Isaac Clarke: Space Janitor

So, Dead Space is out, and now I've finished it. Not that any more text need be wasted on this subject, but I found myself thinking a lot about how this game was made, and why my reaction to playing it was one of perseverance in the face of tedium rather than terror.

The prevailing opinions on the netverse point to the game's strong start and weak finish; the game's length being padded by an unfortunate amount of back-tracking and unnecessary side-mission filler, and this is more or less my experience. I walked away from the game feeling oddly unsatisfied, like it had been aimlessly building towards some ineffable end, but just kind of sputtering out without a climax. After much internal soul-searching, I've come to the conclusion that the game's rigid adherence to the strengths of the previous games-playing it safe--contribute to the game's unfortunately stale arc. Because Dead Space 3 makes little effort to distinguish itself from its predecessors--especially evident in its encounter design--nearly every aspect of the game suffers as a result.

In the Quicklook on the site, Brad suggests that players skip the side missions, and it's absolutely sound advice. It's strange to complain about too much content in an age where many balk at the notion of paying full-price for relatively short experiences, where game-time and money-spent become inextricably linked at the mathematical hip. There's a lot of content in Dead Space 3, but most of it is forgettable. If that sort of repetition adds value for you, then know that there's plenty to do in Dead Space 3. You'll delve into bloodied industrial complexes, uncover the horrors within, find a loot chest, exit. That's the rhythm of the side quest, and it doesn't vary. I honestly can't remember the differences between many oft these side quests, save for a very few.

I feel for the devs, I really do; how many horrors can one place truly house before the audience becomes desensitized to it all. I felt like some sort of space-aged janitor, so accustomed to bodily fluids that I no longer smell the piss and shit and just want to get on with the cleaning. That's not what you want in a horror-type game, right--familiarity? Interestingly, Isaac's madness is nearly absent from the narrative this time around, as though he's also more or less grown comfortable with the heinous slaughter, and is just basically doing his part-time gig. "Yeah, that guy just turned into a hideous bone-monster bent on my dismemberment--I guess I'll cut off his limbs first; though, I will fucking kill someone if I don't get overtime pay for this..."

But this type of predictability isn't relegated to the side-missions; you'll soon notice you're experiencing the same beats in every location. I found myself anticipating attacks, fixing my crosshairs on would-be necro-closets before they could burst through the metal bars. To my mind, the moment the player can reasonably anticipate an ambush in a horror/action game, you're basically playing an action game. This is only problematic for Dead Space because it feels like the game genuinely wants to be frightening, but is relying upon mechanics that worked in the past and hoping it will work again. It'd be like revisiting a haunted house and expecting it to deliver the same experience a number of times; it's only scary the first time because you don't know what's coming.

That's not to say that this problem of familiarity can't be overcome; we need only remember the Ishimura's role in Dead Space 2 to see how developers might successfully revisit old locations. That ride on the tram heading toward the ship, that growing sense of anxiety at the prospect of revisiting such a memorable location was brilliantly executed. The developers had me right where they wanted me, and it I was at their mercy. I never got the sense that the developers had the same control in Dead Space 3, and I think this can be largely attributed to the game's lack of focus: it doesn't know what it wants to be, but it can't successfully please everyone.

Speaking of location, the change in setting was absolutely what the game needed; it would give the developers some new inspiration and tools to create some new moments for Isaac, and the John Carpenter's The Thing association didn't hurt, either. It turns out that the setting is woefully underused, in my mind, and I never felt like the exterior spaces offered any new gameplay. Instead of jumping out of vents, necros leap from the ground/ice-caves; this isn't functionally different and is an absolute waste of the setting's potential.

Dead Space 3 might have broader appeal, but it's not going to truly satisfy any one demographic, it seems to me. Coop players probably won't find enough content to justify the price, and horror fans will quickly suss out the game's fear-logic, reducing the game's capacity to genuinely scare.

My hope is that developers in the future won't settle for a game that aims to offer a small something for everyone, but rather a game that's so focused and tightly designed, everyone will want to play it. That's the goal, right?

Great, have some incredibly vague and unhelpful advice, developers: you can do better...? Glad to be of service, everyone. Cleaning up these messes is what I'm here for; I'm space-janitor Ziggy Star-Dump.


Better Late than Never: A 2011 "Best of" List

I had some good times gaming in 2011, y'all -- a year in which the theme was undoubtedly "sequel," but I found this was hardly a bad thing, for the subsequent installments were largely successful iterations when compared to their predecessors. So here’s my compiled list of games I feel everyone should play, assuming you’ve got the right hardware, of course; and let me be clear: this is in no particular order. I enjoyed the low-budget, independently developed games just as much, and sometimes more, than their AAA counterparts. Let’s dig in!

