[Game: Dead Space 2, Visceral Games, 2011]
Deadened Space:

How Small Elements of Design, Optimization, and Polish Combine to Diminish Dead Space 2

 

Introduction:

Despite its slightly more favorable reviews, among game analysts and longtime fans of the series Dead Space 2 is commonly considered to be a lesser work than the original Dead Space—a lesser work of horror as well as a lesser game in general.

But on first glance, it’s not remotely clear why anyone would hold that opinion. After all, nearly every element that hooked people into Dead Space, nearly every element that I praised in my own article on the game, remains present in the sequel: an engrossing and precisely tuned sound design, a plot that deftly blends sci-fi and body horror, a set of enemies who navigate through ductwork to ensure no space ever feels truly safe, a dismemberment-based fighting system that increases combat complexity while enhancing uncertainty regarding whether any given foe is deceased, a pacing that spaces out spans of tension with spans of relief, a combat system that straddles the line between being restrictive and being empowering, and an eschewing of a traditional HUD in favor of diegetic menus and indicators on and around the player-character’s suit.

Yet, for all that, I would still agree with those who feel there has been a slight slide down the scales of both horror quality and overall game quality from the first game to the second. After some careful consideration, I’ve come to a conclusion as to why this is. Frankly, I don’t think Dead Space 2 has any big, glaring problems that weigh it down. It remains a very solid follow-up to the original, and an entertaining, worthwhile experience. This is not a traditional review of the game, which would surely be much more favorable than what follows.

Dead Space 2 screenshot with puzzle solved in zero gravity - Visceral Games, comparison, review, analysis

Rather, I believe the issues of the game are a great many small changes to the formula—changes that I believe were made in the interest of pursuing a cleaner, clearer, smoother, more conventional game design. But in the sum of all these many small changes and minor alignments with convention is a net negative to the tone and immersive potential of the game, a net deadening of the texture and uniqueness of the series. What follows, then, is a list of such changes and decisions, for your consideration.

10 Elements of Design, Optimization, and Polish that Worsen Dead Space 2:

There’s a lot to get through here, but as no single element is especially crucial to my overall position, the pace should be fairly quick. I’m just going to list each topic off, briefly comment on the role the change plays in the experience of Dead Space 2, and then move right along to the next one. Here we go:

First, gameplay-arresting cutscenes are now much more common. While certainly not always a design flaw, seeing dedicated cutscenes in a sequel to Dead Space was especially sad, as avoiding anything that could even potentially break a player’s immersion is one of that game’s greatest strengths. Now, in-game storytelling (a la Half-Life) is still practiced throughout the game, and is in fact more abundant than it was in the previous title. Nevertheless, the addition of cutscenes that take control away from the player is one of several unwelcome compromises on the fidelity to immersion which I had previously considered to be one of Dead Space’s most laudable core design principles.

Second, similar to the previous topic, Dead Space 2 employs blurs and overlays in an attempt to help sell its moments of psychological horror. Far from helping the horror, though, such elements tend to undercut it by adding distracting noise to the screen and reinforcing that one is playing a game. In the past, avoiding such gimmicky camera tricks was yet another point I had tallied in the original’s favor. If used with care, such effects can potentially be effective in first-person games, but are straightforwardly immersion-breaking in third-person titles because they call attention to the layer of separation between the player and the player-character.

Dead Space 2 screenshot with early-game area showing human experimentation - Visceral Games, comparison, review, analysis

Third, presumably as a matter of clarity and convenience, shops and workbenches continue to be strewn regularly throughout the levels as the primary way of accessing and upgrading tools, weapons, utilities, and armor, even though such elements made much more sense being strewn around the mining vessel in Dead Space than the lunar colony in Dead Space 2. For some reason, citizens of Titan can purchase and improve body armor, dangerous industrial tools, and machine guns at glorified vending machines dotted throughout the colony. Much like the fact (really too minor for its own entry) that Isaac’s strait jacket has a stasis indicator for some reason, the nonsensical implementation and abundance of shops and workbenches is almost a reverse of the situation in the last two points, where this time it’s an element being carried forward from the original with no alteration that proves more harmful to immersion.

