Welcome to the first of a series in which I talk about my personal beloved franchises that haven’t seen the light of day in quite some time. Chances are most of these series will stay that way, but that’s not stopping me from begging. In this entry, I’ll be performing this ritual in the middle of the sad, overpopulated EA graveyard, in hopes of bringing back Dead Space.
What is Dead Space?
Imagine being trapped on a marooned spaceship with some sweet engineering equipment while trying to survive horrific humans-turned-monsters who will keep trying to murder you until they have no limbs left to do so. That’s pretty much Dead Space. The sequels took place on a space station and frigid planet, but still incorporated claustrophobic environments that could be hiding any kind of monster around the corner.
You play through these games as Isaac Clarke (fun fact: his name is a mashup of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke), an engineer sent to investigate/repair a mining ship that went dark. Predictably for the gamer, there’s a horrifying explanation, as you find it infested with monsters. Considering he isn’t an actual fighter, Isaac’s arsenal isn’t made up of standard rifles and shotguns, but modified engineering tools that can be used to dispatch enemies. Oh, and the enemies aren’t your typical “shoot them till they die” baddies, either. Rather than pumping rounds into any fleshy part of their bodies, Isaac must aim for and dismember their limbs. This approach may seem like a dumb gimmick at first, but it’s the thing that makes combat in this series so damn fun.
But the dismemberment alone isn’t the only thing that makes Dead Space a must-play for sci-fi horror enthusiasts.
What Makes It So Good?
For me, there’s a whole laundry list of reasons this is my favorite horror series. In addition to the above combat mechanics, developers Visceral Games (may they rest in peace) did a fantastic job of establishing the setting and making it feel genuine, despite the outrageous story concept. The games are filled with dark corridors, creepy audio and text logs, and unsettling noises coming from just out of the player’s sight. It’s filled with plenty of jump scares that really do catch you off guard, but that’s not the only scare-tactic you’ll find.
Throughout the series (especially the first two games), I had a constant feeling of dread. I spent my time knowing something was going to happen, but I had no idea what it was or when it would be. The games thrive on keeping the player in the dark, both literally and figuratively. There’s a chapter in the first game in which you need to go to the food storage section of the ship to complete your objective. As you make your way there, it becomes apparent that there is a large mass at your destination. The game doesn’t show you what it is or spell out what you’re up against. You just know that there is something waiting to seriously fuck up your day.
The unknown isn’t the only reason the series keeps you on edge. Sometimes the games show you exactly what you’re up against so you will spend the rest of the game fearing the moment you actually have to face it. Take the Regenerator, for example. This is an enemy that just. Won’t. Die. Cut off its limbs and hit it with mine traps all you’d like. That thing is still coming to rip out your spine. Additionally, ammo conservation is something you need to constantly be aware of, because it’s not unlimited. So sure, you can lop off a leg to slow the Regenerator down, but that sucker will grow back within seconds and you’ll be left with shit for ammo and nothing to show for it. Your only hope is to outrun it or kill it with specific environmental hazards such as an incinerator.
All of these things come together to make these games truly tense and horrifying. Well, for the most part. The third game kind of… well, let’s just get to the sad part.
Why Did It Die?
I’m not naive enough to think there is a single reason Dead Space 3 failed to match the success of the first two, but I’m comfortable saying there is one feature that certainly contributed in a big way.
Quick! What’s one thing that can completely ruin the horror aspect of a horror game? If you answered with “co-operative play” then you’re the proud winner of a pat on the back and at least a small amount of tears. Apparently someone in a decision-making position thought the exact opposite, because Dead Space 3 had co-op. True, you could play through the game solo, but it was clearly designed with a team of two protagonists in mind. I can honestly say that I wasn’t scared once throughout this game. Creeped out? Sure, a few times. But the feelings of helplessness and dread just weren’t there. To Visceral’s credit, they did what they could to make the co-op work. Players had different hallucinations and other freaky shit happened depending on which character they were playing as (John Carver, a man who has lost his wife and kid, joins Isaac as a reluctant partner). This made for some interesting experiences, but it didn’t make up for the fact that co-op existed in this game at all.
In addition to this undesired feature, the marketing for this game featured exactly zero horror vibes. If you were to guess the setting based on marketing alone, you would think the game takes place entirely in open snowy environments rather than dark, foreboding interior spaces. The sad part is that there are a bunch of the latter in the game. Hell, the first few hours are spent in a graveyard of space stations and ships in orbit above the planet, and that was probably the best part of the game. It just wasn’t conveyed in the marketing.
Why Does It Deserve a Second Chance?
As implied above, Dead Space 3 wasn’t a bad game. It just didn’t really know what it wanted to be, and it wasn’t what fans of the series wanted out of a sequel. While they wanted great horror, the game delivered great action. I think this was an interesting concept for what could have been a new action sci-fi shooter, but it drove the Dead Space series into the ground. It’s an especially unfortunate demise, considering plans for a fourth entry involved expanding on the aforementioned space segment of DS3, having the player scavenge for parts and supplies on ships that contained god knows what kinds of monsters.
So please, video game powers-that-be. Please forgive this misstep and bring this awesome sci-fi horror franchise back onto our screens. Like my fellow fans, I am ready for another entry in the series, but right now all I can find is this space in my heart that’s just… dead.
I’ll show myself out.