Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Darkseed

Blink and you'll miss it
Hans Ruedi Giger was never directly involved in video game development. If documentaries about him are anything to go by, I doubt he ever even used a computer. Of course, most of his fame comes from being a concept artist for the Alien and Species franchises. Regardless, his artwork has (through those films and other sources) influenced countless video games starting way back in the 8-bit era (with titles like Contra and Metroid) and most recently with the, as of now, unreleased game Scorn. Some of his artwork has even appeared directly in a pair of adventure games entitled Darkseed and Darkseed II.

I'm pretty sure the original idea, concept, or "seed" (if you will) comes from a series of five nearly identical paintings by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin, all entitled "Isle of the Dead."  Böcklin offered no explanation for his returning interest in this particular scene, but it's been speculated that it was based on a recurring dream he had involving the seemingly fictional island.  Giger (possibly because he was a native to Switzerland as well) took an interest in the work and made a painting of his own, very similar in the broad strokes but with his signature biomechanical style.  It was essentially a dark interpretation of the same scene.  So, therein lies the basic premise behind Darkseed.  For every real world person, place or thing, there is a dark world equivalent.

Don't worry...it's just a doll...oh...wait...
Normally the two never intersect.  However, a race of beings, known simply as "The Ancients" are attempting to cross over via an embryo implanted into the protagonists brain.  This unlucky fellow is Mike Dawson, a writer who has only just purchased the house he is currently residing in.  The previous owner died of a stroke (or so the story goes) and now this bland stand-in for the player is suffering from headaches, bad dreams, and terrifying visions.  Dawson only has three days left to live before he dies from the parasitic organism gestating inside his skull.  The first game day is spent by the player exploring his surroundings and discovering cryptic clues as to what is going on.  Starting on the second day though, Dawson finds out how to cross over into the dark world via a full-length mirror in his living room.  Obvious story references to Alice in Wonderland, Alien, and Rosemary's Baby aside the dark world is where things really begin to get interesting.  For reasons not elaborated on this alternate reality is a grotesque parody of our world; the neighborhood dog is a hideous beast, the local barbershop is some kind of brain surgery station, and the young woman working at the public library is a wall mounted biomechanical construct called the Keeper of the Scrolls.  The two worlds are so closely connected things which happen in our world are reflected in the dark one.  Leave a door open in Dawson's house and the corresponding building in the dark world will have a gaping hole in the wall where there previously wasn't one.  Another creepily clever touch is The Ancients themselves sleeping in a hibernative state where the normal world cemetery is located.

The most frightening part is him going to bed
with his shoes still on
Much of the artwork in the game is lifted in little bits and pieces from various paintings done by H.R. Giger himself prior to the game's development.  There are numerous examples of original assets as well, although it's unclear whether or not Giger had a direct hand in their creation.  Completely absent are his commonly used pagan iconography and reproductive organs.  Personally, I've always found biomechanical landscapes to be his most interesting kind of painting, so no big loss from my perspective.  That said, the actual gameplay in Darkseed is pretty weak, even for point-and-click adventure gaming standards.  It also suffers from a severe case of "Guide Dang It" in that it's practically impossible to win on your own.  On the plus side though, the official hint book comes with some interesting bios on the character in the game, both in the normal word and the dark world.  From this outside source of information we learn that not all the dark world inhabitants are complacent in The Ancient's machinations.  We also gain some interesting background information on the town locals.  It's a shame more of this characterization didn't come to the forefront.  Very little of the underlying mystery is explained (let alone revealed) either.  Are the inhabitants of the dark world dying?  Why do The Ancients want to cross over into our world?  How does implanting a creature into some dude's cranium help them accomplish their goals?  These are questions the game itself bring up, yet no answers are provided.  Granted, I understand that revealing everything can ruin the mystique, but Darkseed doesn't even provide enough information for players to come up with their own theories.

The sequel continues where the first game left off, but feels like a made-for-TV follow-up to what wasn't the greatest franchise-starter to begin with.  It's a shame because the basic building blocks for an intriguingly horrifying story are there.  They just needed to be expanded on, fleshed out a little more, and maybe have some mechanical bits attached to the core ideas.  After all, this an H.R. Giger inspired project we're talking about here...

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