Dead Space

Bottom line: I enjoyed this game a lot. The environment design felt a little uninspired, as did the creature design, and I think it would've worked better had the entire plot been surgically removed like a diseased lung, but the craftsmanship was solid accross the board; pacing, combat, lighting, sound and level design were meaty and delicious. It's no more or less than what it wants to be: a cold sweat corridor-crawler with frantic gut-twisting combat, aided by an inspired precision-dismemberment mechanic.

I'm a horror fan, and being a fan of a genre seems to mean that I'll tolerate mediocrity and be delighted by competence as long as it pushes the genre buttons. That's my definition of a fan as opposed to a connoisseur--which it so happens I also aspire to be. A connoisseur tends to be more picky about his area of interest than most, while a fan is less picky. I liked Dead Space as a fan, but a little less so as a connoisseur.

I understand why the inside of the Planet Cracker Starship USG Ishimura looks the way it does. It's dark because dark places are scary. The walls are the purple-brown of spoiled meat and the hallways are lined with metal ribs because the designers want you to feel like you're tunneling through a giant cadaver--and come to think of it, that space suit you're wearing looks a lot like the Ishimura itself turned inside out. The ship is built for loud, dirty, dangerous work--like an offshore oil rig in space--so everything is designed around function rather than human comfort. It feels like one big ugly machine, made of heavy jagged parts that will grind you to paste if someone happens to switch it back on. So before you've even encountered the first monster, the environment has accessed your aversion to rotting corpses and your fear of merciless machinery. 

At least, that's the idea. Nor is it a bad idea--that's why it's been used over and over again. I don't have a problem in principle with the game borrowing heavily from movies like Alien, Aliens, Outland, Event Horizon, and, uh... The Black Hole I guess. But because the style of art direction is already so familiar when the game starts, and the game itself repeats those same design choices so monotonously, a certain numbness of the senses sets in. Don't get me wrong; it's still effective. But I was really hoping for more visual variety. Approaching the Hydroponics Deck, for example, I was looking forward to a lush indoor forest. Instead it was the same old angular monochromatic world with a few dreary vines draped here and there, like Christmas decorations at a company where everyone hates their job. The designers shouldn't have worried about spoiling the mood with clean, well-lit locations. A derelict spacecraft millions of miles from Earth is an inherently lonely and inhuman place. A sterile icy-white hallway can be as eerie as a dirty brown one, and each throws the other into sharper relief.

Also, when video game artists are asked to invent monsters that connect with the player's most primal fears, they always seem to come up with the same damn thing. Or maybe I should say they come up with The Thing. Let's make our own list: people don't like big teeth and claws; they don't like writhing, skin-burrowing tentacles; they don't like insects or their soft throbbing egg sacs and creepy crawly larvae; they don't like slime or drool or glistening sheets of infectious mucus; they don't like seeing other people without their skin or with their limbs rearranged or dragging their internal organs around. And let's not forget those out-of-control biological processes that coat the floor and walls with squishy pink flesh (sigh). It's not a bad list really, but how many people before us have followed the same line of thinking to produce the same toothy, slimy, pink, writhing, insectile half-human abominations?

One thing I can't complaint about is the sound; I thought it was the best thing about the game. I especially like the way the effects sound so angry and abrasive, beginning with the menus you navigate to start the game. Heartbeats, ghostly whispering, thumping and rattling from inside the ducts are not subtle, but they're done right. I loved the hoarse wheezing sound your character makes when he's injured or running low on air, and the angry grunt when he crushes heads with his boot. The score leans heavily on strings that sound like someone hurriedly hacksawing through your spinal cord. Tacky? Probably, but what do I know?

