“Bulldogs are a symbol of the British spirit,” Captain Oliva ‘Liv’ Rhodes tells you as you inspect her Union Jack-sporting dog ornament wearing a Churchill hat. “We don’t want to know when the odds are against us.”
“Ah,” your character, an android named Jack, replies. “Sounds familiar.”
In a few hours’ time, it will to you too.
Lone Echo did a lot of things really, really right. From the revelatory zero-gravity locomotion to the unmatched visual fidelity, Ready at Dawn’s VR debut remains a must-play. But much of the game’s atmosphere and action would be for naught if it wasn’t down to the remarkable bond you grow with Liv. It’s arguably the game’s crowning achievement.
VR itself plays a part in that. Liv, an assured and regimented captain, isn’t afraid to get right up to the player’s eyes and make sure they meet her own. The developer’s flair for visuals also helps. Liv is one of VR’s most expressive and detailed NPCs. She shows herself to be equal parts confident and kind, ready to get the job done but with compassion for those that do it. Her tone is stern but welcoming. Actor Alice Coulthard gives her equal parts authority and approachability.
But it’s also true that Liv herself is a compelling companion. She’s funny and fierce, with little time for the protocols and formalities her rank implies. In the opening, Jack is trapped. He begins to over-explain a possible malfunction. Liv waves her hand to interrupt and bangs on the pod. A lever appears to release you. She shoots you a playful smile. “You’re all set.”
She’s strong and capable, too, held back only by her own mortality. When a mid-game development leads her to believe Jack is gone, she packs up and ventures into uncharted space on an ironically suicidal survival mission.
It’s Liv’s curious relationship with Jack that gives it all weight, though. It feels partly paternal but somewhat cautiously romantic, too. Dialogue between the two is relaxed and open, yet Liv is playing one part mother, one part partner. At some points she mockingly picks at Jack’s AI constraints as if he’s a child learning the ways of the world. In others, she fondly recalls the pair’s relationship as if it were something more intimate. The game opens to Liv learning she’ll leave Jack behind when she finishes her tenancy at a mining facility. It’s a conflict she carries with her for the rest of the story, informing every fond memory with a hint of sadness.
Lone Echo’s closing act solidifies that work. The climactic ending, in which you battle to save Liv’s life, carries genuine desperation. But, perhaps more tellingly, it’s how Jack inherits some of her qualities that shows you her strength. “I will walk you through the procedure,” an AI construct named Apollo says, referring to how to keep your ship intact.
“Or, we could just break them,” Jack replies.
And yet, like I said in my review two years ago, we stop short of getting definitive answers as to what these two are to each other. Lone Echo plays like the first act in something wider rather than the complete story. Getting back in to further explore the dynamic between Jack and Liv is one of the main reasons I can’t wait for Lone Echo II. The five minutes we spend with her in the experience trailer suggest Ready at Dawn is reassured in who Liv is. She plays cards with your dismembered arm and shrugs it off when you notice. It also hints we might see more of the history between the two explored.
What Ready at Dawn did with Liv in Lone Echo was lay a foundation. Not just for the developer to build upon with a sequel, but also for others to start experimenting with. Years from now, Liv will be one of the original templates for VR character interaction. We’re eager to see how she evolves from that.
“Just sit tight,” the British bulldog says with a wink in the Lone Echo II teaser. We’ll gladly wait.