Fixing Uncharted 3: The Story, Part 1

Uncharted 3 was the disappointment of the year.

If you didn’t agree with that sentence you probably won’t like this next one either.

The game feels, in virtually every aspect, broken. Not unplayable – rather, extremely flawed in an entirely correctable way, like a broken toy you know you could fix. These next few entries will be dedicated to reimagining Uncharted 3 piece by piece. We’ll start with the story, move onto the general feel and flow of the single-player side of the game, and then finish with a look at the multiplayer (actually the game’s strong suit, with only a few nagging issues).

Just a quick bit of background before we begin.

Uncharted 2 was easily the best game to come out of 2009. It ranks as a champion of design, a truly great experience with broad appeal and excellent execution. The original title doesn’t quite reach the same highs, but it’s still a fun adventure, easy to play and thoroughly entertaining.

I’m sure you can guess my feelings on the 3 game. But this entry won’t be a review and neither will the others. As such, much of this series will consist of negativity and sharp critiques with only some mitigation. If something works, I won’t hesitate to point it out, but I wouldn’t begin by calling a product “broken” if there wasn’t much room for improvement. I welcome any feedback you have, but keep in mind the tone here will stay mainly negative.

The Story

The biggest failing with this game is its story. Uncharted, as a series, enjoys a just reputation as the forefront of videogame storytelling. Each of the two previous titles had really entertaining tales told by a sharp script that still made room for necessary videogame mechanics. Their plots, while not infallible, largely held together, and propelled the action nicely.

Drake’s Deception has a descent start followed by a rapid descent into utter foolishness and a long series of convenient coincidences. This section will start by outlining a few overarching theme and plot-points, examining how they are constructed within the title and how they could be improved. Then we’ll move on to specific sections of the story that need overhaul, concluding with a new outline of an updated Uncharted 3. Wherever possible, we’ll stick to the plot already established; changes will try to incorporate the set-pieces and major story beats currently presented.

Also, as a quick note, these revisions obviously reflect my personal preference for Naughty Dog’s characters. The flaws in the narrative should be apparent to any observer even if they disagree with my solutions. I don’t mean to explain how it “should be” written out of hubris but rather out of necessity. I feel it’s important to provide some answers to the problems we raise with products – otherwise we’re just complaining for the sake of being bitter.

Part 1: Themes and Plots

Sully and Drake

Sully and Drake’s bond is probably the closest Uncharted 3 has to a complete and well told plot thread. The beginning of the game does an excellent job of building on the connection the par have for each other. Background dialogue and quick one-line jokes or explanations further this rather well. It’s failing comes from the lack of real power to the conclusion. With the exception of a brief speech by Sully and a few shouts by Drake, we never really saw either of these two people go to the extreme for the other. Yes, Drake jumped in the water, and yes, Sully killed a dude to save a child. Each of these demonstrates dedication, but on a scale we’ve all seen before in previous adventures. Drake’s Deception really needed to go above and beyond, have someone cross a line or truly sacrifice for the other to cement the father-son connection.

We’ll keep this plot-line in mind as we move forward, repurposing other elements of the plot as needed. This will also help us focus the narrative; as it currently stands, Drake’s Deception is basically the same story and Among Thieves. By making the Drake-Sully bond really the core of the experience and continually expanding on it as the game progresses (culminating in something grander than a quick swim and a short speech), Uncharted 3 can come into its own as a unique entry into the series.

The Spiders

This is probably the most prominent example of an abandoned plot thread. Early on, the game transcribes much significance to these creepy-crawlers. One is seen all cut open in the underground, they keep reappearing in each crypt, and characters always mention them as one untied entity, contiguously calling the players attention to these guys as a major player in the narrative. Ultimately this amounts to nothing. I think it was implied that Marlow used the venom as part of her mind-control serum and the spiders were actually the Djinn. If I’m right, neither of these two points were made explicit enough to count as closure. If I’m wrong, than the repeated importance of the spiders truly went nowhere. Let’s pick the former and expand from there.

In our new Uncharted 3, Marlow’s organization has long used these spiders as a key part of their mind-control serum. Additionally, when properly distilled, the venom actually becomes beneficial, causing advanced recover from seemingly mortal wounds. However, Marlow has begun to run out of her supply. The method of rendering the venom useful has been lost to time (we’ll come back to this). The lady needs a new source. She knows that King Solomon used the venom to acquire a vast amount of power. To the people of his era, ignorant of his ability to distill the venom and repurpose it, his power would have seemed magical – hence the legend. Marlow seeks the sunken bronze vessel, knowing it contains a large supply of the venom and that she’ll be able to reverse engineer the distillation process from the records in Iram of the Pillars.

