Beyond the Sea: Subtext and Environmental Storytelling in Ecco the Dolphin

[TW: This piece discusses death, violence and fear of the sea.] 

I was convinced, the first time I fired up my Ecco the Dolphin ROM on my SEGA emulator, that the whole of the game consisted of the first screen in Home Bay. Perhaps it was my own bias toward free-form experimental games, but for a good ten minutes I splashed, swam, and breached the surface of Home Bay’s pacific blue water, gradations of navy and purple leading the eye to a robin’s-egg horizon lined with white clouds and distant, mountainous islands, and I figured that was the game. I didn’t realize what foreshadowing those remote formations and the darkening depths of the water implied, nor did I realize what it meant when I jumped into the air and all of a sudden and with a whirring screech, all the beautiful life of the Bay got vacuumed into the sky.

I was surprised to learn that more than one person I discussed Novotrade’s 1992 “metroidvania” masterpiece with had had the same experience when they played it in their childhood. The sunny, cheerful, carefree opening level seems so self-contained that it could easily be a kind of dolphin swimming simulator. But eventually and largely by accident, I figured out how to jump and initiated the opening cutscene. I didn’t really grasp at first that this scene—all the marine life around me, including my own pod, getting sucked up into an alien tube—was the catalyst for Ecco’s great adventure. It’s jarring and kind of obtuse, kicking off an experience of slow, grinding, devastating frustration. And all the way, Ecco seems to smile.

Ecco the Dolphin is probably remembered—and resented—mostly for its difficulty. Replies to tweets I made about the game over the course of playing it seemed to reveal trigger responses from those who had played it in their childhood. People were nostalgic, sure, all professing love or admiration or at least a mature respect for the game’s unrelenting difficulty. But that nostalgia was also clearly tinged with some reservation: not many people who responded to me actually completed the Genesis version, and many seemed to relive the intense frustration evoked by the painstaking ordeal of completing the game without cheats, a guide, or in my particular case, save states.

While no one looked down on me for my impure style of play—in a handful of cases I detected a hint of jealousy, perhaps—I still get the sense that the merciful twin angels of ROM emulation and Gamefaqs compromised my experience somewhat. I say this fully aware of the elitist implications of suggesting there’s any such thing as a “pure gameplay experience”, particularly in the case of games like Ecco which are inaccessibly hard to most players without help. Certainly, I think the idea to provide the 3DS version of the game with a “Super Dolphin Mode”, which renders the player invincible, is a great, compassionate idea. It means that players can take in the sublimity of the game’s aesthetic, and the surprising sophistication of its story, in much more than just the first level.

But I say this because I feel like so much of the thematic and affective weight of that story is lost without some sense of the game’s difficulty. It isn’t just fetishistically there for its own sake. Rather, the difficulty is so intrinsically unified with the design of those sublime, confounding, discombobulating spaces, that not feeling its impact removes some degree of empathy for the protagonist’s struggle and pathos for him in his circumstances. The innocent smile of a bottlenose dolphin as he breaches the surface of a pool of placid blue, as if in his own aquatic playpen, as if nothing were more natural to him, and the punctuation of pink and yellow and gold coral on rocky cliff shelves that border the two-dimensional world as though painted onto a marinescape, gives way to a deepening, darkening navy as Ecco is forced to descend. The calm and naked sea becomes a spidering, maddening network of caves and alcoves, discernable only by the slightest landmarks; cozy cliffs become vents whose currents blow Ecco not into happy coral, but life-endangering spikes; the comfort of family becomes the threat of sharks, crabs, surrealistically oversized seahorses and all other manner of predatory deep-sea life. Ecco’s expression never changes; he smiles. From the perspective of the player he doesn’t say a word, although through the use of echolocation he hears the song of whales, other dolphins, and of the Asterite (the “oldest living creature” resembling an immense, sentient double-helix), who instructs him on how to ultimately defeat the aliens from Planet Vortex. It was their own ecological disaster—an inability to produce food—that led to them using the Earth’s oceans as a food supply every 500 years. Thus the mass suction, the “storm” and its attendant loss of life, including Ecco’s family.

As the story progresses, Ecco abides by the Asterite’s counsel, overcoming ever more implausible feats: finding the ruins of Atlantis, going back 55 million years to fight a younger Asterite and retrieve one of the many coloured spheres that makes up its helical body, returning to the near-past, just before the “storm”, to be rewarded by the Asterite with an upgraded “Death Sonar” that allows Ecco to use his echolocation against the Vortex invaders. The story and plenty of the imagery (e.g., a pteranodon will carry Ecco from place to place at certain moments in the Jurassic stages of the game) jet past the surreal and orbits the absurd, but between and beneath all that we’re told a modern, speculative fable about ecological degradation, the destabilizing violence of colonial invasion, and the viciously desperate circle of exploitation and resource scarcity that pushes the will of all creatures to survive to their limits.

