Dead Space begins with a video log, the kind of long-distance, static-strewn image that Hollywood science-fiction has made comfortably familiar. A woman’s face emerges from the visual snow, sorrowful and confused at the same time. The tone of her voice and the character of her words speak of a terrible tragedy.
The video feed dissipates, the warp drive disengages, and Isaac Clarke and players alike receive a first glimpse of their home for the next fifteen hours. Aegis VII looms menacingly in the background, encircled by the debris of a planetary mining operation, and in the foreground, silent and dark, is the U.S.G. Ishimura, a vast planet-cracker class spacecraft.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear. And the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H. P. Lovecraft
With the launch of Dead Space in 2008, Visceral Games (then known as EA Redwood Shores) kicked off its most critically acclaimed franchise and defined a short-lived era of horror games wherein ‘action’ was the catchword. New IPs are always exciting. Even if the gameplay mechanics are irredeemably similar to what has gone before, the prospect of exploring novel themes and stories in new settings with unique characters is enticing. By tapping into the unknown, however, newness in horror offers an additional dimension: anxiety. Kurt Riezler, drawing on the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, calls anxiety an indefinite fear that “may be more powerful for its vagueness.” What is not known may or may not hurt the individual, but fear of it can certainly paralyse. The narrative structure and player goals of Dead Space owe a clear debt of gratitude to the classic Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises, but its settings, enemies, and action-oriented gameplay loops set it apart from those forebears. Nevertheless, the fusion of fear and the frantic that lies at the heart of Dead Space was hardly revolutionary, even on its release. id Software’s Doom had taken first-person shooters to Hell in 1993, while more recent games, such as F.E.A.R. and Clive Barker’s Jericho, had striven to find an ideal balance between the two elements. With its distinctive hero, wide-ranging arsenal, and intense focus on the abject, Dead Space slotted in well as the poster child of this wave, using the sensations of distress and discomfort inherent in horror to explore its thematic underpinnings.
Like science-fiction, fantasy, and other genre fare, horror is fully capable of ruminating on universal ideas. For example, District 9 meditates on the apparent inevitability of gentrification and xenophobia, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web questions the value of a life, and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart explores the rationalisation of madness and suggests that guilt is impossible to live with. In each of these aforementioned works, the conventions of genre are key to theme and the same holds true in the Dead Space saga. Literary theorist Julia Kristeva argues that abjection creates the visceral reactions that horror elicits. The concept of the abject refers to objects, ideas, and topics that are considered taboo or otherwise rejected by society: think, for example, of death and decay, the monster-as-mother, bodily fluids, vagina dentata, or miscegeny. Going further, novelist Stephen King states that fear can be induced in three forms: gross-out, horror, and terror. Gross-out is the overtly disgusting: sights, smells, and touch sensation that leave one nauseated. Horror is that which goes against the natural order: mutation, metamorphosis, reanimation, etc. Terror, “the last and wors[t],” represents a kind of cognitive dissonance wherein the everyday becomes unsettling and the familiar becomes discomfiting. In Dead Space, the premise of isolated and derelict extraterrestrial settings infested with mutated, reanimated corpses; enormous, phallic monsters; and the last vestiges of human communities descended into insanity forms the backbone of the series’s contemplation of ideological conflict and questioning of heroism.
In several cases, the series shares these core themes with those texts that appear to have influenced it, or are otherwise referenced across it. A concept found within postmodern literary theory, intertextuality is the conscious or unconscious reference to other works during the creation of any given text. Theorist Roland Barthes states that the interweaving of such “citations, references, echoes, cultural languages, antecedent or contemporary” is a part of what makes each individual text distinct. No piece of media, be it a video game, film, or novel, stands isolated from the generations that preceded it or the contemporary cohort that surrounds it. Such extratextual tendrils can be overt, staring back at the beholder and openly declaring a connection, but they can also be covert, buried deep beneath layers that must be peeled back and examined before any links can be drawn. Dead Space uses both of these approaches. Seminal science-fiction is a frequent touchstone for the saga, not just in premise and setting, but also in character, aesthetic, and theme.
