30 Days of Dreamcast – Day 23: Seaman

Seaman
Genre: Life Simulation
Developer: Vivarium
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 08/09/00


So, Seaman.

Seaman is an odd little product. Created for the Dreamcast during a time when the Virtual Pet was kind of popular, Seaman was meant, it seemed, to be a console attempt at replicating that experience in the most involved ways imaginable. The vision, it seemed, was to make a living, breathing thing that talked to you, needed you to survive, and ultimately became more than just a game or an experiment to fool with, instead becoming something you cared about. Well, Seaman is certainly a solid attempt, we’ll say that much. Your pet is intelligent, to a point, talks to you about all sorts of things, follows a schedule you’ll have to work with in order to keep him alive, and in general is certainly something you grow to have some level of feelings for. That said, the technology supporting the game, though impressive, still wasn’t quite where it needed to be, there was plenty of time spent doing absolutely nothing of worth, and frankly, the game is just weird. Weird isn’t bad, you understand, and if you could deal with the fact that the thing you’re interacting with is, in essence, a talking fish with a man’s head, you’ve dealt with the worst the experience has to offer, so Seaman might be something you’ll be interested in, but everyone I show the game to kind of looks at it like it’s some sort of hideous freak of nature of a game, so I don’t think everyone is going to really “get” the game or what it’s trying to do if the ten or twenty people I’ve showed it to are any sort of a good cross-section.

Seaman asks you to take over the research of a man named Jean-Paul Gasset, a French researcher who had apparently been studying Seaman before you came along. You’re given a muddy fishtank, some food and an egg, and told to get to work, so needless to say, you’ll be spending a lot of time experimenting. After fooling around with the tank and such you’ll eventually grow yourself some Seamen, who you’ll have to nurture and care for as they cannibalize one another, until eventually, with one left, you’ll learn from him, help him develop his abilities, and eventually help him discover his true purpose. This, more often than not, involves talking to Seaman, feeding him, making sure his tank is properly maintained, and generally cater to his whims to ensure that he develops and grows appropriately. There’s a good amount of work involved in developing your Seaman to his final stage of evolution and helping him achieve his true potential. As he asks you questions, he learns from you and informs you of his existence through what appears to be some sort of shared memory of his race, which is certainly interesting if nothing else. The concept is bizarre enough and the actual execution is interesting enough that the experience is memorable, and you’ll certainly remember your time spent playing Seaman, even if you’re not sure entirely why.

Seaman is a visually impressive product, which is probably due in large part to the fact that the system doesn’t have to render a lot, meaning it can focus its attention on the few things going on at any time. The few animate objects you’ll see (insects, the nautilus, the Seamen) are well animated and quite lifelike, and look quite nice in motion. On the other hand, nearly everything in the game has a human head, so, y’know, if a moth with a human head creeps you out, you might be displeased to know that they look very… detailed. The environments, few though they are, also look pretty decent, though they lack the detail of the Seamen and can occasionally look dated. The fish tank your Seamen live in looks realistic and detailed, as does the insect cage where your insects live, and in general, with the exception of some mild texture issues here and there, Seaman is probably one of the better looking Dreamcast games released. Aurally, there’s no music at all, and the sound effects consist mostly of, well, the sounds of a fish tank, leaving the aural experience to be carried by the voice work. That said, the voice work MORE than carries the load here. Your host is voiced by Leonard Nimoy, who is pretty much outstanding any time, anywhere, but the star of the show is, of course, your Seamen. They have different voices depending on their age, and the game features a TON of voice acting, as the Seamen will ask you all sorts of questions and respond to your statements in a number of ways, and all of the voice work is very well done. The responses from your Seamen are generally quite natural, don’t sound like they’re snippets of speech cobbled together, and flow well, and the experience as a whole is better for it.

So, okay, let’s get this out of the way now: the gameplay in Seaman is less “gameplay” and more “taking care of a virtual pet”, so you’re not so much playing this as you are just maintaining Seaman’s habitat, taking care of him, and talking to him as needed, which means that you’ll really only be spending about an hour or two per day dealing with Seaman, usually twice per day, and your interactivity with the product is somewhat minimal. Most of the time, when you first jump into the game, you’ll have to regulate the temperature of the water and fill the water with air to ensure that your Seamen don’t suffocate or freeze/boil. You’ll also have to take care to feed your Seamen to ensure they don’t starve and talk to them to develop their growth. At first, you’ll have several Seamen to work with, but as they grow, they slowly begin to change and die until you’re eventually left with one, and at this point you’ll begin changing your routine as the Seaman evolves. You’ll have to pay attention to other factors in the tank aside from heat and cold, and you’ll have to raise insects for your Seaman to eat. These basic maintenance tasks can get boring after a while, of course, but this isn’t so much the focus of the game as it is one aspect of the experience, and thankfully, it’s fairly easy to work with.

