Thursday, 1 June 2017

Dark Seed - Final Rating

Written by Alfred n the Fettuc

This is going to be a tough one. Dark Seed is a game that’s particularly average on a lot of points, be it writing or puzzle design. However, the universe and ambiance is kinda compelling so it lasts in your mind after you’ve finished. This game as a sort of je ne sais quoi (pardon my french) that partly explains its cult status despite all its shortcomings, but I’m not 100% sure it will show in the PISSED rating. Without further ado, let’s begin the judging!

A little shower and we’re off.

Final Rating


Puzzles and Solvability

The first category is already a big question mark. On the plus side, the whole idea of the Dark World mirroring the Real World could make for pretty good puzzle design. However, it’s never properly used as it should be. The whole “opening secret doors” is made aggravating because it’s not a puzzle in itself, it’s just a boring way to make you go back and forth between the worlds. The whole car versus spaceship at the end is interesting but it doesn’t really make sense (mainly because you’d have a hard time understanding the building next to your house is a spaceship in the first place) and the jail pillow shenanigan ends up grating simply because you’re lacking enough clues to avoid trial and error. You can potentially screw up your game right at the beginning by taking the gun, buying too many things in the store or not tying the rope to your balcony while you have absolutely no idea this is going to be useful later on.

Just add “there is a spaceship on the left of the house” and we’re already making some progress.

Then there is the problem of pixel-hunting, that can mess you up right at the beginning of the adventure. If you miss the two-pixels pin in the library or (even easier) if you don’t click on the exact spot of the jacket you’re supposed to, you can put yourself in a situation where you can’t win and you have no possibility whatsoever to know where you messed up. You can sometimes find yourself in a good puzzle chain, notably when you have the library card, you unlock the mausoleum in the graveyard, then unlock the clock, then you know which grave to dig up, etc etc… but most of the time you just stumble around without really knowing where you’re going.

Add to this some really dumb puzzles (there is only one spot and one moment where you can get the tree branch despite living literally in the middle of the freaking forest and you use this tree branch to play fetch with a scary alien…) or the fact that you have to be at the right time at the right place to have a chance of getting a potentially crucial item and you’re in for several game design problems.

My score : 4. Most of the puzzles resort to be at the right time at the right place or trial and error and the few clever puzzles can’t make up for the rest.


Interface and Inventory

The interface is at first nothing to write home about : three icons, walk, look and interact seem efficient enough. However there are two major issues I have to address. First, the game seems to have its very own logic about what icon to use at what moment. I missed the fact you can enter the car in the garage just because I was using the “use” icon instead of the “walk” one. Just make both work on the car, damn it! The other thing is that the only part where you’re supposed to use an inventory item on another one is at the very end of the game, so I’m guessing a lot of people had problem with that mainly because at this point you think it’s not an option. There is also the fact that Mike’s walking speed is kinda slow when you’re supposed to go back and forth and that the item you’re trying to use is unselected every time you miss an hotspot and the whole thing seems like a slog at times.

Remember, kids, you’re supposed to walk into cars, not use them!

My score: 5. Not broken, but not not very pleasant either.


Story and Setting

This category is also a mixed bag, and to be able to rate it, I’ll have to split it in two. First, the setting. The atmosphere is really well done and the places are interesting. Be it the house, the town, the cemetery or the Dark World, every place has its own personality and is suitably creepy. There is a clear Twin Peaks vibe in this little remote town, and the Dark World formidably invoke the work of H.R. Giger. The whole thing is also terribly creepy. Mike has terrible nightmares and has an alien embryo growing in his head, and he is all alone to try and figure out solutions to this (except for the input of the Keeper of the Scrolls who seems to like riddles).

One of the most well-known images for this game : very creepy indeed

The story in itself however, is something else entirely. It seems that the developers were content with their setting, art style and puzzles and just forgot to put any kind of story in their game. Starting from the beginning, you’re completely lost and without any directions to follow. You have very little interaction with the other humans in the area which are one-sided people (the postman delivers packages, the librarian gives you a book, Delbert likes scotch, the shopkeeper wants your money, the cops wants you in jail, etc…) and the game is seriously lacking in the “explanations” department. Why is there a shovel in the Dark World? Why does the Keeper of the Scrolls give you a microfiche with a security commercial on it? Who is sending you packages? It would have made more sense if Mike was just completely crazy and everything was in his head (not to mention more interesting) but there is no real clue going this way, so you just have to assume everything is really happening. It’s a bit of a mess…

Another very irritating thing about the game is how sometimes, Mike has a very casual way of describing things. When you enter the alien police station, he faces an alien cop with (our without) a gun and he says “they should hire a new interior decorator”. It could also be incoherent. Example given : “the sign over the door, if you could read it, would tell you this is the Dreketh guards recruitment center”. Not to the mention this is maybe the only time you see the word “Dreketh”, if I can’t read the sign, don’t tell me what it means! Or “it would be unwise to touch the alien console without reading the user manual first”. Yeah, right!