Perhaps the most obvious callback is the games’ protagonist, Isaac Clarke. In his name, players find a fusion between two of the most prominent figures in science-fiction history: Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. However, with their tendencies to predict utopian futures, the works of those authors bear little resemblance to the almost apocalyptic atmosphere of Dead Space. Visceral’s future-history is more akin to those of Philip K. Dick or William Gibson, with their sombre doubts about the absolute beneficence of human progress. Similarly, the U.S.G. Ishimura, The Sprawl, and Tau Volantis, the three primary settings of Dead Space, more closely resemble the gritty, lived-in environments of the latter authors than the ascetic chrome-and-glass aesthetics of the former. The Alien series is, perhaps, another inspiration for the saga’s visual design, as well as an influence on other key traits. Clear similarities exist between the scenarios, with mysterious beasts causing death and destruction on spacecraft, far beyond hope of human assistance; the nature of said creatures in their use of the human body to propagate their species; and a protagonist who must be resourceful enough to overcome betrayal as well as the suprahuman threat. Even the respective backstories of the two series share a resemblance through the questionable activities of the powers-that-be. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation in Alien is a mega-corporation interested in resource-mongering and weaponisation of the Xenomorphs, while Dead Space’s EarthGov and religion of Unitology are at odds over the purpose of the Markers—the saga’s central conceit—and whether these artefacts should be kept secret or made known to the general population. The two series also isolate both of their protagonists and strip away their reasons to keep fighting, a trait shared by a final point of reference: H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Lovecraft’s influence is felt elsewhere in the saga, most powerfully in the narrative structure of using horror as a framework through which a mystery emerges and is later resolved, the presence of a cosmic enemy, and the setting of Dead Space 3. Those latter traits will be revisited in the coming weeks; for now, attention turns towards the first game in the series, 2008’s Dead Space.
Representing the first, tentative steps into a new universe, this initial game most powerfully evokes the mysteries and fears of the unknown. As with any fiction set in an unfamiliar place or time, everything raises an unasked question. A setting’s relevance, a character’s role, an image’s purpose: all of these things and many more are present to be probed and queried until the creator’s deft hand weaves them into a cohesive whole from which meaning can be teased. The unknown eventually becomes known in the conveyance of theme and, in Dead Space, three key story elements undergo this transition: the U.S.G. Ishimura, the spacecraft on which the bulk of the action occurs; the Necromorphs, the hellish beasts that roam its derelict corridors; and Isaac Clarke, the man who is tossed into this horrific situation.
‘What happened?’ This core question underpins Isaac’s time about the U.S.G. Ishimura, and while some answers come quickly, the real reasons remain buried for much of the experience. The slow drip feed of information is effective in drawing players ever deeper into the narrative, layering authoritarian conflict atop a madness that has spread through the ship like a miasma, religious mania, and the presence of the curious artefact that began the nightmare: the Marker. As in many lore-heavy video games, most of this background information comes from video logs, audio tapes, and text logs strewn about the world. Similarly to other games, this haphazard scattering of journals fails to make much sense because many of them lay in hallways and dusty corners, far from corpses or other relevant sources. The logs tell their tales effectively, but unconvincingly. The environmental storytelling is far more evocative and immediate in selling the tragic story of the U.S.G. Ishimura. Hastily erected barricades, seemingly impossible bloodstains, insanity-tinged scrawls on the walls in both English and curious hieroglyphics, and, most chilling of all, the people left behind, those wasted remnants of humanity who loiter in the darkened halls, crying senselessly, bashing their brains out against walls, or eviscerating one another; these are the signposts that convince players of the tragedy and bring the degradation of humanity aboard the U.S.G. Ishimura to the fore.
These incidental environmental details work in concert with the audio-visual design to create an atmosphere in which the abject festers. The juxtapositions of light and darkness, sound and silence work tirelessly to generate a sense of terror. Avoiding pristine environments allows the developers at Visceral to set the groundwork for subversion, a theme that recurs throughout the places that players visit across the course of the game. The medical wing is a nightmare space where blood is splashed across the walls and foetuses float in amniotic sacs. The engineering room is overrun by an oozing organic growth that both echoes a twisted conception of the cyborg and hints at a much larger threat yet to be faced. In the hydroponics lab, players find Necromorphs that emit a poisonous gas to change their environment in a twist on the way that plants generate oxygen. Though the subversions of scientific fact and theory that underpin these themed spaces may not be immediately apparent, they all unsettle the player in keeping with King’s conception of terror, which also extends to player interactions in the universe of Dead Space.
