Friends and family of Dark Seed may wish to look away now. I had never played the game before this review, but had heard it was an unsettling piece of Clive Barker-ian psychological horror. Actually playing it, it feels like someone’s attempt at making their own low-rate version of the Cthulhu mythos. Put simply, this is a pretty by-the-numbers adventure that wouldn’t even be remembered if it wasn’t for the involvement of Alien concept artist H.R. Giger. That said, I guess I must be the biggest adventure game mark in the world because I still managed to have some fun with it.
Dark Seed begins with a screen of the protagonist, Mike Dawson, having his skull split open and an alien pod shot into his brain. You’re then told these events form a strange nightmare during your first night in your spooky new home. This question of “what’s real and what isn’t?” does somewhat continue through the game, though without presenting alternate theories to explain what you’re seeing, it seems clear by the middle of the second day that nightmare creatures from another dimension really are at work here. In which case, Asprin actually does stop alien larvae from squirming around inside your skull. Look for that in the marketing soon.
Your mission, then, is to save the world in three days. You’ll do this by examining all the leftover furniture that came with the house, talking to the locals in an extremely limited way (no dialogue trees or such), and trying to determine just what is up with your new address. If you haven’t solved the game by the end of the third day, Mike will die as an alien pupa taken from the art of H.R. Giger bursts from his body in a similar, but legally distinct, way.
Gameplay is strictly about finding items and using them. Your first day will be spent exploring your new home and the few shops in the surrounding town. You’ll find journal scraps from a previous owner, a few friendly enough, but strangely distant locals, and, as said, a vibe awfully similar to Shadow of the Comet. You’ll learn where items like the phone are located within the house, so later, when they ring, you’ll know where to go. And you’ll get a few strange visions, shown as some element of a close-up item fading between “reality” and a nightmare version.
You’re also introduced to the game’s fairly light time-of-day system. Time passes at the rate of about one game minute for every four seconds. Your day will end at 10 PM each night, as Mike announces he’s sleepy and charges off to bed. You’ll also need to conduct your business during the day before shops close up at night, and there’s exactly one moment where you’re given an appointment and will not get a second chance if you’re not there on time. The town screens don’t change to indicate fading daylight, so the only way you can check the time is by examining the clock in your living room.
Interaction is handled through a Sierra-lite interface. The right mouse button switches between Look, Move, and Use states, with the cursor changing as you hover over a spot you can manipulate. Observations appear in a text window, or if you got the CD “talkie” version, are also spoken aloud. There’s the expected snarky jokes and self-reference – though the game is hardly funny, it adopts the tone legally required by all late-80s adventure games. Items go in your bottomless inventory, and clicking on them to apply them within the world is all standard stuff.
If you’re worried about any of this being a hassle, in practice, it isn’t. There’s barely five items to play with or investigate in each scene, betraying the game’s budget, but also keeping you easily on track. There are no conversation trees to get lost in, no clusters of nearby items to confuse, and no real mechanical puzzles to trip you up. Even the game’s most notorious item – a tiny, inconspicuous bobby pin – was easily found during my standard “screen sweep,” looking for the cursor to change and indicate something to use.
The time limits didn’t become a problem for me until the second day, and only because I lost track of the time. You can save and load your game at any point, letting you easily revert to the start of the day after you’ve examined everything and worked out your plan. That sounds like a ridiculous annoyance from a modern perspective, but it’s par for the course for adventures of the time – when the concept of scouting ahead and then reloading to the beginning of the day even felt like cheating!
Of course, this allows for the other big adventure standard: being able to silently miss items that render the game unplayable. If you miss even a simple stick, you can’t beat the game. If you neglect to hide everything useful under a pillow at one point, you won’t have it when you need it and you can’t beat the game. If you buy too much extra crap at the store, you won’t have enough money for later and can’t beat the game. It’s the trade-off for being able to save and load at any time, and if you manage your saves, you can limit the frustration this causes (plus the rare, but absolutely possible, deaths for certain actions). Still, if you’re not prepared, being left with no option but to restart the entire game (maybe more than once!) will surely inspire a rage quit.
Without getting too spoilery, the game doesn’t open up until the second day. Here you unlock a portal to an alternate dimension, previously only seen in those brief visions. Everything here is in Giger’s patented style of bio-mechanical hell, and the colors even shift to nearly monochrome. Every screen in the “real” world has its mirror in the nightmare world, and the two interplay in odd ways that form the core of many puzzles. For example, you can’t open a door in the nightmare world, but it will be gone if you leave open its counterpart in the real world. A car in the real world becomes an alien spacecraft in the nightmare world, and the craft’s power source is tied directly to the car’s engine. A strange creature has apparently been leeching your life force every time you use the shower (and you thought your biggest problem was mildew!)
This is easily the game’s most interesting aspect, and the point where the time and day limits started to feel oppressive. I wanted to wander around and explore this world, and it took a few back-and-forth trips to work out what did (and needed to) change. It also highlights the game’s largest disappointment – it’s quite short, and the scope is limited. There are only three major locations in the game: your mansion, a cemetery to the left, and three buildings in town to the right. With the nightmare world tied directly the real, you won’t find any additional locations there. As said, the number of items you can interact with on each screen is sparse, so overall, there’s just not that much to do.
I also found the story’s presentation lacking, owing mostly to a complete lack of characterization to Mike Dawson. Mike (who is played by the game’s producer, by the way) is simply another adventure avatar shell who wanders about the locations with no opinions on the proceedings. He shrugs off terrifying visions without so much as a pause, never once considers getting the hell out of town, and only complains when you don’t take your daily Asprin or remember to shower before talking to people. The game’s already taken away the concept of playing as “you,” so it might as well give the protagonist some comments on his situation. Instead, you’ll be eagerly scurrying off to use a radio in the garage, because a vision in a book told you to listen to instructions from a mysterious broadcast, because that’s not crazy at all!
Finally, it’s worth noting that H.R. Giger’s famous involvement is actually quite limited. He provides no new art for the game. Instead, Cyberdreams’ art team is extending areas based on his style, or using specific paintings from his catalog as the core of the scene. They do a good enough job of this, but if you were expecting something exclusive, or a world drawn from the mind of Giger (rather than inspired by), you’ll be disappointed. On a side note, the painting on the cover is “Li II,” will be used for a character within the game, and is an image of Giger’s former lover who took her own life. That’s probably the creepiest part of the game.
Dark Seed isn’t a bad adventure by any stretch, but it’s not a great one either. Its two parallel worlds, and the interaction between them, are fun to explore, but the daily time limits imposed on you mean you’ll need to be prepared to manage your saves and avoid doing everything entirely at your own pace. I wish Mike had more to say about his situation than dry observations and the occasional culture reference, because it’s hard to get a real sense of horror when the guy walking around with the embryo in his noggin seems pretty nonplussed about the whole affair. Worth finishing if you’re interested, but there are better, scarier adventures elsewhere.
Smart interactions between the two worlds, that I really enjoyed figuring out. Simple, standard adventure interface. Multiple saves from anywhere take the bite out of some its “old adventure game” design. The Giger-inspired mirror world is appropriately strange to explore.
No emotion from the central protagonist/your character. Few locations and little to interact with on each screen. Time system and the ability to miss objects mean you’ll need to think about your saves or risk having to start all the way over again.
‘John Tuttle, beloved Siamese twin.’
Oh no! Now you have twin ashes all over you!