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Opinion: Why Blood and Guts Make Up For A  Dead  Story, Characters
Opinion: Why Blood and Guts Make Up For A Dead Story, Characters
December 1, 2008 | By Tom Cross

December 1, 2008 | By Tom Cross
More: Console/PC

[In this new opinion piece, writer and commentator Tom Cross examines EA Redwood Shores' Dead Space, a title that he believes 'triumphed despite itself' -- here's a look at its failings and strange accomplishments.]

I've recently been thinking that too many games operate in the shadow of Aliens, especially in the atmosphere created by that movie’s characters.

So, it's with bemusement that I encounter a game that derives everything else from Ripley's world: setting, plot, enemies (after a fashion), and lines of dialogue. When you hear somebody posit the notion that somebody might want to study or preserve the game's horrific monsters, you know exactly what the writers are thinking.

Taking after Cameron, Not Scott

Many people have of course pointed out this fact since the game shipped. However, most people are focusing on how the tempo of that movie is similar to Dead Space’s gameplay. They say that this game is like Aliens, with its frantic action and small scares, and less like Alien's slow creeping dread. What they don't mention is that the story, which mixes the aforementioned movies with The Thing and a bit of clichéd religious zeal, is hackneyed beyond belief.

The game sends you from one end of the deep-space mining vessel Ishimura to another, fixing leaks, restarting generators, and basically acting like the meanest, most badass space janitor/engineer in history. Let me say, right out of the gate, that I loved this game. I thought that it was beautiful, fun, tense, and occasionally scary. I never for once thought it was original or creative (except in its depiction of zero gravity and vacuum situations, which are absolutely brilliant).

What Dead Space is, is carefully and stylishly unoriginal. You'll love playing it, but when you aren't playing it, it's hard to say what's so great about it. It has some really great set pieces, some sweet effects, solid gameplay, an amazing interface, and that's all. Anything and everything having to do with dialogue and story comes off as rote.

Let's take our hero and avatar, Isaac Clark. Mr. Clark (whose face you can only glimpse for a moment or two from start to finish) is a voiceless middle-aged white man it would appear, who specializes in heavy breathing and killing things. You are ostensibly interested in the plight of the Ishimura because your ex is on it, but we never really care about this "relationship." The problem is that Isaac has been saddled with modern video games' most ludicrous trope: the "everyman" silent protagonist.

Isaac never speaks, and you never get any indication of his mood, other than that he doesn't like dying. He wears a mask throughout the game and reacts to little. Apparently, this makes him relatable, because so many of us are demure, voiceless, deep space mechanics who constantly wear masks.

When are people going to stop beating this dead horse? It wasn’t a good idea in the first place, and it has become less of a good idea as games have evolved. I don't see how you can relate to a character that does not exist. I guess it lets you make stuff up about him or her; it lets us call him a "blank slate" or some other foolishness.

I Care More About Mr. Burke

What it also does is make me absolutely not care about his plight. I don't care about his ex, I don't care about his shipmates (why should I, they just spout dialogue and send me to tighten some screws down in Engineering), and I really don't care about the [Spoilers ahead] incredibly clichéd mad scientist who talks at me through windows and wants to meld humans and aliens. [End of the spoilers] The plot, for me, was bad, and it gets worse.

ds.jpg It doesn't help that Dead Space makes Drake's Fortune look scary. It creates a very creepy setting, and does next to nothing with it. I can count on my hand the number of time I was scared by this game, and that’s when the unkillable monster is banging around in the walls and coming after me. He has such a scary voice! Actually, this part scared me silly, and had me running around without my normal care and caution.

The sad thing is that the other times I was scared were at the very beginning of the game, and then never again. The first time was when a vent pops into your face and nothing evil pops out after it. This will happen 500 times throughout the game. Then again, the first time the lights go out.

So there you have it. Three scares. Of course, I kind of like this. I love killing monsters, aiming precisely at their limbs, changing guns manically (oh, and let us congratulate EA Redwood on the Ripper, my favorite remote controlled spinning saw gun), and cursing my frail engineer's body. It's fun, and it never got too scary, like some games that make me take a break or two.