We’ve now rendered the spiders central to the story and simultaneously explained a series of unanswered mysteries in the original game. The healing properties of the venom (admittedly a stretch, but mitigated by some well-written exchange of disbelief amongst our heroes) will become especially important for the revised ending. Imagine a scenario similar to Last Crusade, in which the McGuffin takes on special last-act importance when its function becomes vital to the survival of a major character.

Marlow and Talbot: Their powers, their organization, and what they want

These two baddies are repeatedly shown to be nearly supernatural in the first half of Drake’s Deception. Talbot survives a fatal wound and disappears into thin air. Marlow makes a cryptic speech and magically plants a tarot card on Charlie. They have that mind-control serum, which they only use twice. As it currently stands, it seems they just forgot about this incredible advantage. You’d think it would be the single most effective weapon ever and they’d pretty much rely on it. Making the venom, the core component, rare explains this – something the base game fails to do. Additionally, it’s established that Marlow is the head of an old and extremely powerful secret society. They have a hidden base and access to advanced technology. There’s a literal army of incredibly well-equipped and trained thugs willing to deploy anywhere around the world on their behalf. Since the story takes great pains to set this all up in its first act, there really should be some follow through on this point.

As mentioned prior, the secret society aspect will take paramount importance now. We could even have Marlow be a bit of a renegade, possibly an illegitimate leader who seized power by force. In the chaos, much of their knowledge was lost, and she now has to go to great pains to regain it. Or not. Either way, we’ll emphasize their covert power and contrast this with Drake’s ragtag nature in our narrative. While Drake make’s his discoveries through ingenuity and luck, Marlow makes hers through force and bribery. This is already kind of in the game, we’ll just bring it out a bit more.

Marlow herself needs to be a bit more sinister. Currently, she essentially shows she’s evil in one scene where she slaps young Drake. For the entire rest of the plot she makes vague threats and menacing nods but does nothing at all. The developers like to discuss how she represents a new kind of villain, one how poses a threat intellectually rather than physically, but she doesn’t really. She’s just an old mean woman who drowns in sand because she can’t jump as well as Drake.

And then there’s Talbot. He’s now a product of the venom, a user in both senses. Talbot uses the venom to set-up the game’s “betrayal” moments and also employs it to heal himself (explaining his odd resistance to bullet wounds). Late game, we’ll repurpose the fistfight to make it more of a traditional final boss encounter, this time against a juiced Talbot who fills his veins with the stuff. We’ll come back to this later when we summarize the new plot.

Drake as a Loner and our Good Friend Charlie

Charlie needs to be in the game more. So does Chloe, for that matter. Elena too, although she at least got to be there at the end. Instead of having these characters disappear for the majority of the narrative, each one should stick with Drake all the way. This contrasts very nicely with his beginnings, highlighting his growth from a lonely street orphan. It also works well in conjunction with Marlow’s society; she has her friends, Drake has his. This subplot starts to write itself, building to a nice crescendo in which each of Drake’s allies shows their support for him and we as a player appreciate how he overcame his origins. “Greatness from small beginnings” – we’ll use that quote here, since Uncharted 3 already seems so fond of it. Plus it makes for a unique ending; a large-scale battle between Drake’s friends and Marlow’s thugs while Drake confronts Talbot, an entirely different climax to the first two games.

Part 2: Specifics

The Yemen Chase

This sequence is exciting, well done, and entirely nonsensical. It starts with a scene that makes no sense whatsoever. Marlow and Talbot drug Drake and bring him to an open courtyard in the middle of a busy market. They threaten him with police intervention while the armed thug they hired for no reason at all sits right beside them, weapons and ammo clearly visible to any passerby. And then they go on to discuss Drake’s past and Iram of the Pillars while that guy is just sitting there. Why did they even hire him? Just get one of the thousand suited British gentlemen you employ to sit menacingly behind Drake. Then you don’t have a well-equipped pirate also looking for the same lost city.

