We tend to talk a lot about horror nowadays having too many jumpscares; or how so many works throughout the genre are too “in-your-face” with violence, taking away from the suspense and dread of stories. There are plenty of titles in gaming that one can find this and wave their finger at, but there are also those titles that obtain a superb balance within action-horror.
One of those games is none other than Dead Space.
The first entry of the Dead Space trilogy celebrates its 10 year anniversary today. While its sequels would become those action-horror games with a greater emphasis on the former rather than the latter, the first Dead Space is a horrifying masterpiece.
Developed by the late Visceral Studios, Dead Space puts you in the shoes of Isaac Clarke, an engineer sent with a team to answer a distress signal. Said signal is coming from the USG Ishimura, where Isaac’s girlfriend also happens to be. Shortly after docking the Ishimura all goes to hell; Isaac and crew are attacked and split up by a Necromorph, the alien lifeforms responsible for the station’s devastation. It is then up to Issac to make every effort he can to reconnect with his crew and get out alive.
In a formalistic sense, Dead Space is a “run and gun” game; Issac is able to use a variety of weapons to take on the Necromorphs as he moves from objective to objective. That said, Dead Space is a unique experience that uses its atmosphere to amplify tension throughout its formalist structure. Even from the moment you enter the Ishimura there’s an air of dread; from the damaged rooms and smeared blood trails, there’s so much to take in (and with zero understanding of the situation). Even considering the initial Necromorph attack, the creature pursues you without skipping a beat; and once you finally escape it, you’re left alone in a foreign place without your crew. It’s just you and the various hisses and hums of pipes surrounding you; nothing but the cold steel of the station’s infrastructure; nothing but the dead bodies surrounding you, and the Necromorphs trailing you from the shadows.
For action games it is common to maintain a high speed in aggression; games will provide many opportunities to throw waves of enemies at the player, allowing them to swing their sword or shoot away. And while Dead Space offers this same idea, it executes it much differently, elevating the emotion of horror. So many horror-action games allow players to feel powerful thanks to heavy weaponry; Dead Space on the other hand, provides you with the weaponry, but continuously messes with the player’s senses. Brief visual and audio cues keep them on guard, balancing out periods of running to slowly creeping down halls.
The environment surrounding Isaac is one of Dead Space’s greatest qualities. The design feeds into the game’s tension and suspense; while Dead Space moves like a “run and gun” title, the player may find themselves hesitating from time to time. There are numerous moments where a shadow will scurry by, or there will be a random scream in the distance. These elements work to slow the player down, aiding to pace out the flow of the game.
The Necromorphs cannot be easily killed; you can’t just fill them with bullets, they must be dismembered to be defeated. So when the player controlling Isaac turns a corner and hears a sound and hesitates, they may turn around to find a swarm of Necromorphs behind them. The player is then forced into a situation where they need to react as fast as possible (while making sure to be careful with ammo). These predicaments exude anxiety, the player cornered and panicking as they strive to survive.
Survival is key, for the wrong move will surely lead to horrific results. Dead Space has some of the most satisfying, grotesque gore I’ve witnessed in a video game. Not only is dismembering the Necromorphs brutal, but all of Isaac’s death sequences are explicitly detailed. Being torn apart comes with gruesome detail as ligaments and blood spew about the environment. The gore and violence make Dead Space one of the most visually provoking games in horror.
Dead Space is very much in the vein of films like Alien; the latter a masterful horror/sci-fi film with action elements, effectively pacing out its on-screen violence. Dead Space also shares many similarities to that of Event Horizon; in this case, the latter is a tremendous gem of psychological horror/sci-fi. Within Dead Space and Event Horizon there’s a focus of psychological instability, both deriving from some ancient artifact. In the second half of the game, this psychological component begins to grow over time, presenting a new anxiety and horror while battling the Necromorphs. Without going into spoilers, characters throughout Dead Space slowly begin to lose their sanity (with Isaac facing some effects as well).
There have been a few action-horror games that have captured that balance of violence and emotion like Dead Space. F.E.A.R. is a major example of course, as it’s a first person shooter that also effectively measures out suspense through its action pacing. That said, many titles continue to pursue the traditional elements found within action games, having the player pick up powerful weapons and plow their way through enemies.
In Dead Space, terrifying detail comes together with formalist gameplay to present an ominous experience capable of establishing unease within players. While its structure may appear simple at first, the more you play, you will soon realize the depths of madness the game offers. Maybe one day we’ll see a reboot or another sequel that honors the mechanics and atmosphere of the original entry; for now, Dead Space stands as a testament to how action-horror titles are capable of establishing adrenaline, anxiety, and dread.