What do ketamine, mysterious cosmic entities, Pink Floyd and dolphins have in common? They all played a role in the development of the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive classic Ecco the Dolphin.
The game, released in 1992, featured you as a dolphin named Ecco. Naturally enough, as the dolphin you were tasked with travelling through time to defeat extraterrestrials that have invaded earth’s oceans. You defeated your enemies by ramming into them. In addition, you had the ability to echo locate and “sing,” a feature which let you to communicate with other animals underwater.
I’d love to write in detail about gameplay but, to be completely candid, I was terrible at this game. I’ve never gotten that far into it, and I usually end up flinging the controller away in disgust after a relatively short period of time. Not that it isn’t a good game. I just happen to stink at it.
However, it’s the inspiration behind the game that really intrigues me. Much of the idea stems from the life and research of John C. Lilly, a physician, neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, psychonaut, philosopher, writer and inventor. If you’ve ever seen the movie Altered States, you’ve already been slightly exposed to Lilly. The movie was inspired by his work with sensory deprivation. Lilly invented the first deprivation tank in the 1950s.
Later, Lilly began working on research into human/dolphin communication. This lead to another movie based on his research, a bizarre 1973 thriller called “Day of the Dolphin” starring George C. Scott. In the movie, Scott plays a scientist who is training dolphins to communicate with humans. The dolphins are kidnapped so that they can be used to carry out political assassinations.
Back to Lilly: he was fascinated by the work of S.E.T.I. (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), began experimenting with LSD and ketamine in the 1960s and was a acquainted with counter culture figures like Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg. As you might expect, this lead to something of an escalation in the oddity of his ideas. He began discussing what he called the Solid State Entity, a network of computer parts that would actively try to limit human consciousness. By 1974, Lilly began to believe in a hierarchy of cosmic entities. Here’s a brief description from his autobiography:
“There exists a Cosmic Coincidence Control Center (CCCC) with a Galactic substation called Galactic Coincidence Control (GCC). Within GCC is the Solar System Control Unit (SSCU), within which is the Earth Coincidence Control Office (ECCO).” – John C. Lilly The Dyadic Cyclone: The autobiography of a couple. with Antonietta Lilly
Note that last part: ECCO. That is where the name of the video game Ecco the Dolphin came from. Ed Annunziata, who designed the game, admitted to reading a great deal of Lilly. That, combined with reading Sounding by Hank Searls, a book on echolocation, laid much of the groundwork for the game.
So, how does Pink Floyd enter the picture? Annunziata was apparently a fan, and played their music for the soundtrack designers to give them an idea of what he wanted. In addition, the games second to last level is titled “Welcome to the Machine,” the second track on Pink Floyd’s classic 1975 album “Wish You Were Here.” The Pink Floyd allusions would continue in the sequel, “Ecco: The Tides of Time,” with a level titled “A New Machine,” which is a reference to a song from Pink Floyd’s album “A Momentary Lapse of Reason.”
Ecco has become something of a classic and has been re-released a few times over the years. It’s hard to think of another game like it, a fact no doubt brought about by the bizarre amalgam of inspirations that went into creating it.