You get the feeling that the developer is trying very hard, though. When I see a dark shape in the distance, which turns and disappears, I don't get scared. I know he'll pop out of a vent later! Likewise, when I find a scientist who promptly slits her throat because of the horror, I just check for an item drop. None of the survivors ever surprise you and go hostile (which I think would have been a brilliant scare), so you never have to worry.

They miss even the basic scares. Where's the alien dropping on my face when I'm minding my business in an elevator? Oh right, he does so, but his arrival is heralded (as almost all monster arrivals are) by clanging metal and vents breaking. Where's the alien that actually surprises me? The game’s tricks become old quickly; I’m never in doubt as to when monsters will rush me, and am thus never surprised or scared.

I'm not sure how to instill actual dread or nervousness, but I know that AVP 2, Drake's Fortune, and all of the Resident Evil games did a better job at creating atmosphere than Dead Space does. I mean, the hallway where arms attack Leon Kennedy in the police station scared the living daylights out of me, and that was one of many moments in the game.

The Only Way to be Sure

This is all to say that the game annoys me on a very deep level, and is still amazingly fun. I want to play it again, on either Impossible mode or on Hard mode again with beefed up weapons.

It's consistently entertaining, something I can’t say for some survival horror and action horror games that outstay their welcome (see BioShock and RE4). I'm sure I can forgive its faults for another run through its scary spaceship.

ds01.jpg It keeps up its pace by going through amusing (if predictable) twists and developments. What’s that you say? An army vessel is approaching? I wonder if they’re here to help us or not? Maybe they’re here for mysterious, sinister reasons? Luckily for us, the much-touted “strategic dismemberment” aspect of gameplay makes up for the slow, well-trod machinations of the plot.

The game makes every physical encounter exciting, by throwing multiple enemies at you, or putting you in zero-gravity (where threats come from every direction), or pitting you against new enemies. Admittedly, the enemies are culled from the annals of horror history. Still, when you meet a new enemy that holds within its belly enemies you’ve been fighting for an hour or so, your tactics change immediately.

Oh, and as for the interface -- it's fantastic. It’s the last word on mid-action inventory presentation and management, for all games, no matter what genre. It's a holo-inventory/map that you project into the air in front of your suit. It's sweet and pretty and fun. And about an hour ago, I realized that it was emitting from the collar of his suit, where there was a little readout. When you’re bringing up the map regularly just to spin the camera around your character and see the real-time presentation, you know you’ve got something special on your hands

In the end, I’m still not sure why I like Dead Space so much: it makes all of the story mistakes that I don't appreciate, and it displays a disdain for interesting presentation of its characters. Yet, for once, it’s enough that the rest of the game comes through, no matter the contortions my brain is forced to go through to believe its justification. Style and flair really can prevail over substance and feeling.

[Tom Cross blogs about video games at You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]

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sean lindskog
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Yeah. Last time I played, I was thinking to myself, "I don't care what happens in this game, but I'm having lots of fun slicing up aliens."

Nick Muntean
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I enjoyed Dead Space because it has very solid moments of action and well distributed set pieces (memorable encounters). They are spread out well enough to keep the game entertaining which is the best goal to have. But that should be expected since the game clearly took Resident Evil 4 and transposed it into space and added parts of The Thing and Event Horizon.

Now the story is another issue. It's about as cliched as you can get. Look at the number of times the word is used above. Also the plot twists focused around two characters were plainly obvious. A little more planning with character development, psychology, and a following a few basic tenants of storytelling would have better obfuscated the twists.

I have to agree that the scares in this game are far and few between and the game ruins most scares by telegraphing them with audio cues. The music shifts and changes which always denotes an encounter is going to happen. With a few false shifts in music and no encounter peppered between shifts and encounters the player would question each time the shift occurs; maybe something will happen, maybe not. I will have to push down this dark corridor to find out. That would keep players on edge, which is what horror is supposed to do.

Gregory Austin
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I find the criticisms of the scares somewhat inaccurate, both in the articles and the comments.

