Solo Gamer Reviews

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Ecco the Dolphin and the Man Who Thought Aliens Stole His Penis

And here I thought the name was short for "echolocation"; boy, was I wrong

In the early days of console gaming, Sega published an innocuous-looking game about a playful dolphin that--if you get past the opening segments--reveals itself to be an unusually dark epic about time travel and hostile aliens that harvest marine life every few centuries. The game is an oddity unto itself, created by Ed Annunziata, a man who played Pink Floyd tracks to the development team to get them in the right mindset (the second-to-last level is even titled "Welcome to the Machine"). Anyone who was a gamer back in those days probably remembers Ecco for its tight, difficult gameplay and totally whacked-out plot turns.

But for all its weirdness, the game has nothing on the life story of the man who probably inspired it. Dr. John C. Lilly was a scientist who influenced not only Ecco the Dolphin, but also the triptastic, Academy-Award-nominated film Altered States. He once did so much ketamine he claims aliens came to visit him, removed his penis, and replaced it with a bionic implant, just for a laugh.

Though Ecco developer Annunziata has been coy about whether or not his game was created with Lilly in mind, he does admit to having researched the man before writing it. There are also some clear similarities between Lilly's psychedelic experiences and those of Ecco that are too on the nose* to be entirely coincidental. For instance, those aliens who pranked Lilly's privates? They were from the Earth Coincidence Control Office (acronym: E.C.C.O.).

[*The phrase "on the nose" is going to take on a whole new meaning in a few paragraphs.]

John Lilly
John Lilly: a totally credible scientist

John Lilly's early career is concerned with sensory deprivation tanks, the nature of consciousness, and heavy drug use, especially the aforementioned ketamine, but he would gain even more notoriety in the field of dolphin research, which is how he came to Annunziata's attention when the game developer was looking for inspiration for a dolphin-themed video game. Lilly is considered by many to be a pioneer in the field without whom our understanding of marine mammals would be decades behind its current state, but his dolphin research was, in a word, unorthodox. Convinced that dolphins had the capacity to learn human speech, for example, Lilly's first attempts at proving his hypothesis involved giving massive doses of LSD to a bottlenose dolphin.

A cetacean on acid could certainly explain Ecco the Dolphin.

But wait, it gets weirder. At one point, Lilly became determined to prove that dolphins and humans could cohabitate, and so he devised his most infamous experiment, in which a male dolphin named Peter and a human woman named Margaret lived together for ten weeks. He built a special house with water everywhere, no electronics, and places where the two different species would have to interact on a regular basis. After a few weeks, things got... interesting.

Peter and Margaret
Some things shouldn't be image searched

By that, I mean the woman and the dolphin were having sexual relations. Margaret gave him handjobs, and Peter put his nose in her vagina. This is a thing that happened, and Lilly, rather than being horrified by the development, wrote about how excited he was that it was happening. As an interesting postscript, Margaret went on to marry the man who photographed her experiences with the dolphin, and Peter the dolphin, depressed after the experiment was over and the two were separated, committed suicide. Take some time to process that last sentence if need be.

This pornographic bestiality romcom may have revealed some interesting things about dolphin psychology and the psychology of drug-addled scientists, but it nearly ruined Lilly's career and reputation for reasons I hope are self-explanatory. Still, it didn't completely end Lilly's work, and he continued dabbling in dolphin research well into his golden years. In addition, he was a key component of the rise of SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), and he wrote several best-selling books about the nature of consciousness and the existence of aliens with whom he had communicated, including E.C.C.O. and a malevolent machine hive mind he called S.S.I. (Solid State Intelligence).

Sufficed to say, Lilly was a bit strange, and the story of his wild career no doubt holds a special interest for a guy who plays Pink Floyd to help get in the mood to create a video game about a dolphin who goes on a time-bending journey to save his pod. If there's an afterlife that reflects what a person went through in his regular life, I sincerely hope that Ecco is, in reality, John C. Lilly, swimming along on his eternal trip to bring the fight to those dastardly aliens who took his penis.

-e. magill 3/8/2018

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