— OPINION? —
The Echo Cluster is a distant point in our galaxy dotted with the blood globules of a trillion life forms, and it forms the exciting backdrop of the space opera known as VGA Planets. Yet, what is the origin of this mysterious group of dots and circles? We find out today.
Mirror Universe Theory
One theory says the origin of the Echo Cluster stemmed from the science fiction television series on which the original races were based. The species in the universes of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Battlestar Galactica clearly inspired the race names, abilities, and ship designs of the original game. This correlation suggested the creator of the game, Tim Wisseman, most likely grew up watching these television programs. We imagined a young, wild-eyed TimW watching Picard, Solo, and Adama spacefaring around their respective galaxies, outsmarting their enemies, and engaging in awkward romances. When we considered this image, it was logical to assume the Planets scenario was a mirror universe of these sci-fi classics. Furthermore, there have been many custom-made games designed to act out imaginary scenarios set in one of these space sagas, and these types of nostalgic fantasies kept many players coming back for more. If a mirror universe concept is the source of the Echo Cluster, it is imperative we ask ourselves the following question: In a round of five-card stud, would the winner be Picard, Solo, or Adama?
Milky Way Theory
Another common theory is that a game of Planets was a reflection of our own reality in the Milky Way Galaxy. For this concept, the races represented religions, political ideals, and a myriad of different paradigms. No empire could escape their tumultuous past, and they found themselves warring for their right to exist. In this case, we imagined TimW swooning over the space opera genre and its glorified, galaxy-encompassing conflicts. We pictured him skipping off to his room to reenact a grand war of the stars, but his C-3P0 action figure and Milton-Bradley battleship never satisfied his imagination. Finally, coding and computers gave him the outlet he needed, and the political intrigue and military threats of the twentieth century became the backdrop of his version of a space opera. The Echo Cluster became a satire of Earth’s shenanigans, and the eleven races explored, not to a new system of stars and planets, but a cerebral reality where blasters and torpedoes were a politician’s weapons instead of rhetoric, good looks, and overacting.
Number Six Theory
The 2004 Battlestar Galactica television series was shadowed by the ominous phrase, “This has all happened before and it will all happen again.” This speech, given by the woman-in-red, Number Six, gave insight into the origin of the Echo Cluster term. Each Planets war was a repeat of the last: The battle for the Cygnet sector happened before and it would happen again. Like the Cylons and Colonies of the Battlestar universe, the eleven races jumped from galaxy to galaxy seeking a new start, but they found only fighting and death. Each match of VGA Planets was an echo of the previous and countless others, and it just made sense to call it the Echo Cluster. This theory is the closest to the real story.
In the Nu documentation archives (Planets.nu, 2015), the scenario of the game was described as a war between eleven lost races who “found themselves together in the Echo Cluster” (para. 1). This was not a clear description of the term Echo, and neither the creator of Nu, Joshua Perina, or the creator of Planets was available to comment.
In TimW’s host documents, he provided a similar scenario, albeit more detailed:
Ten years ago, a small fleet of freighters left your home world in a quest to find new worlds to colonise. Halfway through your journey, you lost all contact with fleet command. You then began to fear the worst. A full-scale galactic war may have broken out, and your small fleet may be the last of your race. You left home with four very special ships that were equipped with tech 17 Bussard Ramscoops which gather low-grade matter from the interstellar medium and convert it to antimatter fuel. These ships served you well until you lost the last one a year ago when the final cobalt-lanthanide-boronite fractionator coil burnt out, and your fleet was forced to make the rest of the journey burning low grade neutronic fuel. Your fleet finally arrived at your goal, the small Echo open star cluster on the outer tip of the third major arm of the Milky Way.
The open cluster contains 500 planets that are all named after the stars from your home star sectors. The last fuel base you passed is over 7000 light years away, and you are unable to build new coils. In fact, the only known source of fuel coils is a small super-high-tech research station run by a group of Andromedians near the galactic core 30,000 light years away. The coils are shipped to all the major homeworlds by Endoane traders. A shipment of supplies which included 20 new coils was following one year behind your fleet until it was lost to an unknown band of pirates. The highest tech level ever achieved by your race has been tech 10, so it is really very unlikely that you will ever be able to build any coils on your own. Unless you re-establish contact with your homeworld or a supply shipment shows up, you can regard this as a one way mission.
