Dead Space is too normal in video game design terms to remain scary.
I was a bit surprised when I looked into PopMatters archives and found nothing written on the horror of Dead Space. Then I played the game and found out why. Dead Space is a scary game, and it isn't. It has its moments of truly terrifying brilliance, but that is all they are -- moments.
Dead Space is ultimately crushed under the weight of it's own design. It tries to do something new and terrifying but falls into the trap sticking to close to the typical video game formula. It tries to straddle the line between horror and action, but eventually one will subsume the other.
I will give it credit. Dead Space gets off to an amazing start, beginning in an isolated setting that is an inherently dangerous environment and leaving the player with absolutely no idea what is going on. The repair crew are ill prepared and completely on their own. The monsters are grotesque beings that have enough human in them (the faces, always the faces) for the player to be unsettled by their very existence more than they would a truly alien being. All of that is great, but the true achievements of the game are in the play style that it encourages and the sound design.
Horror is derived from an upending of normalized circumstances into a danger we don’t understand. To understand how Dead Space’s play itself is an instrument of horror, one has to understand the gaming standard up to this point. All shooters, from tactical military to run-and-gun to zombie horde have one underlying and well understood principle shared between them. If you shoot an enemy in the head, that enemy dies. The term "headshot" has entered the gaming lexicon as an achievement for the relative difficulty and the corresponding efficiency of it. It makes sense to our understanding of the real world too. People can survive being shot pretty much everywhere on their body if not well or for long. A headshot is understood as instant death. The zombie subgenre has further pounded this concept into our heads, by not only making it a more efficient way of dispatching the monsters, but by making it the only way. Horror as a whole features monsters and killers that can survive normal punishment but that ultimately can only be dispatched by decapitation or a blow to the head. Dead Space upends this idea.
A headshot does almost nothing in the game. It gets rid of the head, but overall, it does very little damage. Plus, losing a head is not that big a deal to the necromorphs. Multiple times and in many different ways, the game tells you that you have to go for the limbs. Cut their limbs off. Shoot for the arms and legs. The status quo of a genre, medium, and understanding in fiction has just been thrown out. And it goes further still.
How often does a player shoot at an enemies' arms and limbs? Maybe if the game rewards doing so in some way, a player might do it a few times early on, but soon the player will opt for the easier and more efficient option: aim for the torso. It’s the biggest target on a body and does a lot of damage in most games. In Dead Space, yes, shooting or carving up the necromorph’s torso does damage and is easy, but it is not efficient. In fact, it seems about as fruitless as aiming for the head.
Resident Evil 4 pulled a similar bait and switch. It’s a zombie game in which there could be consequences for shooting the head. One of the Las Plagues could pop out and make the enemy even more dangerous. Dead Space took a lot from Resident Evil 4’s book as is and takes those ideas to an unsettling extreme here.
The other great thing that Dead Space has in its holster is the sound mix. The sound design is solid, but I focus on the mix in particular because it’s so jumbled. There are music cues consisting of striking strings that warn when an enemy pops out of nowhere, and the music intensifies in battle. But the Ishimura is a mining vessel. Sometimes it is difficult to pick out the music from the diegetic sounds of the ship. Soon the banging of doors and the whirring of the engines create off tempo noises similar to those that would warn the player of enemies. And since the necromorphs don’t always come out in plain view, you have to rely on your ears. The shuffling, squishing, and mucus filled yells blend in to the pounding of the ship itself. A vent will open, a door will malfunction, or some blob will ooze puss at the right moment when there is no danger, and then you cannot tell the difference anymore. This screwing with the player’s expectations and learned behaviors is the game’s greatest asset in generating terror.
There are a lot of complaints about the direction of the development of Dead Space 3 and the series as a whole. That the games are moving away from the horror roots of the franchise and becoming another power fantasy where the enemies just happen to be cosmic flesh monsters. Having now played the first game, I don’t buy that argument as much as I once did.
