Archive for Thursday, August 31, 2000

Survival depends on interaction

Video game’s creature tends to be insulting, yet entertaining

August 31, 2000

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And now for something completely different . . .

If there's ever been a game like Sega's Seaman, I've sure never played it and I've been a gamer for quite a while. Seaman really justifies use of the word unique.

Remember the Furby? Or the Tamagotchi? Put those bizarre critters in a fish tank, give them a face like Bela Lugosi and a body like Charlie the tuna, a huge vocabulary and a bad attitude, and you'll have some idea what you're getting into with Seaman.

The game starts with a little explanation from Leonard Nimoy about the origins (completely bogus) of Seaman, who supposedly has been a part of human history since ancient Egypt.

In fact, the most recent Seaman was found alive in Egypt in 1997. That critter died, but was carrying viable eggs. So a company called Vivarium raised the eggs and bred the resulting litter, which gave them more and more eggs. Now they are selling them to the public.

Your job is to raise Seaman from an egg to an adult, interacting with him as time goes on. Early on, this amounts to turning on the Dreamcast once or twice a day and making sure the water temperature is correct and the air is properly oxygenated.

Later, things get more interesting as long as by interesting you mean insults and cannibalism. In the tank, it truly is the survival of the fittest, and eventually you'll have one Seaman left, licking its lips.

You need two pieces of equipment to proceed a memory card (Visual Memory Unit, or VMU, sold separately) and a little microphone that comes packed with the game. It plugs into the second slot in the controller and by pushing the A button allows you to talk to your Seaman.

The VMU is vital, since the game runs in real time. Saving the game puts Seaman's current status in the system, but things keep on going even with the Dreamcast turned off. When you turn the game back on the next day, you'll be greeted by Nimoy, telling you how long it has been since you last visited and warning you that Seaman is freezing and suffocating because you took so long to care for the tank.

Just what you need, a video game nag.

The neat thing is, Seaman talks back.

Seaman supposedly has a vocabulary of more than 10,000 words, and talking to him encourages him to use them. The voice recognition technology is far from perfect, but if you speak clearly and ask simple questions, you'll be surprised at the results.

You can interact with Seaman in other ways, too. One controller command lets you tickle Seaman. The little hand on the screen also lets you tap on the glass of the tank, which usually summons your Seaman.

You can even pick the grotesque beast up by its tail and listen to it squawk.

Nothing about the Seaman creature is particularly appealing. It's annoying, insulting, contentious just the kind of person you'd probably cross the street to avoid. Yet here you are, staring at the TV as little dots wander aimlessly around a tank.

The game is impossible to grade by normal standards. The graphics are as plain as a mud fence, yet seem perfect. The controls are simple to learn and use, since you're barely moving a muscle while you care for Seaman. Sound is mainly voices.

And yet there is something strangely entertaining about ol' Seaman I really can't wait to see how he turns out.

I'm hoping for an Ivy League education.

Seaman is rated T, for ages 13 and up.

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