[The following contains spoilers.]
Echo Rose is an astrologer, psychic, “empath,” beauty queen, detective, and janitor/restaurant worker. The order of importance here is very much a matter of perspective. She began vlogging in May 2019, after she had moved from Brooklyn, where she had partially grown up, to Nettlebrook, a town as small, cold, and hard as the evil eye.
In Nettlebrook, Brooklyn is answered with a welcoming bouquet of stinging nettles. Rather like a patch of nettles, this town is not recorded on any official map. If you are an American then it might turn out to be in your neck of the woods. One day you might stroll down an unfamiliar lane in your community, a lane that you had never noticed before, and out into the open countryside. Eventually, if you keep to this track for long enough, a few houses will show their faces and this will be Nettlebrook.
Echo’s YouTube channel is the mass at the centre of a multiplatform alternate reality game (ARG). Numerous accounts and channels orbit it, on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and Blogspot. The most indispensable of these is YouTube’s zipper films, which is fronted by Zipper and Carma, two native Nettlebrookians who Echo recruits to the adventure. Whilst Echo’s channel tends to soliloquise, the story resorts to zipper films for snatches of documentary drama.
One fan Wiki has identified twenty-one separate components to the ARG. There is clearly a lot for players to keep an eye on. For example, Zoey Bent, the good-time girl whose disappearance Echo ends up investigating, has a YouTube channel that is yet to post any listed videos. I am dutifully checking it every day.
You might be put off by the homespun feel of this ARG, which often gives an impression that it would be greatly more comfortable on Etsy than on any other platform. Of course, untidiness, scattered materials, haphazard posting, loose ends and dead ends, and the greatest possible distance from corporate professionalism are all performance-enhancers within an ARG. They boost the realism that brings the story to life. The penalty for this, however, is that it is not immediately obvious how skilfully made Echo Rose is and how hugely rewarding it is to explore.
Although ARGs on YouTube are commonly regarded as an enfant-terrible artform, Marble Hornets, one of the most celebrated examples, is by now over a decade old. Surprisingly few ARGs have been created in the meantime, considering how low-budget they are and how much potential this genre has in its gift. Together, all of the YouTube ARGs that have been ever devised probably have a smaller budget than five minutes of The Simpsons. Perhaps writers and performers on shoestrings are drawn increasingly to podcasts, which are easier and cheaper to make and where the platforms also allow for greater creative freedoms than YouTube does. In any case, it today feels like a relief whenever a new ARG is launched and such a sickly genre has managed a grab a few more mouthfuls of air for itself.
Echo Rose does not bring totally pure blood to the genepool. Julia Dapper, the actress who plays Echo, had previously played the lead in the equally eponymous ARG Daisy Brown (2017-18). Whereas Dapper had created this show, Echo Rose is written by Lela Nesheim, who also features in it as Carma. The cast from both ARGs appear to be students at Augsburg University, Minneapolis.
Although the story within Echo Rose is so far oblivious to Daisy’s circumstances, those commenting beneath Echo’s videos have spotted various tell-tale links between them. Both heroines are named after flowers. With Echo’s aversion to “mushrooms” her story seems to be keeping in mind Daisy’s abuser, Alan, who was apparently animated in a laboratory from fungal spores. As narrative arcs, Echo Rose resumes from where Daisy Brown had left off, with Daisy running away from home and Echo rocking up in a new town. It could be that Brooklyn is a cover story, with a self-reinvented Daisy lying behind it, though the roly-poly Italian-American accent sounds arduous and I cannot see any sensible reason for Daisy to commit to it.
Let us look at the story structure within Echo Rose. This has set two different heads wagging. Our question is whether they talk over each other or whether they can engage in a harmonious conversation.
In the one corner, the camera has fallen hopelessly in love with the immediacy of Echo, with her sass and her gutsiness and her strident video editing. In the early videos, when Echo was down-on-her-luck and comedically alcoholic, the viewer might have felt like a small child who was being thrillingly taken into the confidence of a last-minute babysitter. Someone who is no-nonsense and with no airs and graces but who has a reliable, streetwise kindliness to them as well.
Echo always pauses dismayed over how she looks in photographs (Instagram) and she groans about her “man’s shoulders” and “double chin.” But we can see her in movement (YouTube) and appreciate the full rhapsodic beauty of her cartoonishness. In the comments section, it appears that the majority of viewers are happy for the story’s plot to drift as slowly as possible, so that they can spend the maximum time in Echo’s company. Indeed, viewers often sound amazed at their own lack of impatience with her makeup tutorials and her neverending assessments of wigs. It seems that these elements might have been intended initially to camouflage the story as a plausible vlog. If so, the camouflage has increasingly become the creature.
In the other corner, there is the horror. When it desires to, Echo Rose can deliver a schlock that most of its viewers will happily accept as payment. There is a well-done jump scare during Echo’s séance video and later uploads feature those ghosts that are glimpsed subliminally or only for a millisecond. Yet this channel is more original in how it facilitates the dreamlike and the unsettling. If there is any connection between Echo and Daisy Brown, it could be that Echo’s life is a dazzling, puzzling dream that Daisy is currently experiencing.
