Dark Seed review
Among horror fans, there are few names capable of generating instant recognition and reverence: Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. Stephen King and Clive Barker. John Carpenter and Anne Rice, maybe. And certainly, when it comes to visual arts: H. R. Giger, the Swiss painter and sculptor, thanks to his surreal visions of otherworldly nightmares. Giger achieved cult status in 1979 when he designed the “Alien” creature for the feature film of the same name. His creation earned him an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects, and his widespread popularity even led to the opening of a permanent museum dedicated to his art. To this day, his name is synonymous with hellish landscapes where human and machine melt in an often sexually fetishistic representation. It was only a matter of time before Giger’s disturbing imagery landed on our computer screens, and it did so in 1992 with Dark Seed, an adventure game from Cyberdreams. If you are a horror buff who enjoys dark themes and creepy atmospheres, your appetite may already be whetted, but be warned: the game has many rough edges and is almost unbelievably unforgiving. However, if you can move past the extreme frustrations that will inevitably occur, you will certainly find plenty to enjoy in this morbid trip.
According to Dark Seed’s manual, Mike Dawson is the Chairman of the Board for a thriving advertising company based in San Francisco. However, Mike’s ambition has always been to become a writer, and in search of a quiet haven where he can pursue his novelist career, he buys a fully-furnished Victorian manor in Woodland Hills, California. The old, secluded mansion seems like the perfect place to discover the “elusive blessing of inspiration,” and he moves in right away, without even taking time to inspect the house thoroughly. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, Mike really should have given the estate a decent look-over, because it takes only a couple of hours in its murky, damp rooms for him to realize that he ended up with much more than he bargained for. In fact, a strange vision visits him during his first night in the house – a twisted dream of unfathomable horrors and fearful torture devices – and excruciating migraines start to plague him, as if something has made its way into his head.
This is only the beginning of a wicked living nightmare, where foul creatures lurk in every shadow and shocking hallucinations threaten to shatter Mike’s fragile sanity and devour his very soul. At first, Mike rationalizes these dreams he’s having as nothing more than deluded fantasies, but when he starts seeing things while still wide awake, like pretty dolls turning into abominable fetuses or his own reflection changing to a translucent fanged monster, he must accept the terrifying reality that something is horribly wrong in Woodland Hills. Through the journals of the house’s previous owner, who seems to have suffered from the same symptoms, Mike learns that there is another world, just outside the border of this one, where an alien race of deformed and perverse creatures known as the Ancients is waiting to invade Earth and annihilate all of humanity. Their Dark World can be accessed by means of a large mirror that sits in the living room, alongside ghoulish paintings of warped faces, and it will be up to Mike to enter this monstrous dimension and thwart the Ancients’ baleful plan.
This is pretty much all the story you get in Dark Seed, so if you are expecting a brilliant plot able to enthrall and surprise you, brace yourself for a big disappointment. Sometimes it feels like the developers – perhaps too content with their exclusive Giger license – didn’t even bother with a cohesive plot and simply outlined a basic premise for the game. The good news is that, as basic as this premise may be, it is nonetheless intriguing and impressively atmospheric. The bad news is that without the support of much narrative framework, the characters (and Mike Dawson in particular) turn out to be flat, mono-dimensional figures without any sign of personality or development. This detachment from the protagonist disrupts the feeling of immersion and negatively affects the frightening value of the title, as there’s very little concern created for his personal safety. In fact, while the peculiar, disquieting setting succeeded in making me feel uneasy, without developing any connection with Dawson I rarely experienced the sense of urgency and impending danger that the circumstances are supposed to elicit. That doesn’t mean the game isn’t fearsome at all, but the scares it delivers are somehow diminished by the shallowness of the leading character.
The writing doesn’t help either. While the descriptions of the various rooms are generally suggestive and nicely written, most of the time the writing is pretty dull and quite inconsistent. In fact, sometimes the adventure ditches its somber, gloomy tone and resorts, rather inexplicably, to a lightweight, tongue-in-cheek sarcasm that usually fails to be amusing, instead merely seeming insincere. For example, when Mike enters the alien version of a police station – a lurid place with organic walls and skulls “embellishing” the floor – the description reads: “The main lobby of an alien jail. Looks like they could use a new decorator.” As for the inconsistency, the very next room you’ll find yourself in is an oppressively dark cell with a revolting bowel-like bed, prompting an ominous: “Alien graffiti scars the walls. No one who enters here ever leaves alive”. I’m not against an injection of (preferably black) humor even in the most serious drama, but these feeble attempts at sardonic remarks in Dark Seed feel contrived and insubstantial. Responses to player actions are even more insipid, always stating the obvious without any genuine spark or original spin. Clicking on the various furniture in the house results in dreary, self-explanatory commentary like “You see a clock”, “There is a painting here” or “This is your bed”. Unfortunately, this monotony hinders the foreboding atmosphere of the game, actually working against the ability of Giger’s artwork to send shivers down the player’s spine. They still do, but that’s no excuse to neglect the writing so much.
Speaking of Giger, when the artist originally agreed to lend his works to Cyberdreams, he did so under the condition that the developers use only high-resolution graphics. As a result, Dark Seed is a feast for the eyes, the only notable exception being the character models, which clearly show their age with stiff movements and clunky animations. Apart from this minor quibble, the game is visually rich, right down to the marble-like frame that surrounds the screen, with its crimson veins and velvety black drapes making you feel like you’re sitting in an old theater watching a nineteenth century Grand Guignol play. And what a stage design this is! The reduced color palette of the game – using only shades of black, brown and dark green, with just a pinch of pale blue and maybe a hint of dark red – conveys a sinister feeling of ghastly suspense, while the baroque design of Mike’s mansion, with its dusty furniture, funereal paintings and faded, flaky wallpaper, is the perfect set for this horror tale. Even the clash between different architectural styles, like the Victorian manor and the Egyptian-like mausoleum, the Neoclassical library and the blue-collar, shabby barber shop, rather than being ridiculous, actually further enhances the malignant ambiance. And, of course, the Dark World, directly stemming from Giger’s imagination, is a fiendish reverie of twisted geometries and biomechanical textures, where the hues of blue and sulphuric green make for a shivering experience, one that literally oozes a noxious, almost pestilential atmosphere.