The theories of King and Kristeva emerge just as keenly through gameplay as through audio-visual design, which helps the horror of Dead Space to feel more holistic than most other games. At the top of the list is the diegetic user interface, with character health, statistics, inventory, and map, all integrated into Isaac’s suit (the RIG). As might be expected with such a set-up, accessing quest information does not pause the game, creating a reluctance to do so for fear of being caught unawares. As in From Software’s Souls series, which employs a similar mechanic, this decision ramps up the tension to keep players on their toes. Another way that Dead Space plays with convention is through the inclusion of zero-gravity areas, where Isaac can, and often must, jump from point to point to get around. These mechanics contribute to a sense of terror through disorientation, creating difficulty in retaining spatial awareness, and thus the location of the enemies that usually occupy the space. As the game goes on, players learn more about the nature of the Necromorphs, discovering that they have no mind of their own but are, instead, controlled and directed by the Hive Mind. Given that most human society prizes individuality, this trait echoes the Buggers from Ender’s Game and also draws on the same fears that underpin the prevalence of zombies in contemporary media. Mindlessness is a powerful source of societal rejection. Perhaps the most powerful evocation of the abject in the game, however, is its pioneering use of ‘strategic dismemberment’. Unlike most games, which train players to aim for the head or torso, the most effective method of dispatching enemies in Dead Space is by severing their limbs. In the real world, amputation is accepted where necessary, but always slightly unnerving. The process taps into a primal distrust of the incomplete or asymmetrical and also King’s idea of gross-out horror. By turning amputation into a core game mechanic, Dead Space taps into the abject, making every conflict and corpse an unsettling prospect. Finally, standing tall within the game is the Hunter, an immortal Necromorph created from the genetic experiments of Doctor Mercer, which takes cues from Resident Evil 3’s Nemesis. The appearance of this beast subverts everything the player has previously learned about the game, and reinjects fear into proceedings. No longer is fighting possible; instead, players must flee, waiting until the opportune moment to strike back. By turning players’ knowledge of their capabilities on their heads, the Hunter makes the game suddenly unfamiliar once again, tapping the vein of terror. At the heart of all this terror stands a man who should deal with the events transpiring around him, but never really does.
Isaac Clarke, in this first entry, is the player’s marionette, little more than an audience surrogate within this strange world, and, as a result, a man unknowable. Players become better acquainted with his groans, footsteps, breaths, and heartbeats than with his personality. Indeed, Isaac’s entire character is portrayed through his unquestioning following of orders and a fatalistic determination to repair the U.S.G. Ishimura; find his partner, Nicole Brennan; and escape. Giving Isaac such modest goals (when compared against other video game protagonists who must slay gods, bring down shady organisations, or recover the treasure of lost worlds) allows the folly and pitfalls of heroism to emerge far more powerfully than they otherwise might. Despite being a skilled enough engineer to be dispatched on the repair mission unassisted, Isaac’s best efforts amount to nothing; the U.S.G. Ishimura is just as cold, dark, and silent on his escape as it was on his arrival, and Nicole has been dead all along, her opening message in fact a suicide note saying farewell. He may have destroyed the apparent source of the alien threat and delayed the apocalypse, but he has failed in two of his three original objectives and made a terrible sacrifice in the bargain. In his destruction of the Marker, he has committed an act that will turn the adherents of Unitology, comprising the bulk of a star-bound humanity, against him, thus losing any hope of a normal life going forward. Worse still, the adventure has robbed him of his sanity; as a shuttle propels him away from the U.S.G Ishimura and Aegis VII, a bloodied, hallucinatory Nicole attacks him before the image dissolves in a jumble of Marker hieroglyphics. Rather than making him into a hero, his acts of heroism have castigated him, costing him love, hope of a normal life, and even his mind.
The ending of Dead Space provides a sign of things to come. Having defeated the Hive Mind, Isaac escapes the destruction of Aegis VII aboard the shuttle that took him planetside. As if seeking closure, he watches Nicole’s final message—her suicide note—one last time, then relaxes. Isaac and the player alike experience a moment of catharsis, a bloodletting of emotion: the terror is over.
Or is it only just beginning?
Isaac looks to the left. There sits a blood-drenched Nicole who screams and apparently attacks Isaac before the image dissolves into the floating hieroglyphics of the Marker. Only with the hindsight offered by Dead Space 2 does this conclusion indicate the internalisation of terror. The battle for Isaac’s life is over, but the battle for his mind is a whole other story.
Click here for a look back at Dead Space 2, The Sprawl, and the fragmented corridors of Isaac’s mind.