Please Stop Talking About Ancient Alien Artifacts
Dead Space 2, a fantastic video game that nearly ruins a franchise.
Dead Space, released in 2008, is a survival-horror classic, a game whose derivativeness is well-balanced by how often it makes you run screaming from the room. For Electronic Arts, though, it was also something of a commercial failure—a game that didn't sell quite as well as the publisher expected. EA, then, must certainly be thrilled that Dead Space 2, which was developed by Visceral Games and released last week, looks on track to be one of the year's best-sellers. Dead Space 2 is also a better game than its predecessor in almost every way. It is less a video game than mainlined anxiety, its jump-scares timed with sadistic precision and its long, shadow-splashed corridors masterpieces of unnerving light design. The bad news is that the few ways in which Dead Space 2 is not better than the original prove almost catastrophic, and EA's commercial ambitions are to blame.
The first Dead Space has a lot going for it, most notably its hero, Isaac Clarke (so named for the giants of science fiction, Asimov and Arthur C.). Isaac is a character of iconic instantaneousness, from the glowing slots of light emanating from his artillery shell helmet to his humpbacked posture to his grisly array of weapons. This is another thing the first Dead Space has going for it: Isaac's weapons are not really weapons. The only items he has to protect himself are drills, saws, and industrial explosives. He is no space marine fighting off a horde of vespine aliens, but, rather, a humble, pudge-faced engineer making his way through a massive spaceship for initial reasons no grander than repair.
Unfortunately for Isaac, the ship's crew has been transformed into space zombies—necromorphs, in Dead Space parlance. Slaying these creatures requires forgoing the headshot and concentrating on blowing off any and all limbs, in what the game's marketers refer to as "strategic dismemberment." Within the largely changeless march of video-game combat, dismembering space zombies was something of a revelation.
But Dead Space's innovations extend beyond the capability to hack up enemies one arm at a time. The game's particular strength is the way it reinforces Isaac's solitude and helplessness. It does so formally, internally, via its mechanics and interface. Every bit of information you need to know about Isaac—how much ammunition he has left, how severe his injuries are, where he needs to go next—is displayed as part of his mining suit. The submenu for objectives is not stashed away in some inventory screen; it comes up organically, before Isaac himself, without stopping the game. What you see, Isaac sees; how you see it is how Isaac sees it. Also, Isaac does not speak. He screams, grunts, and yells, but when members of Dead Space's small, doomed cast of auxiliary characters address Isaac, he does not respond. Somehow, this silence gives Isaac a strange dignity, along with an affecting separateness. Playing Dead Space, I never felt as though I were Isaac, but I dearly wanted to protect him.
Dead Space concludes by letting the player know that Isaac is actually hopping mad. Indeed, Isaac's girlfriend, with whom he communicates for much of the game, was killed aboard the necromorph-crawling ship long before Isaac arrived there to fix it. Whether the Isaac you encounter at the beginning of Dead Space is already mad or is driven mad over the course of the game is mostly (and wisely) left up to the player.
The thing that may have driven Isaac mad is an ancient alien artifact called the Marker. A cult called Unitology regards this Marker, which is somehow responsible for the necromorphs, as its own Lord Xenu. Most of Dead Space's back-story emerges organically, through environmental storytelling rather than exposition, and if you happen to know something about Scientology, the Unitologist creeds can be fairly amusing. The Marker's importance, meaning, and function are never explained, and praise to Lord Xenu for that. After all, no one who played Dead Space finished the game thinking, Gosh, I wish I knew more about Unitology and the Marker. No one, apparently, but the people who made Dead Space 2.
Isaac is back in the sequel, of course, and so are the necromorphs. While the first Dead Space forced Isaac through a relatively constrictive gauntlet of crowded rooms and narrow hallways (save for a couple of truly frightening spacewalk sequences), Dead Space 2 unfolds within a larger and more open-seeming space station. This new expansiveness is not always appealing, though, and much less necessary. There is a lot of explication about the Marker, for instance, which feels as fundamentally wrong-headed as giving 2001 a coda in which the Star Child turns to the camera and explains himself. There is also a good amount about the particulars of Unitology, including a visit to an abandoned Unitology recruitment center and, after that, a devastated Unitology church. While I now have a better sense of what Unitologists believe, I am not sure why I do. Dead Space 2 serves as a prime example of the Midi-Chlorian Error, which confuses that which has not been explained for that which must be explained.
The same applies to the third-party messages and private communiqués Isaac finds scattered around the game world. All of these are obviously intended to enrich the game's fictional world; none of them actually succeed in doing so. Yes, the found text or audio file has a long, distinguished history in video-game narrative (the first Dead Space, in fact, used found audio files fairly well), but a game as otherwise intense and compelling as Dead Space 2has no need for the tertiary layer of storytelling they provide.
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.