Crispy Gamer

PSN Pundit: echochrome

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You don't really have to know the brilliant work of Dutch artist M.C. Escher to play echochrome, but it wouldn't hurt, either. His magical art and etchings are all about seeming reality, but it's a reality whose physics would never quite work. Stairs go on infinitely. They might go into a wall or a painting. You know how the stairs got all weird in the last Harry Potter movie? That's a direct rip-off of (or, depending on your perspective, homage to) M.C. Escher's 1953 work, "Relativity."

In this sickly artist's odd but plausible world, the angles, lighting and shadows might make a duck's webbed foot look like a human hand. Mirror images played into his work, as did a thoughtful, careful calculation of mathematics, which made perspectives and perceptions kind of mirages where worlds could merge and be one on the canvas, print or woodcut. He played with the idea of symmetry and used 17 rules to make his illusions appear real. These often appeared in his tessellations, which is what the old Spyrograph toy was seemingly based upon. Sometimes, Escher's work appears as if it's in three dimensions -- worlds so beautiful, you want to explore them, walk through them, live inside them, copulate your brains out in them. In other words, the dude was a genius, and one who is constantly emulated.

Techies who are engrossed by the idea of symmetry emulate him to this day. At the height of the CD-ROM boom in 1996, there was an Escher disk that I reviewed for the New York Times Book Review. Basically, it was a middling biography with a lot of examples of his work, but there wasn't much that was interactive about it except for a simplified morphing tool with which you could create your own variations on the master's work. So much better is echochrome, the PlayStation Network's downloadable game. The instructions to the game say nothing about Escher, nor does the press release. That's really too bad because echochrome is so obviously influenced by him, the game should bear his name. At the very least, someone should have made a nod to his existence as an art legend.

So here's the deal. echochrome, a gorgeous black-and-white puzzle game that can be as difficult in scope to win as was PixelJunk Monsters, was released in Japan as a 100-level PSP disk on March 18, 2008. The $9.99 U.S. version for the PSP (which you can also get on the PlayStation 3) has no UMD element and a little more than half the levels. My guess is that, within a few months, there'll be an echochrome Part 2 in the U.S. that will include the rest of the game.

The idea is stunningly simple, but completely engaging. You guide a little stick-figure dude by turning around the bits of strange architecture that appear on-screen and guiding him through. You'll hear the soothing strains of a violin as you move the little guy around. Mostly, all you hear is that constant violin and the flat, echoing steps of the jointed artist's mannequin. You're searching for a way that the perspective will change to allow you to move through without a gap. In other words, you may not be able to see a direct path at first. That's why you have to twist and turn the perspective: to make a line without gaps. Gaps make you fall. Falling is bad. Hot spots in the construction shoot you higher to another point on a girder.

Again, it's a great concept, and because of it, the game can be so starkly pretty, a screenshot could be taken, blown up, printed, and placed on a wall. This is as close to art as games get, so put on your snooty artist's beret and fake Dali mustache and go to town. You can hide the gaps and hot spots by moving a girder in front of them. If you can hide the gap or hot spot by placing a girder in front of it, the gap or girder is not there any longer.

Even if you're a hardcore death metal rocker, you'll find that the violin music both soothes and eggs you on to continue. If you're really tired from work and worrying about the general vicissitudes of living and loving, that violin music, which ranges from classical to experimental, just might put you to sleep. If you need to, mute the game and play your own music instead.

So where can echochrome be placed in the oeuvre of downloadable games? Certainly, it's the most artful of the PlayStation Network games, and it's in the Top 10 of artful downloadable games anywhere. And next to PixelJunk Monsters, it's the most demanding of the player's brain and patience, especially when dealing with the more complex edifices later in the game.

If you can make it through all the levels (believe me, it won't be a walk in the park), you'll unlock Canvas Mode, in which you have the ability to create your own puzzles and levels. Share your art via wireless ad hoc and be proud of what you do. Thousands of people will probably play it and love it. Maybe you'll become famous on the PlayStation Network. Ah, but true echochrome artists would never want that. Right?