When the game came out it was a breath of fresh air for survival horror fans. It more or less took the good parts of older games like Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and Fatal Frame, and mashed them together into one brilliant, cohesive monster that served as a spiritual successor to System Shock, but played like an action horror shooter.
Dead Space admittedly has one of the single best settings for a horror game. In space, no one can hear you scream. Right? Wasn’t that the tagline of Alien? The game felt like it was heavily inspired by Event Horizon, among other sci-fi films like the explicitly cited The Thing and Aliens. Granted of course, Event Horizon was less a story of science fiction and more just straight “horror”, the aesthetics of the ship are similar. Sam Neill, the man who created the warp drive (whatever it’s called), eventually loses his grip on sanity and succumbs to the demonic possession of the ship, killing everyone along with himself. I’m pretty sure anyway, I don’t recall a single person surviving. Or did a couple people survive and then they spread the demons to the rescue ship? Anyway, it’s a great idea. It isn’t original by any means, you had four Alien movies by the time this game came out which had explored horror in space, not to mention Event Horizon and probably quite a few other books and movies. Such as the movie Dead Space, featuring Bryan Cranston. It sucks, don’t check it out.
Dead Space is one of those games where the graphics and sound actually are integral to the experience of the game. One of the most prevalent factors that media and players gawked about is the darkness. The ship is almost always dark, and your measly little RIG suit flashlight absolutely does not help. Lights are always flashing on and off, sparks flying from broken components, fires illuminate the eerie corridors of the ship, and the lights conveniently cut out at opportune times (on purpose of course, which eventually starts to detract from the horror when you learn the game’s tricks) when a bunch of necros are about to attack you. Mixing with the lighting design, the sound is also brilliantly done in the same way. The smallest enemy happens to make the most frightening sounds, which seems to be the way the game goes.
The least scary things in the game make the most frightful noises. A malfunctioning door, when you don’t know what it is at first, will wrack your nerves. Is it a door? Last time it was a door, maybe this time there’s a monster that sounds like a door? I mean, Silent Hill 2 had enemies that were doors, so would that surprise you? Some of the doors even have guardians that will decapitate you, I call them door beasts. The ship creaks and groans, lights buzz on and off, and necromorphs can be heard growling or scurrying through the vents and behind the bulkheads. Every little thing you even knock over crashes against the floor or the bulkhead and makes you uneasy.
In another sort of nod to the System Shock game that never was, the game contains plenty of zero-G sequences. Ken Levine had talked in interviews regarding System Shock 2 about how he wanted to put in zero-G sequences, but the technology in 1998-1999 simply didn’t exist to make this happen. There aren’t many of these sequences, but they are very well done, especially the unmistakable sound (or lack thereof) when entering a vacuum. It will often lull you into a sense of false security, running and jumping out into space to fight against your oxygen meter, thinking incorrectly that if you don’t hear any necros, there aren’t any. Wrong.
Unintentionally I’m sure, there are also rare moments when a body part from an enemy or random corpse gets stuck in a crack in the map and endlessly collides against the floor/wall, making so much noise and not clearly jiggling back and forth that you think it could potentially be an enemy. Above all of those, the most disconcerting element of sound design in the game is the constant whispers from the crew or from your girlfriend, Nicole Brennan. Isaaaaaac. Iiiiiiisaaac.
Unfortunately, the classic survival horror feel does not persist throughout the entirety of the game because of the game mechanics – simply put, this game was made in the vein of RE4 and it shows. For the first few chapters you stay scared or at least concerned, as you don’t have much ammo or any upgrades, and during this unfamiliar stage you feel you may die at any turn. You won’t, though, unless you absolutely can’t aim or melee and you don’t know how hands worl. I won’t claim to be amazing at survival horror games: yea I can beat RE4, 5, 6 on professional, yea I can beat the old RE games on speed runs without shooting things, etc. If you can play pretty much any other game, you can’t suck at Dead Space. I died 1 time in the first 8 chapters from an actual normal enemy, and I died 2 times on bosses – one because I had no idea I was supposed to cryo-freeze him, and one because I had no idea how to actually use the kinetic gun.
