For those of you who didn’t have enough horror over the Halloween weekend, I recommend checking out a great game which just turned seven years old, Dead Space. I decided that Your Mid-week Mission series, which is now two months old, is long overdue for something besides a 2-D, pixel art, indie PC game (as much as I obviously enjoy those). So I’m getting about as far from that as possible with this article about a AAA action horror third-person shooter.
In particular, this article will explore what makes Dead Space succeed as a horror game, which is a genre with a disproportionate number of failures. I intend to encourage any fans of the horror or third-person shooter genres to play the first part of the Dead Space trilogy as soon as possible, so let’s get to why.
Visceral Games (back when they were called ‘EA Redwood Shores’) put out Dead Space as one of a number of horror-based corridor shooters which surfaced in the immense wake of the original Bioshock. But unlike so many of its spooky competitors, Dead Space was able to build a good horror atmosphere, primarily through the elements of isolation, ambiguity, and discovery.
I wrote about a space-based horror atmosphere a few weeks ago when discussing the wonderful puzzle game, Spacechem, but it goes without saying that the narrative and ambience of Spacechem pale in comparison to the immersion possible aboard the USG Ishimura, the apparently abandoned hulking spaceship on which the events of Dead Space occur. (Even so, I would probably contend that Spacechem still manages to be the better game overall, and I have played it for almost four times as long; but they are in drastically different genres, so I digress.)
The sense that player-character Isaac Clarke is on his own in Dead Space is incredibly pervasive. The design of the ship often puts him in humongous corridors and chambers, and the zero-gravity mechanic in many such areas sees Clarke juxtaposed to the vastness of the distances. Further, as this video illustrates (WARNING: spoilers and animated gore), Clarke is kept physically separate from the NPCs in the game almost throughout, making proximity to humans both alien and disconcerting while also pitting a single engineer against an entire hostile ship. A wall of glass goes up between Clarke and his compatriots in the opening sequence, and this wall remains, both literally and metaphorically, for most of the game.
The ambiguity in Dead Space is both atmospheric and narrative. The Ishimura is filled with darkened and fog-filled passages, making the walls and ceilings into potential sources of unseen hazards. Although such segments are no rarity in the horror genre, their integration into the design of the ship sets this title apart in terms of visual design. Meanwhile, the deteriorating mental state of Clarke makes for a story with at least as much ambiguous surreality as any entry in the Bioshock series.
When I speak of discovery in Dead Space, I do not mean it in a bright and cheery light. It is the fear of what you have yet to discover on the massive, densely knotted Ishimura that keeps every corner tense. This sense that there is always a new threat ahead of you is coupled with an unnerving instinct that Isaac Clarke is always being pursued. The reason for this instinct is almost certainly the stroke-of-genius core combat mechanic, which takes the vaguely humanoid, ravenously violent beasts with which you share the ship and demands that you quite literally tear them limb from limb. The result is a legion of enemies who continue limping, crawling, or pulling themselves toward you with partial bodies well after you expect, which leaves the player paranoid of every ostensibly defeated foe.
Dead Space‘s success is a testament to how any genre, no matter how saturated with releases, can be a fertile place for success, provided the game’s design is good enough. And I have not touched on everything here by a long shot; the incorporation of the HUD and UI elements into Clarke’s suit and the holographic display, for instance, is another excellent design choice that aids immersion. At its very best it is on-par with the tensest sections of the original Half-Life or System Shock 2, and at its worst it is still comparable to clunky-yet-enjoyable third-person action games like Darksiders. Visceral Games retroactively lived up to their name with this first part of the Dead Space trilogy, so if you’ve got the courage for it, find yourself a copy.
AAA Horror that Works: