For my first article of the New Year I wanted to do a retrospective about something that combines my two favourite genres – horror and video gaming.
So today we will be taking a fairly in depth look at a both divisive and largely forgotten video game.. ..‘Dark Seed’ was a psychological horror point-and-click adventure game developed and published by Cyberdreams in 1992. It was one of the first adventure games to use high resolution graphics and was largely based on the artwork of H. R. Giger.
Insight – who is H.R. Giger?
Hans Rudolf “Ruedi” Giger was a Swiss surrealist painter whose work was adapted for many media types including record-albums, furniture and tattoo-art. He is known to most people as the creator of the titular ‘Alien’ from the 1979 classic film of the same name. He was born on the 5th February 1940 and died from a fall in 2014.
Zurich-based, Giger was best-known for his airbrushed illustrations of humans and machines fused together in cold, sometimes sexual, ‘biomechanical’ relationships. His work on ‘Alien’ won an Academy Award and his work is now on permanent display at the H.R. Giger Museum at Gruyères. He was widely recognised as somewhat of an artistic genius.
Synopsis (contains spoilers)
The ‘Dark Seed’ story revolves around a successful advertising executive and writer called Mike Dawson. Mike is the Chairman of the Board for a thriving, San Francisco based, advertising company. However, Mike’s ambition is to become a writer and he searches for a tranquil haven where he can pursue a new career as a novelist. As such, he buys a fully-furnished Victorian manor on Ventura Drive (named after Ventura Boulevard) in the small town of Woodland Hills. During the game we control his adventures over a three day period. Incidentally, Mike is named after the game’s designer and producer who also lent his appearance to his character’s in game sprite.
During the first night in his new house, Mike has a nightmare about being imprisoned by a machine that surgically implants an alien embryo into his brain – the eponymous ‘Dark Seed’ (a scene inspired by Giger’s 1967 ‘The Birth Machine’). Mike wakes up with a severe headache and, after taking some aspirins and a shower, explores his new abode. At first, Mike rationalises these dreams he’s having as nothing more than deluded fantasies, but when he starts having visions while still wide awake, of china dolls turning into deformed fetuses or his own reflection changing to a translucent fanged monster (based on Giger’s 1985 Poltergeist II), he gradually accepts the terrifying reality that something is horribly wrong in Woodland Hills. As he explores his house and the town he discovers parts of a journal left by the house’s previous owner.. ..they also seem to have suffered from the same symptoms as Mike. You quickly learn that there is another parallel world, just outside the border of our own, where an alien race of deformed and perverse alien creatures known as the Ancients are waiting to invade Earth and annihilate all of humanity. It is the ancients that have implanted an embryo inside Mike’s head.
On the second day, he travels to the alternate ‘Dark World’ through a large ornate mirror in his living room, which acts a portal. The Dark World is full of manifestations based on Giger’s work (mainly taken from his Necronomicon works) representing malevolent aliens. However, Mike soon meets a friendlier alien called the ‘Keeper of the Scrolls’ (based on Giger’s Li II, 1974; also featured on the games beautiful box artwork). She tells him that the nightmare he had on his first night was indeed real and warns him that if the embryo is born, it will not only kill him but will also destroy all of humanity. She also reveals that it is in Mike’s power to stop all of this; as long as he can disable the Ancient’s power source. As the town and Mike’s house are all mirrored in the Dark World, you begin to understand that things you do in the one can affect the other.. ..this helps you to locate essential items and complete the various tasks.
On the third and final day, Mike executes a typically (over) elaborate plan that culminates with the Ancient ship’s departure from the Dark World (which was shown landing during the title sequence), depriving them of their power source. Mike then destroys the living room mirror, closing the portal and sealing the Ancients out of our world. The town librarian (a potential love interest) then visits Mike and tells him she found some pills in her purse prescribed for him. The medication will presumably kill the embryo inside his head. A morphing animation reveals that, unbeknown to the librarian, she is the ‘Keeper of the Scrolls’ real world counterpart. Mike then states that he’s just beginning to understand and the game ends.
