Dead Space: Getting the Narrative Tone Just Right

Nobody was expecting the recent “update” from Electronic Arts that signaled the closure of long-time developer Visceral Games. Least, not yet anyway. Yes, everyone’s favorite pantomime villain may indeed have a rotten track-record when it comes to acquiring studios. The endless scrolling of internet gifs, comics and memes that all revolve around EA’s “questionable” treatment of such studios is more common a presence on the web than the very games they market — a testament to the harsh state of the video game business nowadays, but also, the community’s irateness at seeing once prosperous developers vanishing for good. Yet, whether it was some vested hope in what Visceral could bring to the Star Wars series — minimal the details and in-game footage might have been — the feeling is that a studio heavily invested in what is (overall) one of EA’s most valuable licenses at the moment, wouldn’t go the same way as Maxis, Westwood, Bullfrog and so many more.

Alas, here we are and Visceral Games is no more; its staff perhaps shifting gears and moved onto other projects still continuing under EA’s banner (we’ll never know who exactly), but its name, identity and brand are gone. But the studio’s legacy lives on. Maybe not to the same great lengths as some, but it’s undeniable that Visceral — over their just-shy-of two decade long history — managed to carve a game or two that warranted merit. Though I may not be a fan of the license, the ratio of good to bad opinions pertaining to the two Lord of the Rings titles, The Return of the King as well as The Third Age, seems to be heavily swayed towards the former. Whenever I myself find the name Visceral pop up in my brain, however, I think of Dead Space.

Dead Space Op Ed Screenshot
A game that, while may not have found itself too bogged down by the insistent wave of sci-fi orientated horror titles that are a lot more frequent now than they were ten years ago, came around during the period where science fiction fused with horror was now an established, but respected, formula. One that could often grant players an interesting tale amid the many frights and scares you’d expect from anything trying its best to wear the “horror” badge with pride. In all honesty, Dead Space never seemed a scary game to begin with; sure it tried to stir a more animated response from ourselves with its own take on other-worldly, physical deformity, à la the series’ main threat the Necromorphs, which were so often the catalyst of the many black-and-white shifting of moment-to-moment gameplay. Where upon a slow-and-steady trot through a futuristic locale turned into a frantic and desperate splicing of limbs. Followed up with a well-timed javelin-like impaling of a foe on the far wall (there was even an achievement for that in the sequel, if I recall correctly) before finishing proceedings with a good stomp for good measure — an added bonus should additional ammo or monetary credits pop out a Necromorph’s puttied corpse.

If all Dead Space had to offer was its jump-scares and its admittedly perilous encounters with the kind of creatures even I might want to throw the occasional “oh blimey!” at, Visceral’s attempt at sci-fi horror might well have fallen by the wayside. Becoming just another early example of horror fundamentally missing the point and appeal of a genre that so often excels when it decides to tackle more personal-level story-telling and psychologically-orientated methods of presentation that runs far deeper than the next big splatter of blood or monster jumping from out a corner. There was that huge sun-shaped stage prop that popped up in Dead Space 2 that seemed to frighten everyone, but that more ironic shock permeated most of the series’ attempts to simply ride the crest of many a gore-infested, violin-screeching set-piece, specifically when it wasn’t directly tackling the splicing of the physical and psychological. Thankfully, the series managed to rise above this superficial fluff and carve out something that, while not “scary” per se, was involving.

Dead Space Op Ed Screenshot 2
What I found (and still find) admirable about Dead Space was the ways in which Visceral gave room for such themes and modes of story-telling to peel back the gruesomeness of its graphic violence. Presenting the transformative horror of the Necromorph off-shoots with a bit more of a personal and infectious perspective, rather than pure spectacle. Particularly in the case of main character Isaac Clarke whom seemed to find his placement as lead protagonist fall half-way between the scarce vulnerability of that of an ordinary citizen and the rather odd conflict that a well-equipped soldier might pose against a horde of foes. While series like Resident Evil perhaps get away with having the latter character archetypes as the lead roles — because of its playful, B-movie camp-silliness — both Dead Space and Dead Space 2 felt more interested in that classical of scenarios wherein the main character is simply “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Worse: tumbling even deeper down the rabbit hole that is human meddling in cosmic anomalies when it came to the sequel in 2011.

