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.Continued on the next page...