By Stephen Sharp
So you loved the original Dead Space, right?
It was a fantastic back-to-form survival horror set in an amazingly inspired setting that borrowed heavily from two of the greatest horror films ever made, (Alien and John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing, in case you were wondering). You play as Isaac Clarke which is a very clever name-combination from science fiction authors Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. The game centers around the idea that a group of Unitologists have found a “Marker” that will eventually give humans immortality if they just succumb to the said alien artifact. This all leads to a fantastic gameplay experience where you must survive not only the people that have gone mad, but the unfortunate souls that have been transformed into terrible beasts called Necromorphs which have swords for hands and knives for tails. You must navigate back and forth through the infected spaceship USG Ishimura fighting off these terrifying demons while upgrading your weapons and armor. It mixes RPG elements with perfectly executed action and suspense set to a screeching soundtrack that will make you go insane.
It scared the shit out of me. Even the creator of the game, Glen Schofield, told the press that he wanted to make, "the most terrifying game we could”. They did. I remember not being able to play it for more than an hour at a time from the sheer terror of it all. I’d have to turn the game off, throw back a couple vodkas, then find myself crying to sleep watching re-runs of The Office to cleanse my mind. It also boasted one of the most creative arsenals I’ve seen in a game. The Plasma Cutter simply turning to the side quickly made it my favorite weapon, and it was the first one you got! In fact, one of the only bragging rights I’ve ever had is that I finished the game with just that. Really cool stuff.
Dead Space 2 was a bit different. You still had the ability to upgrade your weapons and armor, but the gameplay was much more linear. Which wasn’t a bad thing. Instead of having to go back to a room where you just KNEW something was going to try to murder you, it was much more of a, “Hey, keep continuing this way until we scare the crap out of you again”. But it still worked.
I was completely on edge the entire time, looking everywhere for more ammo. Watching the lights on Isaac’s back slowly fade from bright teal to red still raises the hair on the back of my neck, not to mention that that is one of the most genius health systems ever created. It was a haunted house where you had no choice but to move forward. It had new creatures (really, fuck those Stalkers), and awesome set pieces that didn’t feel like set pieces because you were still in survival mode. Remember that time on that train that ended up with you hanging upside down shooting enemies at an inverse Y-Axis from what you already set up controller-wise? Yeah. Terrifying, entertaining shit.
Also, the opening is completely fucked up. Isaac is experiencing a complete mental breakdown from the events of the first Dead Space, which has him in a straightjacket talking to a therapist and THEN his worst fears become realized when he is attacked by a Necromorph and he immediately becomes the only sane person on The Sprawl (the space station where the game takes place in case you haven’t played it). Hell, the first ten minutes has you in a straightjacket just running from the fucking things until you meet the first person that’s already gone insane. It’s actually brilliant storytelling.
I finished Dead Space 2 feeling horrified, accomplished, but above all happy. The aesthetic was a bit different. It evolved slightly into more of a shooter than your average survival horror, but it still managed to scare me over and over and never held my hand. It was a brilliant balance done by brilliant game makers.
So what in the hell happened with Dead Space 3?!
Answer: Way too much.
Remember those RPG elements I mentioned before that helped enrich the experience? Well, apparently the developers of Dead Space 3 decided to over-blow that whole system and make a survival horror game confusing as hell.
“Hey, let’s have everyone create their own weapon!”
“Hey, you wanted to focus on the survival and the horror? Too bad, this game is just gonna be a big action set piece after the next! And we’re gonna make the enemies larger! That’s right, you’re playing Uncharted, Resident Evil and Skyrim all at the same time! Sounds weird??? Well, it is! Fuck you!”
“You know all that suspense that was created in the first two that made them so enjoyable? You know, like, when you didn’t know what was gonna happen around the next corner? Well, instead of that, we’re just gonna show you everything and then throw, that’s right, ANOTHER action set piece at you!”
Now look, I didn’t hate Dead Space 3. In fact, I did really enjoy it. It was gorgeous and ambitious, but it wasn’t a Dead Space game. It wasn’t a survival horror game, and the audience noticed. The sales were so shitty that Dead Space 4 was cancelled. This, after a couple spinoffs and even an anime! It was a lucrative franchise, and Dead Space 3 killed it.
Why? Because it was no longer survival horror. It was “Pick up a gun and shoot. Then modify that gun for twenty minutes then get killed two seconds later because you didn’t build that gun correctly and now you’re fucked. Now go back to your last save and build it correctly or not at all, because the Plasma Cutter always works better anyway.”
Sorry, I get a little worked up about this game, because it IS fun. But that’s the thing. Dead Space isn’t really supposed to be fun. I know that sounds strange, but hear me out. NO SURVIVAL HORROR GAME IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUN.
You’re supposed to be horrified. You’re supposed to be scared the entire time. It’s thrilling, but it’s not fun. Remember that first time you went to a carnival and rode an obnoxiously large and dangerous ride run by someone you wouldn’t even allow to watch over your fish for a day? Remember the gears you could see sticking out that were so rusted that you just knew they were about to fall apart? The blood that littered the floorboards? Okay, the blood stuff didn’t really happen, but it was pretty goddamn scary right? Because you didn’t know what was gonna happen. “Is this the day I die?” you thought. “Who’s gonna feed my fish?” Then the ride starts and you’re scared shitless. It’s only after the ride is done, when you get off safely, that you laugh, and realize, “Hey, NOW I’m having fun!” Because you survived a terrifying ordeal.
Now, thrill-seekers might say otherwise (the cliff jumpers, sky divers and to a lesser extent, the parkour weirdos), but to your average joe, you’re gonna get your thrills and terrors from games and movies. So when a series you’ve relied on to give you those scares from the safety of your sofa just makes a Gears of War clone instead of staying true to its roots, then it all just gets ruined.
Now, the reason I say this game ruined survival horror is because it came out in 2013. Only three years ago. When was the last survival horror game you remember coming out? I guess you could argue Outlast, but the only thing you had to scavenge for in that was batteries, plus it was extremely linear. And let’s be clear, I’m talking about SURVIVAL horror, not just horror games. I’m talking, you’re down to your last shot and gotta make a fight or flight decision. The Enemy Within was an okay game, but I still wouldn’t describe it as survival horror. It was horror action.
So pretty much Dead Space 3 ruined a lot of things for survival horror fans. I’m hoping that Resident Evil 7 resurrects the genre again. I played the demo and it frightened me, so if they can keep up that mood and scavenging scenario the entire time, maybe the genre has hope.
But let’s be real, we’re all just wishing Silent Hills didn’t get cancelled.