Upon arrival at the first world you came to, all your starships land on the planet’s surface to be converted into raw materials for the building of mineral mines, factories, and one low-tech starbase. A small local-system freighter and a small capital ship are built, and you soon learn that you are not alone.
Moving across your starcharts are enemy races that followed you to this star cluster. You must now put every effort into building the most powerful fleet of warships possible, before you are attacked. Your best hope is to send small freighters in every direction to drop off colonists and supplies. They can grow in numbers on new planets and extract the minerals that your starbase needs to build more ships. You need to act fast because your enemies will most likely(Wisseman, 1995)
be trying to expand also. Pay close attention to the starchart because you can see your enemy’s ships as they travel between planets. Good luck.
As evidenced above, TimW described the eleven races arriving at their goal, a “small Echo open star cluster” somewhere out their in our Milky Way. The problem with this scenario description was that it still did not explain why the word Echo was used.
A member of the editing team — who prefers to remain anonymous due to his involvement in a lawsuit between the Docs Team and a unnamed alien from the Andromeda sector — provided his recollection of the origin of the term.
In the Star Trek TOS [The Original Series] universe, “quadrant” and “sector” were rather generic terms that were added to make things sound military. There were maps done of the Federation, the Neutral Zone, and so on, and it all sort of grew — but without any actual continuity behind it; Roddenberry was more about new stories than old details.
When Star Trek TNG [The Next Generation] came out, though, there was a Continuity Editor team. They established that there were four Quadrants in the galaxy: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta. Each, roughly, corresponds to an entire spiral arm, and all of TNG known space at the beginning of the series could have been fit easily into a tiny chunk of one arm.
The fifth “Echo” cluster that Tim [Wisseman] envisioned would have nothing to do with the standard continuity; it would be flat, and located between arms. Because he was an inveterate mild punster, he also used “Echo” because each cluster was absolutely identical — the old square map, you know.
Joshua [Perina] presently figures that we, the players, are the real Echoes — or, rather, our characters are. We’re kept alive between battles by traveling at relativistic speeds, and brought down once a “month” to check in with our…wars. We thus skip lightly across history and never actually interfere politically; we’re living echoes of ancient history. Military technology, in fact, rarely advances because development is controlled by the Echo class of citizens, who are all ultra-rich and in control of galactic production et cetera — and of course horribly corrupt. It’s all very dystopic.(Gn***hk, personal communication, august 3, 2022)
As we can see here, the unnamed editor reported that TimW meant for the term Echo to be used because the 3.0 release of VGA Planets replicated the same starmap for every match. Furthermore, we see details gathered from emails with Nu’s creator and forum posts which infer that the player’s themselves are the Echoes, doomed to repeat past sins for eternity.
In the end
We did not find the origin of the name Echo Cluster, unless you count that theory from the sketchy fella who’s a person of interest in a legal investigation for misrepresenting an Andromedian. Sadly, the next time you are tapping at those dots you will not be able to rid yourself of that nagging feeling that you are missing something. You will think to yourself: Is this game a playground for a child’s daydreams, is it the result of lazy repetitive programming, or is it a weird existential commentary on the state of modern life?
Our search for the truth of the origin of the Echo Cluster has led us through a variety of wild theories, well-documented dead ends, and the rhetorical ramblings of a madman. In the end, it all still remains a muddled mystery. Regardless, my personal favourite theory is the one where a young Wisseman flicks off the television and rushes off to his room to create a world where he can play out his fantasies of romantic encounters with Beverly Crusher, Leia Organa, and Laura Roslin — who hasn’t?! Remember: Planets isn’t really a game of aggression, so make love, not war.
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Thanks for reading. – TS
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- Planets.nu. (January 7, 2015). The planets.nu scenario. Retrieved February 10, 2023 from https://planets.nu/#/howtoplay/scenario.
- Wisseman, T. (September 5, 1995). Tim’s host 3.20 doc. files.