Warning: Full spoilers for the entirety of Ecco the Dolphin follow
You may think about any one of these things when you see the peaceful, calming image above...that is, unless you've actually played Ecco the Dolphin, a game developed by Novotrade International and published by Sega that was originally released in 1992 for the Sega Mega Drive in Europe (and in 1993 for the Sega Genesis in North America). There are several versions of Ecco the Dolphin for different platforms, but I'll be talking about the original Mega Drive/Genesis version.
If you were to ask me what the eeriest, most unsettling video game I've ever played was, you might think I'd refer you to Silent Hill, or perhaps Super Metroid. My actual answer however, is a game far more subtle and less talked about. A game that scarred me as a child with its unexpected twists, lonely atmosphere, and endless feeling of isolation and despair.
Maybe this all sounds like a joke, or an exaggeration, but it is neither: Ecco the Dolphin is one of the most unnerving artistic creations I've ever encountered and it both demonstrates the potential of video games as a unique artistic medium and also their power to be something more than their label would fool you into thinking, something more than simply a "game".
Ecco the Dolphin opens just as you'd expect it to: a tranquil scene of several dolphins swimming through a calming blue ocean as this tranquil music plays in the background. Soon enough, the titular dolphin Ecco pokes his head out of the water, at which point the camera zooms in on a detailed piece of artwork depicting our marine hero, which also doubles as the title screen:
But if you listen to that music closely, you might notice something off about it, like there's more going on than just happy dolphins here. The song's calming melody has a subtle undertone of sadness, but what could be sad about playful little dolphin friends? As the song goes on, it turns to harsher tones that seem to clash with the more peaceful melody. Clearly, there's something more going on here...
The game itself opens with the player gaining control over Ecco as he swims in his home bay with his pod. If you take the time to "talk" to your pod-mates with your sonar, one of them will cryptically remark that the marks on Ecco's head look like "stars in the sky". Another one of Ecco's brethren presents Ecco with the playful challenge of "how high in the sky can you fly?" Taking on this challenge, Ecco, controlled by the player, leaps as high into the air as he can.
Then this happens (skip to around the one minute mark, or simply watch the whole video for the entire introduction to the game).
The next area combines a bleak, lonely musical piece with a wider, more open area full of creatures that hurt Ecco and cause him to let out a painful squeal when he makes contact with them. There are also some other dolphins who are just as confused as you are and offer little help. A killer whale tells Ecco that he "knows not what has happened to your pod" and that "perhaps the Big Blue can help you"...whatever that means. With only cryptic advice to go on, both the player and Ecco are left completely alone. The music, the big ocean setting, the lack of direction; everything combines to create a feeling of utter helplessness. This is not the happy video game about dolphins that you expected to play after seeing that boxart.
Ecco is thrust into a quest to find his family and the first proper "level" of the game that follows doesn't mess around, immediately throwing our poor little dolpnin into a frightening cave system filled with nothing but things that wants to hurt him: spiny shells, puffer fish, and a gigantic octopus. With its menacing sound and creatures, the "Undercaves" mean business.
Ecco's allies are few and far between. For the most part, everything in the ocean is trying to kill him. If the desperate feelings of isolation weren't enough, Ecco the Dolphin is also widely regarded as one of the most difficult video games ever created. Levels are often labyrinthine, with little to no direction or guidance. Ecco is also incredibly vulnerable, having both a very small life meter as well an equally tiny air meter that must be refreshed constantly.
Ecco is a video game that almost seems designed to instill despair and dread into the player and inevitably make them want to give up. This in turn, is part of what makes it so brilliant. Most video games, no matter how deep or sad or meaningful their narratives are, not matter how well-crafted their atmosphere is, are usually quite fun to play, enjoyable on some level, and therefore are built to satisfy a player and encourage them to reach the end of the game. Super Metroid, for example, is often rightfully praised for its sense of isolation and lonely alien atmosphere. Yet, as bounty hunter Samus Aran, you slowly amass a series of upgrades and fearsome weapons so that as the game goes on, the player doesn't feel helpless or trapped, but powerful and capable of accomplishing any feat. They may get lost at times, but they are constantly gaining new abilities that will inevitably help them to forge a path ahead. In Ecco, you're just a dolphin, with nothing but a pathetic dash move and some sonar waves. And you remain in this state, with no health or air upgrades and very little in the way of new attack upgrades, for the entire game until the very last few levels. But we'll get to those levels later. Trust me, your eventual upgrades mean little in the face of the horrors that await Ecco at the end of his journey.