After they say some mean things about Sully and mention they found him, Drake flips a table and runs after Talbot. The chase is off! Except Talbot has literally no reason to be running. He is actively moving away from the burly pirate who wants to help. If Talbot did nothing at all, he and his friend would beat Drake to the ground in just under ten seconds. And it’s not because they fear they police; we’ve already seen how little they care about the local authorities. Only Drake is under any kind of legal threat.

To further add to the pointlessness of it all, the sequence ultimately amounts to nothing. All of the player’s effort goes to waste in a scripted moment that has Drake knocked unconscious from behind, meaning the playable section had no impact on the story whatsoever.

Really, the scene should have gone like this:

Marlow hire pirate guy because he has local connections with the authorities. They are interrogating Drake in a closed room, not in an open street, and he’s tied to a chair. Marlow leaves for some reason (we just need to get her out of the scene) – let’s say to go get Sully, but Talbot stays behind to further integrate Drake. During the conversation, Drake mentions Iram of the Pillars, but pirate guy did not know that was the prize. He gets agitated and threatens Talbot, who – because he’s distracted – doesn’t notice Drake worm his way out of his bonds. When Drake frees himself, Talbot splits, followed closely by pirate man. The rest of the chase plays out as it does in the game except for the end. There’s a three-way brawl in which pirate man emerges triumphant. Drake sees Talbot radioing Marlow while he runs as Drake losses consciousness – he fought off one threat only to succumb to another.

The player’s actions still don’t have real weight to them, but at least it ends on some kind of plot development propelled by the player.

The Boat Sequence

From beginning to end, the entire section of the game taking place on any kind of ship (chapters 12 through 15) is completely without logic or purpose. Everything moves based on unbelievable coincidence and characters behaving in such a stupid manner as to parody reality. Why did they tie Drake up in the wreckage of an old boat located middle of an abandoned ship yard miles away from the pirate flag ship? Why are there hundreds of armed men wandering this metallic graveyard serving no purpose other than videogame bullet sponges? Why do the pirates have a turret placed in the center of an entirely enclosed area facing into territory they call home? Why do they pretend they have Sully captured? Why do they pretend they have Sully captured again when Drake is on the cruise ship? If they want to set a trap for him and eventually recapture him, why do they repeatedly send dozens of men armed with high-explosives to kill him?

This is just the beginning. The lapses in logic only compound as this complete disregard for coherent storytelling continues. Really an entire entry could be made on how foolish this part of the game becomes. I'll end here for now; this is getting a little long for one entry. We'll pick up here in part 2 of our story critique.

20 Comments

Resistance 3 is a very troubled game.

Resistance 3 is a deeply troubled game. For some personal background, I’ve played the beta for a little over 2 hours, leveling myself to rank 20. The game counts 329 kills in my favor and 170 deaths against me, making my kill-death ration just under 2.0. These figures are not presented to brag, merely to give a history to my experience. And from my playtime logged, it’s clear that Resistance 3 is riddled with problems, both technical and in game design. Let’s start with the former.

Technical

Audio and visual glitches abound in Resistance 3. It seems most of the action in the game ever actual gets rendered for the player to experience. Invisible, silent bullets will race towards the player, condemning him to a cold death at the hands of an unseen foe. Players – friendly, enemy, and one’s self - will alternate between soundless killers and extraordinary loud beacons of noise for no apparent reason. I believe one weapon, the atomizer, does not have any sound at any time, making it impossible to hear when an opponent could be firing near or at the player’s location.

The HUD also tends to freak out, often incorrectly displaying where damaging shots originate. To understand how disorienting this is, imagine the following scenario – a shot hits from behind. Since the player is not physically connected to the game, the only indication they have of this damage is a visual effect overlaid on the screen and a red arrow pointing in the direction of the enemy. So the player spins toward the arrow only to face – a wall. Not behind, but to the side, where the deceitful arrow pointed. And then more shots. More arrows. Another wall. A hallway. The ceiling? A chair? As the player contemplates why the furniture turned against them so, they die, and the post death camera zooms in on the attacker. He is directly behind the player, and has not moved once.

