Did you know that at one point in its development Dead Space was supposed to be called Rancid Moon? It’s true. It’s the perfect Horror name, equal parts goofy and scary. They should have stuck with it. But the only laughter you’ll hear onboard the Ishimura is maniacal, and the only humour the splat-stick of being popped in half by a squealing Necromorph, I’m sorry to say.
Unfortunately, since EA was making a Horror game and not starting a Crust Punk band, Rancid Moon had to go. But still, can you imagine?
You haven’t seen a moon this rancid since Event Horizon.
I hope you brought your helmet.
The following is a review of a twelve year-old Horror game. Spoilers abound, and so do descriptions and images of intense, Sci-Fi violence. Dead Space is really, really gross! This is your body-horror warning 🙂
Like Event Horizon, the film it clearly worships, Dead Space‘s scariest moments are all in the first half. Things don’t start well, and while they quickly get worse, they never get worse than the sheer, confusing terror of the first act. Few Horror games or movies do.
Like the best Horror Sci-Fi, everything has gone wrong and home is impossibly far away.
Alone and adrift about the ‘Planetcracker’ mining craft USS Ishimura, you’re spiralling rudderless into a gravity well above the cursed planet of Aegis VII. The engines are out, the escape pods are out, and there’s no fuel left. The lights are out, too, and the oxygen systems are failing along with the artificial gravity. Something massive and tentacled has crushed itself into the food labs. It’s growing larger in there somehow, you hear it scream. The audio logs you find just call it ‘The Leviathan’.
The ship needs work. You’re a million miles from Earth and Hell has infested the Ishimura. Hallways appear to be coated in flesh, and liquid runs along the decks underfoot. None of this seems possible, but there’s no time to think.
The debris-blasting cannons are out – and you’re headed straight into an asteroid field. Impacts rock the ship from side to side; the hallway tilts crazily as you slam against a wall, then the ceiling. Elsewhere in the ship, asteroid impacts rip walls apart to expose open space: you’ll have to proceed in the silent drift of zero-gravity if you want to get through, while the o2 gauge on your back counts the seconds until you suffocate. You know that somewhere out there you companions can barely breathe in the dark.
First thing’s first: you need to get the oxygen running again. But something just crashed through a vent in the last room. It screeches as it drags itself across the floor; you can hear it but you can’t see it. not yet. You’re a tradesman, not a soldier, so you grip your welding gun tight and hope it’s enough.
Your wife is in here somewhere, deep in the rotten heart of the ship. She’s scared.
You know because you keep hearing her whispering around the corners.
Dead Space is at times so frightening and stressful that you’ll have to panic-pause and stop playing. I know I did. It stretches the definition of ‘fun’ in the same way all the best Horror titles aspire to, but marries those scares to a superb, innovative combat system. It’s the rare millennial horror title that empowers the player without losing scares, and it does it with a filmmaker’s eye for framing and suspence.
It is very, very good and very, very scary. I should know, I just beat it last month after stepping away from it for a decade. The game came out in 2008.
You play as Isaac Clark, a masked engineer who, in one of the game’s rare moments of dry humour, is named after Science-Fiction authors Isaac Aasimov and Arthur C. Clarke. He works for a galatic mining company. Somehow Isaac didn’t assume his life would turn into a Sci-Fi movie at some point.
Isaac’s life turns into a Sci-Fi movie immediately.
Isaac’s wife Nicole works for the mining company too, and a part of his reason for heading to the Ishimura (aside from it being his job) is to reconnect with her and the rest of the crew. While contact with the Ishimura has been down for some time, it’s not the only place with communication issues: Isaac and Nicole fought when last they spoke. While you never find out what the fight was about, Nicole’s final video message is ambiguous and ominous enough to inspire serious concern.
With that worry hanging over your head, you arrive at the Ishimura with your landing crew. You pull on your glowing engineer’s helmet and emerge into the loading bay. Something is very obviously wrong.
It doesn’t take long for things to get a whole lot worse.
If any of those plot beats seemed familiar, it’s because Dead Space borrows liberally from Event Horizon, Solaris, Alien, Aliens and just about every other terror-in-space epic. Its story and setting are a kind of haunted-spaceship pastiche and eagle-eyed players will be able to spot the tropes one by one as they appear. While the interstellar haunted house might have made for a fun game on its own, it’s the risks that Dead Space takes with its gameplay and storytelling that set it apart, even twelve years later. Dead Space isn’t a perfect game – and in 2020 its flaws are particularly telling – but it endures as a horror classic because it is, to this day, staggeringly unique.
