There Came an Echo
Vocal interaction with video games is definitely not new. We've all allow fly with a string of preference expletives thanks to a inadequately placed checkpoint or a low-cost shot that leads to an unfounded Game Over screen. More rare are the games that truly listen to what you say, and respond in kind.
If elusive - dream, from Sega's super-creepy Seaman to PS3 obscurity Lifeline, and on through the trials and tribulations of Tom Clancy's EndWar and too many Xbox games with inorganic Kinect features, the idea of talking to the screen and seeing your commands acted out remains a powerful -. Indie strategy game There Came an Echo comes closer than most, but can't quite sell the technology in the long term.
It's a cyberpunky sort of tale, which opens with a guy called Corrin working in a trendy Californian tech company. He's invented an open source encryption system called Radial Lock, so advanced that nobody can actually use it until the quantum computers needed to run the code have been invented. Of course, it turns out they have been invented, and dodgy people want Corrin for their own nefarious ends.
The twist is that you don't play as Corrin. You play as Sam, the person who is going to guide Corrin - and eventually the other characters caught up in his plight - as they try to get to the bottom of the conspiracy. And you do this by talking to them. Actually talking to them. With your real mouth.
As you work through the first tutorial-esque stages, you're soon able to tell the characters what to do in a variety of combat situations, stealthy intrusions and all-out assaults. First you say the name of the character, then what you want them to do. "Corrin, switch to pistol", for example. "Miranda, focus fire on Enemy 1" would be another. "Grace, move to Alpha 3" yet another.
By assigning these alphanumeric designations to everything you can interact with, it works. Cover spots are marked using the Alpha Bravo Charlie phonetic alphabet, enemies with numbers and so on. It's simple and, for the most part, effective.
It's certainly a thrill to give a verbal order and see it followed on-screen. Yes, a lot of the time you could just as easily tap a button or click a mouse, but when the system works it's so seamless and natural that you genuinely feel like a character in the story - the unseen member of the team, watching over them.
Arguably more problematic are the restrictions the voice control places on the actual game design. You can only ever move to places that the game has designated with a marker, for example, so your tactics can often feel uncomfortably restricted. Similarly, the fact that the game is real-time rather than turn-based means that things can get hectic quite easily, and the system isn't always great at responding under pressure.
What ties it all together is the story, which is genuinely fun and well written. The dialogue has a tendency to drift into Joss Whedon style cute whimsy, and the Tumblr-friendly cast includes obligatory internet celeb Wil Wheaton and video game voice veterans Ashly Yuri and Burch Lowenthal. There's no denying that it's done well and stands shoulders and head above most indie game scripts, although it can get a little too snarky and precious. The soundtrack is quite special too; a genuinely stirring suite of music that wouldn't be out of place in a film or TV show.
The visuals don't quite match up to the standard set by the audio. The animation can be jerky and unconvincing, even though the character models are stylised. The need to keep the camera zoomed out during combat means that you only get to see them up close during the many cutscenes. Oh so many cutscenes. This is a game that is so much in love with its story and script that it often leaves the player twiddling their thumbs for too long. For a game in which the player's speech is so central, there are too many stretches where all you're asked to do is sit back and shut up.
On balance, there's more to admire in There Came an Echo than there is to complain about. It has its flaws, but those are put into perspective by the mostly impressive speech technology, the exuberant storytelling and the simple fact that there really isn't anything else quite like it. If a lot of the problems with the game are addressed sooner or later, developer Iridium Studios is certainly serious about tightening and improving the experience, as the game's lively Steam forums prove, so it wouldn't be a surprise.
Mostly for players willing to meet its ambitions halfway, even though for now it's a game with a lot to offer. I can't help feeling that we'll see this speech mechanic refined and put to even better use somewhere down the line.