Dead Space 2 is about to hit store shelves, and initial reviews would indicate that it's a worthy sequel. I plan on picking it up, because I thoroughly enjoyed the original. I'm not the only one who thinks that, since Dead Space has now been turned into a whole franchise, expanding its fictional universe in other media. Dead Space hits all the marks of an aftermath story, which presents an initially confusing situation that is gradually explained through exploration. It also classifies itself as a survival horror game, but fails to make the player actively feel underpowered. There is one exception, but we'll get to that.
Dead Space has received much praise for its presentation, and deservedly so. Its audio design is extremely well done. For instance, I hardly ever used the map function for what it did, but I nonetheless toggled it on occasion just to hear the "bweep" sound it makes. And even if the muted whispers that are sometimes heard don't make sense in the game world, they immensely add to the atmosphere. On the visual side of things, what stands out most is the heads-up display. It's not a set of readouts at the corners of the screen, but conveyed entirely through holographic projections affixed to the player character.
This consistent design element also has the capability of engendering a pervasive sense of unease. Because the purposefully cumbersome inventory is accessed the same way without pausing the game, navigating the grid to reach a health pack becomes a tense proposition when in the heat of battle. Dead Space 2 alleviates this by allowing the player to bind the activation of certain items to hotkeys. While more convenient, it curtails the clunkiness that makes the player feel more vulnerable.
Survival horror games are about feeling helpless against overwhelming odds. From a story viewpoint, Dead Space fits that bill with the background of its protagonist, Isaac Clarke. He is not a soldier, but an engineer. However, the reality of Dead Space's gameplay reverses that. The engineering problems Isaac has to solve are limited to puzzles dictated to him by the supporting characters, and he only implicitly uses his engineering skills to defend himself by reappropriating mining equipment as means of personal defence and offence. Concurrently, he proves himself such an able combatant that he outclasses not only the Necromorphs, but also the actual soldiers in the Dead Space universe, who are woefully ineffective against even the lowliest Slasher.
On the other hand, there are two instances of genuine helplessness in the game. The first one is entirely scripted. When the Necromorphs are first introduced, Isaac is forced to run down a corridor towards an elevator. He doesn't yet have a weapon at this point, so stalling results in a quick death. Right after that scene, Isaac acquires a Plasma Cutter, which is a mining tool that doubles as a weapon. From that point on, Isaac can always measure up to the onslaught of Necromorphs that crosses his path. Even on the toughest difficulty level, the developers have ensured that there is always (just) enough equipment and ammunition available. But halfway through the game, this asymmetry is turned on its head with the introduction of the Hunter Necromorph, which provides more dynamic helplessness.
Biologically engineered by one of the game's antagonists, the Hunter was created through the controlled introduction of the Necromorph infection to a living human. It keeps regenerating any limbs that Isaac cuts off, which makes it an adversary that can only be killed during scripted encounters. Beyond those, it relentlessly pursues Isaac with a menacingly slow gait. The Hunter's function is akin to that of the Poison Headcrab in Half-Life 2, an enemy that cannot kill the player but can bring his health down to a single point. While the Hunter presents more of a threat on its own than the Poison Headcrab, it's the mere knowledge of its presence that matters. As such, it substantially augments any other threat in the room. Standard enemies suddenly require more consideration, dramatically intensifying the flow of gameplay.
The point is that the Hunter is not an enemy that the player can tackle using the tools and mechanics he has acquired up to that point. He can only run away from it. And in that respect, Dead Space nails what survival horror is about.
Welcome to Playthroughline, a personal blog focused on the implementation of stories in games. In addition to general musings about narrative design, you’ll also find a collection of Scripts that basically do for videogames what The Editing Room does for movies.