Yes, even that isn’t necessarily the freshest concept from a plot stand-point — what sci-fi, survival horror hasn’t revolved around people thinking: “you know what this research station/colony really needs?” But despite the bland story tropes and the whole “government is secretly evil; religious types are a bit too engrossed in things beyond their comprehension” cropping up and despite a major slice of the series’ tale revolving around humanity’s discovery of an ancient alien artifact — and the so-clearly obvious drawbacks that come with meddling with forces beyond our comprehension — there’s no real face or identity you can pin as steering the events that unfold during the series’ three main games. Yes we know it’s (what’s referred to as) the Markers that cause these hideous transformations in both humans and animals — with no prejudice placed on how old said humans might be at the time of change; even babies and young kids showing zero immunity — but this otherwise lack of substantial physical characterization already makes the omnipresent entity of Dead Space‘s horror that much more menacing. Less a substantial mass or focal point that players can narrow their focus towards and more an enigmatic force of sorts whose greatest stride seems to be attacking the most vulnerable part of anyone it targets: the mind.

A lot of what kept Dead Space intriguing from a narrative standpoint was of course main character Isaac Clarke, as both a character and the vessel with which the player used to navigate the game’s many settings, and the ways in which it expresses a warranted need to not just survive, but attempt at least a means of dealing with the blatant trauma on show. Being a qualified engineer — voluntarily signing up to the incident involving the USG Ishimura in the first game for reasons we only later have unravelled — may well put this build of protagonist in the middle of a supposed slider (between the powerless civilian and buffed-up soldier type), but that didn’t mean Clarke/the player was in any way prepared for the peril unfolding. Isaac is no hero, but neither is he some hand-picked every-man whose prize is a string of unfortunate events across three mainline video game entries. He may be silent for the original’s full run-time, but by the time the second game rolled on out, his calm, collected state of mind was far from present.

Less so when one of the very first scenes from the sequel is of Clarke — fastened into a stray-jacket, suffering from some manner of PTSD or dementia pertaining to the events of the first game — getting a point blank view of a human literally transforming into a Necromorph. On its own, it’s an ineffectual piece of horror even if it is startling in its immediate presence. In context though, from the perspective of a deranged, tormented Isaac Clarke, it’s the best way to dictate the savage tone and passage with which the narrative of the game, strides. Dead Space’s taste of horror comes from both the physical and non-physical and as a result, the mental foundation with which Clarke has to constantly dig deeper and deeper into — just to survive and keep focus — is rarely left alone. It’s only near the end that Clarke accepts that he may not get off of Titan alive, if it means putting an end to the Necromorph threat stationed there, while at the same time finally coming to accept and mourn the death of his girlfriend Nicole. It’s an odd mix of internal victory and defeat — effectively illustrated in the game’s “fake” ending of sorts where Isaac, having destroyed the Marker, rather than expressing joy or elation or even relief, simply sits down and accepts his fate…just as the colony starts to crumble and the credits begin to roll.

Dead Space Op Ed Screenshot 4
This anti-victory of sorts works, because while the battle may be over, the experience will live long in one’s memory. Dead Space may have relied on tropes and common sci-fi cliches with its antagonists, yet the way it flings you into this mish-mash of personal turmoil and cosmic malice underscores the essence of survival-horror and why it still can be effective for both player and player-character. Even if the jump-scares do become predictable, Visceral could clearly see past the surface level, building a narrative that put players in an uncanny middle-ground whose challenge was how quickly you could pull yourself from out one scenario and into another. But best of all, knowing full well such a stark change was approaching, just not when…and why.