Dead (s)Pace

I don’t really get the Survival Horror genre – that is to say I don’t really buy into what it claims to be about. Seeing how the title of the genre itself was first invented by Resident Evil, a “revolutionary” game that not only copy-pasted Alone in the Dark’s mechanics almost straight off, but also was about as terrifying as a delicious rhubarb pie is a death ray. Excluding a few odd titles that actually understand how to unsettle people and thus actually deserve the horror part, I personally think the genre would be more truthful if titled Survival Startle or Survival Frustration.

So I’ve been playing Dead Space, and I still can’t decide what the game actually wants to be. At times it seems like it’s jealously gazing in the direction of the F.E.A.R. series or System Shock II, yet it always seem to shake that off in favour of a stubborn desire to be Resident Evil 4 in space. It’s got a great deal of things going from it, from the UI, communication and everything being right there inside the game world itself; technically you never really have to leave the immersion of the game world itself. The strange thing then is that the game seems so utterly determined to shatter that immersion to peices every chance it gets.

The biggest threat to immersion – appart from quickly gained genre-savvyness (if you’re used to this sort of thing anyhow) – is actually Isaac himself. I’m not sure why exactly they chose to make Isaac Clarke a Gordon Freeman-esque faceless (well, sortof) mute – if you look at the objectives screen, they actually did ascribe Isaac a personality there.. and they went to flesh out his character with supporting characters such as Nicole. He’s not a blank vessel the way Gordon Freeman is that exists only to be filled with whatever we want to put there – Isaac is a seperate character with his own reactions.. and well..

Isaac doesn’t show fear. Send a horde of icky flesh monsters chasing him and he won’t shake for an instant. And if he‘s not afraid, why should I be? Of course.. Isaac’s lack of fear might also be related to how utterly hypnotized he seems to be by his own user interface hologram displays, staring at them as he does as if he was in some sort of trance, mesmerized by the shiny colours.

It’s a pity really, because I rather like the setting and how it has quirks like Unitology (even though it seems like a shameless dig at one point) that’s both backdrop and interwoven with the events themselves. I played it to end for the story, and it was really about finding enough patence to put up with the frustrations it had going.

On those then, the aiming is quirky with the mouse tracking seeming sluggish and inhibited, which makes all the bigger annoyance out of most fights being “see where the enemies are”. Most battle arenas feel unsettlingly predictable and seem to be largely a matter of deciding which corner enemies won’t appear in so you know where to stand. The swarms of enemies don’t feel nearly as.. well.. organic (pun not intended, honest!) as in F.E.A.R. or System Shock II – sometimes they feel like a very cynical and deliberate attempt at lengthening the game rather than to startle or challenge, which throws you a bit out of the game and into the mindset that your enemy is not some terrifying flesh monster conglomerate but a sadistic game designer trying to force you away from having fun.

Like said earlier, Genre savvyness is a potential deathblow to the immersion of the game, with me even having some moments towards the latter parts where I actually laughed after the game expectedly dumped an enemy straight in the sights of my much-loved Force Gun. I never had any of those sorts of moments in the Thief series, nor any of the F.E.A.R. games for that matter. Moments of triumph, sure, but never downright laughing at the impotence and failiure of my advesary. I can’t help but feel like this is one of those cases where a game should have been better than it turned out to be.

All in all, I had fun playing it, but there wasn’t a single death that didn’t feel like it was caused either by the game being utterly cheap or trying to obscure what I had to do behind steady or instant death traps. And then came the ending which only confounded me more – not because it in itself was obscure, but rather because unlike most of the game.. the ending really left me feeling that Dead Space really wants to be F.E.A.R., but the game is such a realist that it for most part gives up on those aspirations in favour of just channeling Resident Evil.

Personally, I think Dead Space would’ve done better if it’d taken more inspiration from System Shock II, or Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. Both of those seem – to me – far more along the lines of what Dead Space wants to be but fails at being.


5 Responses to “Dead (s)Pace”

  1. 1 Arafor
    February 11, 2009 at 09:25

    You’re quite the critic to scary games. But then again, when I was younger I couldn’t even play Diablo II with the sound on so I guess I’m excluded from that discussion xD

  2. 2 Nhani
    February 12, 2009 at 09:02

    I’m not sure what’s up with it really – I can’t handle horror movies at all. Things like Event Horizon that some people I know call tame and almost laughable can utterly ravage my mind and leave me trying to desperately purge the memory of it from my mind as it disturbs me.

    Horror games, on the other hand, I leap into with an unsettling glee. The Thief series (particularely Haunts and That Level(tm)) is a fondly remembered experience, I also relished in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth and I’m impatiently awaiting the arrival of F.E.A.R. 2 into my waiting mailbox – meaning I might comment on that too when the journey is over with.

    It does make some other experiences that are supposed to be frightening appear rather tame, however.

  3. 3 Arafor
    February 12, 2009 at 10:14

    It might have to do with Empathy. When watching a movie the actors appears scared out of their lives, they scream and run and struggle, helplessly, in a rather convincing way.

    In a game however you’re in complete control. And in most games the characters you play doesn’t appear the least frightened (hell, some of them doesn’t even have a blink animation). There is nothing to empathize with and therefor little reason for you to get scared. Most people react to the music, I guess you react to the characters instead.

    (<3 Theorycraft)

  4. 4 Nhani
    February 12, 2009 at 11:36

    Well to be fair I actually can feel really spooked when playing a game that actually scares me, it’s just.. well. You can act and react to it, rather than watch some helpless people stuck in it. In some way I think movies feel more like a nightmare in that you have no power over them and they just take you along, while in a game you can react.. you can stop for awhile to breathe and center yourself. It’s not something just pick up and play with a shrug, but it can make for a truly riveting experience.

    I’ve experienced some truly memorable situations in games that had me spooked to the edge of my seat that I in retrospect remember very fondly.. and then contrasting that with startle-and-nothing-more that Dead Space throws.. the latter doesn’t end up very memorable except for being disappointing – the Ravenholm bit of Half-Life 2 had this effect on me as well.

    I think that’s really what I like about games that scare me – they provide that kind of rush that you can’t just punch down but you ultimately have to overcome. To take one of the most prominent examples – there’s a part in Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth where your character is suddenly awakened in the middle of the night and – in that state – has to somehow escape a throng of mad people who intend to kill him. The combination of his (read: your) perception being all screwy and somehow still getting yourself through multiple rooms, pushing obstacles aside, bolting doors and soforth to hinder your pursuers is – when playing it – incredibly frustrating.. but was such a powerful thing to set the mood that in hindsight I remember it rather fondly as one of the more nerve-wracking moments I’ve ever had in a game.

    Of course.. where I can barely watch horror movies at all but thrive on games that have me spooked, my brother shrugs of horror movies that’d tear my fragile mind asunder.. but never finished the Colonial Marine campaign in the old (non-movie related) AvP2 game because it was too tense for him. So I think it largely depends on how you’re wired.

    As for F.E.A.R. 2, I actually have it now. But, it seems I won’t be able to actually activate and install it until tomorrow which’s the actual european release date. Natch. Still, more likely I’ll actually find enough ability to concentrate and get #85 done today.

  5. 5 Arafor
    February 12, 2009 at 18:13

    Lol, I HATE Ravenholm. One of my friends loved that place and found himself wanting to play through it every time I was there xD.

    But since he’s the one playing I guess it becomes more like watching a movie. Never the less. Congratulations on getting your new game, I hope you enjoy it ^^

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