Most of your time spent playing Seaman will be spent interacting with Seaman, mostly by talking to him. Seaman will respond to most basic comments, so telling him “Hello”, “Good Night”, “How Are You”, or “I Love You” (yes, really) will generate some sort of response and, in time, make him like you more. Eventually, however, Seaman will start asking you various questions to determine how you think and what you’re like, and he’ll retain these answers which will, in turn, influence other questions he asks later. He’ll start off with basic questions, like your gender, your age, and what you do for a living, then move on to questions about your philosophies and beliefs as he develops. You can answer his questions with simple answers, and he’ll confirm these answers back to ensure that he, “heard you correctly”, IE the voice recognition software processed the answer right, before he makes an observation about it and moves on. This is probably a good thing, because when I told him my profession, he asked me “You work in the sex industry?”, which… well, aside from the fact that no, I don’t, I really wasn’t prepared for that, either. You can also assign Seaman a name, which he will respond to when called by it, which is cute and gives the game a good sense of personality… well, aside from the whole “talking fish with a human head” vibe.

The thing about Seaman is that it’s hard to really grade the experience as a game in the strictest sense of the concept. There’s an overall goal to the experience, an ending to the game, and mechanics you have to work with in order to succeed, but there’s nothing especially involved about the game itself. Maintaining the tank and the insect cage amounts to little more than pressing a couple of directions on the D-pad, and feeding your Seaman is accomplished by holding a button and the right trigger to grab food, pressing the left trigger to change views, and releasing the buttons to drop the food in the tank. The whole point of Seaman is the experience and the concept behind it, that is, the only reason to play the game is to raise Seaman, interact with Seaman, and watch him evolve until he’s ready to return to the wild on his own. In that respect, the experience is pretty neat. Having your digital pet ask you questions and remember the answers for later is interesting, the voice recognition software is generally good at picking up what you’re trying to say, and the experience is quite ambient and interesting, as there are frankly very few products on the market that do what Seaman does.

That said, Seaman is less a game and more a simulation, meaning that anyone who plays games with a more interactive experience in mind will find Seaman off-putting from the start. That aside, Seaman is a very bizarre experience, of that there is no doubt, but it’s also an experience that could have done with a bit more substance. Aside from two events where you’ll have to help Seaman change the tank to move forward, most of the game is spent performing the same tasks: heating the tank, adding air to the tank, feeding your Seaman, watering the insect cage, talking to Seaman for a bit, reheating the tank, adding more air to the tank, watering the insect cage, and logging out. Doing this twice a day gets boring after a while, and the fact that you’ll either have to fast-forward the time in the Dreamcast or have to play the game for several weeks to complete it makes the experience drag a bit, even if you are agreeable to what the game is trying to do. Seaman does some odd and interesting things to make you want to keep coming back, as numerous events will pop up here and there to advance the experience, but the mechanics of the game are repetitive, and unlike owning a real pet, this lacks the rewards of actual pet ownership while still simulating the more mundane aspects of owning a pet.

There are also some odd technical issues that can make the game more annoying than it needs to be, as the voice recognition software, though competent, occasionally is incapable of recognizing your speech, making some situations annoying and others accidentally hilarious. The game also has odd mechanical design issues, such as the requirement that you not drop one item (food, mostly) into the tank until the prior one has gone away, which can become exceptionally annoying when you drop the wrong item into the tank and have to wait five minutes for it to go away while your Seamen complain that they’re hungry, or the inability to turn DOWN the heater, meaning if you accidentally overheat the tank you’ll have to wait for it to cool off while your Seamen complain that they’re hot, which gets old in a hurry. Also, it bears noting that Seaman is essentially something you only need to play once, as it changes not even a little bit upon completion, so you can safely play it to completion and never play it again when you’re done with it.

Seaman is really an interesting novelty that anyone looking for something a little different should put on their “must play” list, but for most folks it’s probably too odd, too repetitive or too technically unsound to be worth investing time and money in. The idea of raising a talking fish with a human head from infancy to adulthood and releasing it into the wild is interesting, and the game is designed in such a fashion that you feel what you’re doing is important and meaningful, yet it’s simple enough that just about anyone could do it without too much trouble. However, it’s hard to really judge it as a game because it doesn’t require much interaction to really be successful, and as such, the game itself isn’t especially entertaining or engrossing, as it’s more or less a game about taking care of a virtual pet. Thanks to the occasional voice recognition and game mechanics issues, Seaman also feels more annoying than it should from time to time, which decreases your interest in helping your Seaman evolve, and even if you manage to complete it, you need never play it again. Seaman is really more of a novelty than anything else, and anyone who enjoys weird and different games should put this high on their list of games to check out, but most folks will probably either find it too weird or too boring to hold their interest.

The Scores:
Story: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: WORTHLESS
Balance: GOOD
Originality: UNPARALLELED
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: GOOD
FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Seaman is an incredibly interesting and unique game that has a certain experimental charm to it, and is worth checking out if you’re the sort of person who likes looking at that sort of game, though someone looking for an actual game might come away disappointed. The concept is inventive and the game looks and sounds nice enough, and the whole gimmick of raising a talking fish with a human head, caring for it, feeding it and helping it evolve until it can return to the wild is interesting, and few games have ever really done this sort of thing before or since. This, however, is probably because Seaman isn’t really so much of a game as it is an interactive pet, of sorts, meaning that it’s not very involving or entertaining, which might put off people who play games to actually play games. Some odd technical issues or mechanically odd elements also make the experience more tedious than it should be, and you can safely complete the game once and never return to it again, which mars the replay value considerably. If you’re looking to try out something unlike any game you’ve ever seen, Seaman is worth a look, but unless you’re receptive to caring for a digital pet, it might be a short experience, at best.

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  1. Mark B.

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