Is it any good?
‘Dark Seed’ is strange game and a difficult one to review.. ..in many ways it was both ‘a breath of fresh air’ and an astonishing achievement (for the time) – the level of graphical detail, the artwork overall and the narrative.. ..were all simply outstanding. It was also one of the first interactive horror games. However, the game play was where things weren’t quite so polished.
As you might have guessed, the actions you take in Woodland Hills are often connected to similar things happening in the Dark World. However, the logic that defines these connections is somewhat haphazardly implemented. So for example, opening a secret passage in one world will usually open the corresponding passage in the other, which makes sense. But some other interactions are simply obtuse or bizarre, particularly those involving the police.. ..they make no sense and do not have logical solutions (e.g. knowing which items you need to hide under the pillow in the Police Station and the need to use the rope for the balcony).
In addition, unlike most point-and-click adventure games of the time, which give you ample (usually unlimited) time to explore, the actions in ‘Dark Seed’ must occur within precise time limits. If they are not completed within this timely ‘dictat’ the game will end up in an unwinnable state.. ..frustratingly this is usually unknown to you the player. As a result, you must eventually start over, when you realise you cannot progress your game.
The interface, whilst quite clever for the time, required you to occasionally have the cursor precisely located in order to find a clue or item.. ..sometimes these locations are only a few pixels square in size, so it can turn into a little bit of an uninteresting and frustrating hunt and ‘click-fest’. Admittedly, most things are easy to find and there is some logic to their location, but others are bewilderingly obtuse. As such, the actual game play has not aged at all well.
For some of these reasons, reviews at the time of the games release, whilst favourable, were also critical. For example, Computer Gaming World stated that the game was “the most integrated and effective feel for a horror adventure yet” but criticized the unforgiving real-time game play that often caused un-winnable situations, hard-to-find on-screen puzzle elements, and an overly abrupt ending, stating that “the interactive elements are so poorly implemented that they nearly destroy the effect” of the graphics and sound.
Personally, I love ‘Dark Seed‘ and recommend you give it a try.. ..but you have to be patient and mindful of when it was made; having a ‘walk-through’ handy is almost obligatory.
Insight – development of the game
The development of the game is an interesting story in its own right. For the time, Cyberdreams were very ambitious creating a game which showcased the artwork of Giger, maybe overly so. However, the game does to a large extent get across the wonderful macabre nature of the artist’s work.. ..it crawls into your psyche from the very opening scene.. ..the game has always stayed with me over the years and I still think it looks pretty good today!
It is hard not to be moved by Giger’s work, it is both beautiful and abhorrent at the same time and Cyberdreams captured it well.. ..amazingly so when you consider the limitations of the hardware at the time. Today a game like ‘Dark Seed’ would be easy to make, even considered ‘lazy’ programming, but this is certainly nothing that Cyberdreams could have been accused of in 1992.. ..creating ‘Dark Seed’ must have been a bit of a labour of love.
The idea to ask Giger to supply his artwork was as much as a stroke of genius for Cyberdreams as it was for Ridely Scott to approach him to create the ‘Alien’.. ..who better to supply the imagery for the nightmare that you, as Mike Dawson, would encounter.
Patrick Ketchum, was the president of Cyberdreams and he approached Giger to supply artwork for the game c. 1990. From an article in the November 1992 Compute! magazine, it seems that initially Giger was (unsurprisingly) not at all impressed with the blocky nature of the then widely adopted VGA graphics.. ..but as a computing neophyte he realised what could be achieved at higher resolutions and wanted his artwork represented by as many pixels as possible.
To this end the Cyberdreams team increased the resolution of the game to 640 x 350, which also reduced the number of available on screen colours from 256 to 16 (due to hardware limitations). This worked well with Giger’s artwork and the artist was impressed.. ..so much so that he granted them almost full access to his artwork and granted permission for use in a follow up game (more on that in later article).