My score: 4. Great setting (that will show in the Atmosphere category), but messy and lacking storytelling. You have to complete the blanks yourself. I wanted someone to explain the shovel or the microfiche to me!


Sound and Graphics

A funny thing about this game is that the fact the Dark World is all in sepia tones add to the atmosphere while it was a technical limitation in the first place. The background graphics are kinda neat, be it the Real World with all the little details in the house of town, or the creepy magnificence of Giger’s work on the Dark World. The character models have not aged as gracefully though and the fact that Mike seems to casually walk around places don’t really go with the atmosphere. The music is a mixed bag, alternating between the suitably creepy (in the house or the Dark World) and the irritating elevator music (town or car). The digital voices are very monotone and seem to have been made by depressed actors but they have the merit to exist.

Note that the frame of the action changes whether you’re in the Dark or Real world. Nice touch.

The negative things to be said in this category is that things are sometimes unclear in the Dark World. You don’t really know what you’re looking at and it’s hard to spot a lever (or a two-pixels pin in the Real world). As usual, the digitised graphics have not aged as well as other pixel-drawn games of the same time period, but it might be just my personal taste.

My score: 7. The developers wanted their work to be respectful of the input of a world-class artist in their ranks, and it shows.


Environment and Atmosphere

This is obviously where Dark Seed shines. Shines might not be the good word though. Dark Seed oozes. It oozes atmosphere and creepiness. Every place has its own identity. The house is already some place you wouldn’t want to wake up in the morning, the town isn’t exactly a friendly place and the Dark World is nightmarish enough.

I never start a day without a nice walk in this friendly neighborhood.

H.R. Giger’s work is the star of the show here, with every screen of the Dark World filled with creepy landscapes, tubes and penis allegories, but it doesn’t mean that the rest of the game is bland. Be it the visions of Mike (a nice doll turning into a deformed monstrosity) or the pieces of art scattered in the house (many referencing Giger or Böcklin’s isle of the dead), there is atmosphere dripping everywhere. You feel at times like all this work was wasted on lacustre puzzle design or badly written comments from Mike, but one has to admit that Dark Seed has probably attained cult status because the tremendous work that went into its atmosphere.

My score : 8. Undeniably the high point of the game, if only there was more to do or read in such a world...


Dialog and Acting

The dialog in itself is minimalist to say the least. As said earlier, everybody has one purpose and one only. Most of them have only one line of text. The only “fleshed” out characters are your neighbor Delbert (by fleshed out I mean you know he loves scotch and has a dog) and Sargo the alien prisoner. Even these guys have only one or two lines of text and you never get any more information about them once they’ve told you what they want. The Keeper of the Scrolls in mainly an entity that gives you clues (in the vaguest sense of the term) and the librarian, who could be considered the love interest of this story, is not even named. The only kinda interesting character appears to be your predecessor and he’s been dead before your arrival.

And then there is the mute postman.

The acting is jarring to say the least. Every line of dialogue is read like the actor has just learned he is terminally ill just before the recording session. I don’t know if this is a technical limitation thing so I’ll cut them some slack here but considering the sound quality is okay, I think it’s more of a directing choice. There is really not enough dialogue to be really bothered by that, though.

The worst thing about the dialog has been addressed earlier : it’s Mike himself. A lot of comments he makes are probably meant to be ironical or snarky but end up feeling flat and out of context.

My score : 3. Meh… Nothing much to see here, would have deserved to be fleshed out a bit.


Final Score

Hence, the final score is… drumrolls please… (4+5+4+7+8+3)/.6 = 52! I can’t help but feel that this game is better than the sum of its part though because it kinda leaves a lasting impression on you so I’ll add a discretionary point to bump the total to 53. As expected, it’s a slightly-above-average score so I agree with that. The defaults of the game in itself tend to overshadow its merits so it really couldn’t have scored much higher, but it’s still an interesting curiosity and is worth a playthrough, even if you probably need a few hints on the first go…

Congrats, Torch, you win CAPs by being the most optimistic reader about how this game would score!


I can’t wait to try Dark Seed 2, but I’ll make a small detour by the green landscapes of Kyrandia first, I’m in need for sun and colors… and this is one of my favorite series of all times so I think it will be a nice ride.

