Sega Retrospective
Thanks For all the Fish

Brendan Main | 25 Jan 2011 13:55
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In the prehistoric 1960s, a thrilling new pet was gaining in popularity - a self-sustaining aquarium teeming with life, advertised under the fanciful title of "The Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys Ocean-Zoo". Kids saved up and mailed away, only to realize that the ad was comprised almost entirely of lies: not amazing, not monkeys, and not entirely "alive." What you ended up with was a bag of brine shrimp cysts, cryptobiotically frozen between life and death, just waiting for ideal liquid conditions to start blearily bibbling around, waiting for some monstrous thing from the deep to come gulp them up. For countless children, sea monkeys provided a primer lesson in disaffection. You expect King Triton. You end up with Schrodinger's Shrimp.

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My generation came by a little too late to enjoy this particular brand of cavernous non-fun, but we had something close - our own personal sea monkeys for the gaming age. We had Seaman.

Seaman was released on the Sega Dreamcast in 2000, and remains one of the weirdest games ever to grace the system, or possibly any system at all. The game is described as a pet simulation, which I suppose is strictly correct. It perfectly captures the sensation of raising an animal, so long as your pet has the droopy, furrowed face of a middle-aged man, and is prone to asking you probing questions about life, the universe, and everything. So - nothing like raising an animal at all, in fact, and closer to an alienating trip to visit your great uncle at the old age home.

From the very start, Seaman differentiates itself from other pet simulations. You begin with a tank, mostly empty, inhabited by a solitary nautilus that swims aimlessly about. But this is not your pet - this is fish food. The eponymous "seamen" start as parasitic worms that burrow and incubate inside the hapless creature until they burst out as fresh-faced fishies. There is no explanation or introduction - just gastrointestinal infestation, and the slow death of a squid being gnawed from the inside-out.

This matter-of-fact explosion of aquatic life manages to elude the many niceties of pet ownership. It skips the trip to the pet shop to agonize over a kennel full of doe-eyed cuties. No picking and choosing, no watching them all run about, no promise that you and your new companion will be best buds forever. The standard pet-game values of friendship, codependence and responsibility are likewise nowhere to be found. In Seaman, there are no choices. Rather, "they" choose "you", at least as much as they chose that squid. You catch them like the clap. The creatures that emerge are not predisposed to giving you their unconditional love - rather, you'll be lucky if they don't hate your guts.