What Visceral Games accomplished with the Dead Space franchise is nothing short of spectacular. This series has left an indelible mark on the horror genre as well as gaming as a whole. The first introduced us to its sci-fi world, setting the foundation for a sequel that would go on to refine that winning formula to a near-perfect balance of action and horror. The third wasn’t as refreshing as its predecessors, but its optional co-op and weapon crafting were welcome additions to the series.
Horror games have a tendency to shy away from combat in favor of giving the player an empathetic, under-equipped, and sometimes even entirely helpless character, because popular games like Clock Tower, Fatal Frame and Silent Hill found success with that approach.
Dead Space didn’t shy away from combat. Instead, it gave it a name — strategic dismemberment — and built a satisfying horror game around it. The combat made sense. Isaac Clarke wasn’t a badass, at least not initially, but he was an engineer aboard a ship that was brimming with tools that were begging to be weaponized.
Similarly to Silent Hill, which has historically relied on a minimal approach to its UI so it never breaks the immersion, Dead Space introduced a fully diegetic interface that removed the clutter by moving all of the “gamey” aspects like Isaac’s health and inventory into the game world. It wasn’t the first game to do that, but I’d argue it was the first to do it well.
I’m touching on these things because this series’ has accomplished a lot, and its willingness to innovate is something that’s worth celebrating. Whether or not Alien: Isolation goes on to become the first in a new franchise of Alien games remains to be seen. It wasn’t perfect, but developer Creative Assembly showed that same willingness to push the envelope that Visceral did with Dead Space.
They’re similar games. Both follow a member of a rescue team that’s on a mission to find a missing loved one. When they arrive, things go wrong, stranding them in a place where something has gone horribly wrong. They’re separated from their team and forced to use their unique skillsets to scavenge resources from the surrounding area to build what they need to survive.
That’s just the first 20 minutes of each game, but you get the point.
One of the major differences between Alien: Isolation and Dead Space as it is today is while most of us have had years — or in the case of the former, decades — to get familiar with their monsters, every antagonist in Isolation is introduced to us in a way that makes them terrifying.
Necromorphs aren’t any less gross or unsettling to look at as they were in 2008, but they are substantially less intimidating. You can throw as many variations of the same monsters at us as you like, but we’re familiar with their bag of tricks. A fear of the unknown is what scares us, and there’s little we don’t know about Necromorphs at this point.
Unless EA’s been working on some sort of mass memory wiping device — and after disastrous launches of Sim City, Battlefield 4 and Dungeon Keeper, they may very well might — this familiarity cannot be erased.
For Necromorphs to be as intimidating as they were in the first Dead Space, they’ll need to be made new again. This means they’ll need to be presented differently, with new abilities. In past Alien games, the aliens were little more than cannon fodder. They were insects to be squashed, rather than intelligent killing machines.
Alien: Isolation remedied this by focusing on a single, exceptionally cunning xenomorph that was nothing like the things we killed by the hundreds in games like Alien: Colonial Marines and Alien vs. Predator.
Much like Necromorphs, the alien’s movements are unpredictable thanks to an impressive AI that made clever use of the Sevastopol’s liberal smattering of vents, which it could use to sneak up on an unsuspecting Ripley. Necromorphs are former humans who have been twisted into living weapons and controlled by an ancient hive mind, but there’s little to differentiate them from your average zombie in terms of behavior.
Solutions can be found outside the horror genre, too. After Halo 3, the Covenant were familiar and predictable. They spoke English and had funny voices. Then Halo: Reach came along and they looked differently and spoke in alien languages. Even the way they moved and reacted to the player were less predictable.
There comes a point in the timeline of many video game franchises when the story goes somewhere we’d rather not follow. We’ve seen it a handful of times with games like Condemned II: Bloodshot, Resident Evil 5 and Dino Crisis 3, and while there might not be a good example of a series that’s come back from this, I have a feeling Dead Space can.
The problem lies with the final act of Dead Space 3, which is, in a word, completely f**king bonkers.
I spent some time at Visceral working on the game every day for six months, and I still couldn’t explain what happened there. Something about Necro-Moons, a Unitologist prophecy and Convergence, an alien apocalypse, because video games.
Dead Space went full-on Resident Evil Its narrative scope got too big, and what we got an incoherent mess that didn’t fit with this series’ greatest strengths. It wasn’t a story about survival against a horrific alien menace; it was a tale of survival against multiple alien threats told on a galactic scale.
As a franchise, Aliens has an impressive fiction and scope that could be used for the foundation of hundreds of films and video games. Alien: Isolation could’ve been more narratively ambitious, but that would’ve made it less personal. When the player loses that personal connection to the character they control, they care less, making it less effective as a horror game.
Before it can scare us again, Dead Space will need to scale back. The countless hours I spent aboard the Sprawl and the USG Ishimura will stick with me considerably longer than Tau Volantis, despite my appreciation for the homage Dead Space 3 gave to The Thing.
For now, Dead Space is on hiatus. It hasn’t been canned, and EA has gone to great lengths to confirm that fact three separate times now. Isaac and Friends are taking a much-needed break, and the more time they spend finding themselves before making a triumphant return, the better.