Ecco depresses the player not by telling them a sad story, but by making them live one. The game throws them straight into a terrifying situation that they experience for themselves, followed by an incredibly potent sense of isolation that they feel themselves. While there is text in the game that furthers the story along, most of the experience will be spent alone and terrified of everything around you. Giant crabs come out of nowhere, toothy aquatic snakes swarm the seas around you, sharks charge you, and almost everything in your environment wants you dead. There's no partner to help you. You don't get any missile upgrades. You are alone. No happy reprieve, no break, no comfort. And this is all accomplished through actual gameplay, through experience, through a powerful combination of haunting music and sound design, bleakly life-like art direction, and an extreme sense of vulnerability.
To quote this article, which I highly suggest you give a read: "When there's a video game that makes the player depressed, that's when the medium might be onto something as an art form...It's easy to like something that makes you feel powerful in its fantasy world, as games generally do. But would anybody play a game that makes him sad?"
Ecco the Dolphin is that game, or at least, one of the progenitors of that kind of game. Almost everything about Ecco makes me uncomfortable. It frightens me and makes me feel lonely and vulnerable. It's not a game I'd go to to have a good time, to let off some stress. Sometimes, I feel like it's a game that I'd just like to forget...yet, Ecco has a certain mystique, a certain quality that, despite how it makes me feel, forces me to return to it in my thoughts time and time again.
There's a certain brilliance in its strangeness and its eeriness that's undeniable.
Then there's the mid-game twist, where Ecco learns the truth about what happened to his pod. Apparently, storms like the one that took Ecco's family have been happening on Earth every 500 years. The cause? Aliens known as the "Vortex" whose home planet has lost the ability to produce food have turned their sights on the Earth for a harvesting ground. Every 500 years, they harvest from the Earth's oceans and with each harvest, the Vortex consume more and more and as the game puts it, "They are getting hungrier!" So not only is Ecco's family missing, but in all likelikehood they have probably already been eaten by hungry aliens.
This is all perhaps a metaphor for the way humans rip sea-life out of the only world the creatures know to be served on a dinner table. Imagine if you were spending a sunny afternoon in the park with your family, when suddenly a horrific storm erupted and lifted everyone you hold near and dear into the sky, leaving you helpless and alone. This is basically Ecco's exact situation.
After helping a god-like being known as the Asterite, the oldest living thing in the ocean, Ecco is granted the power to fight back against the Vortex aliens: unlimited air and a deadly sonar weapon. After this, the dolphin uses a time machine built by the ancient people of Atlantis (yes, this is a game about a time-travelling dolphin that battles aliens, what of it?) to travel back to the hour of the storm that took his pod. This time, however, Ecco is sucked up into the sky with his pod to take the fight to the Vortex themselves (itself?).
Now we get to those end-game levels; now we get to the stuff that true nightmares are made of.
After the storm, Ecco finds himself in a mechanical tube full of machinery designed to cut up anything that survived the storm. His pod is nowhere to be seen, but all Ecco can do is continuously move upwards towards an unseen destination as he is sucked faster and faster upwards. The eerie and mechanical track that plays here suits the environment perfectly. The Tube is tense build-up; neither the player nor Ecco have any idea what's in store for them ahead. Where will this bizarre, alien passage take them? What horrors await them ahead?
After Ecco makes his way through The Tube, the player is greeted with the ominous words "Welcome to the Machine" and the penultimate level of the game (named after the Pink Floyd song of the same name) follows. Welcome to the Machine is an auto-scrolling nightmare not only considered by many to be one of the most difficult levels in all of video game history, but is the single creepiest environment of any video game in my own personal gaming history, accompanied by the eeriest music I've ever heard in a video game. That song is a masterpiece not only for its uncanny sound, but for just how perfectly fitting is it for the cold, mechanical and utterly alien environment it accompanies. I've come to learn that all this mechanized alien weirdness seems to be inspired by the work of Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger, who happens to be the designer of the iconic Alien from the Ridley Scott film of the same name.
Quite frankly, I am terrified of this level and the music that accompanies it...yet also fascinated by my terror and by the strangeness this whole experience represents. Here is the level in its entirety if you're curious and don't mind spoiling it (of course, if you're reading this, I've already spoiled everything anyway). Watch at your own risk.
If the player does not know the precisely correct path to follow, they will be crushed, and not only that, but the creepy Vortex aliens (whose severed heads split from their bodies after attacked by Ecco and continue to assault the dolphin) themselves finally make an appearance and are constantly hunting Ecco with their only intention being to feed the unfortunate mammal to their hideous queen.