The logic that leads Echo to abandon the inner city and to pursue a career out in the middle of nowhere is recognisably dream logic. Elsewhere, we are almost jolted into awakening when Carma admits, or pretends, that she has never opened the cumbersome wooden chest that a previous homeowner has left behind in her bedroom. This sounds unbelievable but we are quickly lulled into accepting it. Often things happen in this town for no reason and we just accept them as any dreamer would. This culminates in Echo’s bizarre makeover of an ostensible mute and her interview with Abagail, a repentant bully who remains weirdly emotionless and unreadable throughout her consequent public confession.
How have we made it this far into a Tychy review without mentioning Twin Peaks? David Lynch and Mark Frost’s surreal early-nineties TV drama had been similarly the venue for an impossible conversation between the pleasant and the horrific. Most of its viewers had wanted to bask in the kitsch cheerfulness of the town’s civic life, and to overlook the rape and murder that were its Original Sin. There is as much a distance between Echo and the missing Zoe as there was between the jaunty detective Dale Cooper and the tragic Laura Palmer. Coop had only ever met Laura in a dream whereas Echo makes contact with Zoe in the realm of spirit voices. And just as Coop had been sucked into the nightmare that had devoured Laura, Echo becomes ever more intertwined with the girl who she is meant to be rescuing.
Both are bullied on Instagram. Both are clever but dirt poor. Echo had released a ten-minute video that had shown her preparing to meet the zipper films crew, lavishly transforming herself into a purple-haired angel with a tiara of roses. When she arrived, the guys present were surly and as uninterested in her as they were in the “ghost” that they had filmed. This ruined figure, with its bedraggled hair, bloodied dress, and zombie body-language, looks like a sarcastic reply to Echo’s perfection. It is fixed on the screen like a distorted reflection of Echo (i.e. a visible “echo.”) It doubtless stands as a warning to her and it could well be a premonition of her fate.
The cartoonish editing in Echo Rose cannot avoid approaching a parody of conventional vlogging. This might remind you of the similar mannerisms within Ash Vlogs, an Australian ARG that had started in 2018. Ash was never in control and it soon transpired that her channel was being administered by the nihilists and terrorists who had kidnapped her. The loss of control that is experienced within Echo Rose is less literal but altogether more profound. It is not that Echo is a fake – indeed, she is always as good as gold – but that the intimacy that supposedly makes her vlogging remarkable, or more authentic than other forms of media, has surprisingly little value as truth.
In traditional storytelling, a character will wear a public persona and the story will need to invade their private world to find out the truth about them. In Echo Rose, there is a radical shifting of perspective but no resulting profits in the amount of truth that is released. We are stranded in the foreground of Echo’s life, with her vulnerabilities and alcoholism, but a lot of this intimacy is essentially trivia. We don’t in fact know the first thing about her: why she has come to this town. We would probably learn as much about her life from reading Nettlebrook’s only media outlet, The Babbling Brook, as we do from following her vlog.
Likewise, her friend Carma has a nervous breakdown, which is observed with excruciating voyeurism, but we are not told the reason for this crisis or even if Carma has really recovered. However uncomfortable we might feel about the voyeurism, it is not in any respect knowledge. All of Carma’s previous and carefully-controlled fooling around on camera had served to conceal a void that remains just as inaccessible throughout the uncontrolled footage of her crisis.
If we know much more about the facts of Zoe’s life than we do about Echo’s, it is significant that Zoe is one of the story’s least communicative characters on social media. Aside from her few cryptic utterances on Tumblr, she is more spoken about than speaking. Even Echo, who is investigating her disappearance, becomes an inadvertent mouthpiece for the community’s slanders about her. Zoe is lost in “a bog” but her situation as a tragically loose woman is a familiar, user-friendly cliché; Echo is always in front of us, but she is greatly more mysterious and distant.
One of the greatest mysteries to Echo’s story is why she doesn’t simply ask Zoe who murdered her and where her body is. Normally a detective isn’t lucky enough to possess a hotline to the afterlife, hence necessitating all of the plodding of a circuitous earthly investigation. There is a vague implication that Zoe’s spirit is being uncooperative and taunting; or that zipper films is being deterred by community pressure from completing their mission. This uncertainty could eventually rebound upon Echo, as viewers begin to succumb to paranoia. Surely the constant swapping of wigs confirms Echo’s shiftiness? When we learn that she did not really grow up in Brooklyn, our vivid sense of who she is, of her “New Yoik” brashness, falters.
In the most recent videos we are boxed up inside the intimacy of Echo’s home whilst the truth about Nettlebrook is now hidden out in the privacy of the wider community. The rationale for an ARG is that its external overview should redress the limited perspectives of the characters who inhabit it. The viewers always have to spot the ghost first; it is down to us to identify the skull that Echo has been sent (a raccoon’s) and the poem that is shared during Carma’s breakdown (Robert Frost’s). But what if our central source was untrustworthy or compromised? The ARG would quickly become a Ponzi scheme, with its truth spiralling into valueless data.
We shall see. What was so impressive about Daisy Brown was the discipline of the storytelling. The story was finished in a couple of deft strokes, in contrast to the clutter and the languor of Daisy’s vlogging. You can sense the same discipline packed up behind Echo Rose and this will give you an important feeling of reassurance about the game. It is otherwise presently impossible to tell how long this ARG will last, whether its mystery will be solved, and whether its horror or its chattering cheerfulness, the nettles or the brook, will win out.