Worse still, online lag is so prevalent in virtually every match that any sort of meaningful reaction is impossible. Every action, either an offensive or defensive move, must be done preemptively. This lag issue is admittedly common in online games, particularly ones that move at shooter speed. But Resistance 3 fails to mitigate the effects in any way, rendering planning or mid-fight thinking pointless. During the midst of battle, a player cannot reliably deploy any of the game’s variety of shields in reaction to a development. If charged by an opponent, the anti-melee shield will be so slow to come out (due to latency problems, not intentional design) as to render it entirely useless. This gives the entire experience a sort of surreal feel, as if fighting partially against the opponents and partially against one’s own conceptions of what might happen. The game is still playable, of course, but it struggles to get over these very significant hurdles.

Design

Here is a game that desperately wants to be Call of Duty, but cannot quite trim itself down enough. The elements are all here: perks, unlocks, a basic class system, and kill streaks. But it fails to capture what makes the Call of Duty series so enticing to such a wide group of people. Simply put, Call of Duty’s success comes from its speed. It’s a fast game, easy to play and easy to go on incredible streaks. Even if the average player’s game time is mostly composed of deaths and loses, those few moments, those unbelievable streaks and the ludicrous power over others they provide, give a high that gamers will gladly sink hours into reclaiming.

So maybe it’s understandable that Resistance 3 tried to emulate the series, but it’s still very disappointing. Beyond that, the game feels far too bloated and slow for any of the quick, Call of Duty like thrills it tries to provide. Player movement seems oddly restrained, and the token sprint only boost the speed slightly. Jumping is awkward and the player characters are incapable of vaulting over moderately high obstacles. There’s a restrictive feel to the overall movement in the game, as though everything is just slightly too clunky and slow to be engaging. But the major issue is the enormous amount of health players have. People just don’t die fast enough.

Resistance 3 uses extremely large health pools in a Call of Duty style game to rather poor effect. Firefights drag on far too long. This makes for some rather funny visuals (I never know humans could survive so many bullet wounds), but also rather dull gameplay. It also directly discourages team play, as an assist will not boost the player toward their kill streak, and moving in squads assures some measure of accidental kill-stealing. Consequently, the vast majority of Resistance 3 becomes one on one battles in which two payer circle strafe while wildly firing. No meaningful actions can be taken – no jumps or dives or any sort of quick movements – meaning that player dexterity has little effect on the fight. Grenades won’t detonate fast enough to save the day. And we’ve already covered why the defense mechanisms are largely useless. The game lacks tactical options during combat, and it’s just plain boring.

Of course, no modern shooter is complete without some sort of unlock scheme. It is, as previously mentioned, present in Resistance 3, and remarkably broken. As players advance in rank, they get points to spend on new weapons and perks and the ability to spend them. It essentially the system in Call of Duty: Black Ops, but with minor cosmetic changes. Now it’s clear why developers create these systems – they encourage grinding and replaying one specific title, rather than playing a variety of different games (and possibly not buying the map pack, heaven forbid). But ideally the unlock system should be as unobtrusive as possible. New players receive a reasonable amount of toys to play with, and experience vets gain shinier versions, and maybe a slight new power here and there. Resistance 3, and I assure you this is no exaggeration, literally rewards higher level players with straight damage and health boosts, and then throws them some superior firepower.

Initially, a starting player has access to one (1) class with exactly one (1) weapon. If a new player does not like using an assault rifle, preferring a sniper or maybe a shotgun, they’re just out of luck. This problem of weapon mismatch worsens when considered alongside the large health pools; it will take more than a few lucky shots to score a kill, conceivably difficult if the player disagrees with the tool forced upon them. Older players have evolved beyond such petty restraints, and have access to powerful perks and upgraded versions of all the firearms. They even have the atomizer, the hilariously named silent killing machine.

Balance isn’t really that big an issue in Resistance 3, but it’s telling that the developers saw it fit to simply buff players as they advanced, rather than fairly integrate the weapons across levels. The entire game is filled with these glaring oversights. There might be a good experience buried somewhere in this beta; I have a feeling it will take until after September 6th to dig it out.

19 Comments

A Story About a Ship

 As an introduction to this (rather long) piece, I wrote it back when Dead Space 2 first came out. I wanted to reconcile what I appreciated about the title with what truely disappointed me, and also briefly touch on some problems I've been having with video game criticism at large. Its part review, part critique, and part just plain old ramble.
 
I also wrote it during a series of incredibly boring lectures, so it might be slightly disjointed.

