Editorial

Humanity and the Failings of Heroism: Looking Back at Dead Space 3

Dead Space 3

Although Dead Space 2 ended on a high note that could have capped the series, Electronic Arts had a different direction in mind. In late 2011, rumours emerged that the publisher was looking to make Dead Space into a flagship franchise, with new entries transforming it from third-person horror to first-person shooter, flight sim, and action-adventure. Those spin-offs never came to pass, but a third core entry to the saga was released in 2013.

For many fans, Dead Space 3 is a maligned bastard child suffering from bloat, soullessness, corporate hijacking, and too many concessions to the third-person shooter, and such feelings are fair. Through new gameplay mechanics, mission structures, and narrative scope, Dead Space 3 represents a break from tradition. Nevertheless, the game takes pains to rectify some of the sins of its predecessor to get back in touch with its horror roots. Unfortunately, the attempt to strike a balance between the new and old is just one of the ways in which the title is at odds with itself. Familiarity contrasts against freshness, association against isolation, and history against the future. Despite the tonal dissonance created by these juxtapositions, they serve to make Dead Space 3 the most human game of the series.

“And we came at last to those ivory hills that are named the Mountains of Madness.” – Edward Plunkett

Ideas of the abject continue to underpin the concepts of the series, but their power and effectiveness receded by the third iteration, leaving the developers with no choice but to attempt to instil horror through other means. Stephen King’s methods of gross-out and horror remain unchanged from previous iterations. However, the approach to terror is different, this time being bound less by the rules of the contemporary world and more by those of the games. For the first time, Isaac Clarke faces off against human foes—the Unitologists—creating an unsettling feeling through its unfamiliarity and divergence from previous norms. This change seems a natural progression for the series, given that the religion’s members have been the villains throughout: their actions brought the U.S.G. Ishimura to Aegis VII, their beliefs brought tragedy to The Sprawl, and, in Dead Space 3, their military arm has brought down the government. Nevertheless, casting humans as enemies further breaks the rules of the franchise, as they are exempt from the ‘strategic dismemberment’ combat synonymous with the series. Decapitation remains possible, which plays to a new type of Necromorph that replaces severed heads, but the decision to prevent dismemberment feels like a missed opportunity to show how dedicated the Unitologists are to their cause. The most egregious fault of this design choice is its contribution to the de-characterisation of the game; altering the central pillar of Dead Space combat strips the game of personality, leaving its mechanics almost indistinguishable from most third-person shooters. The setting and scenario go some way towards mitigating this issue, but never fully succeed in recapturing the spirit of the first game.

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The exact period that has passed since the events aboard The Sprawl is unclear, but the fervour surrounding Unitology has only grown hotter. Adherents of the religion have flocked to the banner of Jacob Danik, leader of a militarised sect called The Circle. Meanwhile, time has not been kind to Isaac Clarke. Although Nicole and the rest of his demons are behind him, his emotional distance has pushed Ellie away, and players find him hiding on the Lunar Colony, alone and grieving for his lost relationship. In his apartment, Isaac is accosted by the final remnants of EarthGov’s security forces, and, though he is defeatist at first, he changes his mind on learning that they can reunite him with Ellie. With hope burning in his chest, Isaac and the others travel far beyond any comfort zone to find his lost heart. At the end of this first journey, the group finds a ruined moon and the icy globe of Tau Volantis, the world they will come to recognise as the home of the Markers. The premise reeks of finality, and perhaps that is intentional given the nature of treble narratives and the prevalence of trilogies, but the game does not live up to such expectations with a weak cliffhanger ending far from the send-off that the saga deserves.

For all that the conclusion disappoints the series and its players, its greatest victim is Isaac himself. From his humble beginnings as a ventriloquist’s dummy, Isaac has, by his third outing, developed into a fully-fleshed character. He has emerged from his trials as a soldier for what he believes is right, a man who would do anything for those to whom he is loyal, and a figure capable of remaining calm in the face of danger and disaster. In short, he is, from a certain perspective, a moral paragon, and the cliffhanger ending squanders three games’ worth of character building, even if it does enforce the overarching theme of the saga. The narrative development of Isaac is accompanied by gameplay-oriented insight into his professional skill set. Among the various forms of media, video games are unique in their ability to allow the end-user to experience the life of the characters whose stories they follow. Hitman puts players in the shoes of a silent, efficient killer; Kratos’s rage is palpable in the moment-to-moment gameplay of God of War; and Dead Space allows Isaac’s engineering background to shine. As the series proceeds, the character’s repertoire grows, from fixing machinery faults with his Stasis and Kinesis modules to hacking doors and computers aboard The Sprawl, then to crafting his own weapons in this final entry. Regarded in context, the ability to construct new weapons from scavenged parts is a powerful representation of Isaac’s ingenuity and resourcefulness. However, from the outside, the crafting ability appears as nothing more than bloat—a semi-successful attempt to expand on the rudimentary upgrade system of earlier games.

