Fearful Symmetry | Echo

We are our memory,
we are that chimerical museum of shifting shapes,
that pile of broken mirrors.”
-Jorge Luis Borges, In Praise of Darkness

For Jorge Luis Borges, the 20th century writer, poet, academic and philosopher, there was nothing more abhorrent than the sight of a mirror. From childhood, the young author was plagued by nightmares born out of a primal repulsion and fascination for the shape of looking glasses and the private universes he believed were housed within them. What Borges feared, more than even death, was the thought of being replaced, that some imposter would entrap him in the inverse of his reality and, in doing so, enter his own. That the mirror would consume reality. It was this formative obsession and phobia that animated the singular imagination behind Borges’ prose. And it was Borges’ imagination which inspired the premise and setting of developer Ultra Ultra’s stealth-action debut, Echo.

A centuries-old labyrinth of immeasurable scope

In the darkness of Echo’s world beneath the world, of the so-called “Palace”, I bore witness to an unholy resurrection. Like Orpheus, I descended into the bowels of this unearthly plane in hopes of restoring something that which was lost, and it was here that I came face to face with that most effacing of horrors: myself. “I see them as infinite, elemental / Executioners of an ancient pact,” intones the sixth verse of Borges’ poem, Mirrors, “To multiply the world like the act / Of begetting. Sleepless. Bringing doom.” Everywhere I turned, I was confronted with these immortal doppelgangers, each wearing my face like a mask, mirroring my every move in a ghastly alien pantomime. Every gesture was an affront; every gaze hid a conspiracy. I was overcome with a primal revulsion; a fear like mortal dread.

“Tracing it back, the original spark for the Palace was probably The Library of Babel by Borges,” said Echo’s lead designer Martin Emborg in an interview with Unreal’s Brian Rowe. “[It’s this] very beautiful and haunting short story that looks at meaning in infinity. It really stuck with me.” In Borges’ short story, we follow the story of a nameless author, recounting the history and rituals of a race of humans who have constructed a civilization within the incalculably vast dimensions of the titular library. The Library, which its inhabitants call the universe, is an ecumenopolis of infinite, identical hexagonal cells, each adorned with four walls of five bookshelves, with each shelf holding exactly twenty-five books, each tome bearing exactly four-hundred pages, each page, forty lines; each line, approximately eighty letters; with each line of every page of every book on every shelf absent of any discernible sense of syntax or meaning.

Like Borges’ library, the Palace is a centuries-old labyrinth of immeasurable scope; an artificial afterlife of baroque alabaster columns and opulent furnishings repeated ad infinitum, its chasmic depths chiseled from out of the derelict heart of a dying planet. En, a “resourceful” woman of mysterious origins, has journeyed to this fabled world with the aid of an AI named London after a century in hypersleep in hopes of attaining the secrets of eternity and life everlasting. But not for herself, mind you, for Foster; the man who saved her life, and in doing so paid the cost of his own to win her freedom.

The inspirations behind Echo’s aesthetic are as manifold as the Palace itself. Besides Borges, the halls of Echo’s Palace emanate with the motifs of some of the most iconic and idiosyncratic artists, designers, and filmmakers of their time, combining to create a space whose look and feel amounts to the sum of many parts, yet remaining all its own. The alien quietude of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and the recursive ephemerality of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad combine to form the tonal spark behind Echo’s aura of disquieting calm. The influence of Tsutomu Nihei’s megastructures is eminent, their behemothic dimensions dwarfing all attempts, both interior and exterior, to fathom their scale much in the way of Echo’s own Palace. The sleek, future-baroque chic of Alexander McQueen’s fashion informs the design of En’s spacesuit, while Koji Morimoto’s Magnetic Rose, alongside The Library of Babel, serves as the chief inspiration for Echo’s setting and premise. Of all the element which abound throughout the Palace, one question yet eludes any answer. Who, or what, created the Palace? And why, for what purpose? That answer may yet remain in something greater, something whose presence reverberates throughout the Palace’s halls like a ceaseless echo. To understand the origins of the Palace, and of its purpose, we must look to its chief referent to discern that answer. We must look to Versailles.