   

                  Whereas Dead Space 2 is a story about Isaac, Dead Space is a story about a ship. Isaac, in the first game, is largely insignificant. He’s there because he has to be, because the player needs a vessel to explore the world. The game gives him context, sure, buts it’s largely minor. Contrast this with Dead Space 2; the most obvious difference, which stands out immediately, is his voice. A mute in the original, Isaac now speaks and interacts verbally with the world around him.

                It’s important to make a distinction here between giving Isaac a voice ad giving him a character. In the original, Isaac is a character. Not really that important, only a small but incredibly deadly portion of a largely story. But he still has a back story, he has a face. And he has dialogue, though it’s buried in the objectives menus. Now the voice comes to the forefront. The player’s focus no longer falls on the environment, but is shifted into the avatar they control.

                Before we continue into a more cohesive critique of Isaac’s handling, let’s take a moment to show how this shifted focus affects the feel of each game. The opening sequences, both of which are fantastic in their own right, are executed in drastically different ways and have drastically different effects. The original begins with Nicole’s transmission, serving to establish a mood of despair (in her dialogue and voice) and create a minor connection to Isaac (in the story she represents). The support characters comment on the video, reinforcing its purpose to drive the player forward (at least in the early game), and then the game reveals the USG Ishimura. Right away, just from these few lines and images, Dead Space imbues the player with some very important notations. The name of the ship implies a future of a joint humanity, one in which racial and modern political lines have most likely fallen aside. The size and shape of the ship demonstrates the new might of the species; it’s a “planet cracker,” able to blast open entire worlds. All the characters reference the ship with admiration – the player knows this is an impressive vessel. And it looks damn cool. The view is funneled right to the construct, showcasing its advanced design and layout. This is where the vast majority of the game takes place, and the external showcase and in-universe story establishment gives important context to the action.

                Note the disproportionate amount of time spent establishing Isaac and then establishing the ship. Both characters ‑ and the USG Ishimura is a character ‑ have their story shaped by the outside. But the boat is far more complete. We know its look, we know its purpose, and we know its heritage. Isaac, not so much. How old is he? Where does he come from? Is he smart? Witty? Tough? What scares him? What motivates him? These questions are not really answered because they do not matter for the game. The player is supposed to fill in the details themselves, with their own traits imposed on this man (for the most part). Consequently, the Ishimura becomes far more interesting from a story perspective. And the game knows this, placing the player’s avatar firmly in a secondary position right from the beginning.

                Now look at Dead Space 2. This game launches with a very well executed re-cap of the previous events. This time, however, Isaac narrates. This story no longer belongs to the Ishimura ‑ it’s his now. In this exchange, the player has lost a story about the world and gained a story about a man. Naturally, this in turn changes the feel and pacing of each game. Dead Space 2 is far less concerned with establishing a world than its predecessor; recall the opening shot of the Ishimura. There is no equivalent for the Titan. The player doesn’t know what the station really looks like, and frankly, the game doesn’t care. The surroundings are a method to introduce story and game play elements, rather than the opposite relation featured in Dead Space. Let’s examine and clarify this point. In Dead Space, each chapter ended on the tram, looking at a map. Isaac had, in the chapter prior, accomplished some goal, done something which changed the nature of the ship he occupied. Then he faced a map, showing where he was, where he was going, and how it all related. The flow of it all, the sense of continuity and spatial relation, is paramount. Dead Space 2 doesn’t even have an in-game map. Who cares what the Sprawl looks like or how it’s laid out – you’ll never be backtracking or fixing something. Just moving ever forward, reacting to events and bad guys sent your way. In the first instance, the layout and needs of the ship dictate the flow. In the second, Isaac’s needs determine what happens. Returning to the comparison of openings, Dead Space’s Isaac silently moves into a control room, slowing unraveling the mystery of the ship before everything goes wrong. Dead Space 2’s Isaac head-butts a mutated monstrosity and goes on a rampage from the first minute. Obviously, the focus and mood of each game is radically different. The first is a story of ambiance, of audio logs left discarded and messages written in blood, and the second is a story of Isaac.