The task of getting the artwork into the game was no mean feat. The Cyberdreams team scanned hundreds of images from Giger’s portfolio with an Epson ES-300C flatbed scanner and then manipulated the images in DeluxePaint IIe on a PC. As the team was free to choose from virtually all of Giger’s artwork they were able to piece together some distinct and menacing locations and characters. ‘Dark Seed’ has fantastic landscapes (at least in the ‘Dark World’) and the animation, whilst limited by contemporary standards’ does largely succeed in bringing this strange world to life.
The animation was accomplished using a Commodore–Amiga, Newtek’s Digiview and a S-VHS recorder to digitise the real Mike Dawson. These images were converted to 16 colour grey scale and edited in the Amiga’s renowned version of Deluxe Paint. They were then saved as IFF files and transferred to a PC using CrossDOS for further editing. The Amiga was also used for the processing the sound samples and for the morphing effects seen the game.
The Cyberdreams team then spent what must have been a painstaking six months re-colouring all of the graphics by hand.. ..the initial scans being a little too ‘flat’ to use in the game, due to the reduced colour palette.
To conserve memory and reduce disk access your actions within the game are shown in a 500 x 200 pixel window within the main 640 x 350 screen. Now this might sound like bit of a marketing cheat, but it works well.. ..placing some welcome distance between you and the macabre Dark World. The decorative boarder also adds a wonderful sense of claustrophobia.. ..the draped curtains, the third eye of the Illuminati watching your every move.. ..it feels like you are watching a surreal stage play and sets the scene well.
Release and ports to consoles
‘Dark Seed’ was originally released for MS-DOS on the PC, then shortly after on the Commodore-Amiga. These versions came in a beautifully designed box with the Li II/Keeper of the Scrolls on another box embedded in the front. Although the sound is arguably better on the Amiga, it looks and plays better on the PC as the graphical resolution was slightly reduced for the former.
The PlayStation and Saturn versions were only released in Japan by ‘Gaga’; however, the Saturn version is not dubbed in Japanese, only subtitled, making the game’s story accessible to English speakers. These two ports are not great – they double the speed that time flows in the game, as well as speeding up the soundtrack.. ..the graphics, which are identical, irrespective of hardware, are at a fractionally lower resolution than the PC versions.. ..both smack of a rushed port and release cycle.
The Amiga CD32 port is essentially the same as the Amiga version but adds speech and the Mac version is very similar to its PC counterpart.
The NES version does not end correctly, getting stuck in a loop, repeating the librarian’s end text, infinitely. The sound is also very poor, with a single 15 second original track that repeats constantly throughout the game. Finally, Dilbert’s dog is absent from this version and therefore so is ‘Fido’ from the Dark World.
Giger, I am sure, would have been horrified if he had seen this version as the graphics (which are actually not terrible for a NES game) are totally unrecognisable from his original artwork due to the severe limitations of the hardware.
What happened to Mike Dawson and Cyberdreams?
Interestingly, there was a long standing urban myth that the real Mike Dawson, who worked at Cyberdreams and gave his likeness and name to the main protagonist, went insane due to the intense pressure of designing the game.. ..the actual truth is a little less dramatic. Mike left Cyberdreams following the game’s release in order to write for television, which he did until the late 1990’s. He has since moved into teaching, and has developed and taught courses for UCLA and The Digital Media Academy at Stanford University, details of which can be found on his website.
CyberDreams continued until early 1997, releasing titles like the acclaimed ‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’ and ‘Darkseed II’, which again featured the protagonist Mike Dawson, though his namesake had little to do with this game. Patrick Ketchum, who had previously founded Datasoft, founded Cyberdreams in 1990. In 1995 an “internal shake-up” took place by which the investors removed management and installed a “turnaround management team” aimed to transition it to 3rd party publishing. At this point Ketchum left the company and started a career as photographer.. ..the company was defunct less than two years later.