Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 146 / NOVEMBER 1992 / PAGE 100

Dark Seed. (game software) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by David Sears

Unarmed and confused, your alter ego Mike Dawson will cross between worlds to ferret out the source of his nightmares. Ironically, he carries the well-spring of his hallucinations--a horrific alien fetus--inside his skull. What happens when the creature no longer requires its human host?

Digital fear in a box, DARK SEED takes us to the places we would fear most--if we could imagine them. CYBER-DREAMS knows where horror sleeps.

Shock in a Box

What makes this game so immediately and perpetually engaging? The progeny of a diverse creative team, DARK SEED showcases the artwork of celebrated surrealist H. R. Giger in its myriad scenes of the dark world. Driven by Giger's unique macabre energy, DARK SEED crawls into the psyche of its viewers from the first tentative steps. Giger's work simultaneously attracts and repels the viewer with its horrible beauty.

CYBERDREAMS has tapped something primal in this production. Horror writer H. P. Lovecraft has said that fear

is our most powerful emotion. And more specifically, he's told us that we most fear the unfamiliar--what we can't understand. DARK SEED throws us headlong into a world where malevolent, alien forces capable of incapacitating, dismembering, and eating us need only awaken after eons of fitful slumber to turn us into, at best, biomechanical slaves. At worst, breakfast. Very little in our world compares to that threat, and like Lovecraft before them, Giger and CYBERDREAMS bring us a relentless tale of the unknown that is chilling for its potential believability.

Giger knows well the threat of the ancients. Inspired in part by the trans-dimensional spell book--the fabled, fragmentary Necronomicon, Giger's work never fails to elicit a visceral reaction. His tormented designs for the original Alien movie changed the face of science fiction forever. But Alien was set in the far reaches of the galaxy. In DARK SEED, aliens stalk the earth. DARK SEED merges not just science fiction and horror but also mystery. Who better to supply the images for such a game than Giger? Excited by the possibilities of a collaboration with computer game designers, Giger opened his doors to the artists from CYBERDREAMS, with only some minor hesitations.

Crisis Resolution

Giger was unimpressed by the blocky pixels of low-resolution VGA graphics. A computing neophyte, Giger nonetheless recognized the deficiencies of the low-resolution graphics screens and insisted that CYBERDREAMS increase the resolution to one more compatible with his work. Giger wanted the most pixels possible.

Back in California, DARK SEED team members increased the display resolution to 640 x 350, which reduced the number of available colors from 256 to 16 because of hardware limitations. The airbrushed, crepuscular nature of Giger's work withstood the translation well, however. And, disk in hand, CYBERDREAMS representatives returned to Switzerland, this time to meet with approval. Giger's response to the new digitization was, "Beautiful!" Rumor has it he's so pleased that he's willing to collaborate with CYBERDREAMS on a second game, possibly to include new, original artwork.

Candid Chimera

To incorporate Giger's fantastic realizations into the confines of a PC simulation environment, CYBERDREAMS artists scanned portfolio selections with an Epson ES-300C flatbed color scanner. They then further altered the images using DeluxePaint lle on the PC. Free to choose from virtually all of Giger's collection, the artists located more than enough faces, arms, legs, and assorted (if somewhat distorted) body parts to piece together a number of distinct menacing dark world characters. DARK SEED excels at landscapes, however, for the once-flat Giger paintings attain three-dimensionality through animation. It's one thing to admire the monochromatic smoothness of a Giger painting and quite another to walk past his bloated fungi in the foreground, twisted flesh trees to the left, and blasted planes of biomechanical tissue stretching to the horizon.

Furthermore, what may have been a gateway in the original painting becomes a floor in DARK SEED; tubes and conduits become so much slick wallpaper contoured to the shape of other Giger extractions. This visual cut-and-paste technique, similar to the literary cut-up approach popularized by William S. Burroughs in Naked Lunch, does here what words do in that science fiction novel. Fragments of larger images combine to provoke and disturb. In new associations with one another, these images seem capable of reprogramming the way you think about and perceive environments, and this definitely affects the way you move about in them. You won't want to touch anything for fear of the terrible violence that could result. At the same time, part of you wants to touch everything, no matter how repugnant.