In all this, Ecco smiles. He doesn’t say a word. Few other creatures do: most are fodder to enhance difficulty, which on the surface is perhaps a bit incoherent and maybe a little ironic, but exists in a pretty plausible context: Ecco should not be in depths of water where he can’t breathe, where he would drown if not for well-placed grottos and other, stranger breath-enhancing powerups scattered across the ocean floor. At these depths, the five little squares that make up his life meter should not be all he has to worry about. In every sense, the very environment he’s trying to save defies him, combats him, stretches him beyond his capacity. It’s in the obscurity of these depths that principles get violated: in order to carry out his mission, he must, at times and for his own survival, enact violence back upon that environment. His Sonar, a tool of communication, becomes under duress an instrument of death. And still he looks innocent. And still the scenery is beautiful. And still it seems the very universe is out to destroy him.

The game isn’t just difficult to play, however. This difficulty subtly conveys very dark moral and emotional complexity. Because of this, I wholeheartedly believe that Ecco the Dolphin is not for kids, nor was it ever. Perhaps this is why so many people to whom I spoke about the game described feeling a kind of “loss of innocence” through playing it. It’s not as if balls-to-the-wall challenge of the kind stemming from the capital interests of arcade culture was uncommon at the time (the FGC arguably takes its questionable ideology of “meritocracy” from this historical moment). There’s something else here, I think, that arouses these feelings of existential horror. Here is a game that lulls us in with its sublime pixel-art work and intricate level design that mixes airy naturalism with psychedelic, surreal spirituality. (This makes sense, since developer Ed Annunziata allegedly based much of the echolocation design on Sounding, a book by Hank Searls, and advised the music team to base the feel of their wonderful soundtrack on the work of Pink Floyd.)  But in this also is the hidden indifference and even animosity of the natural world against the will of the individual to survive, to thrive. The violence isn’t as overt, as transparent, as it is in something like the action-movie shtick of Contra, or the pulp horror of Castlevania, or even Metroid and its conception of the cold and uncharted recesses of outer space. In Ecco the Dolphin, beyond the platitudes of “harmonizing with nature”, there’s this more immediate conflict with nature that we, in our daily lives, tacitly fear but rarely acknowledge. That is, until the storm comes.


Ecco searching for one of many glyphs used to open new pathways and sometimes provide intel. This one is stubbornly hidden behind a rock.

The level design in Ecco the Dolphin reveals a coherent, overarching subtext that’s sometimes referred to as “environmental storytelling”, and is arguably the backbone of so much speculative fiction and horror. Consider what the wide shots of quiet suburban streets do for establishing and then subverting the serenity and mundanity of domestic life in monster-of-the-week episodes of The X-Files. Consider how, in that same show, episodes set in arctic heights or ocean depths suggest the “unseen world”, the alien, and reinforce so much of the show’s running motif that the natural world is an immensity of secrets we’re hardly equipped to fully comprehend, but the truth is out there for those who dare to look for it. On the other hand, those pans over Canadian prairie farmlands also inspire nostalgia for a very anthropocentric natural fallacy, and the juxtaposition of those landscapes with the invasion of alien colonial technology points to a kind of deferred Western, white guilt complex and a dubious pretense of territorial ownership that often plays out in these kinds of “alien invasion” narratives. The X-Files often finds itself engaging with this conflict, where the role of villain is just as often human (and highly empowered, as in the case of the shady Cigarette-Smoking Man and his unaccountable, elitist Syndicate) as it is alien: this gets almost too literal when the alien-human hybridity arc begins.

Or for a more topical example, the Mad Max series—not just Fury Road but the canon in its entirety—is exemplary of dystopian action sci-fi which tells so much of its story with a few well-placed shots and set pieces. At VashiVisuals, a nice breakdown of the most recent installment demonstrates the predominance of center framing in the cinematography, a clever technique which makes the visual storytelling, particularly during the hectic action scenes, very easy to follow. But more than that, it places a focal point on faces, expressions, and important objects so that we’re given a very immediate, visceral understanding of the narrative catalysts for that action. We’re made to empathize very quickly as we digest information. But in a broad sense, too, the environments in Mad Max provide a continuity to a central conflict that the sparse dialogue doesn’t need to explain, between nature and machine. Everything—everything—in the Mad Max universe is centered around the road. (Of course, right? They’re car chase movies! But bear with me.) This implies a very powerful social and economic reliance on motor vehicle transportation—in Fury Road the War Boys even religiously ritualize chrome and V8 engines—despite the very obvious ecological degradation that the resource exploitation required for this system to function is enabling. One could even read the whole canon of Mad Max as the slow, painful breakdown of all human systems as ecological support erodes around them (in the first, there’s the devastating failure of the justice system to stop Toecutter and his roving motorcycle gang), into eventual post-apocalyptic wasteland. In the first we have some semblance of structure and balance: towns, forests, beaches, televisions, hospitals, road police. Gradually, these objects fade from the mise en scène of the films, and thus from the memory of successive characters. Gradually, we go from a chase scene in a wood from the first film, to Fury Road where Nux has no idea what a “tree” is even called. But the roads—the roads—they stubbornly persist.

