In 2008, Visceral Games (then known as EA Redwood Shores) released Dead Space to the reception of accolades from all corners of the gaming community. The title set a new standard for cinematic horror in the world of video games, particularly that of science fiction. Now, almost a decade and two sequels later, it seems past time for a second look at the world of Isaac Clarke and his endless battle with both the alien Necromorphs and the demons inside him. The game handles perfectly on most modern PCs and can be picked up from Steam for a mere $19.99, a price well worth paying if you’re looking for a fresh horror experience (presuming you haven’t heard of or played it before, of course). Of course, like all great horror games, Dead Space is best played at night, in a dark room, alone and with headphones on. With that in mind, let’s begin.
Dead Space takes place in the relatively far future, where humanity’s hunger for raw resources has driven us to build massive starships known as ‘planet-crackers,’ equipped with enormous tractor beams that allow them to rip sizable chunks out of a world’s crust in order to harvest its materials wholesale. You play as Isaac Clarke, a voiceless and largely faceless engineer assigned to the USG Kellion. The game opens with you and your small crew of your even smaller ship being sent out to Aegis VII to answer a distress call from the planet-cracker USG Ishimura. The choice of making the protagonist an ‘everyman’ in the tradition of Half-Life‘s Gordon Freeman gives Clarke an extra layer of humanity and gives his situation all the more weight. He is not a soldier by any stretch of the imagination. He’s just a guy trying to survive in the face of what rapidly turns out to be a very complex and terrifying situation. Isaac also has a love interest, Nicole Brennan, who was stationed aboard the Ishimura as its medical officer. His efforts to discern her fate while staying alive himself also help to make him a very human and engrossing character despite being mute and hiding behind a high-tech welding mask for almost the entirety of the game.
Upon arriving at Aegis VII, Isaac and the rest of the Kellion’s crew become stranded aboard the Ishimura, which is hanging dead in space over the barren planet. Of course, ‘dead’ doesn’t mean ’empty’. Not five minutes after disembarking their wrecked shuttle, Isaac and his friends come face to face with the remains of the Ishimura’s crew, who have died and then been reanimated in twisted, sickening monstrosities known as Necromorphs. These vicious creatures waste no time in slaughtering most of the rescue party, leaving Isaac largely on his own and virtually unarmed against a vessel full of nightmares that is falling apart around him. This quickly establishes a scene, a conflict and a sense of urgency that many games would dismember themselves to have.
Over the course of the game, through video and text logs, as well as superb visual storytelling methods, Isaac and his surviving friends tease out enough information to reveal that the trouble aboard the Ishimura began when the planet crackers crew found an alien device called a ‘Marker’, which just so happens to be the centerpiece of an in-universe religion known as Unitology (which is an obvious, but well-executed and good-natured dig at Scientology). The inclusion of this element of Lovecraftian mysticism and cosmic horror help the story attain a new dimension of horror beyond the grim and gory one. It also makes the universe that much cooler to dig into. Every character is well-acted, with incredibly solid writing backing up each of them and helping maintain a level of immersion that many AAA games strive for, but few succeed in capturing. If it weren’t so dark, Dead Space is the world I feel like I could live in.
After the discovery of the Marker’s existence, things don’t initially change all that quickly. Isaac’s priorities remain focused on staying alive and escaping, which is great since it makes it that much more powerful when events take a turn for the worse and some great plot twists bring the big Macguffin to center stage. The lurking inhuman horror of the Necromorphs also pairs up well with the insidious subplot of insane or duplicitous humans that Isaac also finds himself facing later in the plot. The finale is awesome, with some strong final twists to both the heart-strings and narrative, bringing everything to a close very neatly. It is for this reason that I feel Dead Space, more than most other games, would actually work quite well as a movie if handled properly. Certainly, there is a vast depth of lore that would have to be cut, but the game is so cinematic that it truly feels like some parts could simply be cut and pasted into a film with no loss in texture or flavor.
Dead Space also shines brightly in the area of gameplay. One of the biggest differences between it and other horror-themed shooters is its unorthodox method of combat. Due to their undead nature, Necromorphs shrug off fire from most conventional weapons. Not even head-shots are a guaranteed kill, which is why Isaac is armed with an assortment of high-tech power tools which can be used to take apart his enemies, limb by bloody limb.This focus on ‘tactical dismemberment’ has made the series stand out, and was one of its great selling points at the time of its release. No other series before or since has seen fit to copy the idea, to my knowledge, making Dead Space possibly unique in the genre of action-horror and potentially beyond for its creative decision.
