See Seaman swim

I tried to love my aquatic virtual pet, but all I could think was that I needed to get a life and maybe clean my goldfish bowl.

By Janelle Brown
Published August 16, 2000 7:03PM (EDT)

There are moments in every gamer's existence when you must face the creeping suspicion that what you are doing is more than a little bit moronic. Perhaps it's that moment when you realize that your thumbs are sore and raw from spending four straight hours trying to master the toe kick combo in Virtua Fighter. Maybe it's after a week of somnambulism brought on by too many midnight sessions of Everquest, where you regale strangers with Olde English imitations. Or the nights that you wake up gasping in fear from nightmares featuring splattering alien guts, à la Quake.

Me, I had one of those moments just the other morning, when I dragged myself out of my bed (warm, cozy) to plant myself in front of my Dreamcast console (cold, plastic) and play Seaman. I should have been sleeping -- but no, I had awakened at an obscenely early hour in a fright, recalling that I had forgotten to turn up the heat in my virtual pet's tank the night before. I sat, shivering in my robe, staring blearily at the television screen, afraid that my seaman would have died from the cold and that I'd have to start the game over.

I am a loser, I thought to myself, as I attempted to make small talk with the simulated fish lurking on my screen. Brain cells are dying. Must ... get ... a ... life.

American shores have been awaiting the game Seaman for almost a year now. Seaman was released first in Japan, where it has already become the bestselling Japanese Dreamcast release of all time. In America, publicists were expecting it to sell out in its first weekend. It's a bona fide phenomenon.

But what is Seaman? Basically, it's a virtual pet -- a creature that you must nurture, coddle, feed and clean in order to keep its spirits up. Unlike other virtual pets, however, Seaman actually talks back to you: The game boasts the first voice recognition software to appear in a console title and an artificial intelligence engine that helps your pet "learn" about its new owner. It's a demanding half-man, half-fish creature with a vaguely British accent, a droll sense of humor and a penchant for eating bug larvae.

Seaman comes with its very own microphone, and that is the genesis of both the ingenuity and the mundanity of this game. Although it comes from the same tradition as popular God games like The Sims, where an omniscient view lets you control the happiness of a variety of creatures, Seaman also learns about you and talks back. It is less a matter of you controlling the game than the game controlling you, something that will surely prove popular with masochists and indulgent pet fanatics. Unfortunately, I'm not either.

The conceit of this game is that Seaman is a rare omniscient creature from ancient Egyptian times, a hybrid fish-man who can imbue vast knowledge to his human brethren. A fake scientific journal online documents his "discovery" by scientist Jean Paul Gassi (apparently no relation to Be Inc. founder Jean-Louis Gassie). Seaman looks like your garden variety fish -- a kind of shimmering translucent salmon -- but with a face like a sour Russian guard. By turning your television set into a digital terrarium, you too can incubate, raise and communicate with a seaman of your very own. The catch: You must commit to spending at least 10 minutes a day with this game for 30 days, with no exceptions, for your seaman to become a fully grown adult.

In the early stages of this game, there are exactly five things you can do: Adjust the heat and oxygen levels (a cold, oxygen-free tank equals a dead seaman), feed, tickle and talk to the seaman. The first two days of the game are the most action-packed -- you get to lift an egg into a tank, watch it hatch and then feed the ensuing spermlike sea larvae to a mollusk. Several sea-babies will eventually crawl from the mollusk's carcass. Pay close attention: This will be the most action you will see for the next seven days at least. (I can't vouch for the ensuing 23 days, as I ran out of enthusiasm for this game after a week.)

Once the baby seamen (called gillmen) are hatched, you must care for them -- feeding them pellets, monitoring the heat and cleanliness levels (a task that must be repeated ad nauseam, several times a day) and, finally, talking to them. Although at first the critters will speak only a truncated version of baby babble ("Fibula! Debawoo? Hayray! Eeekloy!"), somewhere around Day 3 they will pick up a few words that you teach them, and on Day 4 you'll awake to discover that their vocabulary has matured overnight to rival that of an Ivy League English professor.

Leonard Nimoy narrates the game, and provides a quick and personalized "debriefing" every time you return. For example, a visit on my third day revealed this: "This is your second visit today. It is good to have you back so soon. First, a recap of your previous visit. The gillmen have begun to suck each other's blood, using the tubes on each other's heads. The number of gillmen has reduced -- survival of the fittest. At the moment, the habitat contains two gillmen. They are enjoying a comfortable environment."

Unfortunately, I never witnessed this bloodsucking. I wish that I had; instead, I spent countless minutes staring blankly at the shimmering, ethereal creatures swimming lazily around the empty tank, pondering what I could possibly say to a digital fish that doesn't speak English yet. (At one point, I mortifyingly discovered myself singing the alphabet song. Must ... get ... a ... life.)

Eventually, as a result of natural selection, I was left with one seaman. He has been endowed with 12,000 lines of dialogue -- an impressive-sounding number, but while the voice-recognition engine is surprisingly satisfying (only a small percentage of the time does it clearly misunderstand you), conversation is limited. Once the seaman mastered English, I found myself engaged in brief one-sentence conversations along the lines of "What's up?" or "What are you doing?" Or, the seaman would ask me a question, feeding me back some clearly pre-programmed dialogue based on my answer:

Seaman: "What month were you born?"
Me: "September"
Seaman: "What day were you born?"
Me: "The 12th."
Seaman: "Ah. Barry White was also born on September the 12th. That man's voice can seduce me like no other."
Me: "You're very funny."
Seaman: "You know it."

Seaman has a sense of humor, and a sarcastic wit at moments. He is also repetitive and often grumpy. (If you dare to overheat his tank, he will grumble, "It's hot ... it's a little too warm in here" ad nauseam until you turn the game off in disgust.) He will learn details about you, and then reference them when chatting with you. You can name him, and he'll respond. It's an impressive application of limited A.I. and voice recognition, at moments even amusingly sharp. But in almost a week of Seaman play, I found our conversations limited and unengaging; instead, I spent most of my time maintaining the tank. And believe me, that doesn't constitute exciting game play.

Which leads me to the question: Who on earth would want to play this game? As a surrogate pet, Seaman is not only more demanding and finicky than your average cat, but you can't even pet it. Of course, in Japan, where Tamagotchi reigns supreme and apartments are the size of postage stamps, a fascination with a space-saving virtual pet might be understandable; but in America, land of shopping malls and vast suburban gardens, who will want to race home every few hours to turn up the "heat" on a digital pet's tank? (A more portable version would be much appreciated.) Perhaps children will find themselves engrossed with Seaman's version of Conversation Lite -- although I can't imagine them enthusing over the daily tedium of its maintenance -- but few adults whom I know would endure more than the first few minutes for sheer novelty's sake.

(An upside aside about Seaman: This game did guilt-trip me into cleaning the fishbowl where my long-suffering goldfish Fishy had been festering. Surely, if I could spend 20 hours coddling an animated pet, I should take half an hour to scrape the algae off my real pet's habitat. Perhaps that is this game's best purpose: Give it to your child who has been begging for a puppy/kitten/pet rat as a discriminating test to prove his or her readiness for pet parenthood.)

As the first of its kind, Seaman is interesting and well-executed -- especially considering the current limitations of artificial intelligence and voice recognition technology. But for the amount of commitment that it takes, there's just not much there, especially once you get past the gee-whiz factor of being able to hold a working conversation with a digital monster.

Sure, I suspect that if I had endured all the way to Day 30 and the fully grown seaman, I might have enjoyed richer conversations and a more personal relationship with this dubious creature. Alas, I have a life that I must get back to.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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