Dead Space 3 is guided by a philosophical horror that wants to remind you that mankind is insignificant compared to other forces in the universe.
This post contains spoilers for Dead Space 3.
Dead Space 3 isn’t a horror game in the traditional sense. It’s not about isolation or helplessness or any of the things people have suggested good horror should be concerned with, but there’s still an undeniable kernel of horror at its core. In the end -- and only in the end -- does that kernel manifest as a tricky but brilliant kind of mythic horror. Like the most memorable stories of H.P. Lovecraft, Dead Space 3 is guided by a philosophical horror that wants to remind you that mankind is insignificant compared to other forces in the universe.
Lovecraft’s stories follow a general template. A narrator stumbles upon something unusual and is compelled to investigate it further. This investigation always leads to something horrible and sometimes something ancient. The narrator will only briefly and vaguely describe the thing(s) we’re supposed to be afraid of, but he’ll rant eloquently about the feeling of fear itself. At most, we’ll come to understand the scope of the horror -- a house, a street, a city, the world, the universe itself -- personified alongside a specific malicious intent. It's then that the narrator realizes that it is better to live in ignorance of the evil around us. The horror is literally too much to comprehend.
Dead Space 3 expands the threat of the necromorphs to this same mythic level. To summarize the Dead Space fiction: A Black Marker crashed to earth long ago. It was a powerful energy source but it also drove people insane and turned them into hideous monsters. So the government made copies, Red Markers, hoping to get the energy benefits without the monsters. They then chucked the Black one away somewhere. The Red Markers were actually just as bad, so the government chucked them away too. Now a religious cult is intent on digging them up because they think the Markers are a gift from God.
In Dead Space 3, Isaac and crew set out on an expedition to what they assume is the homeworld of the Black Marker, but the planet is actually a victim of a second Black Marker. The Marker on earth is just one of many such items, purposefully placed on certain planets in order to encourage the evolution of intelligent life, life which will inevitably try propagate the Marker’s signal, thus destroying itself.
With this revelation, the necromorph danger cease to be purely personal. it’s not confined to Isaac or his crew or to a ship, or even to humanity. The danger has been expanded to an unknown number of other planets. The Black Markers represent a specific, malicious plan to consume all life in the universe. Now, granted, Lovecraft’s mythos is frightening because it revolves around things man literally cannot understand and the explanation behind the Markers is fully comprehensible, if still evil, but the purposefulness behind the Black Markers implies a consciousness capable of thinking and planning on a grand, universal scale. A scale we can barely comprehend. This is where the horror becomes mythic in nature.
Space is hard to comprehend, which makes it a perfect setting for mythic horror. The size of planets and moons, the distances between stars, the timescale of intergalactic travel -- these things exist as hard numbers, but they’re still difficult to visualize. The solar system is always represented in a compact scale. Thus, the science of astronomy is not antithetical to the incomprehensible horror of Cthulhu.
This makes mythic horror a better fit for a sci-fi setting than the creature feature horror style of previous games. In this case, the science fiction isn’t just a skin drawn over traditional horror tropes (a haunted house is replaced with a haunted space ship). Now the sci-fi is integral to the horror since the game needs that galactic scale to properly establish the mythic nature of this evil.
Dead Space 3 then taps into our existing interplanetary anxiety because the Markers are the product of a god-like force that works on a scale that we don’t fully understand. It’s beyond us. All we know of it is that we should be scared of it because it has the ability to kill us and wants to kill us. This mysterious force is classic Lovecraft.
We brush up against this mythic force when the game makes an actual celestial body our enemy. The final boss of the game is a living moon created by the Black Marker. So one of those nigh-inconceivable, cosmic things from space becomes part of Isaac’s personal horror story. Ancient gods are replaced with ancient moons -- equal in size, equal in evil, but only slightly similar in mystery.
Shifting the horror focus from the personal to the mythic better justifies the action elements of the game as well. These story revelations come at the end of the game, so most of the time we think we’re playing the old creature feature type of horror, but the creatures aren’t scary or even very intimidating because we’re mowing them down. This has always been a hard balancing act for Dead Space because empowering action is naturally at odds with creature horror. Dead Space 3 tricks us by allowing us to feel confident as we kill our enemies before it finally reveals that our true enemy is so far beyond us that we don’t have any hope of victory. The whole game builds us up, only to break us down completely in the end. The action then works in service to the horror instead of subverting the horror, resulting in a more cohesive overall tone.
All of this is slightly undercut by fact that Isaac lives though his fight with the moon, but the moon isn’t the source of the Markers. So, his survival makes some sense. He didn’t fight Cthulhu and win. He fought some lesser god and won. It’s still ridiculous that he could survive, though. It’s especially disheartening because if any franchise could live on past the death of its central protagonist, it’s Dead Space. Isaac is not the face of the series; his suit is the face of the series. You could switch genders, put Ellie in the suit instead, and the marketing wouldn’t have to change one bit. It’s unlikely that this will happen since video games are notoriously afraid to kill franchise heroes, but such a twist would only strengthen the mythic horror tone that Dead Space 3 establishes.
As Isaac prepares to fight his own version of an ancient god, the maker of the Black Markers, it seems an appropriate time for Visceral Games to start their own battle against their symbolic force of evil: the game industry’s extreme conservatism. Neither Isaac nor Visceral Games will probably win, but I want to see them try. That’s the entire point of horror after all.