                Now there’s nothing wrong with a game story focused on a character, but Dead Space 2 fails in its treatment of Isaac. So we’ve established that the game is solely concerned with its playable character. The other people are just there to provide context or problems for him to overcome (the Sprawl functions in the same way). This means that Isaac must be engaging - the player has to care about him. Dead Space worked very hard to make its protagonist interesting; hours were spent talking about the history, function, and layout of the Ishimura. And it felt believable, because each piece (both story and physical area) flowed from one part to the next. A “planet cracker” would, conceivably, be this big. It would have these decks, this crew, and this design, laid out in this way. It made sense and it felt real. Isaac, in Dead Space 2, feels fake. Remember that Isaac is an engineer, a bystander who survived by a combination of smarts, skill, and luck. He wasn’t very good at combat, but he had a fancy suit and future lasers so he made his way through the world. But now, for no apparent reason, he’s an action hero superstar.

                It’s understandable for the game to do; the new focus on action over atmosphere demands a more capable protagonist. But the shift and overall characterization of Isaac should have been handled better. Initially, it’s established that Isaac is insane, haunted by the events he saw and the death of Nicole. Well that seems logical, and honestly it would be awkward to not acknowledge the psychological toll the first game must have taken. And it would be a fair guess to venture that this is the story’s attempt to rationalize the new, “edgier” personality. Unfortunately, the game confuses emotional scarring with being an asshole. There are a few moments that perfectly illustrate this point.

                Some time after the beginning sprint through the alien-infested hall, Isaac boards an elevator and the lights cut out. At this point, he knows the Sprawl is infected, and he knows what the necromorphs are. This loss of power should not be and entirely unexpected event. Distressing, no doubt, but well within the realm of the possible. A good, character appropriate reaction would be something like,” Ah crap,” or a brief, hushed, “Shit.” Both responses, with proper delivery, give a sense of distress while maintaining a premise of reality - the latter even has a swear thrown in there. But instead Isaac says, in a raspy, overly masculine voice, “What the fuck.”

                People don’t really swear that much. And when they do, the actual word itself is almost never emphasized, especially when there is no other person unto whom emphasis would be needed. So Isaac’s dialogue is overly vulgar, an unrealistic response that both diminishes his character and trivializes the situation. When he swears at everything, particularly with such exaggeration, it becomes routine, and the purpose of the swear – to make the situation seem dire – no longer has any weight. This diminishment arose earlier, when Isaac responds to the line “I’m not the one shooting at you,” with “Fuck.” Why did he say that? It certainly wasn’t a logical conclusion to this dialogue. Was this the first time he realized he was in danger? Did the deadly aliens not tip him off to that? Or was he just trying to look cool? Sadly, it seems the answer is actually the later; his lines are a ploy to appeal to the hardcore crowd, thinking that vulgarity equates to serious discourse.            

                Again, let’s compare this to Dead Space. The character did swear there, but they did so with purpose. When Isaac first visits Hammond in the control deck, he says something to the effect of,” Whoa, you startled me. Fucking asteroids are putting me on edge.” Now that emphasis looks weird in text and that’s probably not the exact line. But note that the vulgarity is reduced to a secondary level, with the important information (the asteroids are putting Hammond on edge) placed in the forefront. “Fuck” only served to show just how jumpy Hammond was. This is how people speak.

                Jumping back to Dead Space 2, the issues with Isaac’s lines extend further than his overuse of bad language. His character is one of a vulnerable, exposed man who is placed in a situation far beyond anything he could have imagined. That’s not to suggest he should be a dear in the headlights all the time, but he definitely shouldn’t be blowing off events with one-liners and wisecracks. After the tram Isaac is riding on crashes, sending him fly off and battling monsters while suspended upside down, the support character asks “What are you doing over there?” She’s referring to his location in the Sprawl, since the tram couldn’t make to the original destination. Rather than saying, “The tram crashed, necromorphs swarmed the wreckage but I’m holding out,” (a response to both gives the support character information and reinforces the situation to the player) he says, “Unexpected stop.” Well that’s all very nice and 80’s action movie of Isaac, but it runs completely contrary to his established character.

                All of this poor dialogue and characterization proves indicative of Dead Space 2’s overarching failure: most of the game’s plot and setting is designed to be a vehicle for offensive material, not a method to tell an intriguing story. We don’t even need to rely on the game itself for proof of this. The marketing campaign shows no footage of the game and makes no attempt to describe the experience. Rather, it focuses on outraged middle-aged women who function as stand-ins for the mother’s of the teenage demographic. Huzzah, games are violent and moms don’t like it. That’s great, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the gratuitous gore present in the franchise, but it never should have take precedent over content. Let’s take a step back to reaffirm that Dead Space 2 is not a bad game; on the contrary, it’s excellent, standing far beyond most competing titles. But it could have been better.