The game has its moments of terror, but it has always been a power fantasy. Your armor upgrades, your weapons upgrade, even your special time freezing ability and home made gravity gun upgrade. It’s difficult to take the argument that Dead Space is supposed to be a survival horror game, when the biggest issue that I have is that I keep having to leave ammo behind because my inventory is full. Even the great centerpiece of the game wasn't about being frightened of what Yahtzee best described as a “shoggoth in a tumble dryer.” It was a fantastic set piece that let the player play without forced camera angles, quick time events, or linear cinematic action. But don’t let that praise confuse it for scary. I just took down a shoggoth in space with mining equipment. I’m not sure you could get more "power fantasy" than that.
Every advantage that the necromorphs have over you is countered by something you have. The ripper is the most efficient way to get rid of limbs in video games that I've ever seen. Enemies that run quickly to close the distance between you and them are countered by freezing them in place. And the swarms, as long as you see them coming, are easily dispatched by the first weapon that you get in the game. You will see the swarms coming too because the short time between checkpoints means that you won't lose a lot of progress and you wont be "gotten" a second time.
Eventually I wasn't afraid of the necromorphs, and they became just another enemy to be dispatched. I don't see Dead Space’s journey to becoming another action series as a downgrade so much as one of two possible paths and the developers took the one more traveled by and that has made all the difference.
Quite honestly, I don’t think Dead Space as conceived could ever have been a successful horror game. It’s too long. Think about the best horror movies. They’re not long affairs. They also don’t introduce the main conflict between horror and victim until relatively late in the running time. They do this because scares can wear out their welcome and cease to be scary. Games get a bit more leeway thanks to the additional bonus of the player being set in the middle of the action and being apart of the danger rather than simply viewing it. But even then Dead Space wears out its welcome.
Games operate off of learned behavior. The player learns how to play and what all the various elements mean: this item equals this event, this thing happening means this other thing will soon happen, etc. Horror is derived from an upending of normalized circumstances into a danger that we don’t understand. Video games by their very nature are about learning how to respond to the circumstances. Dead Space is too normal in video game design terms to remain scary.
One of the best chapter designs of the game is Chapter 4. I can’t tell, though, if it was on purpose or by accident. You go through the level as normal, shooting necromorphs and trying not to die. You return to a previously visited part of the ship, a great asset and also why I’m not entirely sure if the great design choice was on purpose or not. The environment has changed drastically. There’s a new enemy type stuck to the wall preventing progress that reaches a new level of depraved. But the subtle brilliance that I didn't notice until too late is that there are less ammo drops. In fact, there are almost none. You, as the player, don’t notice it and are a bit grateful because you've been struggling to pick up everything and have had to leave some items behind. Then the game locks you in a room with more necromrophs than you have had to deal with before and suddenly you’re short on ammo. This was the first moment of the game since the beginning when I felt actual dread. Then I proceeded to run around the lab screaming bloody murder as I tried to figure out which gun still had shots in it leading a conga line of necromorphs before being ambushed from behind a pillar.
This scene upended my learned behavior brilliantly. Suddenly the ammo that had been overly plentiful before was scarce, and worst of all, I hadn't noticed. But soon after, the game returned to the normal routine. Even the once great airless sections had lost their grip on me, as the danger was no longer there. I could breathe fine for long enough to get to an airlock with plenty of time to spare. I had learned not to rush because the suit gave me enough time. Even after the asteroid turret sequence I knew to ready my gun and blast away once the airlock opened. I knew ahead of time that a necromorph would ambush me to upend quiet moment of safety. Dead Space had done it at least three times already. It fell into a pattern, one that the player could easily read. Even the great upender of shooting at the limbs instead of the head or body became routine. It became the new status quo. Fine if you’re there for the challenge, but not if you’re there for the horror.
The game needed to do what Chapter 4 did -- but all the time. It needed to set up patterns of learned behavior and then completely undermine them, and it had to do it differently every time and in ways that the player couldn't expect. If it wanted it to be a true horror game, it needed to be something wildly different every 20 minutes and frankly a bit shorter. It wanted to be a horror movie, but that formula cannot stand up after 10-12 hours. It becomes routine. The appearance of the monster isn't frightening; it’s releasing the tension from a valve so we can get back to work.