Of course, there are times where an enemy will run off and pop out of a vent later or the music will warn you of an approaching threat. But there ARE times when that enemy never comes back or the music is a fake out.

The scares come from when you think you saw through a fake out, but then get attacked anyway. A great example is the bathrooms. They're all perfectly safe, until very close to the end of the game. You're lulled into a false sense of security, then surprised.

But to focus on the article, rather than just defending the game, I would have liked to have seen some mention of the difficulty. Far more than any other game I've played, the difficulty is what makes this game. In fact, you can almost certainly tell the people who have played the game on Normal from those who played it on Hard due to their descriptions.

The difficulty levels are tuned such that the different levels are practically different genres. Normal is the action game you hear about from reviewers, and Hard is the survival horror you hear about from the fans (of which I consider myself one). And both groups are right.

I hope in the future developers take notice of not just the set pieces, zero-g/vacuum mechanics, and HUD innovations, but the ability to greatly tweak a game with just a difficulty setting.

Mark Venturelli
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Totally agree about Dead Space being completely unoriginal, yet extremely fun and well-executed.

But then again, I ~love~ my silent characters, Mr. Cross.

I strongly believe that they are the best way designers have ever invented to put the player in control of the character's thoughts, lines and reactions. The character is not silent. The other characters do not treat him like he is silent. I bet you spoke for him a lot of times, and that's the idea. *You* are reacting and speaking for Gordon Fr... ehr, I mean, Isaac.

I rather speak for my character than have him saying something I would never, ever would have said if I was on his shoes, completely breaking my immersion and throwing me back at my sofa with a controller in my hands. If I want to have deep character design on my game, I will focus on the NPCs and leave the players' avatar as much as a blank page as possible.

But I must say I completely agree with the rest of the comments, specially the one about the difficulty levels - believe me, if you only played the game on Normal, you really should give Hard a try.

Mark Venturelli
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Oh, and sorry about the double-post, but you said you didn't know why you liked Dead Space so much, even if the story and other dramatic elements weren't very good. I guess you gave this answer yourself: consistently fun gameplay. That's what makes all games good, and that's why I also liked Dead Space a lot. A good story may be entertaining, but games are not movies. Only storytelling in games I have ever really cared about was Braid's, because it tries to free itself from Hollywood and experiment in a way that is only possible in interactive digital media.

And congratulations on the great review, I will sure check your blog for more of your writing =).

Chris Melby
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I didn't mind the story in this game, it was predictable and quite cliché of all the popular sci-fi horror, but from what I gathered, its target audience were younger guys, so I guess for them it was new. Someone on the Dead Space forum pointed out that this game is very similar to "Martian Gothic: Unification."

The interaction of being in the middle of this story really helped to mask the cheesy plot for me and overall I loved this game. Just like RE4, which I've played through 4 times on my Wii, this games weapon play can be so much fun, but I'm glad that DS was actually scary in parts and always suspenseful for me.

This game had me jump a few times, but those were far and few -- but still memorable. It had its moments early on before I knew what to expect. I did scream once, but only because my wife distracted me right when one of those babies ran by. The first time a video-message popped up I jumped and there were a few areas that just a musical hit got me.

Anyways, I have lots of rambles and gripes about some of developer's choices when it comes to this game's balance, since consoles were their first choice. The following bothers me way more than the story, because they had a greater effect on the game's scariness for me.

Starting with weapons and using the ripper as a prime example, this sort of weapon can really take away from any suspense. It makes a game that was already too easy, even more so. Before I ramble further, I played DS first on hard, then on impossible. I bought a ripper the first go around, tried it out, then reloaded an earlier game. I don't like weapons that give my character too much of an upper hand, especially in a survival horror.

What annoyed me most about this game was the stasis field, it was nothing more than a "crutch" for console gamers. I only used this on necros in the first chapter prior to disabling V-Sync, which if enabled, messed up my mouse movement -- Thanks EA for this crap, your game is the only one. But after I got my mouse under control, it quickly became apparent that stasis made this game overly easy, so I stopped using it on anything killable. This helped to keep the suspense up. I used it a couple of times on the regen-necro, but once I figured it out, I stuck with ammo on the legs, since I always had enough.

