Friday, May 14, 2010

Review: Dead Space's Uniquely Familiar Feel

The following post contains spoilers for Dead Space.

I finished Dead Space several months ago and have been trying to write about it ever since. I enjoyed the game but was having trouble articulating what made it stand out. At first glance, Dead Space certainly seems to be stereotypical video game fare: space guns, space monsters and an armored space dude are not fresh elements within the medium.

Dead Space was a highly marketed game and has the kind of polish that puts it in the company of other blockbuster titles such as Halo and Gears of War. However, Dead Space is able to stand out in the crowd because of subtle rule-based tweaks and wise thematic choices. While it might not be revolutionary, Dead Space effectively utilizes design choices and story themes to transform stagnant conventions into novel experiences.

This theme of subtle novelty crystallized in my mind after hearing Jeff Gerstman's theory that "head-shots are ruining games." I think the theory has some merit: Many shooting-based games reward and incentivize accuracy through one-hit kill headshots to the detriment of combat variety. In many games there is little tactical advantage to targeting any other point besides an enemy's head and using any other weapon besides one that can deliver a precision shot. Jeff cited the latest Splinter Cell game as an example of how headshots work as a disincentive to experiencing the range of weapons and combat dynamics the game has to offer.

Dead Space addresses this problem by simply reversing the trend. The enemy "necromorphs" are most vulnerable to limb shots which makes fighting them vastly different to fighting most other video game enemies. The game's "strategic dismemberment" system rewards the player for experimenting with a variety of strategies and tactics: deciding whether to remove an enemy's legs to slow it down or whether to shoot off its arms to limit its offensive power quickly displaces the instinct to shoot for the head. The player must learn to study the enemy appendages, movement, and weapon vulnerability than simply finding the standard instant-kill spot.

The way combat is viewed and managed also differentiates Dead Space from most games. As I discussed last week, implementing a diegetic HUD helps create a convincing world while simultaneously blurring the line between the game's visuals and rules. From a usability standpoint, having on-screen health, ammo, and option menus are desirable elements, but they can often undercut a game's thematic coherence. Usually, the on-screen action is underneath a layer of meters and numbers that have no direct relationship to the game world. In Dead Space, ammo, health, and menu information take the form of holographic projections emanating from objects that both the protagonist and the player see. While Dead Space does not redefine the role and necessity of on-screen menus, it does justify the existence of a HUD rather than force the player to suspend their disbelief.

Dead Space's science fiction and horror motifs also help it deal with video game story-telling tropes. As is the case in many games, much of the story is told through found audio logs recorded by former inhabitants of the game world. In a game like Bioshock, the plausibility of both encountering recordings created by real people using Cold War-era technology and carrying the gear to listen to it is a contrivance that must be accepted in order to enjoy the game. As Star Trek taught us, sci-fi folks like recording their thoughts orally and liberally, regardless of their rank or vocation. Finding a bunch of recordings seems natural and, since Isaac's suit is a walking media center, listening to them while exploring is believable.

The game proudly carries on the tradition of both the sci-fi and horror genres with its plot. The secretive, alien-obsessed Church of Unitiology is an obvious stand-in for the real world Church of Scientology. This representation is about as subtle as the Klingon/Russian metaphor in the original Star Trek series, but it is done with the same purpose: by using familiar symbols and concepts, the game gives the player solid cultural landmarks that are then explored in greater detail. Sci-fi has never been particularly subtle with its metaphors, and by naming the protagonist "Isaac Clarke," Dead Space acknowledges that it is engaging with its lineage and with the knowledge players bring into the game.

At the same time, Dead Space is also brave enough to follow through on its horror themes. Isaac begins the game searching for his girlfriend, Nicole, who was on the necromorph-infected ship. As the game wears on, it becomes increasingly clear that Nicole is either dead or worse. Isaac and the player are kept in the dark until it is revealed that Nicole committed suicide rather than become a space zombie. This instantly cuts out the potential of the "save the princess" happy ending we still so often find in games. While this is depressing, the ending becomes truly horrifying when a necromorph-Nicole jumps out of the shadows and attacks Isaac right before the game fades to credits. Of course, the sequel will probably explain this little incident away, but as a self-contained package, it is the perfect ending to a bleak, futuristic zombie tale.

While Dead Space presents us with recognizable structures in terms of game design and story, it manages to present them as strengths rather than contrivances. Be it the combat, HUD design, or plot, Dead Space incorporates the best elements of established design philosophies and utilizes them to craft something unique.


  1. Man, you just blew me out of the water here, are you sure that was supposed to be Necro-Nicole at the very end of the game? I've always simply thought of it as the kind of standard "Alien" style one-random-creature-survived horror ending.

    I liked the game a lot, but I think it's most interestingly to look at in context of how horror games have been developing over the last few years, especially in the RE4/RE5 context.

    So here's what I quickly wrote about it a couple of months ago:

    "Part two of EA's 2008 creating new game franchises initiative.
    Better take a closer look at this one, because this might be the future of the survival horror genre.
    Yes, you can move while aiming your gun. So what you do is strafe like crazy, use your ability to miraculously slow enemies down, while throwing random shit at them with your telekinesis ability. Plus cut-off limbs and gore, right in your face.
    Don't get me wrong. This game plays, looks and sounds(!) pretty awesome, indeed.
    It's just that sometimes you remember the moments with at least remotely zombie-like enemies, a handgun and only a couple of shots left in your shotgun. So what's it gonna be, run or aim?
    Ah...good times..."

