Very late to the party - Dead Space
Updated: Aug 24, 2021
I've had Dead Space sat on my pile of shame since it came out all the way back in 2008. This near 13 year span makes it the second oldest game sat on that pile. I started it all the way back then, but didn't make it through - it scared the living daylights out of me.
Why? Well, to answer that, I need to go all the way back to 1997. Let's rewind...
I was 18 years old in 1997 - a long haired, scruffy stoner teenager. Princess Diana had recently died, Dolly the sheep had just been cloned, and I was starting to hear the first noise about a recently published book that might be worth reading: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. By day, I worked in an ice cream parlour in Stratford-Upon-Avon - where I split my time between cigarette breaks, singing along to the instore music (we had a CD that featured a bunch of tracks by Depeche Mode and The Cure), giving tourists directions to Shakespeare's house that were occasionally correct, and sometimes serving customers. By night, I played videogames, partied, made music, and watched movies. A lot of movies. I was a big fan of sci-fi, and a big fan of action movies - with Alien and Aliens both sitting somewhere near the top of my all-time top ten favourites. They still do.
Sometime in early summer, I saw a trailer for a movie called Event Horizon. From the way it was advertised, it looked like the kind of thing I'd enjoy; rescue mission in space goes wrong, lots of military-type people running and shouting. That trailer sold it more as an action movie than as the horror it actually was - and I was sold on it immediately. There were a couple of guys who I worked with who I knew would be up for going to a midnight showing - chats were had, plans were made... and as usual, on the day the plan was to be executed it all went wrong. Kinda. It was scuppered by a couple of beautiful tourists - one of whom caught the eye of one of the guys at work. He spent the whole day chatting this girl up, and by closing time they'd... made other plans, shall we say. I couldn't blame him for blowing me off - in his shoes, I'd have done the same thing. So, shop closed and at about 11pm, he went off arm in arm with this girl while I wandered off in the direction of my car. I filed the parking ticket in the glove box with all the others I'd had (parking for work in Stratford-Upon-Avon was, and still is, an absolute nightmare) then drove the 20 or so miles to the cinema that was showing Event Horizon at midnight.
Tickets bought, I wandered in and found a seat in the sweet spot for sound - slightly off centre and about two thirds of the way toward the back. A couple wandered in and sat about six rows in front of me as the lights dimmed. The movie began.
Have you ever seen Event Horizon? If not... you need to. Seriously. It scared the living shit out of me. There's a moment in it - probably only ten minutes or so into the movie, if that. Dr Weir wakes up early from cryosleep and wanders the deck of the ship he's on. It's deserted, quiet. Creepy. As he approaches the bridge, there's a naked woman sitting in one of the seats; her back to him. She's talking to him, telling him that it's OK - that he's with her now... forever. As she says the word 'forever' she opens her eyes... on empty sockets. I dropped my popcorn, and the couple in front of me stood up and left.
I found myself entirely alone, in a massive cinema screen.
Watching a movie that I thought was going to be an action movie, but instead turned out to be the scariest horror movie I'd ever seen - complete with lightning fast 'visions of hell' moments featuring maggots, barbed wire, and impalement. "Libera tu ta me ex inferis." I watched the rest of the movie through the gap between my fingers, simultaneously terrified and fascinated... but mostly terrified. Two hours later, I drove home with the interior light on in my car, quietly convinced that I was going to look to my left to see Sam Neill, eyeless and grinning, sat in the passenger seat.
So, how is this relevant to Dead Space? Let's fast forward to 2008.
Make no mistake: Dead Space is cut from the same cloth as Event Horizon. It's horror, it's set in space, and it's frankly terrifying. Playing it on launch, it scared the daylights out of me - enough for me to put it down and walk away. It was recommended to me by a mate at work, and while I could immediately see that it was a good game, it just wasn't for me at the time. My daughter was about 18 months old when it came out - and an early gameplay area puts you in an area where you're attacked by basically mutated babies. It was a massive 'nope' moment for me - and I bailed. Several years later, I came back to it and got a bit further - only to bail shortly after defeating a boss about a third of the way through.
Fast forward again to 2021... and I've finally finished it - and I enjoyed it from start to finish. For a 13 year old game, it's aged incredibly well. Graphically, it still looks good - with lighting and particles all playing a part in selling the atmosphere - and making me wonder just how incredible the recently announced remake could end up looking when it drops on current hardware. The tone of the game hasn't aged at all, the sound design is still a key factor in what makes it so damn scary, and even the mechanics of it still feel solid.
Isaac Clark - the playable character - is not a soldier, or a mercenary. He's an engineer thrown into a horrifying situation. He's wearing a massive protective suit - meaning that he moves slowly. Every footstep carries weight; he hunches his shoulder as he moves forward - his animation and movement helping to sell the oppressive tone of the game. The much lauded diegetic interface - with health meters, ammo counters and other bits and pieces of UI all being displayed as part of the game world - is still a beautiful piece of design to behold today, and something that I think we still don't see enough of in games even if it's become more common since this game was new. In true survival horror style, resources are finite and combat is risky.
Where it falls down a bit is in its structure - which eventually falls into a fairly predictable routine. Like Event Horizon before it, Dead Space becomes more action oriented and less horror as it goes along. By the time I reached the two thirds point of the game, the jump scares weren't catching me out quite so often. While the atmosphere of the game was still creepy and oppressive, it eventually gave way to formula. You'd end up in a new area, be faced with a journey through dark, cramped corridors - in which nothing would usually happen. Then there would be a larger room, and some combat. Then a puzzle to solve, some more combat... and on it went. A couple of the boss fights felt like an exercise in frustration, with some really twitchy controls in set pieces. As epic as these moments are meant to be, I couldn't help but feel like they were pulling the game away from what it did best - the quiet moments.
Those moments when all you can hear is the sound of Isaac's breath in his respirator, the metallic, mechanical whines and growls of the USG Ishimura... and distant growls and screams. Those moments of dread anticipation when you know that something is nearby - but you don't know exactly what that something may be or exactly where it is, when every step is a nerve-shredding act of will, dragging you toward a consequence that feels hopelessly unavoidable.
Dead Space is full of moments like that - and I've realised that I enjoy them now in a way that I never did before. To the point where I'm going to hunt out some more games that can give me a similar feeling. I've long believed I didn't like horror games... and 2021 is proving to me that, once again, I didn't know myself as well as I thought.
Do you like horror games? Did you enjoy Dead Space? Do you have a suggestion for what I can play next? Hit me up on Twitter to share your thoughts!