Dead Space is one of those games that makes me feel warm all over – and not because of terror-induced incontinence. On one hand, it’s astoundingly well crafted. Mechanics are fine tuned, and every part of the game is artfully directed towards a unified purpose. It’s scary, moody, and oppressive. On the other hand, it’s just a fun game to play. All the discussion of lighting, character models, and music doesn’t mean a damn thing unless you can heel crush the testicles off of some poor dead schmuck.
But alas, one can’t very well write a column about nut smashing can they? That is not what we are about here! Dead Space’s art direction and game mechanics do several clever and subtle things to create an atmosphere of oppression and terror, so let’s discuss a few of them.
The first element is also the most prominent; the character model for Isaac Clarke (who actually is named after Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke). Considering that players spend the entire game staring at their on-screen avatar, it’s a bit puzzling why survival horror games have taken this long to really use that visual element to enhance the experience.
The suit’s design is the most striking aspect. The segmented plates do look a bit skeletal, and there’s the whole “ooooo skeletons are spooky” aspect, but there’s something a bit cleverer at play (cleverer is an odd word isn’t it?). The plates on the arms and torso line up to create a cylindrical look. Combined with the tall and narrow shape of the helmet, Clarke’s suit looks a bit like an iron maiden. When running or taking damage, Clarke’s gasps and grunts sound muffled and distorted, like they were spoken inside a metal coffin. Clarke sounds trapped and tortured, which contributes to the claustrophobic atmosphere on the ghost ship.
But, how can a suit look like an 80s metal band?
In addition, Clarke’s posture and movement conveys a weakness and vulnerability that is uncommon in survival horror protagonists. The Resident Evil elite commando characters always move with strength and speed; shoulders spread wide and stance low. This conveys motor proficiency, a lack of fear, and general preparedness. Even the Joe Shmoes in the Silent Hill series have a rather neutral pose when moving through their environments. They may not look or move like army superheroes, but their animations still don’t convey fear or helplessness. On the other hand, Clarke hunches forward with his shoulders rolled together. His posture is more submissive, more susceptible to the dangers. All of his animations have a labored aspect as well. Everything seems like a struggle, as though he were moving against some invisible oppressive force.
Dead Space piles on stress – everything in the game is antagonistic. Crazy monsters want to tear you apart, space is naturally unwelcoming (explosive decompression and all), and constant dangers like being pulverized by meteors or running out of oxygen constantly press the danger. What really makes all this continuous stress really work, however, is the complete lack of mental sanctuary while playing. All of the UI screens are merely holographic projections – nothing in the interface will pause the game, short of hitting the start button. Monsters can still approach and attack while rustling through the inventory, reading a text log from a horribly mutilated passenger, or even shopping at the space store (with space credits, of course).
Man, those bastards even invade Isaac’s breakfast nook.
In addition, even the few (alive) human characters in the game don’t offer any sort of mental stability or respite. Two characters that had the misfortune of being stranded on the Ishimura with Clarke soon begin fighting. Character interaction doesn’t offer any emotional respite from the constant stress of combat – all it yields is more combat. The point is driven home again and again to the player that everything wants to kill you, and there is absolutely no hiding from it.
There are of course many other crafty things Dead Space does to enhance the atmosphere, but discussing them and finding new elements is part of the fun. Are you playing/have you played Dead Space? If not, go do it right now. If so, what do you appreciate about the experience?