Visceral Games, Body Horror, and the Monstrous Female Body

This discussion of several of Visceral Games products, Dante’s Inferno, Dead Space, and Dead Space 2 does contain major spoilers, especially in the case of the latter two games.

Work, eviscerate, work, eviscerate. Masculinity in the Dead Space universe is pretty minimally represented in a fairly stereotypical way by the aggressive (but ever handy) Isaac Clarke.

Femininity in this series, however, seems to be grotesquely and decorously painted all over the virtual walls of this and (to some degree at least) Visceral’s other recent game offering, Dante’s Inferno. That painting is composed of an awful lot of twisted flesh and bodily fluids, though.

I believe that my first experience with a game developed by Visceral was with the first Dead Space, which I began playing around the time of its release, but having been bogged down with other gaming obligations, I ended up playing too little of it to have had a clear impression of it at the time. I knew that the visuals seemed pretty good, the UI and HUD systems seemed pretty neat and innovative, and, oh yeah, it seemed fairly gross, but it is a horror game after all.

Following that, my next experience with a Visceral title was with Dante’s Inferno, another game that I ended up not spending a lot of time with. In this case, I was less thrilled about the look of the game (Hell seemed a little strangely sterile, repetitive, and empty to me), and the gameplay left me largely cold. The image of the first boss in the game, Lust, however, did manage to sear itself into my brain pretty clearly, though. It is hard to forget an 80-foot femininely formed atrocity that belched demons from its nipples.

Wow. Just wow.

This image, while certainly not a forgettable one, had managed to seep into some largely unused portion of my memory though, when I finally got the chance to return to playing Dead Space and its sequel Dead Space 2. But it’s back.

The reason that I can’t escape the image is that both Dead Space games have reinforced this particular form of body horror for me. It began with my wife’s observations that Dead Space seemed especially nauseating to her because there were so many vaginas in it, which is not to say that my wife is offended by the image of a vagina. Instead, what she meant is the way that a number of Dead Space‘s Necromorphs seem to possess grotesque orifices that resemble rather monstrous vaginas.

The first one that she noticed was in the torso of a Slasher. A long gash runs down the abdomen of a Slasher. The gash opens and closes, and when it opens, a pair of hands emerge (and maybe a head, I’m still uncertain after trying to look at stills of the Slasher), as if something is trying to get out of the interior of the creature’s body itself . . . via a slit near its pelvis . . . . Do I really need to explain more of why the correspondence between this and the female sex organ seems apt? Between this and and the sight of some other orifices, like a wall with a rather labial mouth that spits something like mucus and pus at Isaac during an encounter, my wife often left the room while I was playing, declaring the game “stomach churning”.

Mix this basic venereal horror (and a favorite trope of body horror specialists is, of course, placing body parts in just the wrong places on a body or isolating one body part so much so that its exaggeration seems to dominate the overall body itself) with a barrage of horrors whose bodies are associated with reproduction, specifically birth itself, and you have some distinct sense of horror being produced by the female body throughout the series. There is, of course, the monstrous Pregnants (assumedly a dead pregnant woman transformed into a necromorph given the mythology of undead transformation in Dead Space), who — should the player rupture their grossly distended chests and abdomens while trying to remove their limbs — burst, giving “birth” to a bunch of Swarmers (seemingly reanimated and partial bits of flesh, something that is not a fully developed creature, yet, I guess) or Lurkers (creatures whose head resembles that of a baby). Dead Space 2 adds a couple of other Necromorphs relatable as “fruits of the loins”, another baby-headed creature called a Crawler and the physically asexual, but rather boyish, little humanoids called the Pack.

All of this imagery is quite reminiscent of the demon that I alluded to earlier from Dante’s Inferno, Lust, whose engorged breasts spew demonic opponents for Dante to battle, as if she is lactating with evil . . . or something. Again, the female body with a particular emphasis on its ability to produce children and the functions involved in female sexual biology (birth and even nursing) seem an image that a gaming house that has (in my mind at this point) rather appropriately decided to call itself “Visceral” is pretty comfortable repeating with some regularity. All of their visceral imagery, indeed, does seem to emerge from some kind of instinctual, primitive id space. Freud would have a field day with the psychic fantasy on display here.

However, not all of these games’ senses of the feminine revolve directly around the imagery of the body itself. Interestingly, both games use the standard trope of the damsel in distress as motivator for their male protagonists. Dante seeks Beatrice, Isaac seeks Nicole, and Mario seeks the princess. Well, except that, in the former two cases, the two women in distress are already dead (though Isaac is unaware that that which compels him forward is that which he has already lost at the beginning of Dead Space). Which, on the one hand, does notably make their bodies a kind of moot point, since the spirit has fled. On the other hand, both women serve as a “lure” into this nightmare trap often characterized by “female” or female-related monstrosities. Rather than serving as a “prize” for male achievement, women become bait for their intended destruction.

In the Dead Space series, the seductive allure of feminine peril is additionally compounded by the constant betrayal of Isaac at the hands of living female characters who promise guidance and security but who end up intending his ruin (Kendra Daniels in the first game and Daina early in the second game). And, of course, in Dead Space 2, Isaac’s “princess”, Nicole, is featured as a tormenting ghost haunting Isaac’s fragile psyche.

Unsurprisingly though, given all of this female and reproductive horror, Isaac is also “haunted” by memories recovered by the player in a text log in Dead Space 2 about his own mother. More specifically, this log reveals his mother’s association with the church of Unitology and her eventual surrender of herself, her finances, and, thereby, her son’s future (given that she can’t provide finances for entrance into school to become an engineer) to the same church that worships at the altar of the Necromorphs, the Marker. With insinuations of Isaac being capable of creating a Marker (himself being a product of a Unitologist’s womb), his relationship with the concept of motherhood and what it can produce (in this line of causation, the Necromorph plague itself) can only be understood as a horrific one.

In this sense, motherhood may be the central villain of the Dead Space mythology. If the organic growth known as The Corruption that creeps up bulkhead walls in Dead Space and overruns portions of The Sprawl in Dead Space 2 resembles the interior spaces of a body, (maybe, especially a female body) and female orifices and the horror of reproduction is insinuated by the bodies of the Necromorphs, Isaac’s encounters with horror have much to do with his anxiety about the womb, what it might produce, what is has produced. The setting merely seems to have “grown” (or been grown if an engineer like Isaac has been able to create such a plague via the Marker) in response to or to reflect the very terrors that Isaac has about the terminal power of the place that has given him life and now offers only half-life or death itself.

The female body in Visceral’s universe is a gross and destructive power, threatening to men and horrifyingly corrupting to them, as men like Isaac replicate their corrupt nature by following their guidance — an idea very much in keeping with the concluding plot twist concerning Kendra’s subtle manipulation of Isaac in the original Dead Space. Dead Space 2 offers some resolution to Isaac’s “female problems” through his eventual defeat of the memory of Nicole and the fact that his fellow survivor, Ellie, is finally a woman that he can count on to get him out of a pinch. Ellie’s name, appropriately perhaps, may be a variation of the name Elle or Ella, both of which mean “girl” — in other words, the opposite of an adult woman, what one would commonly associate with a mother and motherhood. It may be a less threatening concept to confront such a female though for a man who seems to keep crawling out of one horrific womb only to crawl back in once again.