Ultra Ultra is a new indie studio born from eight former IO Interactive (Hitman, Kane & Lynch) employees in Denmark. They’ve worked on hard-hitting action titles and slow-burn stealth, so now they’re putting all that experience into their first title, ECHO — a gorgeous gothic sci-fi stealth/action hybrid title coming Spring 2017 to Steam and consoles. Gone are the burly men and chest-high walls of last-gen, now replaced by a dark wonderland that brings to mind Remember Me and Chronicles of Riddick.
I had the privilege of interviewing ECHO‘s lead director and CEO of Ultra Ultra Martin Emborg, learning a few new details about his team’s ambitious foray onto the independent scene.
Elijah Beahm: For those who don’t know, what is Echo?
Martin Emborg: Echo is a third-person science fiction adventure for PC and consoles, created by Ultra Ultra.
“After a century in stasis, the girl En arrives at her destination: A palace out of legend, a marvel of the old civilization eons gone, still awaiting its first human occupants. Out here, using forgotten technologies, she hopes to bring back a life that shouldn’t have been lost.”
The experience starts as a character-driven journey of discovery, but as it unfolds it evolves into something altogether more punishing. Gameplay revolves around stealth and sction, as you face off against the strange workings of the Palace.
In Echo everything has consequence: As you try to wield its magical technologies it becomes apparent that the Palace has a will of its own… It studies everything you do, everything you are to use it against you.
The Palace creates Echoes – exact copies of you in every way. They behave like you and only do the things you do. So, the way you play the game shapes your enemy. If you run, soon the Echoes will get faster. If you sneak, they will get stealthier. If you shoot, they will start to shoot back. The game constantly reacts to your every choice and input.
The Palace “reboots” every few minutes, resulting in a blackout. This blackout-cycle is the rhythm at which the “Echoes” get updated with your latest behavior, learning and unlearning from your actions. During the blackout the palace is blind, giving you the freedom to act without consequence. This is the time to run and gun and do all the things you don’t want the Echoes to learn.
The experience is one of being up against your own choices from the last blackout-cycle, giving you a way of shaping the game from cycle to cycle. It is up to you whether you prefer to keep a low profile or if you choose to go head-on and deal with the consequences later – one thing is certain, you need to keep your wits about you as you face the ultimate enemy: Yourself.
EB: How did Echo come to be?
ME: After having worked in the industry for a long time, starting our own studio felt like it was the next natural step forward. Most of us have known each other for a long time, and we’ve always been talking about game ideas over lunch or beers. And so when the idea of starting our own studio started to take shape, there was this entire backlog of conversations ready to be mined and made into reality. But it was only when the concept of Echo materialized out of that ether, that it all came together. It was the strength of the idea that gave everybody the confidence to take the plunge.
EB: Several games have offered the promise of learning from their players, but none have been quite so literal and close to the reality as Echo. How did you go about designing this facet of ECHO?
ME: Lots and lots of prototyping! There was, of course, a lot of ideas and thoughts about how this should work, but you never know if something works until you’ve tried it. Many ideas sound great, but then turn out to be less so in reality, and sometimes it’s the small throwaway things that turn out to be super cool. So we started out with really simple AI stuff, trying to find the fun in this idea. From there it bloomed into crazy complexity, going all over the map — trying ideas and seeing the systems interact, seeing them gel or collide. And then in the end it turned into a process of cutting away the fat, making it cohesive and robust. We’re still tweaking the AI of course, balancing and polishing, and I suspect we’ll keep doing that until we ship.
EB: Story details have been scarce, other than that protagonist En has been in stasis and is on a mission to the Palace with one other person communicating with her via her suit. Can you give us any further details or hints as to why En is infiltrating the Palace? Is she a thief, or is it something more personal? Also, is her companion a suit AI or does she have a partner on her mission?
ME: It is definitely a personal quest: she is there to revive someone who died. The how and why are what the story revolves around. The other main character is the voice of the Ship that brought her there, parked in orbit.
