Virtual Shocktober - part 3 (Dead Space)

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Virtual Shocktober continues whether we're ready or not. For some the scares are too much, but my journey to conquer the fictional supernatural forces continue. Around the first of the month I kicked off my marathon by venturing into the ill needed savior of mankind’s abode in (Symphony of the night). After that I made my way to the treacherous Mountains of Colorado and journeyed within the hellhole that is Mount Massive Asylum in (Outlast). This week I continued my descent into virtual madness with Event horizon the video game (Dead Space). If you'd like to check out the first two parts here's a couple of links.

Drop a blog on it! (Symphony of the Night) - Part 1

Drop a blog on it! (Outlast) - Part 2

The first time I played Dead space was after convincing my parents to let me rent it at the now dead franchise of rental stores, Hollywood Video. When this game came out I was around 14 or 15 and was pretty much a big scaredy cat when it came to anything horror. You see up to that point I’d never really played a lot of horror games. Silent hill was but a fictional town in a shitty movie I passed over. Resident evil registered in my mind, but I’d never really played any of them except a brief stunt with Re5 that didn’t end well. (Chainsaw to the face) I’d heard so much buzz that I couldn’t help but be drawn to it though.

I was so scared of anything besides Nintendo that even watching my Dad play a few shooters like Medal of Honor Frontline when I was around 8 or 9 made me extremely on edge. At even at even younger age I remember playing Star Wars shadows of the empire (You remember? That shitty N64 game with the sort of interesting Hoth level at the beginning) and never getting past the second level, because it was so “scary”. I could list other obscure games you probably passed over, or never played that made me fearful, but I think you get the point. I was a big baby.

Fast forward to around the time Dead Space came out – This was a period of time in my life that I really started getting into games. Up till then I was a casual. I was pretty familiar with Nintendo, but everything else was new territory for me. (I missed out on so many classics that I’m still trying to catch up) The year or so after Dead Space released marked my time of transition from casual to hardcore. (I don’t generally use those terms, but they fit for what I’m trying to say here) It was the time I started listening to podcasts, visiting game websites and playing new releases concurrently with other rabid fans of the medium.

I was absolutely scared out of my mind at this point. Playing it again was a little surreal.
I was absolutely scared out of my mind at this point. Playing it again was a little surreal.

Dead Space sort of embodies my wanting to branch out and try new stuff I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with. I remember very vividly how I felt putting the game in for the first time. I remember how ominous the main menu was. (Static and whispers, mixed in with Necromorph like screams) I also remember when I hit the play button and began watching the opening cinematic I was overcome with an extreme uneasiness. When the protagonist’s ship inevitably crashed into the Ishimura and the crew exited the battered ship onto a nightmare fueled station of monsters, I began to literally tremble with fright. If my parents would have seen my state at the time they probably would’ve turned the game off. I continued on out of morbid curiosity and a determination to conquer my fears.

Once shit hit the fan and Isaac was sent running for his life I was in a state of actual panic. What followed was one of the tensest experiences my 14 year old self had ever experienced with a piece of fiction. After everything calmed down and I met up with Isaac’s only two companions in this nightmare, I shut the game off to collect my sanity. During this rental period I made it about halfway through the game and didn’t touch it again until after I completed its sequel, where I proceeded to finish it.

Having played a fair bit of the game again for the first time in years, I wanted to talk about it.

First of all, like I mentioned above, this game is extremely reminiscent of the film Event Horizon. Something I’d never even heard of when I picked up Dead space. Both films center on a group of people going to investigate a derelict ship in the middle of space. When they get there strange things start happening and everything goes wrong.

Dead space starts out with a cast of characters that quickly whittles down to a trio of survivors. One being you, Isaac Clarke, the silent protagonist engineer whose looking for his girlfriend, the no nonsense commander Zack Hammond, and computer specialist Kendra Daniels. Tensions clash between the latter two characters and loyalties are questioned all along the way. Almost all the exposition throughout the game is delivered through video transmissions and audio/text logs. (One thing to note is that audio logs can be played without having to stand in place for its duration. You’re not bound by a physical object and can continue playing the game while listening. Why every game with an audio log system doesn’t do this is beyond me. Alien Isolation knows what’s going on!) You do occasionally come across characters in person, but for the bulk of the game you’re alone. The near constant isolation exacerbates the already creepy feeling you get venturing through the hellhole ship, and makes it when you do encounter someone their presence is that much more appreciated.

In space, no one can hear you scream...but they sure as hell can in a small house.
In space, no one can hear you scream...but they sure as hell can in a small house.

