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Revenge of the License: Dark Seed

Over the lifespan of this column, we’ve looked at games licensed from every conceivable medium: blockbuster films, television shows, comic books, sporting events, fashion dolls, a casino, a restaurant, table top role-playing games, and even real life. Just when you sit back and think you’ve covered every conceivable thing a game company could pay money to borrow from someone else, you realize life, uh, finds a way (to remind you that, like John Snow, you know nothing). Case and point, Cyberdreams’ disturbing 1992 adventure game Dark Seed which built its foundation by licensing not a particular brand or person’s likeness, but rather an iconic art style. Sorry Art History majors: looks like Georgia O’Keeffe and Andy Warhol just didn’t have what it took. Maybe next time?

Title Screen

If the name H. R. Giger doesn’t ring a bell, but that cover artwork looks vaguely familiar in a fiendish sort of way, don’t worry–it just means you’ve seen at least one film in the Alien franchise. Giger’s self-described ‘biomechanical’ style resonated deep enough with the writers of ‘Alien’ that they brought the man himself in as a consultant. Giger bringing his ‘Necronom IV’ painting to shambling, KY-Jelly-smeared life resulted in him glowering at the Academy until they gave him an Oscar. To be fair, Giger in real life was one of the few artists scarier than the stuff he airbrushed into existence, so we totally understand.

‘Menacing Walter Koenig’ is a look so few artists can make work. (c) HRGiger.com

Anyway, back to Dark Seed. The game opens in media res with a guy literally having his forehead ripped open by a pair of disembodied skeleton hands. The world’s scariest pinball machine plunger then pulls back and fires a fetal nightmare into the resultant hole.

Pictured: Birth control.

Then, as the game’s text puts it, “After a horrifying nightmare, Mike Dawson awakens to the first day in his new house.” Apparently Mike Dawson hasn’t seen enough horror films–after a dream like that, I’d awaken to the last goddamn day in my new house, but you can’t say the tone wasn’t set from the beginning. Seriously, what’s with adventure gaming protagonists moving into new houses without having them thoroughly inspected? Looking at you here, Scratches. You too, Phantasmagoria.

Likewise, explain how you afford a mansion like this on a writer’s salary.

Dark Seed‘s main conceit involves an intrusion into our world by a parallel universe called The Dark World, ruled by a group of beings known as The Ancients. Unfortunate protagonist Mike Dawson, named after one of the game’s producers and designers, is going to be that doorway unless he can figure out a way to get rid of that headache in a more permanent fashion than chugging some aspirin. Thus begins a three-day journey through places that would give Jason Voorhees nightmares. As an adventure game, it’s ridiculously effective at setting and tone. Even when it’s not trying to be, Dark Seed is creepy. When it is trying, Dark Seed is relentless in introducing the player to its awful visions. Things in the real world, like the house Dawson just moved into, are drawn just on the wrong side of normal. You can’t find anything wrong with them, but everything still seems ‘off’ by a couple degrees.

Wonder why the real estate agent never disclosed this before the sale?

Then the Dark World intrudes, and the game devolves into nothing but high-octane nightmare fuel. There’s a reason this game keeps showing up on those “Scariest Games of All Time” lists people like to throw together. And let’s be honest: if you license Giger, you should wind up with something that would make even hardcore necrophiles contemplate where their lives have gone wrong.

Here. It went wrong right here.

Given my enchantment with horror games, Dark Seed seems the sort of thing I’d evangelize from here until kingdom come and under normal circumstances I would. The game comes with one massive, nearly fatal flaw though: it’s far, far, far more difficult than an adventure game has any business being, and the difficulty stems from the game’s complete refusal to assist you in any way.

You don’t realize it at first, but Dark Seed is on a timer, and this timer stops for nobody. Completing the game requires you to be in certain places, ready to perform certain actions, at certain points in the game’s internal schedule, and if you aren’t, then it’s game over. Also, actions you take in the normal world might affect Dark World, so failing to make a particular choice, or making the wrong one, can trap you in the alternate dimension with no recourse but to load your last saved game and try again. It would be one thing if Dark Seed explained this, left clues about when it was going to happen, or tried to hold your hand in any way, but Cyberdreams didn’t want their game played by sissies, so you’ll get nothing and like it.

The game’s lone gesture of assistance comes from a friendly resident of the Dark World known as The Keeper of the Scrolls (depicted on the box cover). Sadly she’s not always available to help, her overtures are cryptic, and can be missed entirely if you don’t randomly stumble across the hint by, say, tuning into your car radio at the proper point. If it sounds like Dark Seed‘s subtitle should have been ‘Frustration’, you’re getting the picture.