EB: The majority of your team have a history working at IO Interactive on the Hitman series. While Echo is far more fantastical with its gothic-future setting, there’s still a strong element of open-ended gameplay, challenging AI, and precisely balanced stealth. What is it about this approach to game design that draws you to it?
ME: We didn’t mean to make a game reminiscent of Hitman at all, but I guess it’s in our DNA. That said, I do think that the two are quite different. Playing Echo, you start thinking about your choices in a very literal sense because you always have to stay aware of what your enemy is currently capable of, and how your actions will change your situation. So, a gross simplification would be to say that we have one dynamic AI, where Hitman has many different AIs interacting in a clockwork-like system, and that does make for two very different experiences.
EB: What inspired the art direction for ECHO? It seems almost like a hybrid of Chronicles of Riddick and Remember Me.
ME: It’s always interesting with inspiration, because those titles never entered my mind, but I can totally see where you’re coming from! The original spark for the Palace was The Library of Babel by J. L. Borges, which is a very beautiful and haunting short story that looks at meaning in infinity. I would urge anyone who hasn’t read it, to check it out. But of course films like 2001, Solaris, and Memories are in the mix, as well as a myriad of other things, from fashion designer Alexander McQueen to the animated series Aeon Flux.
EB: You mention in your press sheet that your team wanted to break away from traditional “grim and gritty” settings. Do you think the triple-A side of the industry is still relying too heavily on pseudo-realism? Is there a way you think it might be handled differently?
ME: Hitman and Kane & Lynch both take place in a grim version of reality informed by action movies. There’s nothing wrong with that, but after having done that for a decade, you kind of start longing for something else. I’m sure that’s true for working on anything for an extended amount of time, really. But to answer your question: Yes, kind of. I remember when I first started at IO Interactive, working on the first Kane & Lynch. Someone handed me Ico and said I should try it. – and it changed everything! Ico, was an old game already at that time, but it touched me deeply and showed me that the medium is more powerful than all these gritted teeth will lead you to believe.
EB: In the most recent gameplay trailer, En is shown to be capable of defending herself with a handgun and stealth takedowns. Will it be possible for quick-witted players to fight their way through the game, or will it still be primarily about slipping by unseen? Alternatively, are there non-lethal options for the player, and if so, how does the Palace mimic the non-lethal options?
ME: You can totally play Echo like an action-game, though it’s quite difficult, seeing as you’ll have very capable and violent echoes hunting you. We had people play the demo at PAX that way and it’s definitely pretty tense because ammunition is quite sparse, so every shot needs to count. To that end we’ve made the gun she wields extremely powerful, enabling you to take out as many enemies as you can line up in a single shot. And yes, the player can certainly go for a non-lethal approach, but that doesn’t mean the Echoes will – that just means they won’t have as many tools to use against you because killing you is always their main priority. This is also something that is tied to the narrative.
EB: Recent stealth-action titles like Batman: Arkham Asylum and the Hitman reboot have emphasized replaybility through challenge modes. Is there a chance Echo will do the same?
ME: The levels play very differently each time simply by virtue of the core mechanic, so Echo is already a very replayable game. We love challenge modes, but as a small team of eight we also need to prioritize.
EB: We know it’s coming to PC, but is there any chance ECHO might release on PS4 and Xbox One? Maybe even the Nintendo Switch, if the stars align?
ME: We’re aiming for Xbox One and PS4 as well as PC! The Switch is not on the horizon currently.
EB: What’s another genre your team would like to tackle at some point?
ME: Personally I’d love to do a fighting game at some point! As much as I adore the genre, I think it’s ripe for someone to shake things up a bit, but we’ll see what the future holds. With regards to our next game, we have a few ideas, but nothing is decided. That’s another perk of being independent: We can go where our hearts take us.
Infinite thanks to Martin Emborg for his time and participation in this interview. You can find out more about ECHO here, and look for it in early 2017, coming to PC, PS4 and XBO.