To ramble further about stasis, I viewed it as MAGIC, I felt like I was Isaac the magic user and not an engineer. Add in the kinesis and I was a full fledged wizard -- I would have preferred a grapple gun.

Why couldn't I have used Isaac's engineering skills to fix a broken door or stop a duct-fan? The only engineering in the entire game was the very first door. I'd prefer if Dead Space 2 took place in an earlier time, then they could use the excuse that the stasis filed and kinesis gun weren't yet invented and provide a more analog approach. I would welcome a mod for the current DS that gets rids of stasis, so that engineering skills are actually required -- even if its a dumb pipe-dreams game, OK, I would hate this, but some level of interaction would be nice.

Besides the mentioned wizardry and overly powerful weapons, this game dropped too much ammo, I always had more than enough -- especially on my impossible play-through. With necros always requiring the same amount of shots -- that I noticed -- and too much ammo lying around and available at the stores, I would have welcomed a bit of randomness. I got to the point that I would fallow a pattern when killing them. The developers already borrowed really heavily on RE4 with this game, so they might as well have also borrowed something like the Plaga parasites bursting out of the villager's head. So in some cases, killing a necro could lead to a more dangerous random mutation. I know they had the fat belly necros, but they were easy to take down and I knew not to shoot their bellies. I wish EA had also borrowed more from RE4's bosses numbers and difficulty, because besides the regen-necro, Dead Space's "two" big bosses were really weak, as in that was it...

My biggest gripe, because of the above ramblings, is that this game was balanced too far on the easy side. It needed a higher setting. Impossible should have been hard and impossible should have really been seemingly impossible. I played this game with only 2 guns, the plasma cutter and pulse rifle, maybe that's why I didn't have any frustratingly difficult times? But I doubt it, it's because this game was originally slated for a console and its limited controller.

Anyways, overall I feel they made too many compromises for the console minions with Dead Space that were a bigger annoyance than the story. I'm glad it made it to the PC, because games this enjoyable are far and few now days. It's one of the most enjoyable games I've played since RE4 on the "Wii," I just wish it had better production value on the PC, because it needs it, the PC version is sloppy.

Jamie Mann
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Dead Space was an interesting game, but it's an action game first and a survival-horror game second, and the article does a good job of highlighting why this is the case.

The point about Isaac is a good one - DS attempts to combine the concept of the "silent protoganist" (who the player can then identify with) with the concept of "character on a misson". The end result is a mess: you're never given a reason to relate to the NPC characters because you never have any direct interactions with them - they command, you act. The only hint of a personality for Isaac comes from his mission notes. In the end, he's just a construct which both the player *and* the NPCs give orders to. You may as well be controlling a robot.

It also doesn't help that Isaac looks and acts like Jason from Friday the 13th: he stomps around budgeoning creatures to death and the only noise he makes is a crude grunt during the stamping move (which itself is a canned animation, making the lack of personality even more apparent).

Another problem is that you're on a permanent scavenger hunt, looting bodies and opening cupboards. As a result, I generally took NPC mission-briefings as an opportunity to search the local area while waiting for the canned spiel to wind down: the auto-pilot and misson notes filled in anything I missed as a result. Bang, there goes another layer of immersion.

(for what it's worth, I enjoy silent-protoganist games - it's part of the reason I prefer GTA3 to GTA: SA. However, GTA3 doesn't then attempt to foist the trappings of an in-game personality onto a blank slate).

It's possible to be negative on a whole host of other items (the magic powers granted to Isaac, the way the in-game HUD can be obscured by camera angles, the small variety of enemies, the limitations of the "dismemberment" engine) - and I must confess that while I played it through to the end (and then started again), I did so mostly to a) see the gloriously detailed environments and b) score a load of easy achievements.

Still, that's missing the point. DS takes a host of influences (Alien, Aliens, Aliens vs Predator (the first PC game, which featured alien/human dismemberments way back in 1999) The Thing, Half Life 2, Event Horizon) and boils them down into the gaming equivalent of a straight-to-video movie. Consume with friends while munching through beer, pretzels and pizza.

