The Dark Souls franchise may have put Japanese game developer FromSoftware on the map, but the company spent years refining the artistic sensibilities that made those games what they are. Nowhere is that clearer than in Echo Night, an unsung horror/adventure game from the company’s PlayStation days. On the one hand, the game demonstrates FromSoftware’s talent for building richly detailed worlds. But it’s what the game does with that world that catches my attention. Despite how strongly your surroundings code for horror, Echo Night is more interested in moving past horror than it is in reveling in it. Terror gives way to healing; to breaking the chains that tie us to the past.
Before Echo Night can reach that goal, however, it first has to establish a world that at least looks terrifying, something the game is well prepared to accomplish. It very heavily follows contemporary trends in horror game design, albeit with a Lovecraftian twist few of its peers were interested in pursuing. As Richard Osmond, it’s your job to confront the ghosts aboard the Orpheus, a ship that’s lost at sea. You have very little choice in the matter. Ignoring the fact that you’re stranded at sea, the ship’s tight, dark corridors (with their emphasis on sharp right angles) plunge you into the unknown and force you into contact with these apparitions. Seeing how you’re largely unequipped to fight back against some of the more violent ghosts, it’s easy find yourself scared of these spirits. It’s an impression the game is interested in fostering. The more the overarching plot develops, the more it develops its Lovecraftian tropes like inky black conspiracies and eldritch powers that man was not meant to possess. It’s hard to imagine these tools being put to any other use than overt horror.
Or at least that’s how things appear. If Echo Night references these tropes, then it’s certainly not interested in embracing them. Far from it; its goal is to subvert them. Take the light/dark idea, for example. Much of your time aboard the Orpheus is spent sprinting from room to room, flicking whatever light switches you find in the hopes of banishing the more threatening poltergeists. This may appear to reaffirm the horror atmosphere (Alone in the Dark does something similar, after all), but it actually serves as a clever metaphor for making the unknown known and stripping it of any power it may have had over you.
Exploring fosters empathy and understanding, the game posits, but that process can’t begin unless both parties approach each other on equal terms. A lot of Echo Night centers around learning to see the world not as a space you can act upon as you please, but as a living entity with its own rules and boundaries for you to respect. The world opens up and dispels any source of fear it might have held, and in return, you give up most of your ability to act upon it. Not that you have any real choice in the matter. All you can do in Echo Night is observe, move around, and maybe pick up a few things here and there. (You can’t even be sure if you have a body.)
Yet even if there were more actions available to you, the world would still resist your attempts to exert your will upon it. Looking at the worn, textured surfaces dotted about the ship, you get the distinct impression that the Orpheus is a living thing. It has a history all its own, one that’s existed long before you ever step foot on the ship. But it’s for that reason that the game refuses to subordinate itself to the player as “this place where you solve puzzles.” In fact, it’s not even immediately clear that there are puzzles to be solved, despite solving mysteries being the crux of the entire game.
Frustrating as all this may sound, it forces you to step outside yourself and whatever desires you project onto the world and just accept it for what it is. This is where fear ends and empathy begins. Bathed in light, you find none of the apathy or violent claustrophobia that you’d previously read into the world. What you instead find is much warmer world, one with a history of its own. While it still exists as it is (tight corridors and all), it’s happy to let you roam those corridors at your leisure. The only threats you’ll find aboard the Orpheus are those you bring onto it.
This in itself would be laudable, but Echo Night isn’t content to stop there. It also applies these ideas to the ghosts, the only other people aboard the ship. In fact, it’s through them that the game’s themes about healing and empathy are most clearly developed. For example, it’s easier to see the world as anthropomorphized when it’s directly linked to specific characters. What captures my attention (and where Echo Night most strongly argues its case) is in the interplay between these imagined pasts and the very real present these ghosts are bound to. The main character acts as a psychopomp of sorts: he jumps into the past, has a look around, and then exposes the ghost to some special artifact that allows them to move on. Notice how nowhere in that process does Richard directly alter the past so things work out in their favor. In fact, the overarching plot is about overcoming any such desire to do so.
Instead, this whole interplay is meant to foster acceptance for events that have already transpired while demonstrating to the ghosts that they can move past them. It’s a problem that all the ghosts struggle with. They find themselves trapped in this world because of some duty they’ve yet to fulfill or some regret that lingers on. One spirit may want to enjoy one last drink with his friends; another is filled with regret for not reuniting with his one true love. Travelling to the past provides clarity on what that pain may be, but it’s always in the present where healing takes places. This is to demonstrate to them that just because the past is fixed and beyond our power to change doesn’t mean the present has to be, either. Indeed, it’s within their power to find the closure they’ve been looking for and move on from whatever has haunted them all this time.
Considering the horror game boom during the 1990s, it seems appropriate that Echo Night came out when it did. Some may have emphasized physical fear, and others more psychological terrors, but they were all in agreement about one thing: the threat of the unknown. How fitting, then, that Echo Night acknowledges that threat while doing everything in its power to move us past it. The specters you encounter aren’t vengeful spirits looking to kill you; they’re forlorn and just as much in need of closure as you are. And although the Orpheus looks like it’s amplifying your fears, questioning those feelings further reveals that the only threatening thing about your surroundings is what you read into them. Nothing is as it appears aboard the Orpheus. Realize that, and nothing will be able to hurt you.