The so-called “Sun King” created a world within a world

Commissioned in 1623 by Louis XIII as a hunting lodge adjourning the small village of Versailles, the eponymous chateau that would one day come to be renowned for its inimitable opulence would not become such until the reign of his royal successor and son, Louis XIV. Erected in the fashion of French Baroque architecture, with its emphasis on curvaceous forms, twisted columns, high domes and lavish interiors, the Palace of Versailles was a marvel of architectural excess; a temple estate of debauchery and indulgence designed to glorify the power of France, to overwhelm and impress the audience of foreign dignitaries, and to exaggerate and deify the triumphs and conquests of its chief resident, the self-anointed “Sun King” of Europe. The site of his most lavish celebrations and secret trysts, Versailles would later become the most potent tool in Louis XIV’s consolidation of political power as an absolute autocrat.

Transforming the chateau into the official royal residence in 1682, Louis XIV decreed that all matters of state must be addressed to him in-person on the Palace’s grounds. This itself was a calculated ploy to conflate membership within the aristocracy with holding residence in Versailles, coercing french nobles into purchasing homes within Versailles’ massive estate, draining residents of their resources and wealth through ever more audacious displays of one-upmanship before conscripting them into an endless bid of currying Louis XIV’s favor through an elaborate, and deliberately meaningless, succession of contests and social rituals designed for the sole purpose of exalting the king and pitting his rotating entourage of companions in a perpetual cycle of fear. Through immense wealth and social engineering, the so-called “Sun King” created a world within a world on the grounds of Versailles; a gilded cage crafted to ensnare the unwitting subjects of a vainglorious tyrant.

The motivations behind the construction of Echo’s Palace mirror that of Louis XIV’s. In the liminal underbelly of the Palace’s depths, En speculates that the planet was not in fact created by some alien civilization, but rather a “recluse clan” of corporate aristocrats as a sort of refuge and final resting place. “The wealth needed to develop tech like this, the ability to keep it secret, their grotesque imagining of paradise— it all matches a recluse house.” Further, En theorizes that the echoes themselves, the inhuman doppelgangers which populate the Palace are not a glitch in the system, as London would characterize them, but rather a macabre feature designed by its architects. “The Echoes were probably entertainment to them— seeing the lower castes fighting to survive. The creators expected to be Gods here and designed everything to constantly remind them that they were.” It is through this that the function of the Palace may be revealed: to exalt and deify its inhabitants, to forestall death and immortalize their visage; reflecting and preserving that which they revered and worshipped above all else: themselves.

Everything in the Palace is suffused with myth and horror

The Palace is a perverse facsimile of Louis XIV’s own infamous chateau, an eternal testament to the dehumanizing forces of classism, disproportionate affluence, and the insatiable appetites of the aristocracy. For them, nothing shy of eternity would suffice. Every inch of the Palace, from its immaculately polished floors, towering doric columns, ornate accents and repeating corridors is owed to the precedent of architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart and Charles Le Brun, Versailles’ interior decorator and court painter to Louis XIV, whom the latter declared was no less than “the greatest painter of all time.” Le Brun and Mansart’s most famous contribution to the Chateau— the Hall of Mirrors— is dutifully replicated in Echo’s opening moments within the first steps of entering the Palace. Gazing into the hall, one can understand the fear that plagued Borges in his youth, haunted by the immense mirrors which lined the walls of his bedroom. Like Narcissus, one can drown in their own image if left to linger for too long.

Everything in the Palace is suffused with myth and horror, guided by the binarism of symmetry purposed to symbolize the push and pull between faith and skepticism. The preeminence of these themes is recursively telegraphed throughout every item and every image which populates the Palace’s halls. The curule seats reserved for the highest of noble eminence, the brutal “man-cages” which prefigure the game’s prevailing messages of sacrifice and transcendence. Even the most innocuous of jewel boxes, adorned with the cherubim accents of the Ark of the Covenant, allude to the grandiose ambitions which underlie the Palace’s design. We are deserted, lost in the fathoms of this unfathomable place, our very existence counterfeited by forces beyond our ken. Borges once said, “It only takes two facing mirrors to create a labyrinth.” But what is a mirror then, if not observed? Nothing; an eye absent the world, an echo without a voice.

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