Tuesday, May 1, 2012

How to Doom your Sequel 2: Dark Seed

Hey y'all.  I didn't think this was going to be a continuing thing, but I've been watching let's plays of the Dark Seed games, and it's like the developers of their second game really didn't want their sequel to work out.  It's like they did almost everything possible to make sure the game was weird and you hated the main character.  Normally I'm not a horror fan, as most horror these days is all gore and no scare.  However, the Dark Seed games are so cheesy hilarious, I figured I might check them out.

The first game was actually pretty decent.  It centers around professional writer Mike Dawson, who has just bought a really creepy house, for some inexplicable reason.  His first night there, he dreams that an alien baby has been implanted in his head.  From the headaches Mike experiences every morning, you figure the dream was real.  This is a horror game, after all.

So Mike has to do several things and claim several seemingly insignificant items to enter the dark world, a place more or less parallel to the normal world, only creepier and nastier.  From here, he has to find a way to stop the ancients, an alien race, from using the baby in his head to take over both worlds -- because apparently, while creepy, the normal darkworlders are just....well, normal.  One of them, a disembodied head, is the person who sends Mike dreams every night and helps him win the game.

There are several problems with this game.  First of all, it is very, very difficult.  Without a walkthrough, you will find yourself dying several times.  And because you don't pick up a specific object, or don't complete a task fast enough, you can easily get yourself into an unwinnable state without even realizing it.  Also, every time you die, the game forces you to go back to the beginning, including watching the scene of Mike getting a baby implanted in his head again.  Save early, save often.

But overall the game itself was pretty good.  Not the best thing in the world, but it was a great start to a potentially rewarding franchise.  If the second game hadn't happened, anyway.

The second game takes place a year later, and Mike Dawson lives with his mother.  He wakes up from a nightmare where the girl he likes is begging for help, but her face melts.  After a weird moment where Mike turns into a dark world critter, he wakes up, only to be interrogated by a bumbling sheriff, because apparently Rita, his crush, is dead, and he's the main suspect for her murder.  Not a great way to start your sequel.

Sequel Rule #1: Don't make the love interest unsavable.

Seriously.  There are dudes playing this game, and they want to act out being the hero.  And besides, people are supposed to want to like your hero and want him to do well.  If there's no way to save the girl, this damages the story because there's nothing the hero can do, especially if the girl in question is someone the players have no previous knowledge of.  I mean, if Rita were someone from the first game that we actually cared about, then we might be sad at her death.  As is, she's pretty much a redshirt.  I mean, you could make it so that a bad ending kills her, but there's an opportunity to save her if you play well.

Sequel Rule #2: Don't make the players hate your main character.

It is painful, and I mean seriously painful how pathetic Mike Dawson has become.  Now, in the first game, Mike bought a creepy house and stopped the ancients no problem.  Now, he's basically the personification of everything wimpy and lame.  How is he wimpy?  Let me count the ways...

- As mentioned, he's the main suspect for his crush's murder.
- Not only did Rita completely reject Mike, but it turns out she's trashy and adulterous.  And she blew Mike completely off.
- Almost everyone in town hates Mike, and the only two people sympathetic to him are a nutjob conspiracy-monger and a balding "The Fonz" wannabe.  Even his mother treats him like crap.
- He lives in his mother's house.
- Mike finds himself unable to complete simple tasks (winning a ring toss, turning a faucet, winning a shooting carnival game) without making the use of extreme dark world technology.
- Mike dresses like an eighties dude, complete with mullet.  Normally this wouldn't bother me, as I find the eighties hilarious, but when you combine it with all the other stuff, it's pretty sad.
- Mike's voice is so helplessly pathetic that he sounds like a puppy needing to be put down.  To make it worse, the things he says make you wonder if he's completely idiotic.  The game designers at least should have made it a choice for Mike to say smart or stupid things, and you know, this actually has an affect on the plot.  Nope.  It's all dumb.

With all this going on, the player has no recourse but to feel completely sorry for Mike Dawson, if Mike is lucky enough for the player to be sympathetic.  The players have no reason to root for Mike, and generally continue to play only because they want to see how hilariously bad the game gets.  Which, I suppose, is something.

Sequel Rule #3: Keep the things that made your first game good.

Specifically, the horror.  In the first game, the dreams and stuff that Mike goes through are genuinely creepy, mainly because they contain the factor of "whaaaaaaa....?" and the player is actually disturbed by what is in front of them.  In this game, the horror factors were completely lazy.  Now, I'm not a gore fan, so I don't care, but horror players are bound to.  And besides, there's very few genuine scares in the game, making the gore the only possible frightening thing in the entire game.

Sequel Rule #4: If you're making a video game, keep in mind that people actually want to play.  They aren't interested in tons of talking.

Yep.  Several times during Dark Seed II require the player to talk for long periods of time to a particular character.  Note that most of the times you would learn the plot come from hearing it from others, rather than because you have taken actions that lead to discovering the plot for yourself.   I know this is a point and click game, you guys, but come on.

I find myself comparing this to the Space Quest series, an equally old series of games based on Roger Wilco.  Like Mike Dawson, Roger is a lame guy.  He's nothing more than a janitor on a research vessel, and the only reason he survives a hostile takeover of the ship is because he was napping in the supply closet.  He is then set on the path to having to save the universe.

Unlike Mike, Roger actually has puzzled to complete. He has to grab what he needs from the ship, dodge the attackers, and make sure the escape pod is ready to take him out of there.  Later games have him dodging man-eating tree roots, crawling through caves, trying to figure out how to keep the Labion Terror beast from killing him, shooting enemies, and figuring out complex laser puzzles.  Very little talking is involved, at least until Space Quest 5 (where the series started going wrong), and even then Roger's still dodging slime monsters, getting electrocuted, and getting attacked by vicious robots.  Heck, in Space Quest 3, if you don't find and figure out the Astro Chicken code, you have no idea what the plot even is until you reach the final planet.

A lot of people remember Space Quest and had good times playing it.  It was a lot of fun, and none of the endings were dumb....except for SQ6, but we won't talk about that.

My point is, memorable games are made by interactivity.  The reason Space Quest, and in fact the first Dark Seed game were so fun, is because it feels like you're the one figuring out all the puzzles.  Each victory fills like an accomplishment.

Also, Roger might be lame, but at least he ends up married at some point in the future.  Take that, Mike Dawson.

Sequel Rule #5: Maybe, y'know, have an ending that makes it possible for there to be a Dark Seed III.

I'm not going to spoil the ending.  It's just too "good" to spoil.  However, it is very terrible, making the announcement of a possible sequel to Dark Seed II just cause audiences to raise their eyebrows, rather than becoming excited.  The plot is completely cut off, and the world will have to be entirely reconstructed for this game franchise to recover.  It's pretty sad, as this game series could have been something like Space Quest or Commander Keen, a good ol' game that people have fond memories of.

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