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It's Easy to Go Overboard With Oddly Compelling 'Seaman'

September 21, 2000|AARON CURTISS

A whole lot of very little happens in "Seaman," a bizarre Sega Dreamcast title that is every bit as aggravating and moronic as it is compelling and addictive. In addition to being a game one must enunciate carefully, "Seaman" highlights the oddball creative potential of Dreamcast as underdog Sega braces for the launch of Sony's mighty PlayStation2 next month.

The star of "Seaman" is a digital amphibian with a human head who speaks and understands English. Essentially a virtual pet game like Tamagotchi, "Seaman" is considerably more sophisticated. Players talk to their scaly charge in a normal voice using the microphone attachment that comes with the game. Seaman appears to understand many of the questions asked of him, most of the affections directed toward him and darned if I could find an epithet he failed to hurl back.

Despite having a real pet--and wife--of my own and not being much of a nurturer, I spent way too much time with Seaman and his game over the last two weeks. It's required. Failure to visit, feed and clean up after Seaman somewhere on the order of twice a day produces unhappy results. My first batch of proto-Seamen bit the dust after a few days.

I was more attentive the second time. The gimmick with "Seaman" is that players are trying to replicate the work of Jean Paul Gasse, a French scientist who tried to raise the first Seaman from a stash of eggs bought on the sly in Egypt. The story--including a modern archeological dig--is chronicled with a completely straight face on the game's well-designed Web site at http://www.meetseaman.com.

Players begin with a tank full of dirty, cold water. First task: Make the "vivarium" habitable for the as-yet-unhatched Seaman. The oxygen level, lighting and heat can be manipulated to create an environment conducive to growing a Seaman. All three must be monitored and adjusted throughout the game, which can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to finish.

Get the tank set up right and a school of Gillmen hatch. Soon after, the strong kill the weak by sucking their blood and players are left with one or two of the sweet little buggers, who coo and babble like vampire-like toddlers. As with real kids, Seaman's development depends on how much attention he receives. Players can tickle Seaman or pick him up, but most of the interaction is through the microphone.

Even though I felt like an idiot, I spent hours talking to Seaman. Early on, he mostly spewed nonsense noises, but within a few days he was talking every bit as much as I was--mostly variations on telling me to go away. Because the game unfolds in real time, Seaman's development takes several days and the full game takes weeks to finish.

Players can beat that by tinkering with the clock on their Dreamcast and Visual Memory Unit. By setting the time forward and backward without the game disk, players can fool Seaman and narrator Leonard Nimoy into thinking time is moving much slower or faster than it is.

Without the voice interaction, "Seaman" wouldn't be much of a game. With it, "Seaman" represents a big leap forward in the way home users interact with their games. Seaman's vocabulary is immense and he catches the gist of far more than one might think.

A clever mix of programming tricks produces creepy responses, such as the time late one night when I asked Seaman if he was tired. "No," he replied. "But shouldn't you be getting to bed?" Seaman's program scanned for "tired" and then matched it against the time to create a remarkably lifelike response.

At his best, Seaman actually appears to be a very smart--and wise--fish. At his worst, he spews nonsense. For instance, when I called Seaman an idiot, he replied coolly with, "Savant." When I said, "Let's talk this over," Seaman's response was, "Ooh, issues." But when I said, "I like Lego," Seaman said, "Wait, I'm still cold." So I asked, "Are you cold?" His response: "Cold? No."

Sometimes Seaman's lack of understanding can be maddening. At key points in the game, players must say precisely the phrase Seaman needs to hear in order to impart some important piece of information--such as how to grow more food. Cycling through variations on the same question gets a little old.

But "Seaman" overall is clever and refreshing.

"Resident Evil: Survivor"

The same cannot be said of "Resident Evil: Survivor," a rough first-person shooter-slash-adventure for Sony PlayStation based on the excellent "Resident Evil" series of thrillers.

Players fill the shoes of Vincent, a guy who seems OK at first but turns out to be your run-of-the-mill psychotic sadist running a prison for human lab rats in the zombie-infested environs of Raccoon City.

Vincent has no memory of his brutal past, but there are plenty of people who do. So as players run the standard "Resident Evil" gauntlet of zombies and other monstrous mutants, they also have to dodge bullets from folks who want Vincent out of the picture.

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