It might seem to be a moot point, but I think it’s fairly remarkable the degree to which speculative fiction relies on the environment to tell the story. Particularly in action-heavy contexts, only so much space in the narrative arc can be given over to exposition and backstory before the pacing begins to really drag. So, to compensate, a subtext-heavy environment is needed. The right establishing shot, or economized description of a setting, or in Ecco’s case the shape of the virtual space and the objects inside of it, needs to throw narrative motivation and thematic weight behind the action just to give what the characters do actual stakes (or in the case of a scripted videogame, what you enact via the characters). It’s for this reason that Ecco never has to change his expression or even say a word; the space itself focalizes his motivations and his struggles. Every single time we get lost in a rage-inducing entanglement of lookalike caves, or fail to laterally consider some obtuse, downright cruel puzzle solution, we become empathically linked to Ecco through our frustration with the space itself. Every time we fail a jump, or slowly drown because we can’t find a breather in time, or get bombarded by ornery sea crabs, we feel the gravity pulling us away from our goal. We aim for the sky, but we get dragged into the depths.

And every time we swim through the ruins of the Atlantis library, we confront the only human presence in the game and see it only exists in the past tense. All this high-minded technology and creativity, plunged into eroding quietude, waiting to be awoken one more time. All this learning and industriousness, these noble architectures, nothing but a mind-boggling wreck in the process of reclamation by nature. With his Sonar, Ecco can appeal to busted sculptures of what looks like Michelangelo’s David for brief invincibility underwater, but there’s something abject about this: Atlantis seems to point its finger at the pretense of human technological progress. It seems to kind of romantically point to our greater days being behind us, but perhaps more interestingly question the very rhetorical stance of technology as necessarily progressive or enlightening as naive and retrograde. It seems to say to us that even our most charitable perception of ourselves is still, ultimately and intrinsically, enmeshed in natural systems and subject to entropy.

Ecco encountering an Atlantean bust among the ruins.

So, like in The X-Files or Mad Max or countless other works of speculative fiction (I’m sure many a reader has already considered Dune or Star Wars in the same vein), environmental storytelling in Ecco the Dolphin is paramount to properly pacing and motivating the action—action which is complicated, frustrating, violent, and painstaking. As such, Ecco, like Mad Max, has very little scripted dialogue—but it’s just enough for us to understand. As such, Ecco, like just about any piece in the same intersection of genre fiction, derives most of its metaphoric meaning and emotional complexity from how those spaces orient and contextualize what we see, when we see it, and to what extent we interact with it. As such, the spaces are the story.

Because there are these layers of conflict and mystery, this ongoing discomfort with anthropocentrism and environmental exploitation, Ecco, like The X-Files, is not an easy piece to follow. As in, not only is it difficult to play, but it’s also willfully obtuse in how it constructs the order of events—and so an internal sense of narrative time—as you play it. It’s not all clear what the cause-and-effect between different actions and events is, and the nature of various things, like time travel, are sort of left up to interpretation. But there is a clear line drawn as we reach the climax, and everything, from the colour-palette to the level design to the enemies to the pacing, fundamentally changes.

At last, when I receive the Death Sonar, the thrust of this is that I must make a final sacrifice: I must go inside the Tube. And then I must enter the Machine. And then, finally, the I must carefully fight the enormous head of the Vortex queen, only to be eaten and ingested by her over and over again. If it weren’t for my save states, I’d have to repeat that whole process, from the seven-minute-long, arduous track-scrolling in the Machine stage to the final boss. I nearly panicked the one time I accidentally hit Save State instead of Load State, and had to recover a few minutes of lost ground.

Here, there’s an obvious and quite jarring aesthetic change: the crystalline blue oceans and mountain-dotted Lisa Frank-esque landscapes are exchanged for the articulated, segmented Giger-esque horror of this spacecraft, and in some ways I feel this is the game tearing off the mask. The inside of the Tube looks like a long, green esophagus dotted with deadly stuck-on food that I have to either headbutt to death or avoid. The Machine, with its jerking, relentless track scrolling—where the limits of the screen themselves seem to want to mow me down or trap me in a corner—is somewhere between a chlorine-swamped boiler room and the motherboard of a computer. Here, insectoid, consistently Giger-like aliens chase me at every angle, although I’m hard-pressed to say which part of the level is the top and which is the bottom. Here, I can’t even boost past them. I can’t avoid them—I must destroy their bodies, and then their stalking, ravenous heads.

