Dead Space: A Second Take

In Film, video games on July 29, 2010 at 1:09 am

[As the technology in current generation consoles become more powerful and the graphical engines developers are creating begin taking advantage of this capability, games are becoming more and more cinematic. In the spirit of Gore Verbinski’s most recent keynote speech at D.I.C.E. where he anointed the gaming industry as the spiritual successor of cinema, A Second Take takes a look at some of the industries most “cinematic” games. My hope is to use an already established language to create new dialogue around a growing entertainment medium].

With Dead Space, Redwood Shores has taken the cold dark space setting of horror films such as Event Horizon, and most especially the Alien series and translated it into hi-def survival horror. If you’re a movie fan, it is easily the first thing you’ll notice. The Ishimura is a huge space freighter in the quiet isolation of space recalling fears of being any place alone at night. It’s an industrial/working class ship filled with metal objects and giant machines that beg caution unless you want to lose a limb. It recalls the fears one has when they walk into a shop class, or an operating room. There are so many gadgets whose sole purpose is to bend, stretch or tear something apart. It’s a common technique to use our most common fears and apply them somehow into a story. What is impressive about Dead Space is they manage to successfully repeat this trick throughout the game.

Take the way the creatures look in the game. They’re not as sleek and hunter like as Ridley Scott’s Alien. These aliens are wet, disfigured and reminiscent of the way a human body probably looks from the inside out. They resemble the creatures in John Carpenters classic remake, Thing. We see all sorts of monsters in the games we play and the movies we watch and most of the time they’re not that impressive. What separates the creatures in Dead Space is they tap into the human fear of mutilation. Everyone has a healthy fear of our bodies being dismembered by everyday machinery, a blender, a car or, a fall through an elevator shaft. Dead Space takes place on a mining ship. It is filed with machines that are designed to break things apart. The creatures in Dead Space are effective at scaring the player because they look like people who have been mutilated by the machinery of the mining ship. Sure, the story say’s otherwise. It clearly explains how the creatures came to look like they have. However, I would argue that deep in our subconscious the creatures in Dead Space effectively tap into our human fears of injury or death by the things we have created to make our lives better, easier and more efficient.

Some of the best parts of Dead Space are the scenes that channel the claustrophobia of movies like Das Boot and The Hunt for Red October, and the “am I hallucinating” moments of Tarkovsky’s Solaris. The sound design in Dead Space is amazing in the moments when you’re not being attacked by enemies. The subtle heartbeat throughout the game, for example, makes you wonder, “Is that me? Is it the ship? Is there something in the room with me, or right around the corner? Is it the character?” This lends itself to Hitchcockian suspense. What made Alfred Hitchcock such a great director of suspense was that he understood people are more afraid of what they can hear but can’t see. Fear is amplified when you know something strange is out there but you don’t know what it is. Even more compelling and totally unexpected are the moments in Dead Space when you begin seeing and hearing things, but you don’t know what or where it is until you get there. The way it is introduced is so unobtrusive that it takes you awhile to become suspicious.

Dead Space will receive a lot of Internet chatter about its gruesome gameplay and numerous ways that it takes the mechanics of classic titles (Gears of War, Resident Evil 4, Half Life 2, etc) and sew them together nicely. However, as the video game industry draws closer to cinema it is becoming more and more obvious that the work of a good game is its ability to channel more than other video games. Developers have been using cinema to translate their vision for years but Dead Space is a clear indication that they’re getting good at it. Just like Tarkovsky, Hitchcock and Wolfgang Peterson, EA Redwood Shores understand that action will only get you so far. In the horror genre you need suspense.

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