Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week’s game is the first straight-up survival horror name on the list and a remarkable achievement, unfairly buried by executive meddling in the years hence.
#27. DEAD SPACE, by Michael Cripe
Horror has never quite been able to break out of the awkward phase when it comes to its place in video games. Sections meant to terrify lose tension due to the fact that respawning is almost always an option, and mini-maps or health bars alike always manage to obscure true immersion.
However, Visceral Games’s sci-fi masterpiece Dead Space stands true as a title so far ahead of its time that it managed to rectify nearly everything that has been holding the genre back for decades. Dead Space is a masterclass in immersive world building and no game has ever come close to even touching the bar it set in October of 2008.
Purely based on fundamentals, Visceral cracked the horror code in a way that felt as if the now shutdown developer peered into the future. Booting up Dead Space finds players in the worn shoes of interstellar engineer, Isaac Clarke. Clarke has been sent on a recon trip to the USG Ishimura after communication with the mining ship ceased.
To make matters worse, Clarke’s girlfriend was last seen onboard the same mining ship he is travelling to. Equipped with nothing but a standard RIG suit and an engineering tool called the Plasma Cutter, players are made perfectly aware that they are practically useless in terms of combat.
After the stage is set, boarding the Ishimura reveals the HUD—or lack thereof—that players will become familiar with over the next 10 or so hours of the game. From beginning to end, players will almost never see a traditional health bar, inventory select screen, or special meter. Everything that needs to be seen can be found on or around Clarke and the RIG.
The health bar is aptly located right on Clarke’s spine while stasis has a dedicated semi-circle nearby as well. Inventory is displayed via hologram in-game and if players get lost, Isaac has a navigator that can spawn from his hand in order to help guide the way. The different ways Visceral kept minds from leaving the game world range all the way from naturally intuitive to remarkably genius.
Of course, the glue that gels all of Dead Space’s moving parts into one whole is the world that has been so carefully laid out before the players. Necromorphs are the enemy encountered nearly at every turn and they manage to both terrify and intrigue. The only way to kill necromorphs is by cutting off their limbs. Not only does the specific idea of dismemberment add lots of gameplay potential, it makes these creatures completely unique to science fiction.
Mangled space zombies that come in all different shapes and sizes that are easier to kill through dismemberment are a piece to the massive lore puzzle that is Dead Space, and the piece fits flawlessly—it is all believably horrifying in every way that has not been seen since the original Resident Evil. Even more remarkable is the fact that Dead Space is somehow still a joy to look at, even an entire decade later.
Whether the art style or sheer technological power is to credit for graphics that still mostly hold up is hard to tell. Regardless, one would have little reason to not go back and give Dead Space a shot.
To add on to the world building is the narrative presented throughout. The twists and turns in a game that absolutely does not need a convincing narrative are ever present. Suddenly Clarke discovers that the necromorph invasion did not happen by chance and is actually the result of a religious cult known as Unitology.
Cultish undertones and Resident Evil visuals paint a grotesque canvas teaming with tension. Suddenly, Dead Space becomes less of a romp through a haunted house and more of an investigation that tests a willingness to survive. Even in its worst moments, Dead Space will keep players on their toes.
Dead Space is less a stepping stone for the genre and more of a landmark. The industry is still failing to keep up with Visceral’s success in immersion and world building, but that does not mean that Dead Space was anything but a triumph.
Rarely is the title brought up in discussion when looking back at the greatest games of all time, so hopefully our piece has helped shine a light as to why the horror-thriller is one of the standouts. If you have never played an entry in the franchise, we at OnlySP implore you to rush to your PC, plug in your Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, or download it on your Xbox One, to give it a shot.
To help keep the tension alive until you are boarding your first trip on the Ishimura, check out the game’s reveal trailer from E3 2008 down below.
THE AGE OF “MAINSTREAM”
Only two and a half years after the first Dead Space made waves in the survival horror genre, Dead Space 2 came along and was less an evolution of the form and more like ‘Uncharted in space’, complete with a now-voiced protagonist and explosive set-pieces. Luckily, as one of the most expensive games ever made, the sequel retained polish and excitement to spare, making it successful with critics and fans—but the damage had been done to what was once a promising horror franchise.
In the same year as Dead Space 2, publisher EA also happened to release Dragon Age II and Crysis 2. For all three games, what started as a relatively niche product for a specific audience was pressured into adopting broader strategies; in the pursuit of greater magnitudes of sales. These games all had their own fans, but at the expense of the hardcore early adopters of the series.
Crysis 2 became more linear. Dragon Age II reduced the complexity of its battle system and breadth of its world. Finally, for Dead Space, whose primary inspirations System Shock 2 and Resident Evil 4 were beloved in their time, the sequel dropped the backtracking, the tough choices around resources, the slow build of dread. By the time Dead Space 3 arrived, the spirit of new ideas that began in Dead Space was replaced with a vaguely horror-tinged shooter, one that even used the cover mechanics that were all the rage in mainstream action games.
Taking cover, co-operative multiplayer, and universal ammo (essentially erasing resource management as a problem) were all features intended to appeal to a broader audience. Not terrible by any means, Dead Space 3 maintains a healthy contingent of defenders, but the series still lost its original followers, without becoming the sort of blockbuster success that EA hoped for.
In this case, other single-player games for fans of Dead Space are not its disappointing sequels but its inspirations and successors. Aside from the aforementioned System Shock and Resident Evil, the more recent The Evil Within games share Dead Space‘s resource-managing, panic-stricken horror, and Bethesda’s reboot of Prey has many terrifying encounters, mixed with deeper role-playing mechanics.
Alien: Isolation comes closest to the visceral thrill of Dead Space‘s horror, though without the inventive rogues’ gallery that the necromorph threat brought. At the far end of the spectrum, complex action-adventures such as Dark Souls and Metroid Prime (whose 3D map presentation and slow-unlocking doors made an appearance in Dead Space) include plenty of back-tracking and snatches of horror, though less of the survival-horror aspects specifically.
Thanks for joining us this week for an important title, well worth checking out and hopefully to inspire the next generation of survival horror games. Do you have a memorable game in the survival horror genre that you wish had gotten a better shake, or at least not devolved into a cooperative action game? Share in the comments if you like, and we will see you again next week on OnlySP’s 50 Favourite Games for a very influential action series.