Speaking of which...
The Vortex queen appears in the form of a massive head with beady, black eyes and razor-sharp teeth. The queen constantly inhales and eats everything around her and if she gobbles Ecco up, the player is sent back to The Machine where they have to repeat that nightmare all over again. If anyone made it this far in the game, than they surely gave up at this point as the game doesn't even give you a password for the final boss battle until after it is defeated (unlike every other stage where the password appears at the start of the level).
If Ecco is lucky and brave enough to blow the queen's eyes out of her sockets and rip her jaw off, the creature will fall and Ecco's pod, miraculously still alive somehow, will come flying out of her body, after which our hero and his family swim back down The Tube and back to their home bay on Earth.
But...one of Ecco's podmates ominously asks, "Do you think the Vortex are destroyed?" You mean that thing could still be alive?
I don't know if anyone who popped in Ecco the Dolphin back in the early nineties ever expected the eldritch horrors that this game had in store for them. Between its crushing sense of despair and horrifying final stages, Ecco is an experience that bores its way into a poor hapless child like myself's subconscious and stays there. Forever.
Now, perhaps Ecco won't be as frightening for everyone as it is for me (I do know I'm not the only one though). After all, I was subjected to this nightmare when I was very young and therefore the game has a special kind of terrifying quality for me that seeded my mind when I was very young and has only grown since. Also, the game combines two of my biggest long-standing fears: malevolent, scary aliens that want to eat me and the deep, open abyss of the ocean into one specially packaged nightmare that feels tailor-made for me personally.
Also, I must confess that I've never actually played through this whole game. I don't even think I made it past the Undercaves (first proper level) when I was little, but thanks to the magic of passwords, I skipped around to the various levels in the game to see more of the experience, including the traumatizing final stages. Ecco recently creeped back into the forefront of my mind (as it tends to do from time to time) and I decided to watch someone else play through the entirely of the game. After seeing the game in full, I'm not sure I'd ever want to play it myself.
This isn't solely because of the game's lonely and depressing atmosphere, or its sheer terror levels, but more because of just how frustrating and tedious the game actually looks to play. Even if Ecco is a brilliant early example of the power that video games have to be something more than just a fun game with an enjoyable story behind the gameplay, it is far from a flawless experience. Even though the game's atmosphere, build-up and themes are all incredibly well-incorporated, the tediousness of having to push a shell across an undersea cavern with slippery controls just isn't something I'm exactly jumping to experience. Therefore, with some more polish, and perhaps a little more balancing that would make the game a bit more playable, perhaps Ecco could maintain its eerie, unmistakable sense of dread that makes the player want to quit or run away sweaty and terrified, but because of the atmosphere and not because of tediousness.
But I'm also just making excuses, because I'm still downright scared to play this game, even knowing all of its tricks.
Oh, and in regards to that question from the ending above: Are the Vortex really destroyed? Well, it turns out, no, they weren't. As a matter of fact, the queen is still alive and kicking and she follows Ecco back to Earth to make a new nest for herself there. This all happens in the sequel to Ecco the Dolphin entitled Ecco: The Tides of Time, a game which I had much less experience with as a child (rented it once or twice) and one that I also watched a playthrough of recently. While still featuring a timeless soundtrack and a trippy, surreal adventure filled with flying dolphins from the future and a much more heavily sci-fi-focused story, Tides of Times seems to lack the loneliness and isolation of the first game. The game still has plenty of potent atmosphere, just not quite in the same way as the first title. When Tides of Time starts, Ecco is already a hero, and the Vortex are no longer as unknown and mysterious as they used to be. The game doesn't build up to the weirdness, but instead starts with it early on and rolls with it. It's a sci-fi adventure that certainly has its eerie moments, but ultimately has a more inviting, action adventure feel than the first game. You can tell the difference in tone just by listening to the game's opening theme, which does have a melancholic sound, but ultimately feels more adventurous than sad and lonely. All this said, Tides of Time is still something special all its own and is a worthy continuation of the Ecco story.
If you've never played Ecco the Dolphin before, than I encourage you to at least try it (you can get the original cart for cheap online or find it on Steam, XBLA, Virtual Console, iOS, multiple Sega Mega Drive/Genesis collections, etc.; it's all over the place). Try just playing through the opening levels and I think you'll see and feel part of what I've been prattling on about. And if you have played the game, if you ventured into its deep, dark waters in your youth like I did, well, sorry I brought back the bad memories.
I hope the nightmares don't start again for you.