The original Dead Space came out almost a decade ago. Back in 2008, the popular, but still relatively niche genre of survival-horror was asking for something – anything – to reinvigorate its dwindling scene. By that point, Capcom had already directed Resident Evil onto a more action-oriented route, and Silent Hill was losing its integrity with each new entry. Survival-horror was not enjoying its best time and was largely kept alive by indie titles on PC, like Penumbra: Overture by the Swedish developer Frictional Games which later garnered great success with Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
Electronic Arts, one of the largest video game publishers in the world, was not known for its expertise in the genre, yet they managed to surprise most by announcing a new survival-horror IP set in outer space. It was to be developed by Visceral Games (then EA Redwood Shores), recognized mostly by their James Bond and The Lord of the Rings games for the sixth generation of consoles. Not many, likely including EA itself, foresaw the success this new franchise would achieve; Dead Space combined the best traditions of classic horror games while also implementing a tactical approach to combat which, at the very least, was unusual for the genre.
Celebrating the upcoming 10th anniversary of the franchise, this article will take a brief look at what exactly made the original Dead Space so great and where the series ultimately fell apart.
The story begins with a small crew which is commanded to investigate a distress signal sent by an interstellar spacecraft – USG Ishimura (translated: “Stone Village”). Among the crew is Isaac Clarke, the main protagonist of the game. Isaac is not your typical superhero, he’s no Chris Redfield (not even before he took steroids); he’s just a regular engineer and this already creates an impression of vulnerability about him. In addition to that, his involvement in the survey mission is partly motivated by a personal interest – his girlfriend, Nicole, is stranded on the giant spacecraft.
After unexpectedly crash-landing on the Ishimura, Dead Space quickly establishes a vibe similar to that of Ridley Scott’s Alien. The ship is derelict, power supply is inconsistent and nothing, aside from some distant, dreadful noises, indicates at any sentient presence. Their own ship is now in disrepair and the only way of getting out is advancing further in. Soon enough, the crew is about to find out what has led to this state of disarray and what exactly they are up against…
It might not be anything award-worthy, but the plot does provide a few twists along the way and introduces some terrifyingly twisted adversaries in a uniquely dark and claustrophobic setting, and this setting is, arguably, one of the game’s pivotal strengths.
Nobody Can Hear You Scream… in Dead Space
A lot of what makes any horror game stand out comes down to its atmosphere, which largely consists of the surrounding environment, its lighting and sound design; Dead Space hits the nail on all three. The USG Ishimura is a massive, isolated and seemingly abandoned vessel stationed in outer space. It houses several decks, all of which vary in size and purpose, but most are generally made up of dark, cramped hallways sectioned by automatic doors and ventilation shafts stretching all the way across.
Systems are malfunctioning, parts of the hull are breached and there is never a sure way of knowing what lurks in the shafts. The ship’s interior is scarcely lit by anything other than the flashlight on Isaac’s suit and the shadows born from this limited light source can often serve up a fright all on their own. However, Dead Space rarely relies on jump-scares. Instead, it masterfully manages to uphold constant suspense by producing echoing noises in the background, whispers – often in close proximity — and immerses with a persistent sense of paranoia until the end credits roll.
Cut Off Their Limbs
This immersion is further fortified by the tank-like controls, which may be long-obsolete, but in Dead Space they make perfect sense. Isaac is wearing a heavy space suit and his sluggish movements reflect that whenever he traverses the dreary corridors of the Ishimura. These controls, along with the leaden movement, add an extra layer of urgency to combat and make each encounter all the more terrifying.
Unlike in so many other representatives of the genre, combat in Dead Space isn’t just about having the most powerful weapon and/or ample amount of ammunition – it’s actually deeply tactical. All weapons have two modes of fire and are suited for exterminating different enemies, but the most basic weapon which Isaac acquires early on in the game – the Plasma Cutter – is possibly the most versatile. Its ingenuity lies in its simplicity; it can fire either vertical or horizontal beams of plasma.
It’s not the case of: “Just shoot them in the head” here. Each battle encounter presents the player with a choice – slice an enemy’s arm off with a vertical beam so it can’t attack or, for instance, switch to a horizontal beam to decapitate it. Better yet, the player may shoot off the legs to halt the approach of a particularly nimble foe. This added tactical element to combat is vastly different from that of so many other games in the genre and is what makes each battle fresh and unique. Thankfully both, the atmosphere and the combat mechanics, are carried over into the game’s sequels which further improve upon the established formula.
The Horror… the Horror…
While Dead Space 2 successfully retained the engulfing atmosphere of its predecessor and improved upon it in almost every respect, Dead Space 3 was where the series took a questionable turn towards… “jolly co-operation”. Although the drop-in co-op was completely optional and had no effect on the game’s plot, its inclusion likely deterred many players as the third instalment failed to meet commercial expectations, even despite the favourable reviews.
Unfortunately, with Visceral Games now closed, a fourth title in the series is less likely than ever. On the other hand, EA no doubt realizes the value this franchise holds in the gaming community – being touted among the best survival-horror games ever – and the work on a new game can always be assigned to a different studio, provided it has the necessary know-how.
Until then, we can celebrate this now legendary horror series by immersing ourselves in the original trilogy, which is available in its entirety on Xbox One right now via Backwards Compatibility.