Dead Space has always been interested in machines. This makes sense considering the game’s central hero is an engineer. His main weapon is a mining tool, he acquires a stasis module by jury rigging a surgery machine, and he spends most of his time in every game fixing things. This interest permeates everything in Dead Space 3, from the core of its spectacle all the way down to how its doors work.
Doors in Dead Space have always been controlled by digital locks. When we try to open a door, the holographic screen tells us it’s “Loading” while we wait for it to process our command. This is really just a loading screen, but it’s a loading screen hidden behind an in-game UI, and that in-game UI is part of a universal aesthetic. Every interface in the game is holographic from computer screens to door handles. It’s a bit of sleek and stylish future tech in an otherwise grimy, dirty spaceship. It’s a piece of set dressing that reminds us we’re in a sci-fi game, and that reminder is necessary since we spend most of our time running through engine rooms and operating heavy machinery that otherwise looks pretty modern or at least not as slickly futuristic as the door handles. The ship itself looks like something out of our not-too-distant future, while the UI reminds us this is actually happening in the far-flung future.
That contrast is most apparent in Dead Space 3 thanks to the introduction of a new type of door handle, the mechanical wheel. You have to use kinesis to open these new doors. You hold down a button, stick out your hand, and your sci-fi psychic powers turn the wheel around and around while the game loads.
Your first encounter with this type of door is likely to be a little confusing. I didn’t know how to open it initially. I kept waiting for the holographic panel to appear, walking up to the door then backing away, over and over, and when it didn’t appear, I assumed the game was having problems loading. The color coding eventually tipped me off to try kinesis and it worked. The whole ordeal took no longer than a few seconds, but it left me wondering “What was the point of that?”
The doors actually work as a subtle form of world building. What’s particularly interesting about these new doors is that there’s a slit in the metal just beside the wheel that allows us to see inside the door, and it’s all mechanical. It’s just a bunch of gears and cogs. Our use of kinesis makes sense if this door is all mechanical. We commonly use the ability for heavy lifting, so why not use it to open a heavy door? More importantly, the ships that use these mechanical wheels are old derelicts. According to the fiction, they’re 200 year old relics of a previous expedition to this planet. By contrasting the digital doors of a modern (in Dead Space time) ship with the mechanical doors of this ancient ship, we get a sense of technological shift within the Dead Space universe. Doors weren’t always controlled by holographic locks. So what was once just a cool, immersive UI is now used to give the player some historical context. These wrecked ships are really old.
Then there are the doors of the ancient alien civilization, which are designed to seem both more primitive and more advanced than human technology. They’re primitive in that they seem to be made of rock; it would be easy to mistake them for carvings if not for the blue glow that signals this is an object we can interact with. They open like the digital doors, so there’s no need for kinesis (apparently the ease with which one can open doors is a universal sign of technological progress), but they don’t just slide open. That would be far too underwhelming for an ancient alien civilization. Instead a hole opens in the center, and then the rocks rotate back and forth around the hole, widening it with each pass until it’s big enough to walk through.
It might seem ostentatious, but again the doors reflect the culture around them. The rocks float as they open, like gravity doesn’t affect them, and they don’t move like a single solid object but like a bunch of small objects held together. This kind of gravity manipulation is a consistent theme throughout the alien environment. We see a similar philosophy in their construction tech (symbols on the ground that enhance your kinesis to a godlike degree) and transportation tech (portals that lift you up and send you flying like Superman from one spot to another). The art and animation of the doors are minor details, but they tell a special story of their own.
Dead Space has always had excellent art design. No one can make a hallway like Visceral Games can. Nothing in their world is random, everything is placed with care and purpose. Even the doors.