    I think Dead Space is for Resident Evil just like what Uncharted is for Tomb Raider.
    I'm curious to see how those established franchises will react to those uprising youngsters.

    By the way, about that headshots ruining games thing. It just ocurred to me that RE4 did something against that by letting those(damn how where they called again?) things pop out of people after headshots that then took either a flashbang grenade or a couple of more shots to finish them off for good.

  2. There are very few games that I play through. There are even fewer games that I play through again. With Dead Space, I must have played through four times before my rental was up. I was hooked.

    Dead Space's aesthetics surpass any other game of similar ilk. Everything from the monsters you fight to the upgrades you receive are convincing within the context of the game's environment.

    I am skeptical of the second game, however. An article that ran in Game Informer had quoted the developer as stating it will be a faster paced, more action oriented version. That simply kills what I enjoyed about the first one.

    Should a game ever win an award for how it handles their interface, Dead Space would be a sure win. Man, I love those holograms.

  3. Just seeing this blog for the first time and liking what I'm seeing.

    Dead Space is probably the best game I've ever voluntarily quit playing, and that's a compliment. This isn't a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination - the stomping mechanic sucks, the weapon and ammo balancing doesn't quite work and the game vacillates between shortage and surplus a bit too readily - but I've never before played a game that startled me so badly I threw my controller over my shoulder and down the stairs and had to stop playing for awhile (then Mass Effect 2 came out and I forgot to go back).

    Most horror movies are about a more or less normal person stuffed into a supernatural situation, and this is what the Resident Evil series tended to miss and why most of the other games in the genre (most notoriously Resident Evil) don't quite manage to be "scary" as such - you've got a rocket launcher, you can do backflips. You're an action hero. Dead Space works because you're just some dude - not very fast, not very good with weapons, reaction time mediocre, aim approximate. Dead Space also understands that the scare is usually delivered through the soundtrack, not the visuals. The "jumpout" blurts are manipulative but they don't really lose their effectiveness.

    Speeding up the series takes the game from "Alien" to "Aliens". Was Aliens a great movie? Sure. But the aesthetic leap from horror movie to action movie is probably the leap from Dead Space to Resident Evil 4. Let's hope it doesn't happen.

  4. Great review, I really enjoyed Dead Space and you nail a lot of the reasons it was so successful. I would add that what the game did best was create an atmosphere of tension, uncertainty, and terror. The developers crafted a really effective horror experience by never allowing the player to relax. Each enemy encounter presented new challenges and potential doom, and these were spread out intelligently so that the player never knew when or what to expect. All of the design choices (the strategic dismemberment, the HUD, etc.) emphasized this, and it was an extremely strong title as a result.

    My only major qualm with the game was the story. It seemed interesting but it was almost entirely told through the audio logs. The objectives weren't story driven, they were merely tasks for the player with survival being the ultimate reward. The story seemed to exist in spite of the interactive elements, and that left me underwhelmed and unsatisfied. It made perfect sense given Issac's tangential relationship to the core narrative, and that's why I'm hopeful they can fix it with the sequel. The initial previews I've read have stated that it's still horror and survival based as opposed to overly action oriented, so that's a good sign.

    Also I read the Nicole-necromorph conclusion as more of a psychological scare than a real tangible threat. Issac's obvious mental breakdown and continuous "sightings" of Nicole throughout the game became literally monstrous once he had realized and accepted her death. His vision of her corpse was just a manifestation of his grief and instability after interacting with The Marker. That's what I thought, anyway.

    Great site, keep it up!

  5. Thanks to everyone for all the insightful comments! Who knew there were so many Dead Space fans out there, lurking in the Internet's shadows?


    I suspect a picture is worth a thousand words! :-) Check out the gallery...creepy.

    Dead Space definitely owes a great deal to RE 4. I'll be interested to see if the next RE game does anything to try to recapture the horror feeling that Dead Space pulled off so well as opposed to the straight-up action style shooting we got in RE 5.


    Thanks for visiting the site! In a way, I feel like Dead Space could have been huge if Bioshock had never existed. The level of care put into the world and all its trappings is just so impressive.

    Like you, I'm a bit worried that Dead Space 2 is making the same transition that Resident Evil has made: shifting towards more on run-and-gun action decreases the sense of dread that comes from vulnerability and slow pacing. I guess we'll just have to see; I know I'll be playing it!

    @The Musty Man

    Thanks for dropping by! I was playing the game with the lights off for the most part, so I definitely know what you mean about the jump scares. Even more terrifying was going around a corner, expecting a monster to be there, and instead being greeted by nothing...

    In a way, Dead Space felt like the initial hours of the first Resident Evil, before you get all the deadly weapons and become more familiar with enemy patterns. I'll be interested in what they do with the second game.

    @ Max

    I'm glad you liked it, and thanks for visiting the site. Even toward the end of the game, little noises in the dark would still spook me. Waiting to be attacked was almost worse than actually fighting!

    I think your interpretation of Nicole will probably turn out to be the canonical one; it seems like a perfect thing to use for the sequel.

    Like you, I felt kind of sorry for Isaac as his entire role was passively listening to logs while receiving and executing fetch quests. Maybe he'll be more active in the second game. At the same time, I hope he doesn't get too much more physically capable, as I liked the fact that he seemed more like a normal person than a Master Chief clone.

  6. Download Dead space for free