Hidden in the dim landscape are objects and mechanisms essential to completing your mission and removing Dawson's brain parasite. Natives of the dark world have little trouble seeing in perpetual twilight; humans will need to take their time and scrutinize every crevice and alcove. And each moment spent on the dark side unnerves; you always feel watched, as if something may rise from the gloom to put an untimely end to your intrusion. DARK SEED designers appear to have consulted the architect responsible for the ancient city of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos--a city whose alien geometry would drive humans insane.

Haunted House Party

Meanwhile, back on earth normal, all is not well, either. Dawson's queer old Victorian house, purchased for the sole purpose of getting away from it all, seems menacingly derelict. Faded velvet curtains block the warm sun and offer only shadows in exchange. Intricately patterned wallpaper peels away; floorboards groan underfoot. Ethereal voices offer cryptic advice over an old AM radio. What lurks in the wine cellar? Why won't the librarian talk? Solving all the mysteries in the sleepy little town of Woodland Hills will have you robbing graves and running from the police--situations you wouldn't normally enjoy, but the threat of the dark world can make you a hero and justify your actions.

The high-resolution display allows the Giger paintings hanging in Dawson's home to glare at you in striking detail. You can almost count the leaves on trees and the bricks in buildings, though time for such pursuits seems short. A journey through the varied landscape takes you from mausoleums to attics to public libraries and back again, and no matter how many times you pass through a certain location, you'll never fail to appreciate the attention to detail.

To animate the players in this nightmare, artists used an Amiga, a Digiview, and a Mitsubishi SVHS video recorder to digitize actual human models in various poses. Saved in 16-color gray scale, these images were edited in the Amiga version of DeluxePaint, saved as IFF files, and transferred via CrossDOS to the PC for further editing. The sound samples were first taken on an Amiga, too, and the remarkable morphing title at the outset of the game originated there, as well. Imagine for the Amiga has the ability to map the reflections of objects in a virtual 3-D environment onto invisible bitplanes. Bowing to market demand, however, the Amiga version of DARK SEED won't debut until December, but it will make exceptional use of the Amiga's built-in sound capabilities. DARK SEED's art director comments that the game wouldn't have been possible without the interactivity of the two platforms. This synergism is welcome in computer game development, and in the case of CYBERDREAMS, reflects the company's approach to design itself.

To conserve memory and reduce hard drive access time, DARK SEED displays your current location in a 500 x 200 pixel window. At first, this seems a bit of a cheat, since CYBERDREAMS touts this game as the first high-resolution adventure game, but this screen fragment still packs in more pixels than standard VGA 256-color low-resolution mode. The windowing effect places some distance between you and Dawson--welcome distance, since DARK SEED has a way of getting under your skin. A second and unanticipated side effect of this windowing is a sense of claustrophobia. The draped curtains, the third eye of the illuminati that watches you from the top of the display--you'll feel as though you're watching a stage play from a darkened box seat. The theater, of course, has only a single occupant. DARK SEED never lets you forget that the fate of the world is on your shoulders.

A Pinch of Gestalt

Nearly at the end of the original DARK SEED development schedule, the design team members examined their work and found it lacking. The black-and-white side images just didn't have enough visual appeal. The answer? Colorization by hand. With just 16 colors to choose from, altering the pictures took time--six more months, but the results are as beautiful as they are sinister. This illustrates the concern for and attention to detail found throughout DARK SEED. As in nightmares, every hair is in place.

With the stated purpose of bringing artistic and literary talent from outside the industry into computer gaming, CYBERDREAMS may have a string of hits on its hands. After this brooding horror tale, the company's looking forward to somewhat lighter fare, though the treatment of the subject matter will remain adult in orientation. Future projects include Cyber Race, a racing game envisioned by Syd Mead (a designer for Blade Runner, 2010, and Aliens).

Ongoing negotiations with prolific author Harlan Ellison could yield No Mouth, an adaptation of his widely anthologized story "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream." As with Giger's input--his suggestions were never limited by preconceptions of what a computer could and could not do--perhaps the new visionaries will demand that CYBERDREAMS push the PC past its acknowledged limits when showcasing their work. But survivors of DARK SEED will be eagerly awaiting whatever entertainment CYBERDREAMS produces next.