Reality Labs

Back from the Future: How Ready At Dawn Crafted ‘Lone Echo,’ One of VR’s Greatest Adventures to Date

By David Jagneaux
September 30, 2021
Ready At Dawn and Oculus Studios launched Lone Echo four years ago, and it’s still regarded as one of the best VR games out there.

Not only is Lone Echo a groundbreaking and genre-defining exploration of what an intimate, emotional narrative in virtual reality can look like, but it’s also an incredibly powerful story about the endless depths of space.

Ready At Dawn and Oculus Studios launched Lone Echo four years ago, and it’s still regarded as one of the best VR games out there. Now, with Lone Echo II slated to release for the Oculus Rift Platform (playable on Quest and Quest 2 using Oculus Link or Air Link with a compatible PC) on October 12, we wanted to take a step back to examine the first game’s journey to release, what the story’s about for those who missed out, and what fans can expect when diving into the sequel for the first time. We spoke with key members of the Lone Echo development team to tell that story.

Lone Echo: The Story So Far

Going into the development of Lone Echo, Ready At Dawn had just launched PlayStation 4-exclusive cinematic thriller The Order: 1886 and multi-platform party brawler Deformers. Rift originally launched in Spring 2016 with just an Xbox One controller in the box, no Touch controllers, so Lone Echo was slated as one of the first big, blockbuster VR titles from an established studio that would take full advantage of a multi-sensor setup with motion controllers.

“The original premise for Lone Echo was really for us as a studio to put together a AAA narrative-based adventure game set in space,” says Lone Echo Game Director, Dana Jan. “We traditionally like to make games that have a lot of action in them, but they're also very story-based and character-focused. We were looking to carry over some of that expertise that we had from the titles we've made in the past with us in how we approached Lone Echo.”

Spoiler warning: If you haven’t played Lone Echo, the next few paragraphs are going to cover the plot of the first game. Scroll ahead to the next section if you want to avoid spoilers.

In Lone Echo, players take control of an android named Jack, voiced by Troy Baker. You’re tasked with assisting a human named Captain Olivia Rhodes, aka Liv, voiced by Alice Coulthard, who is stationed aboard the Kronos II, a mining station orbiting Saturn.

“Something in space appears all of a sudden, and it starts disrupting the normal day-to-day operations of the Kronos II mining station,” explains Jan. “As good astronauts, Jack and Liv decide to go out there and investigate, while also restoring the failing systems on their station. And then there's a big moment where the anomaly starts to change. It turns out that the anomaly is essentially just a temporal displacement. It's a little spot in space that’s actually connecting two different times, but in the same location. And it just so happens that a ship appears where the anomaly was starting to appear. It scatters debris and asteroids all over their station and kind of knocks everything out.”

The resulting debris causes Jack to go offline, cuts off the Kronos’ air supply, and causes Liv to venture off into the new ship, the Astraea, to find air and help. Eventually, you head in after her as Jack to try and figure out what’s going on. Once aboard, you meet the ship’s AI system, Apollo, voiced by Liam O’Brien, and try to piece together where the ship came from, what’s going on, and what happened to Liv.

“At first there's kind of a standoff-ish adversarial relationship between Jack and Apollo—we don't know if we can trust Apollo,” explains Jan. “We don't know what Apollo’s motives are, but ultimately, the two of them strike a balance and decide to work together to restore the ship, which also is having problems, in an exchange to try to give Jack information that will help him find Olivia.”

Naturally, things get worse. Oxygen systems are failing, and even though Apollo and Jack don’t need to breathe to survive, Liv does. After putting her in a survival pod and getting her to the bridge of the ship, Jack has to use a defibrillator to revive her. Just as she comes back, the ship’s main reactor starts to fail and is on the verge of exploding.

“The only way to avoid lethal catastrophe is by activating the ship’s faster than light travel drive (FTL, time travel) to dump all the power from the reactor,” says Lone Echo Lead System Designer, Robert Duncan. “It’s a very typical sci-fi moment, when you do some crazy engineering stuff and somehow save the day. They get the reactor running, and as you’re getting ready to make that FTL jump, Apollo clarifies that that's how the ship got here in the first place.”

