Editorial

Action, Institutions, and Insanity: Looking Back at Dead Space 2

Dead Space 2

With 2008’s Dead Space, EA Redwood Shores was transformed from a purveyor of licensed games to one of the most closely-watched development studios on the planet. This rise in profile was accompanied by a rebranding, as the team was renamed Visceral Games to better reflect its horror-focused output. EA saw the potential inherent within the Dead Space universe and began to expand upon it almost immediately, with comic books, animated movies, and a Wii spin-off all produced before Dead Space 2 released in 2011.

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Three years on from the U.S.G. Ishimura incident, Isaac Clarke wakens from a coma to find himself in the midst of a new Necromorph outbreak. Dead Space 2’s opening gambit sets the stage for a tonal and thematic shift from the original game by moving horror from the physical to the psychological. Another video log opens the second game, this time a conversation between Isaac and Nicole in which she thanks him for pushing her to join the crew of the U.S.G. Ishimura. With prior knowledge of what happened, this sequence is gut-wrenching as the realisation of Isaac’s guilt hits home. No wonder he is in therapy, talking to a faceless doctor about things he would rather forget. The mind is the new touchstone for the abject in Dead Space 2, but the game lacks the effectiveness of its predecessor’s approach.

That weakened sense of horror stems, in part, from how closely the sequel hews to what went before. Once again, the game begins with Isaac disempowered and lacking knowledge. Bound by a straightjacket with Necromorphs stalking the darkened halls, the only option is to run. Although this segment is as frantic as anything found in the first game, it feels peculiarly toothless. Confusion, and thus tension, is kept at bay by the implementation of a clearly prescribed path that reduces the player’s role to that of a mindless automaton. Linearity is not inherently a bad thing. For example, although the first three games of the Uncharted series are often criticised for being almost impossible to fail, their prescribed nature actually heightens the sense of adventure by allowing set-piece moments to play out. Unfortunately, that is not the case in Dead Space 2. Unlockable doors remain, but side corridors and self-contained rooms are largely excised. The lack of alternative pathways affects the convincingness of the new setting of The Sprawl: a space station that should feel orders of magnitude larger than the U.S.G. Ishimura.

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This shift in locale is just one of the ways in which the Dead Space saga continues to reflect the Alien films. In those movies, the move from the Nostromo to LV-426 took place years after the original events, with Ripley being woken from deep-space hypersleep shortly prior to the re-emergence of the Xenomorphs. Similarly, Isaac has been in a coma to prevent mental degradation resulting from Marker-induced dementia. As with Ripley, he learns of the threat almost immediately after waking, yet is powerless to prevent a recurrence. Dead Space 2 also harks back to the much-maligned Alien: Resurrection by having the new threat born from the protagonist. While Ripley is cloned to create a new stock of Xenomorphs, the code for a new Marker is mined from Isaac’s mind. However, these ties extend beyond the story. Similarly to Aliens, Dead Space 2 represents a militarisation of the series with several new weapons forming a true arsenal, rather than the improvised nature so prevalent within its predecessor. The same sense extends to the gameplay with Isaac faster and more responsive than before, while the new zero-gravity mechanics make him into Iron Man. These changes shift the series closer to pure action, and, although, mechanically, Dead Space 2 is a superior game to its predecessor, the experience is lesser.

With The Sprawl being positioned as a metropolis-scale space station, Visceral Games had ample opportunities to create a diverse range of environments to play with ideas of abjection. While the former goal is achieved, with a residential area, business district, mining quarter, and government sector all present, the locales are only rarely perverted. The most notable of these areas is a kindergarten, transformed from a place of life into one of death where mutated children dwell as a swarm. Of the many settings in Dead Space 2, only the kindergarten and the Church of Unitology crypt feel genuinely unsettling from a design standpoint. For most of the remaining areas, the team leans too heavily on darkness and the chaos left behind by hasty evacuation. The interplay between shadow and light continues to be a strong point for the series, working double duty by guiding players forward while contributing to an atmosphere primed for King’s idea of terror. Unfortunately, that ambience is too often squandered, with several battles that could have been tense rendered frustrating by insufficient lighting. In such moments, convoluted level design and unclear spawn points compound the problem of visibility. The poor use of lighting and atmosphere are blights on an experience that is not without high points—many of which, surprisingly, come from its supporting cast of characters.

