Written by: Stoo

Date posted: September 4, 2003

Mike explores his new home. It’s a bit creepy from the start.

This is the story of Mike Dawson, writer and wearer of a slight mullet. Who’s actually the principal writer of this game as well as its star. Now, if I was putting myself in a game I’m pretty sure it would involve giant robots or X-wings or something, but hey, each to their own. Anyway he’s bought himself a new house in a small town – setting himself up for a pretty comfy life, you might think. Pleasant surroundings, away from the hassle of city life, friendly neighbours. Except he’s also been having hideous nightmares, and what he rapidly learns is that these are just the first warning of a terrible threat to mankind.

Today’s game is Dark Seed, a fairly minor title in the pantheon of point-and-click graphical adventures. This genre, a staple of gaming from the mid eighties to mid nineties, was largely dominated by the two major institutions of Lucasarts and Sierra. Although their styles certainly differed, I think it would be fair to say they both tended to produce games of a fairly bright and cheerful nature. This one however is a much darker affair (I guess there was a clue in the title), planting itself in sci-fi horror territory.

The monochrome horror of the dark world.

It begins with a vision of Mike’s nightmare – involving evil-looking machinery implanting something in his head (a dark… seed, perhaps?). Then he wakes up in his new home, desperately in need of something for a headache, and you take control. The game is reasonably atmospheric from the start, with a creepy feel hanging over events. The house is grand but a little dilapidated, hiding a few secrets amidst the junk and peeling wallpaper. You can also head into town – picturesque but oddly quiet. In fact something about the environment makes me think of an X-files episode. Not the alien-conspiracy ones, I mean the standalone stories where something secret and weird is going on behind the scenes in a small town in the middle of nowhere.

Early on there are a few clues as to what’s happening – fragments of a journal, a brief vision of a baby doll that for one moment looks horribly wrong. Unravelling the clues leads to uncovering a portal to the Dark World; the domain of an ancient and evil force. It exists as a mirror image to the real world – every location in Mikes house or the town has a counterpart here.

You see a child’s doll morph into this abomination. Then you scream incoherently and delete the game forever.

It’s also where the game unleashes its special selling point: the artwork of H R Giger. You might be familiar with the name – Giger was responsible for much of the design work on the film Alien, including the xenomorphs themselves. So you can expect a nightmarish, monochrome feel, much of it in a kind of biomechanical style with bodies or faces linked into structures and machinery. Also a fair bit of corrugated tubing. Thus the Dark World exists as a kind of horrible twisted parody of Mike’s town. Again there aren’t actually many people (or beings) to be found there, apart from a couple of nasty monsters on guard. In fact it’s curiously empty. In some ways though that reinforces the lonely feel to the game – and heightens the sense of some cold, intangible and utterly evil force behind it all

So then for setting, plot and ambience Darkseed does pretty well. Sadly it tends to fall down in the execution. If you’re more familiar with Lucasarts adventures, you might be used to the very relaxed feel of those games – wandering about solving problems usually at your own pace, without any kind of threat or fear of “losing” the game in some sense. Dark Seed however is a lot more demanding. Time passes in-game, and you only have three days to get to the bottom of fixing Mike’s nightmares. This means you must take specific actions each day, in order to meet that deadline. Also, Mike must get to bed on time every day; otherwise he apparently just curls up and dies on the spot.

You can visit the small town’s high street, you won’t interact with the people all that much.

Within those constraints, the game makes life difficult in other ways. It will let you either take a wrong action, or fail to take action, such that you’ll later be unable to finish the game. This might be missing a timed event, or failing to use a certain item at the correct point. So you just blunder on until you hit game-over. It’s frustrating really, something I’d call just plain bad design. Actually, its worse than having events that kill you on the spot (see: Sierra games) because at least in those cases you normally know immediately what’s gone wrong, and can try to avoid it. The key difference of better games (see: Lucasarts) was that they felt like they wanted you to complete them. So even if the puzzling was tricky and it took a while to figure out, you usually couldn’t die, and also couldn’t take any kind of permanently “wrong” action.

Here’s one quite specific example of where Dark Seed can frustrate: pixel hunting. In fact it’s so bad I’ll tell you exactly what to do. When you first visit the library, get the pin off the floor. It’s brown and about five pixels long, and you could so very easily miss the damn thing.

The verdict then: atmospheric but annoying. The lack of interaction is perhaps a flaw, but arguably works towards the game’s general ambience. The punishing structure however definitely reduces the fun on offer. If that had been done better, then I could have recommended this as an interesting alternative to the happy and colourful mainstream of adventuring. As it stands, well, it does still have its points of interest, but only tackle this one if you either have lots of patience or a walkthrough on standby.