ANIMAL’s feature Game Plan asks game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Jesse Ringrose and Jason Ennis of Vancouver studio RAC7 about Dark Echo, a game that’s as minimalistic as possible.
Kids growing up together talk a lot about what they’re going to do as adults, but neighbors Jesse Ringrose and Jason Ennis actually followed through on their childhood ambitions. After realizing around the age of 10 that they didn’t actually hate each other like they thought, Ringrose and Ennis decided that they wanted to make games, and here they are. They started with small browser games in high school, and later—after they’d begun separate careers—they began to think about it more seriously.
Now, thanks to Dark Echo, they’ve quit their jobs and decided to focus on game development. “We’re giving it a shot, anyway,” Ennis told ANIMAL.
Dark Echo began as a 48-hour project for the Ludum Dare 26 game development “jam” in 2013. The theme was minimalism, and the duo threw ideas around until they hit on it: “If you can make a game that just doesn’t have graphics—a game where there are walls, but you don’t show walls—that seems pretty minimal,” Ringrose said.
Each level begins as a black screen with a pair of footprints in the center. There are hallways and switches and enemies around you, but you can’t see them – you can only “hear” them, the sounds they make represented visually by lines and squiggles. As you walk or clap, your sounds bounce off the environment, painting fleeting pictures of the walls, terrain and obstacles you have to pass on your way to the exit, like echolocation.
This is the basic premise, and there are lots of wrinkles on top. Some enemies react to the sounds of your footfalls, so you have to sneak around them, creating fewer sound waves and thus lighting up less of the environment. There are traps to fall into and passages that cave in if you make too much noise around them, and water that creates a splashing cacophony sure to attract every foe in the vicinity.
Ringrose created the original version — then called You Must Escape — by himself over the two day game jam, where he took second place. ANIMAL wrote about it at the time, and you can still play that version online. Ennis got involved immediately after (Ringrose does the programming and Ennis does graphics and audio stuff, while they both contribute to design). For a while after the competition they tried to flesh You Must Escape out into something bigger than a browser game, but they never got that off the ground. “We just couldn’t really figure it out at the time,” Ringrose said. That original version “was basically a sound puzzle game,” Ennis said. The fear part came much later, and that’s when Dark Echo began to really take shape. Not being able to see enemies—just the hectic red squiggles their heavy footfalls and alien noises produce—makes the hackles on your neck stand up. When testers pointed this out to them, the developers played this aspect up as much as possible.
“Eventually, playing with more of the sound and more of the atmospheric stuff, people started saying they were kind of getting scared playing it,” Ennis said. “Although it looked very simple, it would still kind of give people an irrational fear when they played it.”
But even more than that tension, minimalism is at Dark Echo‘s heart, and beyond just the geometric aesthetic. You want to minimize your steps taken and the noise you produce; the controls are simple, taps and swipes; your goals are easy, “get here” or “run away.” The game even provokes very minimal reactions: fear, triumph or confusion, but writ small as they emanate through your phone screen and a pair of white earbuds.
There was originally more to it. “We were going to make it like you’re this actual person stuck somewhere, like before the level it would have a few lines of dialogue, and we kept getting stuck at what the story would actually be,” Ennis said. “It turns out making stories is really hard, and neither one of us is a very good writer,” Ringrose added. So now each level is described by a singleword concept, like “Consequence” or “Hunted.”
And when Dark Echo gives you instructions, like “Run!” the first time it introduces an enemy, it does so in as few words as possible. “We kind of wanted to avoid what a lot of mobile games do lately, where they hold your hand and squeeze really tight—they point exactly where you’re supposed to press and how you’re supposed to do it, and then tell you it’s supposed to be fun,” Ennis said. “We basically got tired of looking at some of the —well, we call it ‘shit,’ but a lot of people play it…very rarely do people make awesome stuff for mobile.”
“We just want to change that and make something good,” Ringrose added.
Dark Echo is available now on iOS, Android and Steam Greenlight.