Towards the final chapters of 2008’s sci-fi horror Dead Space, engineer Isaac Clarke is forced to trundle his way through the halls of a recently crashed military ship named the USM Valor in order to retrieve a Deluxe Mcguffin Meal called a ‘Singularity Core’ with the goal of powering an escape shuttle. It’s the latest biro scratch on a yellow post-it list of ‘if it can go wrong, it will go wrong’ objectives, each contrived with such transparent honesty – and fresh with promises of more expert scares – that the player can’t help but forgive their Bioshock-ian “fucking really?!”-ness.
Between assaults by the scythe-limbed alien horrors the game calls necromorphs, Isaac will duck into what looks like a passenger lounge for a light breather. Through a harsh regime of treat-speckled scarcity, Dead Space has by this point trained the player to rifle, rummage, scrape, scrounge, and otherwise vacuum until each new architectural victim has been shaken down for its valuables, then stomped on a few times for luck. If Isaac had not chosen engineering as his vocation, he would no doubt be a low-level mobster worth fearing.
In the corner of this particular lounge is a pile of crates. I replayed Dead Space recently for the first time since release, time and distance granting me fresh eyes. So, with all the predictable, cavern-mouthed zeal of an emaciated plastic hippo anally attached to a lever, I eagerly and thirstily flung aside those crates with Isaac’s Kinesis module, and rubbed my greasy goblin mitts together in anticipation of the goody I was sure to be rewarded for my fastidious situational awareness. You play God of War Ragnarok and Marvel’s Spider-Man back to back and, with perfect Pavlovian predictability, you start expecting every optional exertion to end in a delicious treat.
There is no goody behind those crates. There’s a necromorph, sealed into a vent, and only just thankful enough for its newfound freedom to screech once at you before it dives in for the kill. The reason there’s a necromorph there is because Dead Space cares enough about its fiction to consider that the terrified crew members of the USM Valor, while under attack from violent space horrors, would only bother to pile up a Kinesis-worthy mound of crates in front of something if it stood to immediately aid their survival. Well, fuck. Said I. I had done Dead Space an embarrassing disservice by treating it like a video game character, when I should have been treating it like a survivor. This is why Dead Space is so good. So much about it screams authenticity to a singular vision, to a mood, and ultimately, to an experience.
The well-loved (and well good) sci-fi horror TTRPG Mothership (which cites Dead Space as an influence) imparts a storytelling ethos based on the tension between three outcomes a party or player might want to achieve over the course of a story. “Survive, Solve, Save: Pick One.” Survive the journey. Solve the mystery. Save the day. Our hero(es) will often achieve one, rarely two, but never three. From this almost code-like elegance, great stories emerge, as if by magic. You can work out what’s killing the colonists. You might even help them evacuate. But you’ll sacrifice yourselves in the process. Or save yourselves, and let the colony die. Or blow the place to hell, escape with the civilians, but never learn what went down. This tension captures the inherent bleakness of sci-fi horror as a genre. Yesteryear brings harsh but comfortingly fair fairytale morality, shared around a campfire. The further we travel from the simplicity of wood and flame to boosters, stars, and anti-grav, the closer we get to senseless despair, spiritual mutilation, and the glistening mouths of eldritch idiot gods.
When I first played through Dead Space, Isaac Clarke died at the end, and you cannot tell me otherwise. There was no Dead Space 2. I hadn’t read or watched any supplementary material. Isaac leaves the planet, after witnessing everybody he encounters die varying degrees of horribly, and after responding to his love’s suicide with gaming’s most iconic shoulder slump. Then, after an uneasily triumphant gasp of helmet-free air, I watched him devoured by a stowaway necromorph during a hallucinogenic fit. Basic observation could have shown me I was wrong, and subsequent canon has tried to gaslight me into my own marker-like madness, but I saw what I saw, damn it. That’s how the game ended for me, and that’s the experience that stuck.
I bring up the Mothership system because I think it helps explain why that ending remains so marrow-scoopingly cathartic. Isaac solves the mystery of the marker, but saves no-one, and either barely survives or doesn’t, depending on your interpretation. It should leave us feeling hollow. Cheated, even. But it’s invigorating in its cruel confidence to a vision and mood. We love Dead Space because it refuses to give us what we want while still giving us everything we want to know.
A great bloody chunk of that vision sprung from co-lead, personal crunch enjoyer, and debatable crunch enforcer Glen Schofield’s viewing of the notorious New French Extremity classic Martyrs around the time of development. Martyrs is a uniquely powerful and transcendentally unpleasant work, and almost nothing it does would be the least bit enjoyable or successful if translated directly to video game form. Even the bits with a shotgun are depressing. But Schofield knew this, and so the specter of Martyrs haunts Dead Space almost subliminally, like a distorted two-frame blip in hours of scrubbed footage. Barely a jump scare. Barely a whisper: nothing will be ok. Nothing.
Dead Space is not a great game because it is cruel to the point of hopelessness, but because its commitment to these things squirm and wriggle through every fiber of the Ishimura like weevils through a ship’s biscuit. From its cobbled-together engineering weapons, to its collage of found sound effects, that authenticity feeds back to make its hopelessness feel so narratively inescapable – so rhythmically satisfying – that it can’t help but make bleakness feel almost victorious. By the time you’ve got your bearings, it’s weevils all the way down, and they’re chewing at the inside of your mouth. And you’re bloody smiling about it, you are. More weevils! You’re shouting, even as weevils escape your mouth because of all the shouting. Sick, you are. Weevil-sick and loving it.
I like to think that at least part of this authenticity stems from the traces of immersive sim still left in the game’s DNA, remnants from its murky past as a potential System Shock reimagining, and immersive sim style mechanics are nothing if not painstaking efforts to prop up prefab scenery until it resembles a believable space: one that lets you play inside of it, rather than just play through it. Or, to put it another way, a ghost train that lets you, at least occasionally, control the speed, even stopping to hurl fellow passengers onto the tracks. To allow the sort of often-comical freedom that comes alongside unpredictable physics systems and still maintain Dead Space’s sense of dread throughout though? Well, that’s just some damn fine engineer work.