Dead Space Retrospective: Unpleasantly Brilliant

Isaac Clarke can’t seem to catch a break. His childhood was less then happy: his father was never home, his mother was a religious zealot who sold all the family possessions to the church and his grandmother made him wear her nightmare-inducing sweaters to space school. But things are looking up. Now working with the merchant marines, Isaac has been given the opportunity to prove himself on an emergency response mission. Unfortunately, the ship he’s come to help is the USG Ishimura. And his girlfriend is missing. And there are necromorphs. Poor Isaac.

Dead Space has always been a personal favourite of mine since its release in 2008, and seven years later I still seem to boot it up every few months. The slow, cautious moment of Isaac, the subtle whispering of voices that echo through the halls of the abandoned planet-cracker and the often abrupt, frantic fights for survival with the Lovecraftian nightmares aboard all make for a truly memorable experience.

Dead Space fell under criticism for its over reliance on jump scares to fuel the horror experience, but in my incredibly biased opinion, it feels like this is missing the point. Dead Space is not a perfect game, but it succeeds where it matters. When I first saw previews of it, I made the assumption that EA was attempting to muscle into the Resident Evil success bucket, but I was wrong; very wrong. Visceral Games made the game its ugly, rotting baby and gave it more love than it may have ever deserved, but what rolled out from the birthing pits in EA’s dark palace was something magical, something that was so filled with love and care that you couldn’t help but look beyond its peeling skin and toothless smile. I’m not here to tell you that you should love Dead Space, nor am I here to force you into playing it. I’m here to demand that you at least appreciate Dead Space for every single piece of its masterfully designed atmosphere, that bleeds into your thoughts and tugs at your fear of the unknown. That sounds fair, right?

You can’t talk about Dead Space without taking time to faun over its most effective thematic device, Isaac Clarke. With an industry filled with boring space marines who share the same hairdresser, players got a shock when they panned the camera around in the opening cinematic. There was his face, the protagonist of this survival horror. And he’s, well, ordinary. An engineer. Pasty, baby-faced, with a subtle, receding hair line. Good luck with that. Visceral expects you to be this 30-something, out of shape, socially award nerd who likely has better chances of being murdered by a toilet seat than surviving the hell on earth he’s about to enter. And it’s fantastic! Horror is all about vulnerability – look at Silent Hill’s James Sunderland, a man who falls prey to his own uncontrollable sexual needs. Or the crew of the USCSS Nostromo in Alien, faced with the realization that their superior technology is nothing against a genetically superior foe.

Isaac isn’t a hero; in fact, he’s a nobody. He doesn’t utter a sound other than gasping breaths, whimpers of fear and screams of horror from beneath his constricting RIG. Isaac is a wonderful achievement because he embodies the player, and you share his terror, his weakness and his frustration. Dead Space is surprisingly not entirely about its violence. At its core, the first Dead Space is about fearing danger and anticipating your very probable death. I never felt emotionally connected to a character like Marcus Fenix, just a thrill at watching him work. Isaac couldn’t be more different; he is a vessel for you to inhabit, and you don’t find yourself taken aback by a witty out-of-character comment, inappropriate jokes or attempts to be brave in the face of the nightmare he endures. Dead Space understands how to convey horror, and its first rule is – and always should be – to not make your protagonist invulnerable.

When the game reaches its conclusion, Isaac removes his helmet, and you see the face of a man who is tired and broken. And you understand him. What he endured will haunt him for the rest of his days; it might very well have been better to simply die with the others on board the ship. Playing as Isaac is one of the few subtleties that Dead Space offers. Under his bizarre, Gothic-architecture-inspired suit, there’s a scared little man who is desperate need of a super-sized colostomy bag and a hug.

