manipulating your digital wooden puppet as you like on the screen? Or are you instead the puppet itself, led by the nose through a series of arbitrary contortions according to the artist-designer’s purposes, in a weightless dance that soon fades into nothingness? “Congratulations,” the game says at the end, “you adopted all the poses that were required of you. Now you can climb back into your cardboard box until the next time.”
In Echochrome, you don’t even control the mannequin. It flails dreamily as it freefalls between levels, then lands on a plane and begins walking, intent on forward motion at all costs, heedless of environmental risk — rather like the human race itself. You are cast as – what? – a benign god, whose point of view creates reality: if you cannot see a gap, it isn’t there, and so your articulated (but inarticulate) figure can cross it.
I’d like to believe that Echochrome is one of the most important videogames of the last few years. I had, after all, expressed the wish in Trigger Happy that games ought to play more creatively with visual ambiguities, to learn from the perspectival games of Giovanni Piranesi or M C Escher. And here is an Escherian universe come to life, with those iconic eternal staircases, and a vertiginous sense of architectural fluidity.
The gorgeous string-quartet compositions of Hideki Sakamoto certainly represent one of the outstanding achievements in videogame music – not simply because of the novelty of hearing a string quartet in a game, but because the way the spaces between the four string voices expand and contract independently, breathing the harmony, furnishes such a perfectly appropriate sonic counterpart to the game’s central idea: the expansion and contraction of the spaces in the environment as the perspective changes. Distance yawns both on screen and in the music, and is then collapsed to unison or consonance.
The overall effect of Echochrome is one of surprisingly powerful melancholy, and one can only wonder at Sony’s crassness in packaging the game, in the west, with lurid happy colours and a photograph of a woman spurting think bubbles, as though this were one of those pony-training games for kids. Presumably the marketing droids didn’t trust, or understand, Echochrome’s beautiful austerity. This same austerity, however, also leaves the game’s mechanical drawbacks visible in uncomfortable relief. Too often, one senses the nagging hand of the designer, hurrying you past an angle that ought to represent a solution but which has pre-emptively been deemed a too-easy shortcut. Too often, one ends up spinning the world aimlessly until the “right” answer appears by chance.
After a few tens of levels, I stopped playing. But the game’s atmosphere persists strongly in my memory, convincing me that Echochrome’s path is an admirable one. Videogames built on speed, colour and explosions are great, but there ought also to be space for what we might want to call quiet gaming. Gaming that requires you to think, and look, more deeply than usual, where restrictions of the aesthetic palette (in terms not just of vision, but also sound and kinetic potential) can force us to find a richer experience in what seems muted or obscure. There are hints of this in games like Flow, or even the much-maligned Myst series. I am not thinking of merely a “chillout” game experience, but a species of simplicity that would engender greater intensity, that would demand and reward more work and deeper engagement, rather than treating us as (dis)posable wooden dolls.
In this way, Echochrome reminded me of my experience in a couple of New York museums this summer, looking at Ad Reinhardt’s “black” paintings. At first they look simply like canvases painted entirely black, and you think: “Yeah, yeah”. But stand in front of one for minutes, and let your eyes adjust: you see they are not completely black, but also contain impossibly deep reds, greens or blues, arranged in ghostly cruciform patterns. The thunder of the city outside subsides and you are transported to a place of whispers and ghosts. It’s almost a meditative experience; or, according to your preferences, perhaps a religious one. There is joy in shooting down helicopters and bitchslapping giant mechs, but there’s no reason why videogames couldn’t also set off further down the road to a place like Reinhardt’s.