Dead Space is a triumph in game design, and surprisingly most of the decisions that pay off emerge from one simple mantra – do not indulge the player in the safety of the non-diegetic world.
Far too many horror games allow the gamer to hide in the hallowed ground of the item menu, map screen, upgrade list, safe from the intentions of whatever lurks nearby. Logically it makes absolutely no sense, the idea that you are one moment being viciously attacked by whatever Cthulian horror stalks the corridors, suddenly *click* and you’re safely browsing a shopping list whilst the monster impatiently stands by scratching his rapidly-mortifying chin.
EA Redwood Shores took the simple yet astonishingly overlooked decision to question this routine implementation. Now, if you want to look at the map screen, your suit (known as a RIG) projects the display directly in front of the avatar in-game; you want to buy an item, then you access the store, folding out of its compartment and listing its stock with your character still in view.
Dead Space provides little sanctuary for the nerve-filled gamer, the save screen and essential pause menu being the only non-diegetic features to sully the tension created by the unremittingly diegetic experience. If you want to locate your next objective on the map, you will find yourself praying that you left no creatures nearby, if upgrading a weapon, you’re hoping there is no Slasher (the most common type of Necromorph) creeping towards your position. The first time you are attacked whilst in a menu (and it will happen), your immediate reaction is anger (“HEY I’M IN A MENU!”), followed by panic (“OH CHRIST DIE DIE DIE PLEASE DIE!”), followed by (hopefully) an acknowledging smirk.
A similar chain reaction will occur upon first taking control of Isaac Clarke, the game’s protagonist (named it would seem for Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke). The third-person perspective positions itself too closely; uncomfortably over the shoulder of Isaac, creating a claustrophobic, apprehensive mood. This is of course entirely intentional and without it much of the game’s tension would be lost, the old trick of positioning the camera to see what’s round the corner without *actually* going around the corner is finally extinct.
Now, Dead Space is labelled ‘survival horror’, but this tag can be something of a misnomer depending upon the difficulty level selected. To use a simple film analogy, Dead Space on ‘Hard’ is Ridley Scott’s Alien; tense, thrilling, terrifying. It is first and foremost survival horror.
Dead Space on normal or easy, on the other hand, is James Cameron’s Aliens; big guns and big action with a general horror theme. Now both selections have their advantages and disadvantages, it simply depends upon which you prefer. If you want a stressful, nervous experience reminiscent of Resident Evil before the series became one long action film, choose Hard. If you want to be John McClane in space, screaming “Yippeeee kiiii-yaaay!” as you thunder rounds of plasma into the nearest abomination whilst smoking a cigar, select Easy or Normal.
Another of Dead Space’s crowning achievements in the sound design. Whether discussing the atmospheric, subtle musical score, the tortured howl of the Necromorphs, or the unsettling din of the Ishimura’s metallic interior, Dead Space’s auditory environment is an insistent, immersive and provocative soundscape. Tiered with the set design, a perturbed mash of technology and biology, Dead Space is likely to leave you an exhausted, gibbering mess after prolonged exposure.
Equally contributory to your jellified state will be the cadre of ghouls and goblins persisting through the game’s environment. The aforementioned Necromorphs take obvious influence from John Carpenter’s The Thing; this is a compliment. The visceral, destroyed nature of the Necromorphs’ bodies is unsettling and horrifying in equal measure, especially the “Pregnant” variant, labelled as such for an obvious, disturbing reason.
The manner in which you dispose of these creatures is a novel and satisfying innovation - dismemberment. At first slightly unnerving to perform under intense pressure, you will soon be taking pleasure in hacking off limbs left and right or finishing someone off with a swift kick to the face; in all the combat system, supported by a wealth of varying weaponry, is immensely satisfying. The plot is, in terms of development and characters, prone to cliché and genre convention (giving a large tip of the hat to Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris), but reviews should be about criticism not synopsis, so I’ll leave the plot for the gamer to discover; suffice to say it is solid if unremarkable.
To conclude, Dead Space is currently the definitive horror videogame of the current generation, and not simply due to a lack of competition. The amalgamation of gorgeous graphics, thoughtful sound design and innovative game mechanics means this title is one by which all future horror games should be measured.