Current Generation Game Review: Dead Space
Released in October 2008 across all platforms, Dead Space- developed by EA Redwood Shore- is one of the few survival horror IP’s to emanate from this console generation. Characterised by deep world building, Dead Space’s pastiche to Sci-Fi horror draws on everything from Event Horizon to Ridley Scott’s Alien. The cloying atmosphere and superb pacing sets it apart from its peers, while innovative gameplay and visceral combat breathe new life into a well trodden genre.
In space no-one can hear you scream:
The utilitarian industrial art design of the USG Ishimura (influenced by Ron Cobb’s work on Alien) encapsulates the developers combined dystopic vision of 2414. While there are more sterile environments- all sleek lines and phosphorescent white- they feel cold and serve to emphasise the player’s isolation. Minutiae in the environments offer intriguing insights into the lives of the ships inhabitants (the sustainable vegetable gardens in hydroponics speak to the mentality of a species too late to adapt these techniques to an already depleted homeworld), subtly drawing the players attention to the juxtaposition of these signs of life and the inherent emptiness creates an oppressive atmosphere which underscores the experience. Distinct level design; from the game’s opening as the transport shuttle approaches the Ishimura (beautifully framed by the planet it hangs ominously in its orbit, the planets ‘cork’ still tethered to the ship) to the tight claustrophobic interior corridors convey an imposing sense of scale. The clean UI leads to a greater sense of immersion, with all of the pertinent information built into the characters rig. The spine represents the player’s health bar, while real time 3D projections are used to explore the map and inventory (a perfect example of design marrying gameplay and fiction). The Necromorphs design can be seen in the recombinant Alien life form of John Carpenters: The Thing- all flailing limbs and necrotic flesh. Their designs feel consistently innovative in a genre saturated with competing interpretations of “undead” enemies (culminating with the Leviathan, one of my favourite boss encounters of this generation that’s akin to fighting inside a giant washing machine).
The exceptional sound design perfectly complements the industrial aesthetic with a sparse instrumental score (composed by Jason Graves), the game relies more on ambient noise to set the tone- the slow turning of a ventilation fan or the clanging of pipes somewhere just out of sight. It’s the restraint shown in the audio design that creates the greatest impact; sometimes the player will go for prolonged periods in total silence creating a palpable sense of tension. While I feel it was a mistake to not give the main character a voice (a silent protagonist doesn’t gel with the games narrative) the excellent voice acting- especially the work of Peter Mensah as Sgt Zach Hammond and Tonantzin Carmelo as Kendra Daniels – really helps to get players invested in these characters from the opening moments, I only wish these interesting characters had been developed further (with what I felt to be anaemic in-game dialogue, that leaves the player wanting more).
‘Days since last accident: 0’
Hundreds of years in the future mankind has exhausted all of Earth’s natural resources. In order to survive, humanity has mastered space travel and developed a process known as planet cracking (Whereby a celestial body is split into pieces and its minerals are strip-mined and melted, returning the by-products to Earth). On a routine mining operation all contact is lost with the largest of these planet cracking vessels, the USG Ishimura. Players take on the role of systems engineer Issac Clarke; part of a maintenance team dispatched to investigate and repair the communication blackout, with a vested interest in the safety of one of the Ishimura’s crew.
Dead Space immerses players in the games narrative through its striking facial animations (which still stand out today) and seamless presentation. Using ingame cutscenes and real time video- via Issac’s riglink- to convey the story, the game maintains a constant sense of urgency through player agency. The narrative threads are mainly explored through audio logs and text files (with ingame dialogue and character interactions also fleshing out the plot), these documents offer an insight into life on board the Ishimura (as well as expanding on the games unique sci-fi setting) providing a stark contrast to what players find. The only problem with this approach to storytelling is the occasional overlap between an audio log and a player triggered event, more importantly though Issac’s lack of an emotional response to situations leads to a disconnect between the player and the narrative.
Written by Anthony Johnson (with art by Ben Templesmith), publisher Electronic Arts released the Dead Space motion comic as a supplement to the games campaign. Released in weekly instalments, the six episodes take place shortly before the game focusing on the mining colony of Ageis VII. The well written narrative (which subtly shifts from thriller to psychological horror) opens with a startling vidlog before taking it’s time to develop both characters and setting by exploring the day to day lives of the miners, gradually introducing concepts like planet cracking and Unitology. P-SEC (Planet side security) officer Abraham Neumann, Dr Tom Sciarello and Capt Benjamin Mathius are all referenced to in logs aboard the Ishimura creating a wonderful sense of continuity between the two mediums. This brief series is one of the best pieces companion pieces I’ve seen and is single handedly responsible for my initial interest in the game, I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking to get into Dead Space.
Cut off their limbs:
This bloody epitaph scrawled on a wall encapsulates Dead Space’s unique mechanic of ‘strategic dismemberment’. By removing the “aim for the head” gameplay ingrained in action games (Necromorphs can only be killed by removing their limbs) it forces players to re-evaluate how they play. Using a control scheme that will be familiar to anyone that’s played Resident Evil 4 (or any subsequent third person action game) Dead Space builds on these core mechanics. Introducing the ability to move and shoot combat is more frenetic (allowing for faster and more aggressive enemies); when aiming, the camera pans in close over the characters shoulder immersing the player in the action and allowing for greater accuracy. Built into the rigs are two other repurposed mining tools (which are used in the games simple puzzles). Kinesis enables players to move heavy objects which can then be thrown at enemies turning any environmental object into a weapon, even a dead Necromorphs limb (a mechanic that was greatly refined in the sequel). And stasis, which is used to slow down fast-moving objects (represented by a finite meter next to the rigs spine). The rigs navigation tool (which can be used at any time by pressing R3) streamlines the gameplay experience reducing the amount of unnecessary backtracking. The developers have designed the interface to reduce the amount of time players spend in menus; this ethos is reflected in the weapons holographic ammo counters and the seamless load times (hidden behind door opening sequences).
The zero gravity gameplay captures mankind fragility when faced with the vastness of Space. These ethereal sections juxtapose some of the most original gameplay I’d seen this generation with terrifying audio and visual presentation. The central mechanic draws on the centrifuge in 2001: a Space odyssey and Robert Capa’s Space jump in the sci-fi thriller Sunshine, allowing players to walk on a vertical plane. The washed out colour palette highlights the games excellent lighting effects, it feels as though light is being drawn out of the environments. Entering the void the muted silence of the vacuum removes one of the player’s senses conveying the disorientation and claustrophobia in the rig. As blast doors open into these decompressed sections of the vessel you can see the oxygen rushing out (a great homage to the airlock scene at the end of Aliens and accompanied by the same howling audio design), having to rely on the limited air supply in the rig (represented by a holographic timer) it brings the survival gameplay to the fore.
Dead Space is a masterful exercise in tension that perfectly marries horror and action, only marred by disappointing character development. While the sequels refine and build upon the core mechanics, this leads to greater focus on action (being able to control Issac in zero gravity with thrusters removes that feeling of helplessness) detracting from the original game. Standing out from its competitors in almost every way, Dead Space has stayed with me even six years later.