Enemy variety is also among Dead Space‘s triumphs, with each foe presenting different threats requiring different solutions while leaving enough room for flexibility so that the player doesn’t pigeon-hole themselves into a single playstyle. One good example is the pregnant Necromorph, a gravid and repulsive foe that spews nasty, clinging smaller creatures all over the floor if you shoot it in its swollen belly without thinking first. The later game introduces even stranger adversaries, which keep the experience fresh and terrifying when combined with the game’s excellent encounter design. Overall, Dead Space may lean towards horror in terms of design, but it still manages to present a strong experience as a third-person shooter in its own right.
Sound & Design
Dead Space remains unique in terms of visual styles, even after all these years. The game’s color palette emphasizes brown a lot, which can seem tiring, but at the same time, it helps lend an odor of decay to the Ishimura and the other environments. The design of the enemies is also remarkably gruesome, with the developers admitting that they drew on images of people suffering from burns and car crash victims as inspiration, a valiant and nauseating sacrifice in the name of creativity, since it adds a special and very visceral (see what I did there?) kind of body horror to the Necromorphs and the unsavory growths that come with them. It takes a special kind of dedication to spend months looking at the most awful, stomach-churning imagery in the name of building something new and unprecedented.
The sound is also a great factor, though unlike many other titles, darkness doesn’t play much of a role in making Dead Space scary. Most scary games rely on your not being able to see the monster and great audio design to inspire dread in you, but Dead Space takes somewhat of a different route, what with being partly a shooter game. Its methods rely on the uncertainty of your safety in various situations, since it works quickly to establish that no place is truly safe, with Necromorphs popping out of wall and ceiling vents like Ellen Ripley’s worst nightmare, while in other situations all you’ll hear is some scuttling noises as unseen, undead predators stalk you. At the same time, it works to starve you of resources, especially on higher difficulties, which helps engender a feeling of powerlessness. Isaac is, after all, just an engineer, and reality isn’t so kind as to leave convenient caches of power-tool components lying all over the place, even if it is on a mining ship. In fact, this can sometimes go a bit overboard when you find yourself surrounded by enemies time after time and rapidly running low on ammo and exits. There’s a difference between a fun challenge and irritating limitation which Dead Space sometimes crosses; but to its credit, it doesn’t happen all that often.
Of course, it’s also important to note one of the most crucial design elements of the game which actually bridges the gap between visual immersion and gameplay, is the lack of a heads-up display. Most shooters will simply display everything you need to know right on your screen, on the basis that you’re wearing a high-tech helmet and there’s no need to play coy. This works for first-person, but third-person games are different. By placing the camera outside the player’s character, you both increase the sense of agency but decrease the amount of immersion if you just stick read-outs all over the screen. Dead Space beats this by having all the information you need to know incorporated into the universe itself. Ammo displays appear on a holographic pop-up emitted from the weapon you’re holding. In place of cross-hairs, your tool will also emit targeting lasers you can use to gauge your aim. Meanwhile, Isaac’s health is displayed as a blue segmented bar on the back of his RIG suit, making everything immersive and non-intrusive. It’s a really ingenious move, and while not perfect, does a lot to decrease the problem of suspension of disbelief.
So where do we stand? After all this time, does Dead Space still hold up? Yes, I feel that it does. Its age in no way makes it less scary, or its story any less enthralling. The story of a scant few survivors trying to outlast an inexplicable and deadly catastrophe is a classic and is simply made stronger by the well-played human elements and subplots that are laid into it. Sure, the visuals might be a little dated, but the art style and amazing level design somehow make it feel four or five years younger than it actually is, with the complex environments and level design looking and feeling just as nauseating and fear-inducing as they did when the game debuted. Furthermore, the gameplay still stands out as unique and challenging, especially when played with a controller, which is guaranteed to inhibit your accuracy in a panic, thereby adding to the difficulty and scare factor of the experience. It’s a title that every horror fan should play at least once and deserves to be remembered as one of the great thrillers of video gaming history.
|+ Strong atmosphere and visual style||– Lackluster weapon scaling|
|+ Unique and challenging gameplay||– Pointless initial limitation in specific abilities|
|+ Well-written and engrossing story||– Higher difficulty levels can become irksome.|
|+ Powerful sense of immersion|