Here are some CAPs for your troubles, now :

CAP Distribution

100 CAPs to Alfred n the Fettuc
  • Blogger Award - 100 CAPs - for blogging his way through the worlds of light and dark for everyone’s entertainment
10 CAPs to Torch
  • Psychic prediction award - 10 CAPs - for guessing the right score 
10 CAPs to Ilmari
  • Beacon in the darkness award - 10 CAPs - for the numerous ROT13 hints (without I couldn’t have completed the game)
5 CAPs to Laukku
  • Toilet break award - 5 CAPs - for talking about the pause in dosbox 
5 CAPs to Laertes
  • Time-travelling literature award - 5 CAPs - for spotting the fact that The Lord of the Rings didn’t exist in 1933 
5 CAPs to Fry
  • Hygiene consequences award - 5 CAPs - for imagining the best dead end of the game 
4 CAPs to TBD
  • Horror savings award - 4 CAPs - for warning about the GOG horror sale 

THE FAMICOM VERSION

As promised I tried to play through the fabulous unofficial chinese version that was released for the Famicom. It’s totally hideous and barely playable and I hit a brick wall during the second day because no matter what amount of time I waited in my hall, the postman never rang, not bringing me the mirror shard, hence blocking my progress. I’m unsure if it was a bug or if I just missed the schedule because my clock suddenly jumped from 10AM to 12AM without any reason whatsoever, but the first day was surprisingly faithful to the original game.

Including everyone’s favorite scene.

Many visual bugs aside, the first day worked as intended. The pin is easier to find in the library, as is the library card (maybe it was just for the fact I knew it was there, this time). Also noteworthy is the fact that the secret door stayed opened in this version, probably making the Dark World first navigation easier (which I’ve been unable to verify though).

Or the house is noticeably bigger, or Mike was made shorter for this version.

Ok, my bad. Forget what I just said...

It’s totally and utterly ugly of course. Almost everything is in an ugly variation of yellow (and, according to screenshots I’ve seen, almost everything in the Dark World is in an ugly variation of green) and the music ends up being very grating in this iteration. However it’s still leagues ahead of the horrendous version of King’s Quest V which has to be a contender for the worst port ever, but it’s leagues behind the great ports of Deja Vu or Maniac Mansion.

The nightmares are pretty faithful. The stache is still here.

All in all, it’s an interesting curiosity. The controls are horrendous, coupling a slow cursor to pathfinding issues and the downgraded graphics remove a lot of interest to the game. You have to wonder why such a port exists in the first place, especially considered it was limited to the chinese market. It’s supposed to be finishable so I guess the bug that stopped me could have been avoided, but I don’t think the game will vary enough from its template to warrant another playthrough… I’m pretty sure that finding a Famicom cart of this game would fetch a nice price on the black market though!

8 comments:

  1. Looks like a fitting score for a style-over-substance game. Without Giger's art significantly boosting two categories I'm pretty sure it would've scored in the 40-50 range, as most of us guessed.

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  2. Yay!

    Also: Sorry, GregT!!

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  3. Second Straight is almost filled - only Kyrandia will have to be scored and winner will be found out. Currently, me, Charles and Torch are in the lead, but there are many people just behind us:
    https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1mV6K-US-k92ThXedoe9AL69KyvR76UdVtpF8NmIVe6E/

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  4. >Kyrandia
    >one of my favorite series of all times

    Is there some guideline against playing games you're already familiar with? I'd prefer the playthroughs to be "blind" whenever possible. Or have you all TAG staff played it already?

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    1. No, we don't have that sort of rule. We generally just choose as a player for a game anyone who has volunteered to play the game (well, we do encourage people who have played one part of a series to play the next part also). Since some of us prefer to play games they know (or even know they like), while others, like me, try to play only games they haven't tried yet, there are bound to be some blind and some "non-blind" playthroughs. Looking at year 1992, we've had 7 completely blind and 3 more or less non-blind playthroughs (if I've kept the count correctly), so the blind playthroughs have still formed a majority. Considering that in case of some well-known games a blind playthrough would be a difficult thing to achieve, I think this is still a good percentage. As for Kyrandia, well, we didn't make a poll among the reviewers, but I guess Kyrandia might fall into the too-well-known category.

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    2. I hadn't really considered this before either. I've personally reviewed 7 main-line games so far and I was going in blind on all but one (SQ4). I've done 21 "missed classics" (holy heck) and eight of them I had vague childhood memories of at least starting and only one (ZorkI) that I am fairly certain I won with a walkthrough.

      (Trickster did 46 main-line reviews. None of us will be catching up to him any time soon...)

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    3. I've done five games, only one of which was totally blind (Dune). I feel that in some ways I can do a better job on a game I'm already familiar with because I'm less likely to get stuck and more likely to be able to demonstrate and review the game's features effectively. But I know some of the fun as a reader may be watching the player go down dead-ends and spin in circles, while that can be pretty frustrating for the player. Even for a non-blind playthrough, it's often been so long since I played the game that I've forgotten most of the details. In Gateway, for instance, I was genuinely surprised by the twist at the end, and much of Timequest I never reached the first time I played it, so those parts were effectively blind.

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