This is not a review. This is a reclamation.
Last month I played Dead Space for the first time since the spring of 2009. It's a game that I have long held as one of my all-time favourites, a viscerally terrifying third-person action-horror title that pays homage to the likes of Ridley Scott's Alien while building upon the winning formula of the seminal Resident Evil 4. Dead Space is often the first game that comes to mind when I consider potential candidates for the ideal "Halloween game", that subset of thrillingly tense titles which are perfectly suited to revisit in the run-up to the spookiest holiday on the calendar. And yet, this is the first time I've returned to the USG Ishimura and stepped into the shoes of Isaac Clarke in over a decade. That reluctance to re-tread its dimly-lit corridors is a notion that I've battled with several times in recent years, and it has taken a not-insignificant summoning of strength on my part to overcome that fear - not of the game itself, but of the dormant memories that could still be attached to it.
To fully understand this story, we need to go back to the spring of 2009, when I was a fresh-faced, nineteen-year-old university student nearing the end of the first year of a degree in English Language and Literature. I was living in a communal flat on campus with fifteen other students, most of whom I didn't get on with. I was a hundred miles from home and missing my family and friends. All my time and energy were primarily focused on three things - the course I was studying, the video games I was playing, and the girl I was in a relationship with. Her name was Karen, we met at university, and after a fairly tumultuous first term, we ended up getting together in January of that year. When this tale begins we had been together for about three months and were still very much in the honeymoon period, spending as much time together as possible and sharing our interests with each other in the hope of finding more common ground on which to build the foundations of our relationship.
One evening in April, after a long day of lectures, seminars and assignments, I cocooned myself in my room with the intention of playing some video games. I'd just finished playing through the story of Grand Theft Auto IV's first DLC expansion, The Lost and Damned, and after scanning my shelf for something new to replace it, I settled on Dead Space. I'd been playing for maybe half an hour and was about halfway through its first chapter when I heard a knock at the door. It was Karen - fresh from her last seminar of the day, she'd come to ask me if I wanted to get some dinner with her. Her attention fell on my TV screen, which was showing Isaac's limbs being severed from his torso by a Necromorph (I'd forgotten to pause the game when I got up to answer the door). "What are you doing?" she asked, the tone of her voice betraying her curiosity. I told her, passing her the game case. Her eyes scanned the story synopsis on the back, and when she looked back up at me, she uttered five words I've not since forgotten:
"Can I watch you play?"
Thus the ritual was born. Every evening for about a fortnight, when we'd finished our studies and eaten dinner, Karen would visit my room. I would boot up my Xbox 360 as she turned off all the lights and drew all the curtains, plunging the room into total darkness to set an appropriate mood. Then we would sit side-by-side on my bed, the duvet drawn up over our heads like a hood to limit our peripheral vision and focus our attention on the only remaining light source in the room - the 14-inch screen of my old standard-definition CRT television. She would lock her arms tightly around one of mine as I played, burying her head in my shoulder at every ominous sound cue, screaming and cursing at every jump-scare, pulling me this way and that as I desperately tried to draw a bead on rapidly-approaching enemies with the plasma cutter. Her presence beside me on those evenings elevated Dead Space to something beyond a mere video game - it became a shared experience for both of us, and one that would go on to become a pillar of our three-year relationship.
I should probably explain that Karen was not into video games at all - when we met, her only real exposure to the medium was the Wii at her parents' house, which was used pretty much exclusively to play the golf and bowling portions of Wii Sports. She was more into movies, action and horror movies in particular, with the aforementioned Alien being one of her favourites. Dead Space ended up serving as a bridge between my interests and hers - a combination of fantastic gameplay for me to engage with, and a tense sci-fi-themed horror story for her to get caught up in. Off the back of our playthrough Karen persuaded me to watch the first four Alien films with her over the summer, and despite not being much of a movie-watcher I ended up really enjoying them, particularly the first. When Dead Space's sequel was announced, it was Karen who brought the news to me rather than the other way around. Following our playthrough of Dead Space 2 shortly after its release in early 2011, I dedicated an entire blog post not to my thoughts of the game, but to a transcription of hers. To this day, that post is the only one of over four hundred entries on this blog signed with a name other than my own.
