Road to the IGF: ULTRA ULTRA's Echo
This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Echo takes players to a palatial space station, one eerily filled with clones of the heroine that shift and adapt to the player’s style, taking their actions as their own. Before long, players will have to learn how to defeat their own tactics and combat movements, constantly trying to stay ahead of themselves.
Gamasutra spoke with Martin Emborg of ULTRA ULTRA, developers of the Excellence in Visual Art-nominated title, to talk about creating the striking space station players will battle through, as well as the thematic and gameplay concerns that were addressed by the game’s art style.
What's your background in making games?
After graduating from the Danish Design School, I got a job at IO-Interactive, and I ended up staying with them for almost 10 years! During that time, I got to try my hand at many of the disciplines that go into making a good gaming experience, learning from some wonderful people – a few of which actually ended up joining Ultra Ultra to make Echo!
How did you come up with the concept?
We’ve been asked this many times, but man, it’s a hard question… The Palace itself was probably the original spark, inspired in part by Jorge Luis Borges’ The Library of Babel, which Christel (who wrote Echo) had introduced me to. We both have a strong affinity for high concept science fiction, and especially the kind that confronts you with the unknown. We wanted that sense of awe and wonder, and the idea of a planet-sized splendid maze certainly had the potential to provide that. But what would you face in those maddeningly infinite halls? It’s hard to separate idea from process after the fact, but somewhere along the line came the idea of you coming face to face with yourself, and we ran with it!
What development tools were used to build your game?
We build the game in Unreal 4 - We shipped on a modified version of 4.11. It was awesome to be able to just download Unreal and then be operating at AAA levels from the word go. As for software packages, beyond that, we’re all over the map. People just use what they’re comfortable with.
How much time have you spent working on the game?
Around three years. A half year getting the company up and running, finding funding and being anxious about the decision, and then 2.5 years of actual production.
What drew you to use the striking art style of Echo? What thoughts went into creating the striking, palatial space station players explore?
Beautiful malevolence is just so much more unsettling than the decrepit kind, in our opinion.
The palace aesthetic tabs into many aspects of the game, both from a narrative and thematic perspective. I don’t want to give too much away by going into the culture that created the structure, but let’s just say it reflects their arrogant world-view. Hopefully the environments also convey a sense of having entered some kind of afterlife, one containing both the elevated and the outcast.
Thematically, the repetition and symmetry of ornamentations found in real world palaces like Versailles and the Winter Palace just fits perfectly in a game called Echo, where you play against replications.
What do you feel this style added to the unsettling experience of being stalked by clones of yourself? In setting the game's mood?
As mentioned above, our objective was to transport players into the unknown, and they are completely used to the typical dark oil-rig/submarine style space stations, having experienced plenty of games and movies set in those! So, in order to take them out of that comfort-zone, we take them elsewhere.
From a more practical perspective, we wanted a bright location so that the effect of the blackouts would be clear, but at the same time we didn’t want the surroundings to be too easily read. We wanted the eyes and minds of the players to be continuously scanning and searching the surroundings, so the high frequency of detail in an ornate Palace hopefully achieved that.
There is a beauty in the UI that surrounds En (the heroine). How did you come to create this endlessly-shifting flow of information and give it a visual form?
Our design sensibilities with regards to the suit and HUD/UI was, very much in contrast to the surroundings, completely utilitarian, actually; it needed to be functional first and foremost. The idea for the radar “orb” arose during prototyping – we’d made arrows that pointed towards enemies, but it wasn’t really communicating anything about distance, so the basic task became to try and make a kind of holographic mirror-ball surrounding the character in game-space that would allow you to perceive what was going on around her.
Design-wise I think it’s one of our bigger achievements. Once you get used to it, you almost stop noticing that it’s even there, and it becomes a natural extension of your senses within the game world.
Being attacked by clones of yourself throughout the game should get visually dull. How did you work to avoid this in Echo?
Haha, I’m not sure we did! Perfect copies have no variation after all! In the beginning, as they evolve, and when you encounter one you killed earlier, rematerialized by the Palace, they appear as incomplete, twisted abominations, but we didn’t do this to battle visual dullness, but to tell the player something. The aesthetic throughout Echo is carefully anchored in repetition and symmetry.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
Cuphead is just delightful! Insanely hard, yes, but delightful. The craftsmanship that went into that is impressive, and obviously done with a steady hand.
What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?
Being noticed is the biggest hurdle, definitely. You can make a super great game, and still, you’ll completely disappear in the throng. We were lucky to get quite a lot of attention from the gaming media as well as streamers, and still the most frequent thing we hear is “Why haven’t I heard of Echo before?!”.