This isn't decrying or denigrating Dead Space, but it's a distinction worth being aware of. If you're looking for a in-depth plot or high-quality scares, you'll be disappointed. If you're looking for cheap thrills and some physics-based fun-and-gore, then you're in the right place.

Aaron Karp
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I agree with Mark Venturelli about the benefits of a silent avatar, or at least of Gordon Freeman. Far too often, my connection with a game has been damaged, if not ruined, by the character I'm supposed to inhabit saying something completely antithetical to how I feel. To be fair, Valve has made Gordon's wordlessness into a joke more than a few times in Half-Life 2, which has grated a bit, but it's still better than having my agent in the world spout some hackneyed nonsense during every cutscene (see Red Faction). It helps if the story and game world are compelling and believable enough to cause the player to invest a bit more imagination in their avatar. If the story is good, the wordlessness does what it's supposed to do, giving the players a canvas onto which to paste their reactions and imaginings. In a shoddy story, it's just lazy.

I haven't played Dead Space. My reason for avoiding it is as silly as it is apparently accurate. After reading an article in Game Informer that lavished praise on the groundbreaking scares and storytelling of the title while showing absolutely nothing to support those claims, my eyes were set to potentially injurious levels of rolling by (of all things) the lead character's name. Isaac Clarke? Come on. That's just lazy. If the writer who came up with that one thinks, even for a moment, that it is a clever nod to two of the greats of science fiction, he or she urgently needs to be shown a definition of "clever." When something so basic lacks all subtlety, the rest of the writing is almost certainly doomed. I'm glad to hear that the game is at least fun, but I'm also pleased to know that my name-based assumption wasn't off. I'm probably far too annoyed by this, but it seems like exactly the kind of thing that reinforces the old stereotypes of gamers as stunted perpetual adolescents. I'd expect that level of "cleverness" from an enthusiastic, unpracticed 13 year old, not a professional writer.

Rodney Brett
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Damn, people are so critical about this game. If it came from any other studio than EA, it would get much less complaints.

I loved the game and the story as well. I liked the fact that Isaak was just an ordinary fellow. The fact that he wasn't built up as a "hero" or soldier was very refreshing. Yeah, there were obvious nods to movies like SUNSHINE and ALIENS, and games like PREY, but who cares, everything is derivative of everything these days.

I friggin hate the GTA series that people love so much, because there is waaaaay too much exposition. You spend so much time watching cut scenes and listening to bad acting with people trying desperately to be wannabe gangsters. At least in DEADSPACE, there was much more interaction and the acting was solid. Plus, the Ben Templesmith interactive comics really set the mood for the game and I thought is was brilliant marketing on EA's part.

One question for all of you, which game DO you feel was successful in both executing a very scary game that is also very well polished in the gameplay department. Silent Hill 4-The Room is my favorite in the series because it's got the best story, yet the game wasn't that great. Fatal Frame 2 is probably one of my favorites as well. I also thought Kuon for the PS2 was underrated, but I'm a minority on that one.

Brian Bartram
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Gotta chime in with my opinion on the "blank slate" protagonist. I agree with Tom, though I understand that people like Mark have contrary opinions.

I can handle a "blank slate" protagonist in an RPG where I take a very active role in creating the character, or in a game like Saints Row that has considerable customization.

However, in a game like Deadspace or Gears of War it really irks me to find that secondary characters are more developed and have stronger motivations that I do. I don't want to be jealous of an NPC because they've got better backstory than I do.

For example, with Gears 2 Marcus just feels flat. Scenes early in the game give Dom motivations (his girl), and we see quite a bit of personality from Cole and Baird. Me... I'm just your garden-variety "angry man". Watching Dom getting bummed about his woman, I was like "damn, wish I had some motivations."

However, l appreciate both approaches and hope that we as Devs can continue to push them both forward. I'm not saying we should abandon the "blank slate", I'm asking that we stop making it the default.