Thanks to the Asterite, I have in my arsenal not just my upgraded Death Sonar but also the ability to breathe and regenerate life in these spacecraft levels. But mostly, this makes me live prey. These creatures from Vortex are pure consumption, and the current that compels me into their clutches an unbroken act of swallowing.

The Tube exiting into the Machine.

The Tube exiting into the Machine.

This is that line. Yes, technology here affords me the ability to breathe without aid, and my life regenerates if an alien doesn’t deplete my whole meter in one fell swoop, but it takes away everything else. I’m given a small comfort in exchange for a loss in agency and self-determination. Rather, that comfort is a concession that justifies the loss of everything else.  The subtle violence of the open waters becomes as gracelessly direct as any level in Contra. At least in the labyrinthine caverns of the deep sea, I could choose when, where and how to move to a much greater extent. If I got lost, it was because I went the wrong way (although the game shares at least some responsibility for being barely navigable). In the Tube, I’m sucked up vertically no matter what. All I can do is defend myself against enemies. In the Machine, I’m stuck being carted around in all manner of pre-determined directions. All I can do is keep myself from getting eaten along the way, but that’s the point: I’m food for the queen. The whole process was to lead me to her gigantic head, and the final act of swallowing which I must carefully, surgically avoid. Here, my life won’t regenerate if I take a hit, so I have to be careful with how I angle my Death Sonar (and how I, cheater that I am, deploy my save states.) First I must blind her in both eyes, then I must avoid being finally swallowed whole and ram headfirst into her fanged mandible, and when it finally detaches I must ram into her bulbous, green cranium.

The subtext of how the Vortex levels are shaped and navigated, and therefore how they engage the player in challenge, compared to how one maps the cavernous deep sea or scales belittling, high cliffs, is making an ideological statement that becomes unignorable in those final chapters of the game. In the Atlantis levels, we saw a depiction of human knowledge and technology which exists in some kind of balance with nature, but is nonetheless full of ghosts, submerged and eroded. I’m hesitant to say that a developer of computer games would outright reject technology, but I think that Annunziata and Novotrade have brought some uncomfortable, paradoxical truths that I’m still unsure of how to reconcile and that few anti-capitalist thinkers throughout history have been able to find a solution for. On the one hand, so much of “human advancement”—really, what we usually mean by this is luxury commodities resulting from surplus value—exploit natural resources and systems while increasingly alienating us from them, from our own bodies. On the other, nature is cruelly indifferent, often violent, and constantly at odds with the survival impulse of the life it supports. Often, Ecco fights the very nature he’s trying to rescue, and while the game never gets easy the upgrades to his Sonar, the invincibility provided by the Atlantean busts, the time machine, and the melancholy history stored in the sunken library give the player a necessary degree of control over the environment they need to traverse. Even the “glyphs”, these magical crystals that Ecco must use to open up critical pathways throughout the game are a lingering claim to technology entwined with the natural environment. And while their use as locks and keys often feels like a hindrance, these crystals are also often a help in that they store information accessible via Sonar, most notably in the library. They help articulate the tragic, confusing situation that the spaces allow us to feel. Technology is not, I don’t think, something that’s portrayed as inherently bad, nor is “nature” inherently nurturing or welcoming. In large part it’s deceptively beautiful but in actuality quite brutal.

But I also believe, when it comes to the Vortex levels, that we witness the result of technology as a means of weaponized, cynical consumption. We witness the ideology of infinite growth and resource exploitation in its own cruel indifference to the creatures it culls. We witness how this drives Ecco underground, into more and more precarious territory, as basic comforts are taken away from him. We witness how Ecco himself is forced to become a weapon, how Sonar becomes Death Sonar. I say there are no live humans in the game but I believe we do witness, if not an alien-human hybrid, then the hideously contorted face of global empire’s exploitation of everything it sucks passively into its gullet. Yes, I’m no longer responsible for the act of moving or even breathing, but who moves me and to what end? And if I can’t keep up with the invisible conveyor belt of the Machine, I get squished into its literal margins.

Finally succeeding in my mission, the queen vomits up all the marine life she had glutted herself on. My reward is the retrieval of my pod and their gratitude. My reward, the denouement, is swimming freely with them in Home Bay, breaching up and somersaulting in what would surely be a glinting midday sunlight if only the graphics allowed for a lens flare. But nothing is really the same, nor is it really resolved. The battle is won, but the Vortex still need food and no alternative harvesting system has apparently been put forward. The hunger persists. And the memory of how Ecco had to change, not all for the better, remains. Death Sonar remains. We all know what’s beyond Home Bay, and that’s the innocence that Ecco, for all his vapid grinning, will never get back. But at least there is some calm before the next storm.