Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Thoughts on Dead Space and Horror

Fair warning: this post is particularly rambly, even for me.

I recently finished EA's 2008 survival-horror game Dead Space. The game's basic premise is "zombies in space," and in a lot of ways it resembles a futuristic Resident Evil.  It's also hugely influenced by films like Alien, Event Horizon, and The Thing. Seeing as how I adore all of those things it was no wonder that Dead Space would spark my interest, and having played through it I am happy to say that the game is awesome. It manages to keep you in constant suspense by cleverly utilizing horror tropes to create an unpredictable and terrifying atmosphere. On top of that the innovative strategic dismemberment gameplay mechanic demands that you approach each regular enemy differently, and the results are always ridiculously gruesome.

Dead Space has been out since 2008 and so it has already received massive amounts of coverage and a prequel, and next year it will be followed by Dead Space 2. I'm really excited for the sequel because it sounds like the developers are going to fix the only major problem with the original game: the story. Dead Space fails to emphasize its underlying story through gameplay and instead tasks the player with a series of contextually necessary objectives. In the end the only real accomplishment in the game is sheer survival, which is great but not substantial enough to really excite. There's also the fact that the protagonist, Issac Clarke, is a silent protagonist, an archaic gaming trope that invites the player to project onto the hero so as to give them a character; it's a bit of a cop-out writing-wise but nevertheless can be effective under the right circumstances (see Half-Life or Zelda). But Dead Space foregrounds Issac's development, particularly his declining mental stability, and given this focus it's counter-intuitive to make him silent and devoid of personality throughout most of the game.

I'm pretty late to the Dead Space party but I don't seem to be the only one: Scott Juster at Experience Points put up an excellent review of the game literally the day after I finished playing it. His post is well worth a read and he's now written a follow-up piece detailing how the game effects a horrific transformation in both Issac and the player. It's based upon a theory that Gerard Delaney posted at Binary Swan to describe how the real monsters in zombie movies are the human protagonists.

Even if you're not interested in Dead Space, Delaney's post makes some good points about the zombie genre, something I haven't thought about in a long time. It got me thinking about some of my favourite horror tales, including zombie movies, the sci-fi films mentioned above, and even a few classic novels and short stories. Far from being unique to the zombie subgenre, a lot of the most horrifying stories show monstrous transformations in their protagonists. The Thing, for example, focuses on the effects of paranoia by introducing a hostile, shape-shifting alien into a group of men. The Descent likewise examines how interpersonal relations and social niceties break down when a group of friends gets lost in an unexplored cave system.

Monsters and villains can be terrifying, but it's truly horrifying when protagonists are compromised. These are the characters we most easily identify with and so we can understand and even relate to their transformations, which in turn invites us to examine our values and limitations. Juster makes a compelling argument for Dead Space achieving this, but I think he's mostly projecting his own reaction to the sheer amount of gore that results from severing enemy limbs. Issac isn't defined well enough as a character to have a real transformation, he remains at all times a silent protagonist that stands as a placeholder for the player. He is what we put into him, no more, no less.

Dead Space succeeds in creating a terrifying atmosphere and repulsive gore, but there's just not enough to the game's characters or objectives. Hopefully the next one will fix this by giving Issac a voice, although it'll take more than that to make the story both horrifying and compelling.

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