The revised crafting brings with it a new resource set-up and a universal ammunition pool. The latter inclusion could have resulted in a scarcity of firepower, making for some very tense encounters, as disempowerment is a potent tool for engendering fear. Unfortunately, both ammunition and the resources required for its creation are spread liberally throughout the environments, meaning that the only tension the player experiences stems from overwhelming numbers of enemies in cramped spaces. The newly-implemented optional missions are particularly egregious offenders on this front. These side-quests begin with an admirable amount of environmental diversity—combined with some of the most atmospheric level design and unsettling histories the series has to offer—but later collapse into repetitive corridors and combat encounters, with their pay-offs not worth the time. They offer tasks more suited to a soldier than an engineer, and, although that is what Isaac has become, the mission structure is at odds with the tone of the core gameplay. Simple puzzles and diversionary tasks are the keys to forward progression almost as frequently as combat, and, as in earlier games, Dead Space 3 features a number of sequences in which Isaac can only flee from an unstoppable threat.

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These elements are typical of horror fare, from classic films to the seminal games in the genre, but nowhere is the combination more prevalent than in slasher flicks. A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Scream: these movies, among many others, rely loosely on the same tripartite balance of ingenuity, strength, and disempowerment being shown by the protagonist. Such films inspire Dead Space 3 further through the cast of characters and narrative beats. Indeed, the supporting characters seem almost drawn from a pool of slasher stereotypes: Isaac is the relatable hero; Commander Norton the gruff leader at odds with the hero and vying with him for the affections of their mutual romantic interest; Ellie is the virginal prize, a determined, though conflicted, survivor; Carver (the co-op character) is the silent warrior; and Santos is the timid one, apparently just along for the ride, but who shows the best way to fight back. Not all of the characters align perfectly with stereotype, but the similarities are clear enough to leave little doubt of their inspirations. Furthermore, most of the supporting cast serves the same purpose as they do in slashers: fodder to raise the stakes. A clear attempt is made to give weight to each death and create an emotional peak within the game’s narrative, but it repeatedly falls flat. In most cases, the absence of emotion arises because the character’s presence has not been felt keenly enough in the preceding adventures. The expanded cast list is one potential cause of the narrative’s insipidity. Previous games kept the scope limited to two supporting characters—Hammond and Daniels in the first and Ellie and Stross in the second—which meant that each had time to grow on the player and reveal their personalities and motives. The same depth of character study is not present in the third iteration and certain actions (most notably Norton’s betrayal of Isaac to Danik) feel shoehorned in to align with series tropes. A reigned-in scope could have remedied the insufficient characterisation, among other flaws, but that was impossible, given the demands of sequels.

For Visceral Games, the most pressing question that needed answering, after two games of obfuscation, allusions, and hints, was the meaning behind the mantra “make us whole.” To resolve the mystery, Visceral introduced a new phrase: “turn it off.” These words, first found scrawled on a wall in Marker hieroglyphics, refer to an alien machine. Believing the phrase to be the key to stopping the Necromorphs forever, the protagonists set out to fulfil its proclamation.. A curious observation about this decision is that Isaac has previously encountered the Marker’s attempts to influence human activity, both through the actions and flawed rationale of others and the hallucination of Nicole in his own life. As the series has proceeded, he has become more comfortable solving problems with his gun than his brain, yet Isaac is not stupid. He should be able to recognise the message for what it is, rather than being the strongest campaigner for an erroneous reading. Nevertheless, the error is corrected during the character’s time on Tau Volantis. Players are reminded that these aliens are mindless, their actions driven not by primal urges, but a mind beyond their own. Dead Space 3 reveals this controlling force to be the Brethren Moons, a nightmare fusion of flesh and earth created by the Convergence event: the final life stage of the Necromorphs. The ruined moon that hangs above Tau Volantis is such a beast, frozen for eternity by the creatures that it was using to complete itself. Thus comes the revelation that Tau Volantis is not the Marker homeworld, but a precursor to Earth, the home of another race that chose to sacrifice itself in an attempt to halt the Necromorphs. As intriguing as this premise is, it causes problems for the game’s third act, when alien Necromorphs and pads that boost the power of Isaac’s kinesis and stasis modules appear. Aliens and alien technologies represent an easy way to implement new enemies and mechanics, but the ideas are integrated so poorly that the fiction falls apart. Until players descend into the alien city, Dead Space 3 revives the original game’s aesthetic of convincing, lived-in environments, creating an atmosphere that the city is incongruous with. Unfortunately, the problems stem from context and not effort. Indeed, the designers went to great lengths to create an area that feels realistic by drawing on human history. The city is littered with statues of the natives (though an audio log suggests they are actually skeletons), and the whole structure is roughly pyramidal. Greek and Roman history influences the omnipresence of sculpture, while Mesopotamian, Incan, Mayan, Aztec, and Ancient Egyptian ziggurats and pyramids are clear reference points for the city’s overall design. Interestingly, these architectural cues are not the only historical references made in service of the game’s atmosphere.

