I didn’t know how Visceral Games managed to make a Dead Space 2 when they never actually made Dead Space; how can someone make a sequel to a game that never came out? Then I played it and realized they never made Dead Space 2 either, despite its title.
It (by which I mean the original vision of Dead Space) was supposed to be a horror game and the developers said the horror would be achieved by playing as a humble, weak engineer who was unprepared to fight alien monstrosities, as opposed to playing as a brawling space marine singing bawdy ballads and swimming through the entrails of his vanquished foes. There was also something about shooting monsters in shapes which added a refreshing geometry edutainment aspect to the triple A game: “Shoot the monster with a rhombus. No! That was a parallelogram! Now they are killing you!” I don’t know if anything else was advertised about Dead Space before its release because that was the only thing that really mattered: it was going to be something new.
With this promise of playing as an engineer and not a marine I instantly began to envision the game. A derelict space craft needs to be repaired and thanks to your outstanding resume and cover letter you are selected for the job. After a brief power point presentation by your employers you learn that the crew is missing and that your job is to get the entire ship into an operational state. You arrive at the space craft with your tools, pluck, moxy, and various charts of electrical systems, wiring/piping schematics, and blueprints of the vessel. You discover what parts of the ship aren’t working and experiment with various solutions. You gather additional equipment or spare parts from the ship’s storage, your own personal vessel’s storage, or if neither has what you need then you must order the spare parts and wait for them to laboriously teleport to you from some distant factory. I pictured most of the “engineering” being done
through some puzzle solving mechanic. But lo! What lurks within those shadows? The answer is monsters and possibly things that are monstrous in nature, like racism and xenophobia, but which aren’t monsters in and of themselves. I pictured myself playing this game, pondering an electrical panel, trying to figure out capacitor and varistor positioning so that I could restore power to the workshop so that in the workshop I could plug in my soldering iron and create a new circuit panel for the engine room which had gone into automatic lockdown when all of a sudden I hear a very organic and sinister sound. I turn and launching itself at me a diabolism snarls its stygian spittle and clutches at my face mask which was designed to ward off stray sparks not monster claws. I fight it off and it disappears into the shadows or maybe I manage to kill it by jamming a screwdriver through its eye. From then on the act of traversing the ship is traumatic. Each sound, each movement hinting at the terrors that lie in the shadows. The entire lanscape of the game changes. Areas without lighting are no longer items on a check list of what to fix; they are now a matter of absolute safety to me and their repair may become more important now than repairing the engine room. My priorities shift and I have to make sacrifices. Solving puzzles becomes a nervous and tense act as I constantly have to look over my shoulder. While in the beginning I only looked at blueprints to find my way around the ship it suddenly becomes important to look for escape routes along those pathways as well.
But Dead Space was never released and in its place a very typical third person shooter was released with a very typical marine protagonist where the point of the game is to shoot as much as possible. Admittedly he was a marine claiming to be an engineer, no doubt to hide his identity and avoid the ramifications of war crimes he committed during a past military conflict, but while this subtle plot twist was clever it ultimately didn’t change the fact that you were playing a beefy space marine with his powerful space weapons, that have no ability to fix anything, and easily dispatch enemies left and right. (I’m glad Valve never made a big deal about playing a physicist in Half-life otherwise that game would have never come out either.) It wasn’t that scary and although it had wonderfully constructed atmosphere that’s not a big deal because if I want nothing but atmosphere I’ll just put a smoke machine in my room and listen to Sigur Rós.
The main character in the game had as much engineering skill as my grandmother who, also, is able to plug things into sockets and bounce clumsily around a zero gravity environment. Our family also installed a health bar on the back of her neck so we know when to expect our inheritance of barszcz and pierogi. It’s clever of Visceral to try and make their game scary by slotting my asthmatic grandmother in the lead role but my grandmother is not an engineer and Dead Space was supposed to be about an engineer, an every man, who has been thrown into circumstances that his class in Workplace Safety and Hazard Management never prepared him for. I think this adds to why the game isn’t scary: aliens aren’t frightening when you are armored and bristling with weapons, or at least they’re not as frightening as they would be if you were bristling with socket wrenches and sporting a plumbers crack as your only defense.
I was talking with my friend, let’s call him “Phil”, about scary things and of course H. P. Lovecraft came up. One of the things Phil pointed out was that in much of Lovecraft’s writing most things are very ordinary with just one thing being very, very off. Most of the time the scariest thing is not seen by the characters, but they are aware of its presence.
This is the same case with the scene in the movie Alien when the captain is in the air ducts with the flame thrower; we don’t actually see the alien but are aware of its very real presence. The real Dead Space would have done this very elegantly by having very average location settings and making the monsters a peripheral aspect of the game. (Maybe Dead Space did come out though and it did focus on an average man dealing with fantastic circumstances, but it turned out to be somewhat linear and still focused on the horror which detracted from the actual horror, so they named it Penumbra to fool everyone.)
But the game that came out instead of Dead Space focuses on the monsters and the horror and these things become mediocre and passé. When the point of a game is to be attacked by monsters and then kill them then there is nothing to be frightened of when they actually attack me and I kill them. The unknown is the most frightening thing one can encounter; that’s why darkness is scary, because we can’t see what is there. But when you repeatedly make it clear to the player that your in-game darkness holds zombie monsters that need to be shot with ovals and dodecahedrons then I will confidently rest my index finger on my trigger. The more frequent the attacks happen the less frightening they become. I remember as I played the game I walked towards a zombie corpse and I thought it might rise up to attack me so I yelled, “Zombie space corpse! Are you going to rise up and attack me?? Please don’t because I want to use my Masters in Space Engineering to plug things into sockets and earn a wage so that I can pay off my exorbitant Space Student Loans!” Then the zombie rose up and attacked me. I unleashed a rapacious rhombus against my assailant, shouting, “I know! The infusion of free market economics into our educational system only serves to devalue education as a meritocratic institution and greatly increases the individual debt in our space nation.” One of my hexagons shore off the monster’s head and it flailed emphatically. “Hey, don’t lose your head over the matter,” I shouted. “I’m not saying that all markets should be regulated but I think that we shouldn’t allow capitalism to infect our important social institutions such as our religious organizations, our educational systems, and our families.” Then the monster died. And then this happened one hundred more times. Anyway, the real Dead Space would not have made the mistake of normalizing horror. The End.