When your initial reaction to seeing your helper is “kill it with fire!” you know you’re in trouble.

As if that wasn’t enough, Dark Seed takes the first part of its name absolutely literally when it comes to the story, keeping players firmly in the dark. Narratively speaking, Dark Seed has a ‘story’ that moves forward each time you do the right thing, but the questions popping into your head while playing that you assume will be answered by the end of the game? You’ll be pondering them after the conclusion. What is the Dark World? Where did it come from? Why are The Ancients such assholes? Why did they pick you, of all people, to serve as the conduit that will bring about death and ruin to everyone in the Normal World? How did Mike Dawson grow such an epic mustache? Maybe the sequel explains, but I’ve yet to play it so I can’t say.

Dark Seed, as you can see from the screenshots, is absolutely gorgeous considering it’s a DOS game from 1992. Cyberdreams originally planned to have the game running in a low resolution mode so they could take advantage of a full 256-color palette, but Giger refused to have anything to do with the game unless the his art could be seen in hi-res. The developers, realizing they had no game without Giger’s design aesthetics, capitulated. Doubling the resolution the game ran in meant massively reducing the available number of colors though, so Dark Seed can only display sixteen on the screen at the same time. Despite this limitation, it’s almost impossible to tell thanks to the dedication of the game’s pixel artists who spent hours laboriously touching up every on-screen image by hand to achieve the best possible outcome. It’s a ridiculous amount of work for computer game art, akin to such cinematic endeavors as applying Snow White’s makeup to every single animation cel, or painting on the neon red and blue outfit hues frame-by-frame for Tron, and the results speak for themselves.

You won’t like what it says, but it speaks nonetheless.

Despite this obsessive attention to detail, Dark Seed still fails horribly as a game. Adventure novices or people who despise using walkthroughs will find themselves sick of playing the save-reload-restart game that artificially inflates the amount of time one spends playing it, while players who prefer to experience their point-and-click adventures with a FAQ open in another window will discover Dark Seed only gives around 60 minutes’ worth of entertainment before the fat lady sings. It’s either too short, or it’s too long, and there’s absolutely no way around this.

Seriously: GET YOUR HOUSE INSPECTED BEFORE YOU MOVE IN!!

Throw in a number of headache-inducing puzzles (including an infamous pixel-hunt whereby players must find a bobby pin on a wood-plank floor with no indication it’s even there, and another where Mike must tie a rope around a gargoyle on his balcony on one day so that on a later day he can escape from the police by shimmying down to his back yard), a soundtrack that loops to insanity, the crushing time limit, and the complete lack of character development throughout, and you end up with the sense Cyberdreams just threw everything into the cooking pot and hoped they got something edible. They did…but only barely.

And you’ll still feel the need to take a long shower after you’re done.

Dark Seed was ported to a number of platforms in the aftermath of its DOS release, including the Amiga, Amiga CD, and the Macintosh. Japan even got in on the action, with versions for the PlayStation and Sega Saturn, though neither of these versions did much more than change the language from English to Japanese. Vic Tokai even planned a Sega CD port as seen in this ad from EGM, but cancelled it prior to release, presumably when they realized nobody owned a Sega CD:

Hell, the idea of playing it on this system is scarier than the game itself.

I really, really wanted to like Dark Seed. Considering Cyberdreams went on to make I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream which is a brilliantly-designed and executed feat of story-driven adventure gaming with a concept nearly as repellent as Dark Seed‘s visuals, maybe I simply expected too much. By all means, if you love Giger, have access to a walkthrough, and possess a strong streak of masochism, give this one a go. Otherwise there are plenty of other horror-themed adventures that work far, far better than this one.

Michael Crisman

In 1979, Michael Crisman was mauled by a radioactive Gorgar pinball machine. After the wounds healed, doctors discovered his DNA had been re-coded. No longer fully human, Michael requires regular infusions of video games in order to continue living among you. If you see him, he can see you. Make no sudden moves, but instead bribe him with old issues of computer and video game magazines or a mint-in-box copy of Dragon Warrior IV. If he made you laugh, drop a tip in his jar at http://paypal.me/modernzorker (If he didn't make you laugh, donate to cure his compulsion to bang keyboards by sending an absurdly huge amount of money to his tip jar instead. That'll show him!)

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