What if you could live in a world where you had everything you ever wanted, or could ever possibly want, and yet, you still weren’t happy? Worse, what if you discovered you could never leave that world, and the longer you spent in it, the more your so-called utopia would irreversibly warp into a waking nightmare?
Echostasis, the upcoming first-person horror game from designer Jamie Gavin, takes place in such a world. A playable prologue for Echostasis is one of the 25 demos in this year’s Haunted PS1 Demo Disc compilation, an annual celebration of low-fi horror demos that started last year.
Gavin’s Echostasis demo thrusts the player into the role of an engineer working for a shadowy megacorporation known as Enigma. You’re working on the company’s latest project: An experimental immersive simulation system that allows its users to escape into their own personalized algorithmically-generated utopias known as “Echoes.”
The project is being assailed by a mysterious cyber-attack, threatening the life of one of its test subjects, and it’s up to you to save them by using “Dreamscape” — a highly illicit program introduced in Gavin’s previous game, The Enigma Machine, released in 2018 — to perform a “cerebral hijack” into their Echo and find the problem. However, not everything here is as it seems — including you.
The game demo is as bizarre as it is engrossing; it’s a first-person horror adventure in which players must navigate through the fractured mind palaces of the Echo program’s test subjects, with environmental designs that range from the visual artifact-laden, CRT scanline aesthetic of the Echo worlds themselves, to the Myst-inspired Art Deco rotunda hub of Enigma’s R&D headquarters. Players advance the stories by uncovering bracketed keyword prompts (eg. “[LIKE THIS]”) scattered throughout the environment, which then can be typed into the terminal located in the center of the hub, à la 2017’s Stories Untold.
Gavin’s experiences as a child, playing games that would occasionally glitch out without warning or explanation, served as inspirations for both Echostasis and The Enigma Machine. “Seeing the red screen of death on my PS2 for the first time may as well have meant that my console was haunted [and] that I was 100 percent going to die,” Gavin said in an email interview with Polygon. “That was the concept I wanted to play with in The Enigma Machine and Echostasis. That feeling of ‘Playing a game that was breaking down and rejecting the player.’”
Gavin also cited a range of other inspirations, from Dark Souls’ world-building to Metal Gear Solid 2’s fourth-wall breakage. He even cited Adam Curtis’ 2016 documentary Hypernormalisation for its strong visuals, psychological themes, and paranoia-inducing plot twists and revelations.
Another key element of Echostasis’ design and appeal is the game’s sound design, an unsettling vaporwave score created by composer Karl Barnes. “We wanted to evoke that retrospectively nauseating optimism of the 1980’s,” Gavin said. “When you take the upbeat tones of 80’s corporate America, and tweak them so they’re just off, it can create a feeling of a façade that is only just managing to hold itself together. I’m seriously impressed with how well Karl nailed the vibe; incorporating his music in my game early on had an influence on the visual design as it developed.”
That same essential element of meta-horror informs the story and presentation of Echostasis, albeit in a different form. While The Enigma Machine was about the torture that humans would inflict on artificial intelligences in the pursuit of “perfection,” treating them as if they were any other form of software instead of sentient entities capable of experiencing pain, Echostasis explores what would happen if we gave those same AIs power over our own lives.
“I’m fascinated by the notion that we have algorithms that have increasingly more and more influence over us every day,” said Gavin. “Nowadays, with many people’s entire lives taking place online, I find the idea that their daily experiences are dictated by some kind of omnipresence quite spooky in and of itself.”
Gavin cited social media platforms such as Twitter as examples of these technology companies whose power exceeds its grasp by shaping the perceptions of its users via algorithmic curation. “Twitter’s algorithm found that encouraging outrage was an effective way of driving ‘engagement’,” said Gavin. “Who knows what else could work?”
Despite his general reservations about the habitual toxicity and groupthink prevalent in many online communities, Gavin praised the Haunted PS1 team as the rare exception of an especially supportive and inspiring community that helped him to refine and implement his ideas. “They are some of the most inspiring and hardworking people I’ve talked to,” he said. “While I’m not usually one to show my work-in-progress. HPS1 still gave me an environment where ideas could be bounced around and creativity could flourish.”
The final, full version of Echostasis is slated to launch this summer. Gavin has created a Patreon account to assist with the development costs of both the game and several others, each set in the Enigma Machine universe, with their own unique gameplay and themes. “I’d like to keep the universe vague enough that whatever idea I have at the time can have a place within it,” said Gavin. “My hope for all these games is that while they may each attempt to make a different point with different gameplay, they should all come together to form a consistent theme throughout.”