Triggering the FTL drive sends the ship 400 years into the future, still just outside the rings of Saturn, and the game ends just as you meet a new voice asking who you are and where you’re from. It’s quite the cliffhanger.

That’s the end of the spoilers if you were scrolling to avoid them.

Building Human Presence

One of the more difficult parts about developing games for VR is making characters as believable as possible. It’s hard enough in non-VR video games, but when the presence and immersion of VR comes forward and puts you in the shoes of characters that stand literally face-to-face with digital humans, the necessity and difficulty to sell the illusion is even greater.

“One of the interesting factors for us was from a gameplay presentation standpoint—a human player was going to be embodying a synthetic Android being for the first time in VR, so we had to think a lot about the pros and cons of that scenario,” recalls Jan. “What could we do to help you as a player really immerse yourself in this world and that adventure? A human companion became an obvious choice for us because we didn't want the experience to feel isolating, and we needed her character to mirror the way that the player was feeling, despite the fact that you yourself were embodying a cold, metallic shell.”

Liv became an extension of the player and how they felt about the events as they unfolded. It was a method to let players look their humanity in the eyes and break it down on a more intimate and personal level.

“Fundamentally, the game is about Jack and Liv, these two friends,” notes Lone Echo Art Director Nathan Phail-Liff. “But it’s set in this awe-inspiring backdrop that allows for an immersive sense of presence, agency, and exploring this zero-g world in VR. Pairing that freedom of movement and exploration with such a fundamentally personal story about two people, that combination really inspired us, and it’s what's exciting about the first game.”

Something that really sets apart the best pieces of VR content from non-VR content is the deep, personal connection players have with the world and its events. Whereas a non-VR game puts the player in a position of observing events as they happen on a TV or computer screen, virtual reality puts you inside the world and lets the events unfold around you in 3D space. It seems like a subtle difference, but when developers can embrace this shift in perspective it unlocks whole new layers of storytelling. 

“We’ve heard multiple independent accounts of players saying that when they finished Lone Echo, they would have dreams about the game,”  says Duncan. “Even more interesting, they expressed their memories of the game not as memories of playing a game, but as memories of an actual experience. That’s what we’re hoping for is that players hit that level of presence, that level of feeling like they’re there in the game world environment where they forget that it’s a game world environment, but instead they’re just there doing it. I hope that we continue to see other titles leverage that incredible power of presence.”

Lost in Space

Beyond the attention to environmental detail, the emotional response from the game’s story, and everything else that goes along with developing a big-budget, high-quality single-player narrative game, Ready At Dawn was also faced with one of VR’s earliest hurdles that still plagues many developers and players to this day: movement.

In non-VR games, most players are comfortable using analog sticks (or a mouse and keyboard) to move through a game world and interact with it. But back in late 2016 and then mid-2017 when Lone Echo released, everyone was still trying to figure things out in VR. Ready At Dawn had to reinvent the wheel, so to speak.

“We questioned what movement model could work and be comfortable,” recalls Duncan. “We realized that when astronauts push off of objects in zero-gravity, they only have a very brief window of acceleration, and that acceleration is the thing that can make you uncomfortable in VR—because your inner ear can’t perceive velocity. Like right now, we’re moving thousands of meters per second through space on the planet Earth as it rotates but we can’t perceive that. What we can perceive, though, is when we suddenly change how fast we’re going. And because astronauts have only this very brief window where those changes are felt, we thought maybe that’d be comfortable in VR, too.”

Since you’re in zero-gravity throughout all of Lone Echo, you move around the game world by using your hands to grab onto objects like walls or computer consoles and then pushing or pulling yourself off of them. You can use wrist-mounted thrusters to fine-tune your movement and trajectory, so you’re not stuck aimlessly floating around. It all adds up to a surprisingly graceful and effortlessly cool- feeling movement system that’s been used across all of Ready At Dawn’s Echo games. But it didn’t start out that way.

“We had actually originally built the game to be played with an Xbox controller,” Duncan says. “You would grab onto things by pulling a trigger and release it to push yourself off from there. It was comfortable and it worked, but obviously it paled in comparison to the Touch control experience. When that suddenly became an option, we had no idea if it would work. Nobody had ever done it before. So we tried it, and it worked out great.”