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Dead Space always carried particular homages and allusions to the past and previous works of art, and the third game delves deep in this manner, touching on historical mysteries, exploration, and literature. Many of these callbacks stem from the ruined ships that Isaac and the crew discover in orbit above Tau Volantis. The most prominent of these ships is the C.M.S. Roanoke. While on board, players realise that the entire fleet of colonising ships from 200 years earlier was destroyed for reasons and by means unknown, and their remnants form the debris that encircles the planet like some kind of useless Dyson Swarm. This mysterious history tallies with the Roanoke Colony of North Carolina, otherwise known as the Lost Colony, which, during the early years of America’s history, vanished without a trace. The other spaceships and shuttles that the crew explore while in orbit—the Terra Nova, Greely, and Crozier—are each named for ships and individuals engaged in Arctic and Antarctic expeditions in years past. From both thematic and narrative perspectives, the names are carefully selected. By offering ties to the history of polar exploration, the game offers a nod that tethers the Dead Space universe to the contemporary world, but the choices are also obscure enough to not be off-puttingly obvious. Similarly to the cohesiveness of the U.S.G. Ishimura, the allusions help to sell the universe as a believable place. However, not all of the callbacks are quite so cleverly integrated. Particularly ham-fisted is Rosetta, a frozen alien whose brain is used as an orbuculum into the past and the workings of the machine. The alien’s name and role as a translator clearly draw on the Rosetta Stone, found in 1799, which became the basis for modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphics. However, the most prominent reference of all is reserved for H.P. Lovecraft’s weird fiction classic, At the Mountains of Madness. An ill-fated expedition to a snowy landscape, alien architecture, and a cosmic adversary; the two works share many key elements, though Dead Space 3 easily avoids feeling like a retread of Lovecraft because of its different themes.

Aside from the background conflict between religion and government, Dead Space avoids commenting on social issues in favour of questioning a moral stance. Across the saga, players witness a man pushed to his limits in the service of others. Aboard the U.S.G. Ishimura, Isaac is at the mercy of Hammond, Daniels, and the hallucination of Nicole. He eventually overcomes their demands, but loses his mind in the process. On The Sprawl, Isaac acts not to save himself, but to destroy the Marker and thus save the masses. Although he has Ellie by his side at the end of that adventure, he has lost everything else. Finally, his mission on Tau Volantis is undertaken to save humanity, but he must sacrifice himself to do so. Thus, Isaac Clarke is portrayed as the ultimate altruist, readily giving all that is his to others. Given his success in stopping each Necromorph threat in turn, he might be considered a paragon of virtue. He might also be construed as a fool. He overcomes the Necromorphs, but he never plugs the hole through which their recurrences leak and must then forever fight a losing battle. Furthermore, the Awakened DLC shows the futility of his actions as the Brethren Moons are feasting on the Earth by the time he returns. All of these factors suggest that altruism and the messianic status of hero/ine is nothing to aspire to, trapping the individual in an eternal loop from which they can never escape. The message stands in contrast to that which fiction frequently provides—that the journey must end and that some semblance of normality will always reassert itself—and Dead Space is all the more powerful for saying something different.

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” – T.S. Eliot

Although Electronic Arts seemed desperate to make Dead Space into a flagship franchise on the scale of Battlefield, their hopes proved ill-founded with the release of the third game. From both critical and commercial perspectives, the game failed to live up to its predecessors. As a result, the series was scuppered, and the developer, after several mediocre games, was closed. Nevertheless, as T.S. Eliot’s quote suggests, hope always exists. The recent furore around Star Wars: Battlefront II has forced the publisher to rethink a part of its strategy, and a similar groundswell of support might just be enough to see Dead Space revived at some point in the future. For now, though, fans can only lament that Visceral Games never had the opportunity to make the series whole.

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