Please Stop Talking About Ancient Alien Artifacts
Dead Space 2, a fantastic video game that nearly ruins a franchise.
Two other issues almost ruin this extremely fine game. The first is Dead Space 2's depiction of Isaac's wavering sanity. When a popcorn-horror video game decides to depict the experience of human madness, no one is expecting Sylvia Nasar. Still, when a popcorn-horror video game does decide to depict the experience of human madness, it should probably seek to avoid portraying it as long periods of perfect lucidity occasionally interrupted by a 10-second-long hallucination. The Isaac of the first Dead Space was so moving precisely because you had no idea what was inside his head. Literature has unreliable narrators, but what do you call—how would you even begin to represent—an unreliable avatar? Dead Space 2had before it this potentially astounding ground to break. It did not even disturb that ground's topsoil with a teaspoon.
The second, far more harmful decision made by Dead Space 2's creators was to allow Isaac Clarke to speak. It somewhat undercuts the game's fiction that a man whose dead girlfriend forced him to tear hundreds of necromorphs limb from limb sounds about as tormented as a high-school wrestling coach. At one point, Isaac is attacked by a crazed monster. "Jesus," he says after killing it, "that thing was angry." You don't say! At another point, Isaac is hanging upside down from a crashed subway car, blasting the limbs off a dozen converging necromorphs—a singularly nerve-flaying set piece. When Isaac finally frees himself, he radios his contact and says, cheerfully, "Dana! I need a new route." Worst of all, two potentially powerful moments near the end of a game—one involves Isaac saving the life of a friend, the other him coming to terms with his girlfriend's death—would have been far more eerie and potent had Isaac been allowed to remain silent.
Prior to the release of Dead Space 2, several of the game's creators took their case for a talking Isaac directly to the video-game media. "We felt it could really … kind of help drive the story forward," Shereif Fattouh, a Dead Space 2 producer, told Gametrailers.com. "[Isaac is] a human being and he's going through this … situation and we really wanted to get people to kind of see it through his eyes." But what about a silent Isaac prevented us from seeing through his eyes? Does not a talking Isaac place an unwelcome tint over the player's eyes? In a game of such extraordinary intensity, are not the player's emotions far more important than those of the character they control? And what does "drive the story forward" mean for a medium in which pacing can largely be controlled by the player?
These questions get to the heart of what makes video games unique and horror games so compelling. I used to love watching horror films, but I rarely do anymore, not if I have the option to play a horror video game. It is all too easy to determine, at the beginning of a horror film, which of the characters will live and die, but horror games are immune to this brand of precognition. Of course, Dead Space 2telegraphs any number of things. If you walk into a room and see a bunch of ammunition lying around, gird your loins for an imminent space-zombie attack. But the central character in a horror video game is never safe, and it is this oppressive sensation that annuls any need for "character" or "personality." Isaac's emotions do nothing to deepen the experience of running him through a gauntlet of necromorphs, and, in fact, considerably take away from that experience. In Dead Space 2, Isaac is not relaying an experience. He is, rather, the relay we carry and protect during our experience.
Dead Space 2's more conventional design obviously stemmed from a desire to make the game more of a commercial success. Someone at EA or Visceral must have asked, So, why didn't the first Dead Space sell as well as we hoped? And someone must have answered, Because no one could relate to Isaac. We need to know more about him, more about the world. It was the wrong answer to an unnecessary question. It is almost a shame that Dead Space 2 is as good as it is. Despite an unusually maladroit ad campaign, the game will almost certainly crush the sales totals of the first Dead Space. That means those who granted Isaac speech will convince themselves that they saved a franchise rather than very nearly ruined it.
Correction, Feb. 1, 2011: This article originally misidentified Arthur C. Clarke as one of "the giants of American science fiction." Clarke was British.
Tom Bissell is the author of several books, including the essay collection Magic Hours, which will be published in April. He writes about video games for Grantland, ESPN's sports and pop culture website, and is a past winner of the Rome Prize and a 2010 Guggenheim Fellow.
Image © 2011 Electronic Arts Inc.