[9 February 2011]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
Issac Clarke may be the second most recognizable working class hero in video games. The obviously more iconic plumber and savior of princesses, Mario, comfortably garbed in overalls while cleaning pipes overrun by mushrooms and turtles would, of course, be the most recognizable. Intriguingly, though, and largely unlike Mario, Isaac is not a working man transformed into a fantastical hero. Instead, Dead Space is a game that finds heroism in doing real work.
Still, both men have any number of things in common: a tendency to be tasked with rather dirty jobs, a penchant for irritatingly always finding their “princess in another castle”, the motivation for them to persist in their seemingly chivalrous quest to save their chosen blonde from peril (indeed, the minimally developed relationship that Mario has with Peach is no more phantasmal as Isaac’s insubstantial relationship to Nicole). Both of these working men have found themselves cast in the role of the knight, but unlike that ideal occupation with its benefits of title and glory, these two have only managed to inherit from such a noble occupation its element of service.
While I realize that according to the Dead Space mythos Isaac’s occupation sounds slightly less blue collar than mere intergalactic maintenance man—he is after all supposed to be employed as “an engineer”—his appearance and activities speak far less of a man charged with creative tasks like design or problem solving than of following the dictates of others to patch up what needs repair aboard the USG Ishimura. This is a man constantly being directed by superiors to fix this and pick up that with very little opportunity for self-directed work or even a 15-minute smoke break.
If Isaac leads a life of knightly servitude, his “shining armor” has been transformed into the intergalactic equivalent of drab, gray coveralls. His “helm” resembles something like a welding mask, and he, of course, wears some great big workboots. I imagine that the boots are steel toed, especially useful for stomping supply crates or kicking the tiny Gumby-like creatures that emerge from the belly of a burst Pregnant. On viewing his appearance thus, we must rapidly demote him in our estimation from the position of idealized hero to that of a regular working guy.
Indeed, while Dead Space is marginally a survival horror game, resembling more often an action game with a horrific aesthetic, and Isaac does what most extraordinary men do in video games (blow everything to hell in order to save lives and discover the mystery of an alien infestation), the truth is that most of his mission really concerns puttering around engine rooms and repairing damaged systems; he just happens to have to kill a good deal of undead aliens along the way. Even at that, the combat throughout the game is marked by Isaac’s working class presentation. His weapons include some fancy weaponry like a flamethrower and pulse rifle, but his most effective weapons are ones that the working man better understands, tools re-purposed as necromorph eviscerators. Given that dismemberment is the most efficient means of stopping the alien threat, Isaac’s plasma cutter and portable table saw, the Ripper, makes combat in Dead Space more like a class in wood shop than a tour of duty. Killing aliens is precision work, where making the cleanest and most well-measured cuts is the order of the day.
Encounters with aliens are incidental experiences aboard the Ishimura, though, as throughout the first half of Dead Space Isaac is tasked with objectives that concern fixing damaged equipment, restoring systems, installing data boards, rerouting power, refueling engines, and so on. The final chapter of Dead Space, the level of any game that usually throws its toughest challenges at you largely concerns loading and then transporting cargo. This hero’s final encounter with alien evil reduces him to fulfilling the duties of a dock worker.
When I referred to Isaac as an intergalactic maintenance man, I really wasn’t kidding.
Additionally, as noted before, none of this work requires that Isaac be a highly educated technician who can figure out what needs to be done and direct a repair operation. While much of the work required to complete the tasks that I describe are really not unlike what many other more traditionally heroic characters like “tomb raiders” and “gods of war” often do in games—travel from point A to point B, flip switches, and figure out puzzles—Isaac truly has very little to say in the matter. Indeed, quite literally, this character has no voice at all. Transmissions from his commanding officer and even his peer, a technologist tasked with repairing the ship’s comm systems, are always one-sided, directing Isaac toward his goal, not asking for his expertise or informed opinion on engineering matters.
With no voice of his own, Isaac never complains and instead silently and dutifully goes about getting done whatever errand he is assigned. While Lara Croft might need to make some repairs to a series of gears and pulleys in order to advance the plot in her games, she does this work because she wants to raid the tomb. She is interested in whatever mysteries that she might uncover there and has chosen to do the work necessary to achieve her own ends. In other words, Lady Croft can afford to do the work that she wants to do. Isaac instead is employed to do his work. The effort put into accomplishing tasks like repairing an array or restoring life support to an area of the ship resembles what a laborer does, not a dilettante hero or even an educated professional. He is a handyman.
The concluding scene of the game, which in some ways resembles a couple of famous science fiction reveals, furthers the insistence of the game on Isaac’s more humble role as savior of the universe. Famously, EC Comics ran into trouble with the Comics Code Authority when they attempted to run a story called “Judgment Day” in Incredible Science Fiction. In that story, an astronaut is sent to consider a group of robots for entry into the Galactic Republic. Finding that the robots have divided themselves into groups based on their color, blue or orange, and denying one group the same rights as the other, the astronaut advises against admission. In the final panel, he removes his helmet, revealing himself as a black man. An equally famous and more recent science fiction twist from the annals of video game history that focuses on playing on cultural expectations about who a hero should be would, of course, be the final reveal in the original Metroid game. When our armored space warrior Samus Aran is revealed to be a woman, once again the incongruity between expectation and the possibility of the potential diversity of heroic identity is highlighted. While Isaac’s removal of his helmet is probably less dramatic than the previous two examples, nevertheless, it is surprising, despite revealing quite clearly what we have known all along.
Isaac Clarke really is just some guy. No dashing Nathan Drake, no tough guy John Marston or Kratos is revealed. Instead, Isaac turns out to be a plain enough and rather tired looking white guy, exhausted by some truly horrific events and a rather hard day at work. That this final scene steals its drama from a well-worn horror cliché, the head of a necromorph suddenly appearing behind Isaac before the credits roll making us realize that “They’re Still Alive!!!”, offers a simple message given all of the blue collar context of the previous events in the game: a working stiff can never really catch a break.