As with most things in VR, iteration was key to getting the movement in Lone Echo just right.

“We had a version where you could grab magically into the air, or act as a vacuum where you could grab points of space,” says Duncan. “We tried grappling hooks, all kinds of stuff, and we ultimately landed on this suite of mechanics that we have now, where you grab and push with your hands, you can make fine adjustments to your trajectory using your wrist-mounted micro thrusters, and then if you need to really pick up speed or slow yourself down, you have your EVA pack. All three of those movement models are actually built around very different principles that we found for comfort in VR, but they add up. It was an incredibly expressive new model that let players pretty seamlessly navigate space in VR.”

Embracing the environment and 360°of space around the player is a big part of what makes Lone Echo work so well. By emphasizing the freedom of movement and giving players an incentive to constantly be aware of their surroundings, Ready At Dawn elevated the experience beyond simply tilting a thumbstick to move. Instead, Lone Echo makes you an active participant in the game world at all times.

Lone Echo II: What’s To Come

With the launch of Lone Echo II slated for October 12, the relationship between Jack and Liv is back at the forefront. Players will once again take control of Jack on a brand-new adventure at the fringes of space. It’s a thrilling tale about the depths of space, complexities of time travel, and nuances of humanity itself.

“The sequel picks up right after the events of Lone Echo I,” explains Jan. “Liv and Jack find themselves stranded out of place and time in this far-future world where they’re really not sure of the state of affairs and what’s going on. They’re rescued from the derelict ship that they arrived on, the Astraea. They find themselves struggling for their own safety from the exposure to this alien ship that’s kept them in this space station habitat, and a major focus for Liv is getting Jack’s systems up and running again. In the very beginning of the game, you’re repaired by Liv, and the two of you—together again—set out to explore this new, future world.”

If you want to experience a bit of this preamble leading up to the events of the second game, you can check out the immersive Lone Echo II: Trailer Experience for free. Check it out on the Oculus Store, or watch the 360° video version embedded below.

Fans of the first game will likely be able to settle right in for Lone Echo II. It’s got the same innovative movement system, the same core cast of characters, and a vibrant, immersive world waiting to be explored. If you recently played the first game, you’re picking up almost exactly where things left off, but this time with an expanded scope.

“It’s very much a continuation of that story and narrative arc, but there’s a lot of things that come into play from our new ideas we have as well as seeing the success of the Echo VR franchise that we’re trying to incorporate into Lone Echo II,” says Phail-Liff. “It’s kind of cool seeing the lore and narrative connectivity between some of the worlds and the multiplayer games and the single-player games.”

If you haven’t played Lone Echo or Echo VR and Lone Echo II is your introduction to the world, that’s totally okay. There are bread crumbs scattered through Lone Echo II, as well as some introductory dialogue at the start to set the tone and get players up to speed on what’s going on. If you want to take things a step further and really understand what happened before without playing through Lone Echo for yourself, you can read the recap at the top of this article and watch the recap video we put together as a refresher.

“We definitely do a lot of work in the intro to Lone Echo II to try to make it a welcoming experience for new players,” says Phail-Liff. “Still, there's a lot of stuff that happened in the first game. The original is an amazing experience, so I’d certainly recommend that people interested in the sequel play the first game. We always try to make sure we're striking the balance of being accessible to new folks while also rewarding fans of the series who loved the first game.”

It’s a difficult line to walk, but it’s certainly one that the team is taking seriously. It’s rare to see such a carefully considered and impactful story unfold in VR with this caliber of talent in charge of the writing, voice acting, set piece moments, gameplay interactions, and everything else. It’s a world-class endeavor with a poignant and personal touch that’s as much about what it means to be human as it is about the adventures of an Android.

Lone Echo is available now on the Rift Platform, on sale for just $9.99 USD, with Lone Echo II slated for release on the Rift Platform on October 12 for $39.99 USD. Both games are also fully playable on Oculus Quest or Quest 2 via Oculus Link or Air Link with a VR-capable PC. 

“We’re really excited to see fans be able to experience the sequel to Lone Echo coming out soon,” says Phail-Liff. “A lot of new and exciting things await them with Jack and their adventures with Liv in this new and mysterious world. We can’t wait for everyone to have the chance to play it.”