Fourth, Isaac speaks. But the problem isn’t that he speaks, it’s how he speaks. Here are a few things we know about Isaac Clarke from the original Dead Space: he’s an engineer by trade, intelligent and resourceful enough to repair ship systems under considerable stress; he’s stalwart and optimistic, as evidenced by his continued searching for Nicole throughout the game; and he’s fairly obedient, following the chain of command with little deviation. Yet, in granting a voice to their previously silent protagonist, none of this characterization seems to have been factored in. Instead, Isaac is mostly given the dialogue of a meat-headed, self-sacrificing action hero—with a gruff delivery to match. Moreover, in Dead Space the player often feels alone, through the horror-apt loneliness of moving Isaac silently through levels; in Dead Space 2, the player never feels alone, through the action-apt companionship of Isaac’s frequent commentary.

Fifth, quick-time events, previously relegated to moments where Isaac has been grabbed by an enemy, have been spread outward into numerous set pieces in ordinary gameplay and during cutscenes. Being given a button prompt really never fails to take one out of the experience of a game, as it actively reminds the player of a fact the developer is otherwise trying incredibly hard to make them forget: that they are touching a controller (or a keyboard and mouse). That such prompts never fade from the experience of approaching doors, consoles, and cabinets in the original Dead Space is already a small arguable misstep in that game’s otherwise deeply impressive efforts toward immersion. Ideally, Dead Space 2 would’ve had fewer QTEs and similar prompts, not more.

Dead Space 2 screenshot with line gun firing near laser array and small marker - Visceral Games, comparison, review, analysis

Sixth, there’s a copiously utilized hacking minigame. Perhaps inspired by Bioshock’s bold inclusion of a silly plumbing puzzle for hacking, Dead Space 2 opts to represent Isaac’s engineering prowess as a simplistic exercise where one must click on blue zones of a circle before a timer depletes; it’s quite stupid. Equally stupid is the animation given to Isaac during these moments, which depicts him blindly rooting around in the wires behind the panel with his hands, then yanking some of them when the minigame is cleared. Although I directed a fair amount of criticism toward it in my video on Dead Space (not in the article), it must be remarked that Amnesia: The Dark Descent periodically showcases much more promising avenues for integrating puzzle elements into a horror game. Wacky, video gamey, pseudoscientific minigames really only feel appropriate when they match the tone of a work, as in the Ratchet & Clank series.

Seventh, speaking of ‘video gaminess,’ there are several moments where one is tasked with shooting a button above an opening to seal a room off from the vacuum of space. Now, even in a long list of nitpicking, this might seem like a very petty and minor thing to highlight—but hear me out, because these were actually the moments that initially inspired me to write this article. One enters an area; its wall is breached; Isaac begins being sucked into space; a voice message plays over an intercom instructing anyone in the room to shoot a button above the opening to seal the wall. Why, dear reader, why would any aspect of that system work that way?! I can understand, at least in theory, why there would there be an auxiliary blast door ready to close above an exterior wall of a space station. But why would the button to activate that door be placed inaccessibly at the top of the exact wall that may break? And why would the voiceover tell the presumably unarmed inhabitants of the room to shoot that button? The only answer I have is that, when this happens, you are not in a room on a space station on Titan; you’re sitting in a chair on earth playing a video game called Dead Space 2, and the developers wanted to make sure you were amply reminded of that.

Eighth, as long as I’ve already included something overly specific, I might as well include the other small moment that does significant damage to the experience of the game—in this case, by abruptly destroying player empathy for Isaac just before the emotional climax of the story. Here’s what happens: Isaac enters the EarthGov facility housing the marker that he intends to destroy, only to be met by heavily armed resistance from human soldiers. So, he ducks into a bathroom, scoots through a vent to a nearby control room, and cuts power to the area. This immediately causes a flood of necromorphs to enter the facility and brutally slaughter every soldier in the building, such that their mutilated corpses litter the remainder of the game’s levels. It is a truly shocking thing to behold, which immediately calls to mind the most infamous twist in the wartime psychological thriller Spec Ops: The Line, minus the relevant themes of that game. Thus, the off-hand plot convenience that allows Isaac to proceed further into the building (and allows necromorphs to continue being used as the enemies through the last three chapters) involves Isaac Clarke committing what surely amounts to some kind of war crime.