The atmosphere in Dead space is incredibly well fleshed out. Everything from the mutilated decoration of the Ishimura, to the absolutely amazing sound design is carefully crafted into one hell of an experience. Seeing is but one sense of the receptacle that is the human psyche. Something even more frightening than seeing a threat right in front of you is the unknown terror of what’s to come. Some of the best horror fiction (Hp Lovecraft for example) leave things to the imagination. No matter how horrifying something actually ends up being, what we imagine in our minds will always be scarier. Sound plays into this by constantly making us second guess ourselves. More than once in the game I would occasionally stop, catch my breath so to speak, and just listen to the background noises. Clinking metal rods, the sound of something scurrying super-fast in the roof above you, the loud groaning that’s indecipherable as to whether it’s the sound of heavy machinery off in the distance, or maybe something…else. All of these are flavor that heavily flesh out the Ishimura and make you really believe you’re on a derelict ship gone to hell.

Opting out of a traditional Hud system, It’s all smartly contextualized in the world itself. The player is able to see the status of Isaac at all times very easily though the rig on his back. The blue spinal light tells you how much health he has left and the small blue circle tells you how much stasis. (Slowing down enemies is an especially welcome advantage in a place where they can sometimes swarm you faster than you can act) The ammo count is on the weapon itself in a small holographic display. Everything you need to know is right on the character. It's a really smart way to give feedback to the player without breaking immersion. As scared as I was playing the game for the first time, I was at least able to immediately appreciate this sleek aspect of the design.

Another thing the game does is make you manage your systems in real time. Popping up your handy holographic submenu doesn’t pause time like it normally would in any other game. (Hey! It's like Dark souls guys! ...sorry) Checking to see how much plasma rifle ammo you have left, or trying to see if you have enough credit to buy that cool looking blow upy gun could be to your detriment if you aren't careful. The (somewhat confusing) map is also in the real time display, and while that could’ve been annoying to try and constantly pull up to see where you have to go, they smartly map a straight up bread crumb trail to a button. Clicking in the right stick will always show you where you need to go next. Kind of wish I had that in real life sometimes.

As fluid as all this is, one of the major tropes of the genre still influenced the game. Controlling Isaac feels just as sluggish and irksome as other games in the genre. While it’s not as rough to control as early resident evil games, it’s heavily reminiscent of the days when a character moved around like a tank. Although instead of a tank, it feels like your moving through an environment filled with water about waist high. More often than not clunky controls equate to annoyance rather than tension, but it’s not too egregious here. (I actually preferred the changes they made for 2 in respect to the ease of movement.)

People sure do go to awful lengths to write helpful messages right before they die in games.
People sure do go to awful lengths to write helpful messages right before they die in games.

The actual gameplay is thrilling. Right from the start the game hammers away the importance that shooting enemies in the usual dead shot places won’t get you very far. Shoot the limbs! Dismembering enemies is the most effective way to take them down. The way we usually confronted enemies in the past was subverted. It may not seem like much, but it changed the whole dynamic of approaching combat. You could still take enemies down the usual way by putting half a dozen rounds into their gut, but you get your most bang for your buck ammo wise by taking off the things they use to move around. Makes sense right?

I know this series is most often labeled “monster closet the game”, (and to some extent it is) but I usually feel that if a game (or any horror fiction for that matter) can establish enough atmosphere and tension within its setting, that a “jump scare” can be earned. Dead space makes liberal use of the genre trope and it can easily come off as a crutch to make the game scarier than it actually is. But when you really think about it it’s not that odd within the setting. The Ishimura supposedly housed thousands of people. A parasite came on board and killed/infected everybody. That shit probably spread fast! So when monsters are constantly jumping out it makes sense. They’re predators trying to hunt down and convert every living person to a monster.

Horror is such a subjective thing anyway nowadays that whether you find the series scary or not is all up to your personal perception. I remember playing PT earlier in the year and thinking it was great in that it set up a fantastic atmosphere and foreboding. The way it built a slow tension moving from one end of the seemingly endless hallway to the other with minor yet affecting changes until something inevitably happened was great. Yet I saw plenty of people write it off as a jump scare fest that lost all tension because you’d never die. (If I could manifest a shoulder shrug in text it’d be right here) The Dead space series may have lost its way in some respects with the more action focused 3, but Dead Space 1 still holds up as a modern horror classic. The way it builds atmosphere through sound design is top notch. The gameplay, especially on harder difficulties, demands you be smart with supply management. And the setting itself is incredibly well realized. Do yourself a favor and boot up the game with a nice pair of headphones, a dimly lit (if not pitch black) room, and settle in. The game’s probably like 5 bucks now. So the barrier of entry’s fairly low.