Great video games destroy your life. They keep you from eating, reading, and talking with friends. They emancipate you from your lump of fat and bones until even the sound of someone telling you to come to bed fails to penetrate your shell. They may not be better than sex, but if they’re any good at all, they at least try.
At the moment, hundreds of thousands of people around the world are getting jiggy with Seaman, a new surreal virtual pet for the Sega Dreamcast. Less a game than an experience, Seaman is a half-man, half-fish creature that you raise in an on-screen tank and, even cooler, converse with using a built-in microphone and unprecedented voice-recognition system. By the time Seaman starts swimming inside your TV set, asking about your horoscope and griping about the heat, something truly breakthrough occurs. Rather than smirk, you empathize.
In this sense, despite its hallucinogenic premise, Seaman may just be the most realistic game ever released—though not in the way you’d expect. These days, the holy grail of game development is graphic realism: getting that flip of the skateboarder’s hair or the vapor trail of a flamethrower to look just so. Aside from Will Wright, creator of The Sims—a virtual-human game that lacks Seaman’s communicative features—most game developers have steered clear of the considerably trickier terrain of emotional realism. Even games with strong story lines like Final Fantasy or Half-Life are made for play, not relationships.
By its very nature, Seaman is made to be your bud. You start by dropping the Seaman egg into the on-screen tank. Your main task from this point is to keep the environment livable by adjusting the heat and pumping in air. Every time you boot up the game, you hear an assessment from your host—a wry Leonard Nimoy—that helps guide you along. And like a real tank, with real living things inside it, Seaman’s tank requires you to come back every day to take care of the chores. This game offers all the ichthyology with none of the smell.
If you do a good job in the beginning, the egg eventually hatches into several mushroomlike pods, which cling to tank walls and stare at you with their gaping E.T. eyes. By the end of your first week (and you really do have to wait), the ‘shrooms will have evolved into living, breathing “gillmen,” with human faces on fish bodies. Part of their growth depends on communication, so you must talk with the gillmen, ask them questions. Soon, they’ll utter their first baby words, then turn the tables on you: inquiring about your age, your habits, your birth sign. All the while, their demands will grow, forcing you to find new ways of keeping them alive. Darwinism will have its role in winnowing the group, but in the end, your Seaman will be a product more of your mothering skills than of its code.
Because the game play is modeled on real life, all “action”—if you can call it that—proceeds at a slow-paced, evolutionary scale. Some aspects of Seaman’s development take days to occur. Sometimes Seaman might tire of talking with you and swim off into a corner. Much of your time, then, is spent sitting on the sofa and staring into the tank. In a way this is the most subversive effect the game achieves. Seaman forces you to adjust your notions of what a video game is supposed to be and, instead, accept it on its own ambitious terms.
Truth be told, the game is a bit too ambitious for its own good. Though Seaman’s banter can be funny (mispronounce his name as “semen,” and he corrects, “It’s Seaman, punk”), the creature often misfires by not being able to recognize or respond to what you say. And though the game admirably emulates life, sometimes it’s just plain dull.
Nevertheless, in Japan, where the game was originally released, Seaman has become the bestselling Dreamcast game of all time. It’s creating such a sensation that some fans have taken Seaman’s mythology—that the first specimen was discovered in Egypt by a French scientist in the 1930s—as fact. How the game will evolve with Western players remains a mystery. The quirky artificial life will surely hook them, but the Zen of Seaman might prove too deep after all.