In Dead Space 2, Isaac Clarke feels like a character, rather than just an avatar; he has a face, a voice, complications, goals, and a moral compass. These new traits are the inevitable result of a shift in the game’s structure. Whereas the first game bookended each chapter with a tram ride to a different part of the U.S.G. Ishimura, Dead Space 2 offers a seamless adventure with Isaac meeting and interacting with a number of new faces, arguably the most memorable of whom is Nolan Stross. Similarly to Isaac, Stross has encountered a Marker before, and the codes that it imprinted in his mind have been used to build the new one. He is neurotic from the beginning, and his mental state deteriorates as the story progresses. Stross’s insane mutterings are unsettling on their own, but the fact that he represents what Isaac may become makes his presence truly disturbing. According to Vladimir Propp’s model of the Hero’s Quest, Stross most resembles the donor—a figure who gives the protagonist information or a vital item that will allow the quest to be completed. Although Stross shifts from this role into an antagonist, he never truly becomes a villain; that role is reserved for Daina Le Guin and Hans Tiedemann. The former is a Unitologist who promises to cure Isaac’s dementia before betraying him. Tiedemann is the Director of Operations aboard the space station and wants to protect the Marker from Isaac and instigate Convergence, during which all people will become one, according to Unitologist doctrine. Together, these two represent the status quo of the Dead Space universe and reflect a real-world historical dichotomy: the State and the Church are at loggerheads, each seeking the power of the Marker, with the first wanting to keep it a secret and the latter wanting to spread word throughout the known universe. Unfortunately, as little more than representatives of their respective institutions, neither Daina nor Tiedemann become relatable or memorable characters. Isaac’s real villain is his own mind.

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Isaac’s madness is not as pronounced as Stross’s, though he remains haunted by the image of Nicole, who is now a bloody spectre with glowing eyes and a voice that echoes as through a recording. This hallucinatory manifestation of Isaac’s guilt draws on gross-out horror for the visual appearance and terror for the aural. Despite being neither subtle nor original, the ghost is an effective vehicle for the horror experience, being at various points benign and malignant. Isaac and the player alike are never sure when the apparition will appear or what it will do: taunt, threaten, or unleash a torrent of Necromorphs. Although the game could have been more affecting had Visceral explored Isaac’s mental illness through a more diverse range of mechanics, the decision to use the vision of Nicole sparingly imbues it with importance. Nicole represents the past that Isaac must come to terms with before he can move beyond it. Helping him do so is another new character who appears to represent the future: Ellie Langford, Isaac’s partner in a tragic romance forged in the fires of adversity. Thankfully, the relationship between Isaac and Ellie is based on their need for one another, rather than taking the form of a contrived and out-of-place love story, though their feelings for one another develop too quickly to be convincing. Nevertheless, love blossoming in the face of chaos is a staple of disaster fiction, and Dead Space 2 handles the trope more deftly than many other examples of the genre.

However, the game is most successful in its imagery and ideas. Although the environment, by and large, lacks the qualities of abjection, the game does feature a series of set-piece moments, wherein horrific images take centre stage. The recurring apparition of Nicole is one, and Ellie’s eyeball on a screwdriver is another. A third is the vision of a woman calling to and cradling a Necromorph baby before it explodes in a shower of ichor. A fourth is the player-controlled insertion of a needle into Isaac’s eye. Each of these images draws on at least one of King’s three types of horror, unsettling the player by drawing on ideas that society would normally reject. Each is also a powerful moment in which the intended atmosphere of the game merges with the world-building or narrative to provide glimpses of brilliance without ever coming together in a cohesive package. The same sense extends to the topics under consideration within the game. Religion is central to Dead Space 2, explored through the fictional faith of Unitology. The theme is a worthy one; humans believe in religions, live by their codes, and go to war over them. Dead Space 2 argues that, while specific religions may rise and fall, the mania associated with them will never fade. The opening chapters hammer home the pervasiveness of Unitology in this universe. Seemingly every office and apartment aboard the Sprawl contains some idol of the Marker’s distinctive double helix and recruitment posters are scattered across the business district. Despite this prevalence, or perhaps because of it, the game adopts a sobering perspective on the power of religion. Belief in Unitology, the power of the Marker, and Convergence is the catalyst for the downfall of society. Religion becomes a source of terror through its association with the abject. As already mentioned, mental illness is another topic under scrutiny in the game. Mental health is an interesting anchor for video games, both those in the horror genre, such as Dead Space and Eternal Darkness, and those in other genres, such as Depression Quest and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Unfortunately, Visceral’s treatment of a condition that is multifaceted and often debilitating is perfunctory, purely functional to facilitate Isaac’s hallucinations. An attempt is made to bring the theme centre stage by having the final battle take place within Isaac’s mind, but it is put together poorly, relegated to yet another combat situation against external foes and another glowing yellow pustule that must be popped.

Once Isaac destroys the Marker from within his own mind, he appears to give up. However, his story is not yet finished. Ellie returns after having been sent away by Isaac earlier, coaxing him into a gunship alongside her as The Sprawl collapses upon itself in an echo of the destruction of Aegis VII. Once again, players get a close-up of Isaac’s face and a pan to the left, where Ellie sits smiling. Isaac may finally be at peace.

Click here for a look back at Dead Space 3, Tau Volantis, and the trappings of heroism.

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