The game is terribly forgiving, at least on normal, if you get attacked. Isaac can take a hell of a lot of punishment when you upgrade his HP nodes. It’s also at this point in the game where you start having a crap-load of ammo. I walked around with probably 100 ammo for the force gun before i decided I had to use it to make room for something else. That doesn’t make it any less thrilling, though, as usually in the latter parts of the game you’ll have to fight several enemies and several different types of enemies, at that, simultaneously, frantically firing any gun you have as fast as you can manage to do so.
Dead Space does contain one major feature that truly detracts from the survival horror aspect of the game, and unfortunately it has become a mainstay of the genre after Resident Evil 4, in an industry attempt to mimic what is considered [incorrectly] to be necessary for success. You can upgrade your gear, and purchase items and weapons at stores, which are conveniently placed pretty much everywhere. Isaac can upgrade his weapons and gear and that makes sense, being that he’s a mechanical/electrical engineer. Clearly that is realistic and a fact of life.
What doesn’t make any sense, especially on the Ishimura, and what breaks the immersion is that you just happen to be able to buy items and upgrade your suit from a magical space shop. Traditionally, you have to get by on the items you find, otherwise you are screwed. Resident Evil, Fatal Frame, Silent Hill, Clock Tower, Haunting Ground and others all worked perfectly fine without letting you buy items. It’s out of place and unrealistic that on a ship overtaken by a parasitic, flesh-consuming alien life-form, on which almost all humans are dead, you are still able to “buy” things from a shop terminal that somehow keeps producing items. It could make sense that it uses a 3D printer and after all this is the future, but without any explanation how it works it just feels out of place. It isn’t just silly in this game specifically. It’s silly in RE4, in MGS4, in Dead Space 2, and any other game where it stands against the illusion of the in-game reality. MGS4 gets a pass because it is a part of the story-line and was made to make sense, but not the others.
Dead Space’s narrative structure unfolds along much the same lines as older survival horror games did: again, like Silent Hill, Fatal Frame, Resident Evil, or even newer games like Amnesia. There aren’t overly long story cut-scenes or even quick-time events like there are nowadays. You read logs. You watch video logs. You hear people talk to you while you move. Some of them have been dead for a long time, some came with you to the USG Ishimura. It’s better that way, to absorb and seek the story, rather than have it shoved in your face when it is relevant and to have no inkling otherwise that there even is a story. Obviously Fatal Frame and Silent Hill, and older Resident Evil did have cut-scenes, but they were far less prominent than in their later iterations.
The story in itself isn’t anything spectacular or uncharted. once again kind of similar to science fiction tales that came before. It has some nice twists and, although things become more or less predictable, it still manages to stay interesting. In fact, with the subsequent Dead Space titles Visceral has followed the route of Capcom and decided they should retcon things, repeatedly. Visceral deserves credit where Capcom does not, as the story changes or “clarifications” they made in the sequels actually make sense and add to the universe. Story is not paramount in horror games; they can stand on the merits of their game-play if need be. Dead Space certainly does.
Visceral’s first game is a masterpiece in almost every aspect. The shop mechanics are a but ridiculous but the game can’t be blamed for doing the same things Resident Evil 4 did, considering how popular and lauded RE4 has always been. The ship is beautifully creepy, from the scrawled writings of the insane crew members writing with their own blood, the creepy necrotic flesh growing everywhere, the darkness and inherent darkness equals death tropes, the constant whispers of long dead people, the creepy sounds of necromorphs scratching behind the walls and through the vents, down to the poor souls absorbed into walls who will beg you to kill them. All of the zero-g and zero oxygen phases of the game seem completely organic and by no means a forced attempt by Visceral to show you that they put in game systems for the sake of game systems. The puzzles all seem perfectly reasonable and organic as well – always being natural and expected obstacle aboard this ship, whether it is the asteroid release or the bunks in the sleep halls all pulled together as barricades. Once again, Visceral made a game as close to perfect as possible.