But what is a scared engineer without his Halloween fun house? That’s where the Ishimura comes in. An enormous planet-cracker-class ship capable of mining entire planet cores for the resource starved human race, it is filled with a mysterious and treacherous history that bleeds into the story of the game. Survival is your priority, but understanding how the crew turned into living uncooked chicken tenders was a need I had to fulfil. Dead Space uses classic horror story devices with the strong armed application of voice recorders and carefully written texts liberally scattered around the vessel, documenting the fall of the mighty ship and its crew. Uncovering the population’s slow descent into madness and the mutinies that followed only help to enhance the tension of Isaac’s journey into the unknown. This is by no means a unique approach, as is demonstrated in its spiritual progenitor System Shock, but the writing is superb, made even more potent thanks to stellar voice acting.

Despite all the access to remnants of humanity, Dead Space makes you feel truly alone. Brief moments alongside NPCs bring you a sense of safety, but this quickly drains as you embark back into the bowels of the ship. Claustrophobia is a key tool behind the effectiveness of the games scares, as the walls of the Ishimura box Isaac in. It’s a big ship, but to the player it might as well be portaloo filled with rabid lobsters. A painfully slow turning rate and sluggish aiming punishes players that don’t plan ahead. Necromorphs will come at you hard and fast, breaking through wall vents to get a helping of the tasty pre-packaged engineer. Every stroll down the blood soaked halls is tense, and the wonderful sound design that fills your ears with creaking, muffled footsteps and the whispering inside Isaac’s head keeps you on the very edge of your seat. Headphones aren’t recommended, they are mandatory.

I see your plasma cutter has grown fat on atmosphere, but now it craves for blood. Well, it’s time for necromorphs. So much of my praise looks to the game’s subtleties, but to a less pretentious audience, Dead Space resembles the Evil Dead more than Jacob’s Ladder. That’s because of our kindly friends, the re-animated corpses of the crew. I’ve kept myself from discussing my personal highlight of the game, because these guys are real showstoppers, the Michael Jacksons of video game monsters. Loud, in your face and endowed with the ability to make you reach near titanic levels of uncomfortable, the necromorphs are corpses that have risen from space death to pursue the few survivors of the Ishimura’s downfall. But they are no Romero shufflers; these vent dwellers are the spawn of a vomit-inducing night of passion between The Thing, the insect kingdom and Satan. Visceral gave themselves a goal: make the human body unrecognisable – and they succeeded.

The Slasher, the very first type you encounter, twists its arms over the torso, with its limbs stretched and its jaw falling from its face. It moves like a spider on acid, it sounds like a madman gargling soap, and it soaks up shots like a rugby initiation pub crawl. In short, it’s horrifying and it lets you know that you’re in for a wild ride. They come in all shapes, be it a bloated incubus that unleashes a horde of smaller foes to punish your poor shooting, ceiling crawlers that burst from vents to give you the good news or the deeply bellowing Divider, which when killed breaks into wriggling parts – all eager to hide in your shoes. Visceral exclusively borrows from the most psychotic group in society; a morbid hatred for children is a significant plus.

To kill these creatures, Isaac must use his armoury of mining tools, along with the occasional assault rifle, and aim carefully. The necromorph laughs at shots to the chest, or at least gurgles humorously, and will only flinch if a limb is removed. Fighting the horde becomes a particularity distressing game of Lego, as you break apart enemies in a rhythmic fashion, first to reduce their threat, then to finish them off. Removing a creature’s head will send it into a frenzy, before the unpleasant realization dawns that it can still see you. Thankfully, Isaac’s boot contains the raw power of gods’ wrath and stomping on corpses is the hand-to-hand equivalent of an artillery strike. Fighting the necromorphs is a joy, and the satisfaction of taking one apart limb by limb still makes my family compulsively call the therapist (he doesn’t pick up any more – thanks, video games).

Dead Space is a game I will always love. It’s disgusting, horrifying and it will take your lunch money every day until you stop being such a dork. Dead Space 2 was a fine sequel, but a bit too action-focused for me to love it equally. We don’t talk about the other one. The fact that we will very likely never see a real sequel again disappoints me greatly, but it might be for the best. Dead Space has had its day; a big violent, repulsive and shockingly deep day. Maybe you should play it?

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