Dead Space 2 screenshot with oft-repeated hallway containing moving walkway - Visceral Games, comparison, review, analysis

Ninth, returning to more general concerns, environments are frequently reused. In the few chapters of the original Dead Space that reuse earlier levels, the game makes it clear that Isaac is literally returning to the same locations. In Dead Space 2, most of the repeated areas are lightly relit, reordered, and redecorated in an effort to pretend that they are genuinely new places. For the first half of Dead Space 2, it honestly feels as though the majority of the game takes place in one of four rooms: ‘multi-story apartment block,’ ‘hall with moving walkway,’ ‘two-story room with balcony and picture window,’ and ‘warehouse.’ Repetition in this area of design likely allows the game to be longer than it may have otherwise been, but at great cost to the experience. Sometimes the copying and pasting of locations feels downright insulting. At one point when moving through the Unitology church’s cryogenic crypt, for instance, one quite literally enters and exits the exact same room layout several times in succession. And later, on a jaunt back into the Ishimura for a dubious plot-convenient reason, one really never strays outside of the areas that were present in the prior game—only now partially reskinned with clean-room plastic and different lighting.

Tenth and finally, jump scares, random musical stings, and fast-moving enemies are more abundant this time around, and all three are introduced immediately. Basically, the game really throws a lot at the player, and it has a numbing effect that unintuitively reduces the horror potential of the title to a substantial degree. The original Dead Space uses a fair number of jump scares as well, but with enough restraint that they had a chance to be unexpected—and thus, you know, scary. Similarly, the first game introduces faster and faster enemies as the game goes along, mounting the pressure on the player in combat situations. Dead Space 2, on the other hand, introduces normal enemies in the first two chapters of the game that move as quickly as the first game’s Twitchers. At some point, jump scares and sprinting enemies are no longer an attempt at creating and then breaking tension; in so great an abundance, they just become a wall of noise and action with little to offer in terms of stress or dread.

Conclusion:

Alright, time to begin backpedaling: Dead Space 2 is very enjoyable. I enjoyed playing it, and you may have enjoyed playing it as well. It is a reasonably worthy followup to the original, and as rattled off in the introduction of this article, it retains many of the virtuous features that made the original Dead Space so beloved, successful, and influential. It even has at least one truly excellent segment: the entire sequence up toward, within, and away from the solar array facility in chapter seven. The failures and issues of Dead Space 2 that mar its excellence are all quite small and minor. It is only through the accumulation of many such issues that I have formed the secure opinion that its predecessor is a superior work.

Dead Space 2 screenshot with tutorial room for wall breaches - Visceral Games, comparison, review, analysis

Nevertheless, it is well worth pointing out that nearly all of the problematic elements in the foregoing list are things that were likely changed (or not changed) with intention. Relative to their obverse, a healthy proportion of the aspects about which I’ve complained here are more in accordance with ‘best practices’ of game design—including retention of familiar symbols and mechanics, reinforcement of horror elements through post-processing and additional attempted scares, fleshing out of previously ignored elements like Isaac’s voice and his technical capabilities, instruction of mechanics in terms of the verbs the player will actually use (like ‘shoot the button’), and capitalizing on completed work by using plot and setting to keep enemies and places in use repeatedly.

But in polishing the game to such a fine, smooth sheen, some texture and character were lost. I directed such strong praise toward Dead Space in that prior article because of the way that every single solitary aspect of it seems so carefully considered as a piece of a larger work. Elements that feel rough (or inconsistent with really clean game design), like the turret sections, still feel like they suit the game and its world. Things that really feel out of place there, like when Isaac has infinite ammo in the gun range minigame aboard the Valor, are rare.

In contrast, Dead Space 2 sometimes feels bland and poorly thought out. It frequently chooses what seems like the better option from a clinical, sterile, textbook approach to game design rather than the option that suits the world. It has the distinct feeling of being made by a larger, less precisely controlled team—so that many small immersion-breaking issues and compromises are able to pile up and create a somewhat lesser final product. In short, it tells the player to shoot the button, when it should be telling the space station occupant to press it. Dead Space 2 is still very clearly Dead Space—but, relative to the original, it’s a little more dead . . . and portrays a slightly less engrossing space.

 

[Game: Dead Space 2, Visceral Games, 2011]
Deadened Space:

How Small Elements of Design, Optimization, and Polish Combine to Diminish Dead Space 2

was last modified: June 27th, 2021 by Daniel Podgorski
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