11 years from its launch, does “Dead Space”, one of the most prominent horror games of the seventh generation, still inspire fear?
Despite my love of horror games, I have never played Dead Space. Most likely because it was released in 2008, and I was eleven at the time. Back then, Dead Space was lauded as one of the best horror titles of that era. I will say that as a game it still holds up, but now that we have had over eleven years of horror titles. Does Dead Space still terrify?
The game’s scaring modus operandi is squarely on its monsters, known as the Necromorphs. The first time the player is introduced to these monstrosities is horror perfection. The player surrogate, Isaac Clarke, is asked to press a button in another room while a group of his comrades wait in an adjacent room. Once the switch is flipped, the game truly begins as mangled corpses, with a worrying number of pointy bits, suddenly burst through the ceiling.
It only takes moments for them to wipe out most of your squad. Unfortunately, some turn their attention to you. At this point in the game, you have no way to defend yourself. Your only option is to run as death wails and unholy screeches fade into the distance.
I really must give credit to the game designers for going above and beyond when creating the Necromorphs.
The team wanted to make realistic monstrosities, so they studied pictures of corpses of car crash and war victims. While the designs are genuinely stomach-churning, there is an argument that they may be too gruesome. In fact, that is one of the main issues with the game: it goes too hard on the gross-out factor. There are several rooms where walls are caked in more blood than the entire human population, and the floor is littered with enough torn up limbs up to reach Isaac’s knees.
It got to the point where I was laughing at the absurdity of it. Eventually, you just become de-sensitized to it all. Sure, the first time you fight a group of car crash corpse space zombies is bound to be scary. The problem is the 134th time you do it.
Dead Space attempts to fix this problem with its great use of pacing and atmosphere.
Your battles with the Necromorphs are intense with lots of instruments clashing against one another as swarms of beasties rush at you. However, the game knows when to give the player some time to breathe. There are several stretches of time where all you do is walk around and explore. No Necromorphs, no fighting, just you and the sea of limbs Isaac needs to wade through. These moments exist to, theoretically, allow the player some respite. But in practice, this isn’t the case.
Firstly, in these moments, the game is dripping with atmosphere. Being trapped on a dead ship floating in space is a perfect setting. Isaac is often trapped in very cramped hallways with little room to manoeuvre. Every room is inorganic with grey or rusty metal surrounding you. Finally, almost everyone on the ship has been brutally murdered. Those that are still alive have been driven mad, which is foreshadowing concerning what might happen to you if you don’t escape.
You feel like a mouse trapped in a maze with gnarled up cats. There is also the killer sound direction to note. While you explore, you will occasionally hear clangs and bumps in the distance. Is that just some ambient noise or is a Necromorph sneaking up behind you?
That is the game’s greatest strength, you never know when you are safe.
I mean, sometimes you know a rumble is about to happen when you walk into an open room with tons of ammo lying around. But with every door opened, you are always tense. When it comes to fighting Necromorphs, it’s a matter of “when”, not “if”.
Going into this article, I was going to be more critical of Dead Space, so it is a surprise that I have been so positive. So, why do I feel this way upon reflection instead of immediately when the credits started rolling? The main issue is a subjective one.
Once I reached the midpoint of the game, I frankly, was too powerful.
Horror is often marked by an absence of power for its protagonists. Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th) wouldn’t be scary if the teenagers could beat him in a fist fight. At the start of the game, you are just an engineer who is barely scraping by. Ammo is scarce, and one hit from a Necromorph can put you to less than half of your health.
After a couple of upgrades, you are more than equipped to deal with any threat. You are also drowning in healing items and ammo, or at least enough money to buy them. This problem is a personal one which won’t be relevant to everyone. For some, games become much easier to play as you progress. Eventually, you learn the best strategies for each encounter. This decrease in difficulty can detract from the horror of the situation.
I will admit I was tense while playing, but that is mostly due to everything else surrounding the game. Once the Necromorphs popped out, all that tension evaporated because I knew I was, essentially, Jason here in terms of relative invincibility.
Despite its issues, Dead Space still holds up well as a horror title.
The horror isn’t as complicated as Silent Hill or The Shining, but its attempts at shocking players with substantial gore and creepy nursery rhymes works well. Its shortcomings are still prominent though. The de-sensitization is a real problem, and it is compounded by the Necromorphs being too easy to defeat in the later half.
Luckily, the game’s core strengths carry it to the end.