                Outside of this major story failing, Dead Space 2 continues the franchise tradition of outstanding visual and gameplay design.  Most obviously, the games feature no HUD or any display of information not rooted in the game world. This is an astonishing feature, and its one almost entirely unique to the series, arising as a function of their setting and integrated design.

                So Dead Space takes place in the future, and the future is always cool. Visceral has gone a step beyond making a technological wonderland for the player to explore; they’re enabled the player to essentially occupy that world.

                Every game needs some way in which to communicate key information to the player. How much health the character has, how much ammo, where they are aiming – all of these things (and several others) must be explained. This poses an interesting challenge for designers: how do you demonstrate this information without breaking immersion? Generally, games don’t. The vast majority of titles have a HUD display superimposed on the camera, standing distinct from the events taking place within the fictional world. Consequently, every time the player looks at the HUD they re-affirm their disconnect with the medium, even if it only happens latently. That’s not to suggest this system is critically flawed – it’s been standardized to such an extent as to be no longer a real issue. Additionally, there’s not really an alternative for most titles without compromising the flow of the experience.

                Fortunately, the magical space future setting provides an out for Dead Space. Everything is projected on the game world as a hologram. There are two primary effects that come from this presentation. First, everything that should be boring but necessary becomes really cool, especially if the player likes the color blue. Second, and more importantly, the aforementioned disconnect between player and game no longer exists. Everything a user must know is now justified within the canon.

                Despite all the critiquing done of Dead Space 2 in regards to its predecessor, the use of this unique setup emerges as one area of supremacy for the sequel. The original never entirely explained if the characters could see or use the tools provided to the player. Did Isaac’s friends see his magical blue line leading them exactly where they need to go? How did this technology work? Furthermore, can they see their magic health bars on their backs? And those healing packs lying around everywhere – can only Isaac see those? This is part of a concept here referred to as “world integration;”or, how well a game acknowledges and integrates the necessary mechanics for it to be playable into its story. To better explain, look at Bioshock, and how its gameplay became central to the story.

                Vita-chambers populated Rapture, essentially making your character invincible. Which, until about the halfway mark, seemed odd, especially since no other character seemed that interested in using immortality technology. Then in one amazing move the story validated their existence and rendered them central to the game’s plot. This is positive world integration. Conversely, the hacking minigame illustrates the negative form. Unless time literally froze while Jack pulled apart the machine and moved small tubes of water around, the story cannot account for this needed mechanic. Similarly, the HUD takes the standard form, being an overlay on the camera not present to the actors within the game. It’s just not integrated into the world.

                With this concept firmly in mind, look at how integrated Dead Space 2 is. From the very beginning, the characters directly reference the ability to heal with medkits found laying about. They also speak about the health bar, saying “Your rig is red.” Even the waypoint gets referenced, in a few clever ways. All of the methods to guide the player exist for the character they control as well. Just as the absence of this generally effects perception covertly, its presence doesn’t necessarily overtly establish the word either. It does, however, undeniably help in making the player accept the world they see.

                Naturally, this acceptance recalls the disconnect created by the shoddy writing, highlighting just how disappointing the story is. Considering the effort spent establishing every aspect of the game as valid, it’s so frustrating that a core feature essentially ruins the work. But it was promised that we were done with this particular topic, so let’s return to analysis of the incredible visual design.

                Isaac’s visual design expertly invokes feelings of power and control for the player. Obviously, his suit looks impressive, as do its various permutations. But also consider his size in relation to the other characters. He’s huge, occupying more of the world than any human should. This generates feelings of power, lending credibility to Isaac’s actions. Sure he can take all those hits and kill all those horrific aliens – look at the size of the guy. He stands ready for anything. Even his stance is indicative of his strength. Isaac, during portions of player control, permanently hunches his shoulders and learns forward, constantly holding his weapon at the ready. The shape and contours of his body invokes animalistic qualities: barely constrained strength and constant vigilance.

                Much of the emphasis of this critique focuses on the continuity Dead Space presents and the way in which in-game actions become justified; the unique use of camera plays directly into these notions. Most titles see the camera as a way to show the action on screen subject to the will of the scene; during story cut scenes, it’s almost always made into a film camera, using the same framing and editing techniques as a motion picture. The purpose here is not to highlight the flaws with the system, but rather to show how another approach (that of Dead Space) plays to the strengths of the medium.

