You hear stories all the time of a man showing up at a hospital complaining of headaches before doctors notice a bullet lodged in his brain. In fact, people can live years with foreign objects in their heads. Recently a woman from China had a World War II bullet extricated from her skull and another in Germany had a pencil removed fifty-five years after a childhood accident.
So, with these incidents in mind, it doesn't seem unusual that Mike Dawson would wake up in his new home complaining of headaches after having his cranium impregnated with an alien embryo. The only trouble is that he cannot wait very long to remove it. In three days, it will hatch, leaving Mr. Dawson's head an empty husky.
Darkseed, starring programmer Mike Dawson, sits prominently as one of the most influential and noteworthy point-and-click adventures in the hallowed halls of gaming. It was recently featured on one website as among of the top ten scariest games of all time, even edging out Eternal Darkness and Clocktower. While it does have moments of surrealistic terror, Darkseed never really sets the players on edge. There are no startling moments, no creatures breaking through glass to wake you from silence, no creepy little girls leading you into abysmal rabbit holes. The horror here stems mostly from the atmosphere with its muted colors and its use of both gothic and biomechanical motifs. Images of the organic seamlessly melt into the inorganic and punctuate the world of Darkseed. The effectiveness of these images (including one of a baby transforming into a biomechanical pump) can be credited to the influence of conceptual artist H.R. Giger who lent his name to Cyberdream's production (though some reports say he did so rather reluctantly). It is nice to see Giger's name attached directly to a game since his inimitable alien design has been copied in titles like Contra, R-Type, Alien Crush, and the original Alien Syndrome. Unfortunately, Giger's influence may be the best part of Darkseed, an adventure fraught with problems.
Darkseed differs from point-and-click games in that the player has privileged information that the controlled character does not. We know the cause of Mike's headaches, but he doesn't. If we want him to commit to an action, he won't do so unless he has proper cause. For example, if we know there is a secret passage in the study, Mike won't open it unless he sees a blueprint of the house beforehand. While this caveat of gameplay may make the story unfold more realistically, it makes replaying it a chore. And since the game suffers from the "resurrection fallacy" (gameplay that requires the player to fail several times before winning), a player may feel like he's running errands rather than playing a fun game.
The most voiced complaint about Darkseed is that it is largely a game of "pixel-hunting"-dragging the cursor around the screen in the hopes that your arrow detects an object. Since the colors of the game are muted and sometimes monochromatic, items do not present themselves easily. For example, a three-pixel-wide hairpin lies camouflaged on a library floor, and if you don't happen to "see" it, the game is unsolvable. This must have been a moneymaking scheme to have players order the hint-book directly from Cyberdreams, but the poor Japanese Saturn players weren't even provided with a hint-book advertisement in the instruction manual. Remember, this game was released before the age of online walkthroughs, so as aggravating as it is today, it doesn't compare to the frustration of those who bought it at full price in the 1990s.
Of all the ports of Darkseed, the Sega Saturn version is particularly disappointing because it does nothing to improve upon the problems present in its 1992 Amiga and PC releases. With three years hindsight, one would think the programmers would have tightened their game, but the Saturn rendition is just a direct port of the original software. The only notable change is that the Saturn allows the game to run faster. For every four seconds of real time, one minute of game time would pass in the Amiga version. The Saturn doubles this, making every two seconds an in-game minute. The pulsating music also plays double-time and thereby creates an anxiety that doesn't belong in a point-and-click adventure. This type of game should be contemplative and somewhat relaxed to allow a player time to solve the puzzles with well-measured reason.
Time is essential in the game. Rather than using a map, a player should keep an appointment book to mark when the doorbell and phone ring or when to meet up with someone outside your house. Like The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, you have three days to save the world while being punctual with your appointments. That's where the similarities end however. You may actually just find yourself waiting by the phone just to record when it rings. It feels like when you wait for that girl you met at the bar to call, only lonelier and hollower.
For those concerned about playing this game with Japanese text, you will be glad to know that the voiceovers remain in English, but the music is sometimes so loud that it is hard to hear what Mike is saying. At times, the music blares so stridently that you may find yourself taking aspirin along with Mike each morning. This is really a shame since CD technology allows for dynamic and engaging soundtracks, but this copy takes no advantage of that fact.
Perhaps its unfair to judge games anachronistically, but Darkseed hasn't weathered the passage of time all that well, while other point-and-click adventures still thrive in our memories. In one scene, Mike sees a tombstone that reads the name "G. Threepwood," the hero of LucasArt's Monkey Island series. Ironically, Threepwood's legacy is alive and well today, while Mike Dawson's is fading in annals of now-defunct games. Hopefully, some developer will resurrect this franchise, give it a haircut, and make it viable for modern audiences.
NOTE: Darkseed II was also released for the Japanese Saturn in 1995, but since the voiceovers and text are both in Japanese, it is largely unplayable without a reasonable handle on the language.