You're swimming, gloriously free, through clear blue waters, munching on schools of fish. Your pod swims around you, and you talk through high-pitched squeals, discussing the warmth of the sun, or the movement of the waves. Eventually, you get it into your head to hurl yourself into the sky; perhaps to impress your friends, perhaps to simply feel the wind against your body. You power towards the surface and breach, soaring upward like a rocket.
Screeching. Whirling. A cacophonous rending of metal. The oceans around you roil as countless living things - including your friends, your family - fly upward into the sky.
Eventually, the seas and sky calm. You fall into an empty ocean, devoid of life. Silence.
This is how Ecco The Dolphin begins, and this is the sequence - more than the libraries of Atlantis, more than the relentless difficulty of the Machine - that sticks in the mind of every child who has ever played it.
Childhood Cause and Effect
When you're young, you don't understand that events around you might have causes and effects beyond your understanding. If you do something, and something else happens, you often assume the two are related, even though you may realize later in life that they obviously weren't. This is known as post hoc ergo propter hoc, or "after this, therefore because of this." Because something came after what you did, you naturally assume that your action caused the later effect.
Ecco is a perfect example of this in action. The primal fear of the intro is born from that impulse to assume that what you did caused it; you jumped into the air, and when you did the whirlwind sucked everything away. That act of jumping is functionally and fundamentally linked to the result of your pod being sucked away. Of course, you realize later in life (and in the game) that it's merely an invisible trigger, and that story-wise you did nothing at all. Your jump was necessary to escape the vortex and set in motion the events of the game. That's all.
Before that, though, you believe that you caused this. Your hubris, your desire, your leap led to this bleak existence. Your complete isolation.
The loss of your old life.
Divorce, Abandonment, and Adulthood
It's common for children of divorced parents to assume, at least for a time, that something they did caused the divorce. They did something, and their parents split up, leaving them feeling like their family is broken, empty, gone. This feeling of abandonment often persists into adulthood, despite logic and maturity dictating to that former child that it was not, in fact, anything they did.
This abandonment complex is perfectly represented in Ecco through the intro. Through your actions, your life is ripped away. Your family and friends are gone in a chaostic maelstrom, lost (seemingly) forever. You are left to drop into the sea alone, and explore an ocean full of other dolphins, but none quite like - or related to - you.
It's easy to look back on this as an adult, and even play it as an adult, and miss the emotional resonance. Even in stable homes - like mine - the sense of alienation, of isolation, of abandonment, is so strong in Ecco that it always leaves a lasting impression. Above all else, Ecco is a game fundamentally about the isolation of adulthood, the loss of innocence, and the gradual knowledge that sometimes things just stay broken.
While the intro is merely the first step on this path - which leads through dark waters, a sentient double helix, and a bio-mechanical race of consumption - it defines the rest of Ecco as a fundamentally sad, and weird, and solitary, and quiet game. The slow crooning of the game's FM synth soundtrack, the haunting wails of the animals, the "ping" of a crystal, the gloomy and slow level design; Ecco introduces you to a sadder world outside the realm of what you are normally introduced to as a child.
Adult Issues, Child Minds
Ecco is ostensibly a child's game, a title full of lovely sea creatures and interesting environments. But it's a game that doesn't speak down to you; every element is full of nuance, of metaphor, that you only realize years later. There are many pieces of media which grow with age, that are equally enjoyable to the appreciative adult as well as the inquisitive child, but Ecco easily ranks among the best.
These are issues of maturity, life lessons usually taught through pain and suffering. No matter what you do, people leave. Sometimes, that's simply how it's meant to be. While the game concerns itself with Ecco's quest to save his pod, you could end the game at that first screen - as so many children have, awestruck and terrified at what just happened - and understand Ecco's message.
Ecco teaches you terror, and sadness, and solitude, and acceptance. All in a single intro.
Recommended reading: Lana Polanksy's piece on Ecco, consumption, and environmental storytelling.
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