  • The Witcher 2 -- This was a surprisingly polished and visually stunning game, and it managed to successfully capture the scope and depth of the Witcher while tightening those aspects that needed fixing. The Witcher universe offers an interesting if not completely unique look at common genre tropes, and, more often then not, makes the world feel new and interesting. Additionally, I've never felt that this series has never been entirely revolutionary, mechanically speaking, but the polished experience, visuals and mostly well-written dialog make the Witcher 2 one of the best releases this year.
  • Total War: Shogun 2 -- Shogun is an incredibly deep and beautiful game, offering some of the most stunning “total war-like” battles in the to date. While I’m terrible at strategy games, the generous difficulty settings and intuitive interface make me feel like I'm good at strategy games. I loved the setting and amount of historical information available is to the game's credit. There's really nothing this good in the market, if your flavor is historical war strategy, and even if it's not, there's a lot of great gameplay here, so you owe it to yourself to give it a shot. It feels good to have the king of real-time strategy games back in such excellent form.
  • The Binding of Isaac -- Ye Gods! I’ve sunk so much time into this one I think I’m required by law to mention it. This rogue-like makes use of early Zelda mechanics and stage design, but the unique and interesting (not to mention super dark) aesthetic make the game a joy to play. The power-ups and randomly generated dungeons give this game some serious staying power.
  • Dark Souls -- I’m super late to the Souls party, but Dark Souls is, without a doubt, the most interesting and unique game I’ve played all year. In what I consider to be an odd mix of Castlevania, rouge-likes and Diablo, Dark Souls offers a surprisingly addictive game, this probably because of the incredible difficulty. Souls thrusts the player into a world of little, if any, forgiveness; even the UI’s shoddiness seems to be deliberately constructed to punish players. I really enjoyed this game's visual and narrative style; everything feels bleak and isolated, a feeling heightened by the game's intelligent use of multiplayer. I can’t say this game is for everyone, but those of you willing to take the plunge, you’ll find an experience unlike anything else on consoles.
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim -- The amount of hyperbolic press this game received prior to launch speaks to the reverence Bethesda’s flagship series enjoys, and it’s true: the team at Bethesda make games like no other. Skyrim is vast -- the world is so inviting and detailed it more than makes up for shallow progression and gameplay. My sojourn in the wilds of Tamriel’s north totals around 110 hours (so far), and I still feel like there’s so much more to see and do. Skyrim is an experience, and I can’t wait to get back to it. As a note, the best experience by far is on PC, so, assuming you've got the hardware to run it, make sure you get the best version.
  • Deus Ex: Human Revolution -- I came to Human Revolution ready to jump back into the universe of Ion Storm’s 1999 cyberpunk opus. Despite expectations of mediocrity, Human Revolution was a refreshing return to the "glory days" of PC gaming, giving the player a wealth of options and multiple-path map design for which the franchise is known. Even with the disappointing ending, the game’s story was surprisingly deep and captivating; I ate up each side quest, read each email and hacked each computer. I thought game’s risky use of color palette and some memorable music made Eidos: Montreal’s interpretation of the Deus Ex franchise a strong entry into the series. In this era of infinite sequel and reboot, it’s heartening to see a studio so completely dedicated to its vision, and one that pays dividends as a unified experience.
  • E.Y.E. Divine Cybermancy -- Out of the blue, and probably feeding off of the anticipation surrounding Deus Ex’s release, the odd and complicated Divine Cybermancy managed to surprise me with everything I could want from a cyberpunk-themed shooter. The little details in this experience deftly reinforce the game’s aesthetic and tone: from hacking objects to being counter-hacked, the world feels dangerous and on the edge of collapse. There are so many options for players to make, it's almost overwhelming. When I think of the Syndicate reboot, it’s hard not to think that Divine Cybermancy got there first and did things better. This is a true gem for the PC master race, should you be willing to see past it's technical problems, though I cut it some slack because it's dares to be different; it dares to be deep and difficult.
  • Dead Space 2 -- This game was surprisingly successful, wasn't it? I can't claim to be a huge believer in the first game, and despite a bland and cliched setting, this second entry in the series was more fun and fixed a lot of my gripes with series. I greatly enjoyed the spectacle and new sense of character the developers injected into this iteration, too, and while the game has become an action game and abandoned its survivor-horror roots, the experience is much more focused and, impossibly, I found it more frightening in the exchange.
  • Beyond Good and Evil HD -- Hey, how did this get in here?! It's a great game, but you all know that.

Well, many of these titles will surprise no one, I think -- this year had some really strong AAA offerings, to be sure. Surprisingly, I think the PC enjoyed one of the best years in a long while; Steam's platform has made it possible for smaller developers to make the kinds of games they want and get to the people that want to play their games. I'm really looking forward to seeing what's in store for us in 2012; it should be an interesting year, if I can drag myself away from the games of 2011.