[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.
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.
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.