The inventory system was obnoxious--borrowed for some reason from the early Resident Evil games. I think the intention may have been to prevent the player from ever feeling too comfortable by limiting how much he can carry around, but for me the effect was the opposite: anxiety was reduced instead of increased. Since I was constantly finding more than I could carry in my overflowing inventory slots, I felt like a rich man. Sure, I could only take so much with me on each excursion, but once I got back to a store I could always dig into my deep reserves or buy more with my copious cash. If they wanted to trigger resource anxiety they should've just included fewer resources; instead I was forced to make repeated trips into the field just to shuttle crap back to various safes, because I'm a pack-rat and can't help my nature damn it.

Still, it's interesting: I have noticed a change in the way I play these games. I used to husband resources even more obsessively and replay each section of the game over and over again until I'd optimized everything. Now if a fight goes harrowingly wrong and I barely scrape by with my life, having fired every weapon dry and used all my health, I'm actually pleased. It makes a better story that way; it's more dramatic. This is the one small area where I think I've actually experienced the "player-created story" effect touted by sandbox and simulation-heavy games. And I think this is a triumph of modern game balancing, because it only works if I trust the game to resupply me in relatively short order.

Another thing I thought about a lot while playing is the element of surprise. At first I was going to moan about how predictable a lot of the encounters are, thanks to the familiar mechanics of horror games. For example, I know that if a room isn't full of monsters the first time I pass through but seems like it ought to be, I'll probably be jumped when I come back through a second time; I know that whenever I achieve an objective, it's almost certain to trigger an attack; and as always in games, architecture equals destiny: a big open room means a big fight, and a really big round room means a trumped-up triple-A boss battle. It may be that some of these cliches began as attempts to subvert earlier cliches. There may have been a time in gaming when rooms either had monsters from the get go or not at all, and the first time somebody mixed that up it must've been quite a shock. Also it must've been a long, long time ago.

This is really a special case of a more general problem. The audience for any story is likely to be pretty sophisticated when it comes to the art of storytelling--we all hear thousands upon thousands of stories in a lifetime. Readers, viewers, or players can probably see where the story is going in advance, not because of any clues in the story itself, but because they understand the rules of narrative as well as the author does. And the first rule is always to maximize drama. So if you're watching a movie or playing a game and you can identify what would be the most dramatic thing that could happen in the present situation, you've likely guessed what will happen. Monsters will attack you more or less when drama requires it.

But is this necessarily a bad thing? It seems like horror may be uniquely positioned to actually benefit from this phenomenon. After all, if surprise is so central, why are horror movies constantly laying on the musical cues that something bad is about to happen? Clearly anticipation is as important as surprise. Or maybe "dread" is a better word. The classic horror formula plays up and down the scale between dread and surprise. Maybe you know something bad is going to happen soon, but not exactly when. The tension builds and builds like an inflating balloon. Then you jab it with a pin.

So is it possible the experience is actually improved by adherence to genre cliches? It's obviously better if dread can be established within the context of the story--for example by a big smeary blood trail leading under the next door, or muffled sounds from behind that same door--but in a pinch predictable story mechanics can have something like the same effect. Don't get me wrong; defying expectations can also be highly effective. But you can't defy expectations unless they exist to defy.  Either way, all that genre baggage accumulated over the years can be a gift for a creator who knows how to exploit it.

I wonder exactly how important the release of tension is in horror games (or movies for that matter). Is it as important as the tension itself? I'm honestly not sure. But I definitely took pleasure in the flood of exhausted gratitude when those quarantine doors finally lifted or the music softened slightly to inform me that the battle was won. Looking back at other games I've played over the years, I think those moments of respite may be key to the overall experience. Designers must understand this, because they do find little ways to signal the all clear. I suppose this is another reason why adherence to genre convention can be advantageous: the player can only breath easy, however briefly, if he trusts the game to follow the rules--for example that an area once cleared will stay clear until the next objective is achieved. Of course, within this framework the designers have license to throw in a few jolts when you thought you were safe, but if they push it too far that essential trust may be lost.

Finally, this being a video game review and seeing as all other reviews seem to do it, I feel obligated to include a section about gameplay mechanics, so here goes: