You have to love Sega don’t you? They spend ages developing a revolutionary voice recognition system and create a plug-in microphone peripheral to allow you to interact with your console. Lesser developers having done all this would have maybe integrated it into an First Person Shooter to allow you to give commands to a team of combatants. Something violent anyway and definitely something commercial.
Well not Sega. No, Sega decide to invent a virtual pet called Seaman, which is an ill-tempered fish with a human head. You talk to it via the microphone and the voice recognition system allows him to understand, learn and talk back at you. Silly old Sega, they’ll invent a revolutionary motion sensor system next and use it to make a Maraca’s based dancing game! Ahh..
Anyway, that aside. What is Seaman? Seaman is not a game. You won’t get quick thrills from Seaman, this is a game that requires patient and yes, protracted commitment if you want to get the most from it. Seaman is a fish, but he has the face of a man and can speak. You will raise Seaman up from a little tadpole and your aim is to encourage him to develop and grow until he sprouts legs and climbs out onto dry land.
The story behind Seaman is this: The original Seaman was discovered by the French Scientist Jean Paul Gasse. While excavating in Egypt in the 1930′s he find references in ancient text to the “Omnipotent Messenger of the Gods”. Dr. Gasse acquires some Seaman eggs and believed that Seaman was responsible for spreading knowledge from Ancient Egypt around the rest of the ancient world. His Seamen die before he can prove this and he disappears in disgrace. However, on purchasing the Seaman kit you are to carry on Gasse’s work and unravel the secret of the Seaman.
Before you even start the game its worth reading the hilarious manual. It has been written with its tongue firmly in its cheek and keeps the humour going all the way though. For example, in most manuals the setting up of the console makes a dull read, but not with Seaman! “The first step you must take in preparation is to set up the required equipment. At this time should you experience any tension related symptoms such as heart palpitations, perspiration etc., resulting in the sheer weight of the responsibility for rearing a Seaman you may wish to loosen up a bit by stretching of taking a bit of exercise”. And that’s before you even switch the console on!
When you do begin the game you must have a VMU and microphone, you cannot start without it. Once that is all set up the voice of Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock from Star Trek) will greet you and you’ll get your Seaman egg. You then go to the Tank. To begin with it is all murky and cold. So you must turn the heater up to a nice warm temperature and fill the water with oxygen to clear it up. This is something you have to do regularly to keep Seaman healthy. Now as the water clears you’ll see a Nautilus (a kind of lobster/crab thing) sitting at the bottom. That is your key to hatching Seaman.
First you drop the egg in the water, when it has warmed up enough it will split into several sperm shaped creatures. On closer inspection (you can zoom in and out using the controller) you’ll see these are in fact floating eye-balls with tails. Which is a bit creepy. Next you must tap on the glass on the tank to draw the swimming eyeballs towards the Nautilus. Soon the Nautilus will come out of its shell and begin to eat the floaty eyeballs. Once it has eaten at least four it will begin to spasm. It will go into really violent spasms and thrash around the tank for about five minutes, blood starts coming out of it and it thrashes itself out of its shell. It’s quite horrible actually. Finally the poor thing expires and several little baby Seamen will come exploding out of its dead body. Erk.
Now you have some baby Seamen to care for. Like human children they cannot talk at first and make baby noises. This is where you realise caring for your Seamen will be a long job. They develop over days not minutes. It takes several days before they even learn basic speech. Your TV acts like a fish tank. Seaman will swim around in the tank growing and developing. Sometimes he will want to chat; sometimes he will want to sleep. You must keep him warm, his water clean and his stomach full of food. You can interact by talking to him, you can also tickle, pick up, or slap him using the onscreen hand. You don’t need to spend long with Seaman in one session, but if you fail to visit him for a few days he will get cold, his water will get fetid and he may die of neglect.
At first you are limited to tapping the tank to get the Seaman’s attention. You need to talk to it even when it cannot talk back as it needs to learn from you. This can be frustrating at first and I am ashamed to say my first batch of Seamen died before I could get a decent conversation from them. You see if you are not prepared to boot the game up EVERY day the environment will degrade and Seaman will start to get pissy with you.
Sadly the only words I heard from my first lot of Seamen was “I’m cold”, “I’m hungry”, “I’m scared”, “Ouch you’re mean!”, “I can’t breathe, dying” and best of all when the last one died as I was trying to clean the tank up it put the blame firmly on me with the final words “OK, dying now, you killed me, bye bye”. Then it floated to the top of the tank. Now at this point my Seaman had a child’s face; a CHILDS face. So I had just killed a child. There was a childs dead face staring at me, can I just say that it freaked me out a bit? If only there was a virtual toilet to flush it down so I didn’t have to keep looking at those poor, cold, dead reproachful eyes….
Because the graphics and sound are eerily realistic and that can be disturbing. The human face on the fish body is expressive, ugly and sinister. The voices are far, far too convincing. Having the voice of a toddler declaring “Dying, help me!!” is very unnerving. Yes, I learned my lesson and my next batch of Seaman I have been raising properly because I actually felt guilty when the first lot died! It sounds ridiculous I know, but I felt a bit of a failure and became determined to raise the next lot with love and care. It’s working out much better. Seaman chats to me and although the speech recognition isn’t full it understands enough basic stuff to make you feel like you’re genuinely interacting.
It’s also nice when it remembers details like your name and date of birth. Or talks to you about stuff you have told it in prior sessions. The whole Seaman experience can be very soothing. There is no music, just the noise of the tank bubbling. Watching Seaman swim about can be great when you are vegging out reading a book and sometimes he’ll mutter to him self or even try and attract your attention when he’s bored!
It’s tricky to know whether to recommend Seaman or not. It does require effort and perseverance to get the best from. It can be up to a week before Seaman has developed enough to talk to you properly and after the initial excitement of Seaman’s birth that first week can consist of daily dull visits to tap on the tank and make sure they are warm and clean. You’ll speak into the mike, but they won’t really respond and you’ll begin to wonder if it’s worth it. But that first moment when Seamen actually addresses you properly is almost magical (steady on), well it’s pretty cool anyway.
Perhaps its best to think of Seaman as something to boot up after a frenetic session of some other DC game. A fifteen-minute wind-down before you turn the console off altogether for the night. That way raising Seaman won’t seem like a chore. Seaman can be a bit of a chore in places, its unavoidable as it resolutely refuses to allow you to take shortcuts, which will alienate a lot of people from it.
Like raising any pet, it has to be done the hard way, with time, effort and lots of positive input. If you’re the kind of person who left you mum in charge of the hamster after the initial fun wore off or didn’t notice the turtle had been dead for a month (I thought it was hibernating mum!), then Seaman will probably bore you rigid. Seaman can’t replace a real flesh and blood pet, but as virtual ones go, he is definitely the best, and he remembers your birthday as well. My cat never does….