With its eerie drums and strident dissonances that give it an almost electronic sound, the orchestration suits the biomechanical feeling of the setting very well, creating an unnerving mood that will urge players to tune the music down – and I say this in a good way, believe me. Screeching clangs, shrill noises and disturbed jangles will create tension and anxiety, and the occasional bizarre, almost tribal tune usually connected to the alien dimension, will leave you aghast at the sound of its unearthly beats. Unfortunately, the character voices have a metallic, slightly distorted quality, but since the voice acting is pretty sparse, this is only a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent audio production.
Dark Seed plays from a third-person perspective and every action is performed with a simple point-and-click. The right mouse button cycles through the different options and a left-click performs the selected action. The inventory is accessed by hovering the cursor at the top of the screen, and from here you can look closely at every object in your possession. So far, everything’s fine and quite traditional. However, just as Mike discovers of his house, it doesn’t take long for the player to realize that the interface isn’t as smooth as it initially appears: not only is the mouse response really sluggish, but many times I found myself stumped by the game’s internal logic, or lack thereof. For example, if you want to use a rope to get down from a balcony, you have to select the arrow icon, but if you want to use the rope to climb up the same balcony, you must use the hand cursor instead. There are several such inconsistencies and odd design choices, and simply finding the right mechanic to use can be a pretty unintuitive process, made worse by the fact that every time you fail to use the right cursor, the game resets any item you may have selected in the meantime. Aggravating the situation still further, the game is also plagued by some severe pixel hunting: there’s a moment during the first day (out of three into which the game is divided) when you have to retrieve a certain object that is represented – no exaggeration – by only two black pixels hidden on a dark wooden floor.
While these issues will certainly slow you down, none are as punishing as the most serious problem: dead ends. Being a Sierra fan, I’m pretty used to unwinnable scenarios, but Dark Seed is so unforgiving that completing it the first time without a walkthrough is almost impossible. If you fail to obtain certain items at the right time, it can be game over without even knowing it. If you aren’t around at certain times, it’s game over. If you don’t realize the importance of seemingly unimportant items beforehand, it’s game over again. Or at least, game over once you finally realize you can’t move on. On top of this, the game simulates a day-night cycle, and if Mike happens to be outside his house when night falls, he falls asleep and every item in his possession will be stolen. If this happens in the Dark World – he must suffer from a severe form of narcolepsy to be able to sleep in such a horrifying place – he dies. While this inevitably adds a certain urgency to the game, it also adds a lot of frustration to an otherwise pretty simple game.
This is a shame, because the puzzles show the potential to be clever and effectively use the parallel universe concept. Given that the Dark World exactly mirrors Mike’s reality, there are plenty of opportunities for the player to use this mystical connection to good advantage, finding creative ways to interact with one of the two dimensions to influence the other. This kind of challenge revolves mostly around the inventory and is usually pretty straightforward, once you get used to the peculiar logic of the alien dimension. Unfortunately, this potential is sometimes wasted away due to a strained linearity that will make you feel like you’re running errands on a very tight schedule, with almost no chance to deviate. For example, if you need a stick, even if you live in a house surrounded by woods, there is only one place and one moment that you can obtain such an item, or if you find yourself craving a drink, there is only one bottle of liquor in the whole town, and you better get it as soon as you possibly can.
There are some puzzles that aren’t subjected to such restrictions, as players will have to hide or affect certain items in Mike’s world to get hold of them in the Dark World, and you will be surprised how much can change in the alien dimension by simply turning on an old radio this side of the mirror. Unfortunately, the developers didn’t put much thought into implementing these puzzles, relying too heavily on insanely arbitrary time-sensitive events and correlated dead ends. Without these hindrances, Dark Seed could have been a more satisfying experience, but as it is, regrettably the game is more a matter of being at the right place at the right time than cleverly planning your way through the meanders of the game.
Rating Dark Seed is really a tough task. Being a fan of Giger’s surreal imagery and a horror buff personally, I really liked it. The first time around, with the aid of a walkthrough to avoid the harshest dead ends, I clocked in roughly five or six hours. However, after that I felt compelled to play again many times, just to enjoy its venomous atmosphere, baroque graphics and luxuriant orchestration, and each time the adventure succeeded in scaring me, making me feel strangely aware of every shadow in my own room. On the other hand, the lack of plot and character development (key aspects that its sequel fortunately improved) are flaws I can’t overlook, and while the unforgiving gameplay and dead ends didn’t bother me too much (hey, I survived King’s Quest III!), many players will be understandably driven away by these issues. Suffice to say, then, that Dark Seed definitely isn’t a game for everyone. It certainly isn’t for the faint-of-heart, but if you like Giger’s twisted universe or enjoy provoking horror movies like Hellraiser, you will appreciate the adventure for what it is: a flawed but intriguing journey through the dark corners of an infernal nightmare.
Dark Seed disappoints in both story development and gameplay, but it sports some splendid (for the time) production values and a sinister atmosphere, so horror fans might enjoy this journey inside Giger’s wicked imagination.