                Film and gaming hold many differences, most obviously the interactivity of the later. But the former has established itself as the dominate method for telling visual stories. It’s only natural that game direction follows this trend. But consider why film exists as it does: because it involves real, physical actors in a real world, certain constraints apply. More specifically, the entire experience cannot occur as one, uncut shot that innately flows from one moment to the next.

                That statement is overly general; it’s entirely possible, no doubt, for specific films to be done in this style. But most stories that involve any sort of travel or action, beyond that which could be concretely conveyed in a play, must have tricks of editing for the sake of filming. Games by their very nature are entirely independent of this restriction. They exist only as computer code, with no real physical component. In a realm limited by imagination and not possibility, why should the camera behave as it does in the real world?

                It shouldn’t. Again, lets qualify these broad claims by remembering that the standard use of the camera is not inherently flawed. Filming techniques do convey stories very well, so it’s entirely appropriate for game designers to use these methods. Dead Space’s presentation is a boon for itself but does not render others obsolete.

                Now that we have context, let’s examine the actual game. Almost entirely from start to finish, both Dead Space titles are one long, uncut shot. This flow is rarely broken, only at the end of the game in the first title and for technical reasons (loading) in the second. This generates an unprecedented feeling of continuity. Consider when a time lapse occurs in some other story. Often, this results in disorientation, the sort of, “wait, how did I get here?” stemming from weak story contextualization. The one-shot makes this an impossibility, as the player can directly see how their character moves from one location to the next. That doesn’t imply they must accept it, only that a visual explanation exists. Whether it’s fundamentally plausible or not, and plausibility is often a problem for stories of space zombies, is an entirely separate question.

                We have yet to even begin considering the actual gameplay elements of Dead Space, and for good reason. In a modern context, gameplay no longer needs extensive consideration. Other mediums direct their efforts on presenting fresh stories and unique takes on established ideas, not on reinventing the wheel. And Dead Space is quite happy with the wheel it has. All of the actual action is entirely competent and satisfying in a way recalling every game that came before. This is in no way a criticism. The enemies look nifty and become nice and squishy after death. The guns have big bangs and make fun explosions. But even the central marketing feature, “strategic dismemberment,” is at base the tired precision aiming found in every game applied to limbs.

                Now this is a detour from the game analysis, but it’s important to think about gaming culture when considering a game’s merits. Recently, discussion of games focuses almost entirely on notions of “innovation.” And for what purpose? Well ideally it’s because a game that does not innovate is not fun, it’s just more of the same (ignore, for now, that chess has remained constant for centuries but still gets labeled “fun”). While logically correct, this concept just doesn’t hold true to reality. Was True Grit a bad movie because it had the same six-shooters as any other western? Did The Godfather suffer from not being filmed upside down, just like every other film? Of course not, and games cannot be discarded because they resemble previous products. Game design has reached a level in which all the basics have been established and standardized. Bar any major hardware shifts, the doorway for major innovation no longer exists. Genres are established, mechanics are established, and players know what to expect.

                So now what does merit consideration? Well obviously the visual design, setting, and story, but also the way in which standard elements are used and how well the experience is executed. Major design bugs or flaws detract from the game experience. Ideal gameplay is as unnoticeable as possible; games should aspire to naturalize their actions so players no longer consciously think about how they physically control the game. Each bug obviously detracts from this, as does every flaw. A poorly placed health bar, overly tough or easy enemies, confusing puzzles, stiff controls, a lack of variation in tasks or environments – all flaws that break immersion. No sane human will ever totally forget the real world, but they may forget the controller. Dead Space gives such strong feelings of immersion because it has tried to rid itself of all these flaws, and nearly succeeds. Certain sections drag on too long, and parts of the game could be plotted better, buts its overall drive sucks the player into its world. Wonderful execution replaces notions of “innovation” in establishing a game’s worth.

                Making a competent shooter is no longer a challenge; the format has been essentially cemented. Each subsequent title makes little effort to change or radicalize the nature of gaming, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. If gaming is to advance as a medium, the notion that each game must have some sort of grand “innovation” applied industry wide must be discarded. Dead Space 2 is a wonderfully executed shooter supported by an entirely unique appearance, showing a method of progress in which fundamentals remain but the presentation improves. 

Start the Conversation