My relationship with Karen ended in December 2011, just a few weeks short of what would have been our third anniversary as a couple. Looking back on it with this much distance, it's easy to see why - we both left university, moved back into our respective parents' houses, spent less and less time together, and ultimately grew apart in very different directions. She was the one who called time on things though, and for a long while I was devastated. It took a great many months, and the support of some truly incredible friends, to build myself back into a better headspace. Although we no longer speak (a decision I had to take for my own mental well-being shortly after the break-up) I bear her no ill will, and wish her every happiness and success in her life. Hopefully she would say the same of me.
Over the years I've been able to reclaim a lot of things that for a time I thought I'd never enjoy again as a result of their associations with that relationship. There were songs that reminded me of Karen that I couldn't bring myself to listen to. There were movies and TV shows that we'd watched together which no longer held any appeal. Even five years down the line, when one of my former teachers passed away and I returned to my university town for his funeral, every street I walked down and building I passed seemed haunted by spectres of our time together. But time has moved inexorably forward, and against all my insistent beliefs at the time, things did indeed get easier. I can listen to those songs again, watch those movies and TV shows, and although I no longer walk those streets, I can think back on a lot of my time in that university town without the ghost of that relationship looming over every thought.
Until last month, the experience of playing Dead Space stood as one of the last remaining bastions of that relationship. That may seem odd to you, and it certainly does to me - as I've said previously, video games were more my thing than they ever were Karen's, so it stands to reason they should be easier for me to reclaim. The reality of the situation has been very different, though. I suspect it's because Dead Space didn't exist for me before Karen - it was something we experienced for the first time together, meaning I had no memories of playing it that didn't involve her in some way. It also carries the burden of an unfulfilled promise in the form of the third game in the series, which we speculatively promised we would play together at some point in the future shortly after finishing the second. When Dead Space 3 did eventually see release in February 2013 I skipped over it, and have not played it to this day - a fact I could attribute to its lukewarm critical reception, but which actually stemmed from a desire not to dredge up that promise and the memories associated with it.
I have tried several times over the last few years to revisit Dead Space as a Halloween experience, but it has taken me until now to successfully make it past that initial wave of repressed memories and through the game in its entirety. Once I'd crested that wave, I was able to look past those old memories and start making new ones. In a word, it has been cathartic. Going forward, when I think of Dead Space, I will think of it as a game that wasn't as difficult as I remembered it being (turns out it's a lot easier to aim a weapon when someone isn't hanging off your arm). I will praise its innovative diegetic UI, its fantastic lighting engine and its peerless sound design. And I will lament the absolute bullshittery that is the aiming acceleration on the analog sticks in its two mandatory turret sections. I will be able to look back on it as much for the game it is now as for the experiences it has given me in the past. And hopefully that means it will be easier to revisit again in the future.
Replaying Dead Space has also helped to give me a frame of reference for how much I have achieved over the last decade. I am no longer the heartbroken, jobless graduate I was at the end of 2011. I have a job, one that involves taking care of other people (albeit indirectly), and for all the times I may complain about certain aspects of it, it is a job that I genuinely enjoy and believe that I am good at. I have a home, not in the sense of living under my parents' roof, but a collection of rooms, doors and windows that I can truly call mine (providing I keep up the mortgage repayments). I have my creativity, a passion I indulge through a handful of outlets including playing music and writing these blogs. And I am in another romantic relationship, one that I have been in for four-and-a-half years now and which has eclipsed every milestone I ever reached with Karen. My current girlfriend Alice is also not much into video games, but we have managed to find a few experiences to share - she is particularly fond of Telltale's The Walking Dead series and Dontnod's Life Is Strange. When I decided to replay Dead Space, I deliberately did not try to involve Alice in any way. Nevertheless, as we live together in a small flat, it was inevitable that she would end up witnessing some gameplay at some point. This worried me. How would she react to it? Would she, like Karen, see some appeal in it and ask to watch me play? Would my last valiant effort to reclaim this game fail as history repeated itself a decade later? But all that worry evaporated when she happened to see Isaac fall victim to one of the game's enemies, and she uttered five words I won't soon forget:
"Eww, that is so gross."
Every piece of media is a time capsule. The entertainment that we engage with has a habit of wrapping its tendrils around almost any memory it can get within reach of, becoming inextricably intertwined with those events that most clearly define our lives. Dead Space was, is, and I suspect always will be a game that I associate with Karen and the time that we spent together, but revisiting it has served to prove that those formative memories don't have to be the only ones I associate with it. Thanks for reading folks. Take care, stay safe, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Super Mario Sunshine (NSw)