The Ketamine Secrets of Sega’s ‘Ecco the Dolphin’
The unlikely connection between a drug-addicted scientist and a cute video game character.
I don't remember how I ended up getting a copy of Ecco the Dolphin. I preferred to play stuff that involved lots of punching and kicking, and a game about a lost cetacean searching for his family would have come as a an affront to my then bloodthirsty childhood brain.
However, it became one of my favourite Sega games, representing a welcome change from the instant button-bashing gratification of fucking up punks and bikers in Streets Of Rage 2. The central character is a dolphin, obviously, called Ecco, again, who is estranged from his pod after a mysterious tornado sucks them out of the ocean. It transpires that they've been abducted by a group of aliens known as the Vortex, who come to Earth to harvest its natural resources, including sucking up a smorgasbord of sea life. Ecco's quest takes him to Atlantis, before he travels back in time through a complex combination of wormholes to confront the Vortex at its hive, The Machine.
Ecco was a hit for the Mega Drive in the early 1990s, and the beginning of a successful series that ran until the Dreamcast didn't. I hadn't thought about it much between then and now – until last year, when I was reading up on John C Lilly.
Lilly was once a renowned and respected American scientist, with a particular interest in marine biology and interspecies communication. In the early 1960s he was given funding by NASA to research whether it was possible to teach dolphins to speak. NASA's logic was that if we could learn to communicate with dolphins, we would have a better understanding of how to converse with extra-terrestrials if they were to ever pop down for a visit.
Lilly flooded a house in the Caribbean so that dolphins could live as closely as possible with him and his team, amongst them Margaret Howe Lovatt, who apparently had sex with one of the animals. The experiment fizzled out as, unsurprisingly, nobody was able to get any of them to talk – although check out YouTube for one of his subjects attempting a pretty close "Hello Margaret". Useful, if all aliens were called Margaret. Lilly lost funding for the project, moved away from traditional science and threw himself further and further into 1960s pseudo-mysticism and chemical experimentation.
Around 1971 Lilly was looking for a cure for his chronic migraines, and a friend suggested that ketamine could help get rid of them. Back then ketamine wasn't a widely used drug, probably only used recreationally by a small group of dedicated trippers, quite unlike its status today as a popular party drug. When he was under the influence of a small dose of K, Lilly said that he felt the migraine being pushed out of his body and, miraculously, he never had one again. Encouraged by this, he developed a longstanding affection for the substance he dubbed "Vitamin K", and started taking it regularly, gradually injecting it in higher doses.
Just shooting up ketamine on its own wasn't enough for Lilly, though, and soon he was IV-ing it inside a sensory deprivation tank with the help of his friend, Dr Craig Enright. They thought that by using the tank external stimulation would be significantly reduced, giving a psychedelic or, in this case, a dissociative experience at a higher level of intensity. Neither appreciated that what they were doing was incredibly fucking dangerous – tranquilising drugs and floating on water aren't to be mixed under most circumstances, and sure enough Lilly's wife, Antonietta, had to resuscitate him on one occasion where he nearly drowned. These experiments would form the foundation for Paddy Chayefsky's 1978 novel Altered States, later adapted into a movie by director Ken Russell.
'Altered States', trailer
During his sessions, Lilly came to believe that he was being contacted by an organic extra-terrestrial entity called the Earth Coincidence Control Office – ECCO. This alien group was benevolent, omniscient and in control of all earthly matters. Except for when they weren't quite so friendly, as at one point Lilly thought they'd made off with his penis.
"That evening I took 150 milligrams of ketamine, and suddenly the Earth Coincidence Control Office removed my penis and handed it to me. I screamed in terror. My wife Toni came running in from the bedroom, and she said, 'It's still attached.' So I shouted at the ceiling, 'Who's in charge up there? A bunch of crazy kids?'"
The similarities between Sega's Ecco the Dolphin and Lilly's ketamine fantasies are undeniable. It's almost like the game's story is an amalgamation of his interest in dolphins and the wacky philosophy he spouted when returning to reality from his phenomenal K-hole trips.
Alongside ECCO, Lilly encountered another alien life force, which he called the Solid State Intelligence. Unlike the entities from ECCO, the SSI were spawned by a mechanical solar system, and their main aim was to ravage the earth and destroy mankind. It's not unlike the much-documented cinematic battles between us fleshy creatures and advanced AI turned malevolent, and it's no stretch to compare the SSI with Ecco's Vortex enemies, those evil, dolphin-kidnapping, interstellar villains.
Perhaps I'm starting to sound a little like Danny Dyer's character Moff in Human Traffic (see above), but I think this has a lot more substance then other possible video game drug references – like the "hallucinogenic" mushrooms in Super Mario Bros, or all the pills Pac-Man munched through as he made his way around those haunted mazes. But such claims always come across as stoned speculation, inane banter between mates after the third joint had been smoked out, with no games designer backing up them up.
And Ed Annunziata, the creator of Ecco the Dolphin, had said very little about Lilly, making my comparisons between the game and the drug philosophy I'd read about seem like just another coincidence. Until a little internet digging revealed a single tweet, subsequently posted on a Facebook fan page. It's brief, but tantalising: "No, I never took LSD, but I did read a lot from John C Lilly."
And there you have it, from the creator himself: Ecco did take inspiration from Lilly, and proof that horse tranquiliser-induced fantasies can indeed form the basis for great games. And if that's not a challenge to the young, upcoming developers of right now, I don't know what is.