It comes down to Isaac and his welding gun, both of whom are still ahead of their time. Let’s get into why.
The first and most important thing you have to know about Isaac Clarke is that he is a tradesman, and he takes his job seriously. Very, very seriously. He’s a card-carrying member of the Galactic Engineer’s Guild (presumably), and that means he can fix anything that might happen to go wrong on a ship like the Ishimura, which is fortunate because everything is about to go wrong on the Ishimura. In basically any other title Isaac’s profession would be a footnote, a character quirk to use as a launchpad for the more-interesting rest of the story that is not about engineers.
For an illustrative example look to Alan Wake, the game whose protagonist goes from novelist to serial-marskman the second he finds a gun.
Not Isaac. Isaac is serious about his job.
He’s an engineer through and through, it’s who he is and it informs the ways he solves his problems. He’s as analytical as he is silent, and every combat encounter is in service of his larger goal as an engineer: to fix the hundred things wrong with the Ishimura and get it back in the sky. Preferably, while saving his wife. The only thing standing in his way, and the only thing that does not conform to Isaac’s job description, is killing thousands of aliens.
As it turns out, even the aliens are happy to oblige Isaac’s choice of career.
Dead Space’s aliens, when they finally do show up, are absolutely terrifying. Equal parts arachnid, crustacean and corpse, they’re a kind of zombie-Giger monstrosity that springs out of dead flesh, often literally. They’re living examples of the theory that everything evolves into crabs, and they’re called Necromorphs.
Necromorphs scuttle, climb the walls, and dive at you from off-screen. They scream and gurgle as they haul themselves, painfully, around the ship. There are dozens of varieties, but they all look like twisted human corpses. Eventually you’ll encounter one that looks like a manta-ray made of skin that clatters around on the ground until it finds a corpse to mount. That corpse then turns into a hulking, burned-looking humanoid that screams and rushes at you. You learn not to let the ‘manta’s near corpses at the same moment you realize where the Necromorphs are coming from: they’re the crew of the USS Ishimura. They all are; some were friends, others were antagonists, but they’re all mindness, creeping ghouls made of gurgling re-purposed flesh. And hatred.
They’re as pleasant as they sound, and Dead Space is very keen to make sure you never get used to them. They introduce new Necromorphs at a steady clip, straight through to the end of the game. You haven’t seen the last of them until the credits roll, and even then. This game has two sequels.
It’s worth pausing to mention that the Necromorphs, awful as they are to look at, are an example of Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror that doesn’t trade on Lovecraft’s own intense xenophobia and racism. Humans did not create the Necromorphs, though they certainly have a hand in their spread. They don’t speak, no one truly controls them and they are effectively unknowable. The Necromophs exist because they exist: the universe contains them, and their hunger is unsatiable. They’re an elemental, neutral force. They sweep over organic matter like a tidal wave and subsume it. Because they are organic, shifting masses of cells themselves, they reconfigure at will and emerge in more complex, grotesque forms as the game goes on. On account of their invincibility and adaptibility, the Necromorphs maintain their scare factor long after you’ve acclimatized to their presence. For a similar example, look to John Carpenter’s The Thing; the Necromorphs don’t represent anyone in particular, they represent fear of the other itself, elemental and raw.
They’re perfectly terrifying, and up til the game’s very end you’ll never see them coming, I promise.
Back to Isaac and his career.
Isaac’s is never off the clock, and his engineering background comes in handy immediately. The game calls the creatures Necromorphs, but they’re really more of an angry bacteria than an alien race. Because they the corpses they inhabit are vessels, and not the creatures themselves , headshots are no good and conventional weaponry won’t work. They don’t breathe and the brain isn’t controlling the body – the Necromorph is, whatever that means. Zombie logic doesn’t apply because the Necromorph itself is very much alive. Thankfully, Isaac isn’t a zombie hunter.
Fresh out of his ship, the first ‘weapon’ Isaac encounters isn’t a weapon at all, it’s a 26th century nail gun. It’s his engineer’s Plasma Cutter, which shoots medium-range flat blades of energy through the air – all the better to weld a space ship together in zero gravity. When Isaac first encounters a Necromorph he doesn’t have a gun, and even later when he does he’ll find they don’t really work. Armed only with the Plasma Cutter, Isaac thinks with his head: all varieties of Necromorph have talons or tentacles or long, spindly legs. His Plasma Cutter has a toggle for horizontal and vertical beams.
It doesn’t take Isaac long to realize that he can amputate limbs, one by one, until the Necromorphs thump helplessly to the floor. From there, safety is only a stomp away.
Voila, Horror game history. Gross!
If this seems grotesque and over-the-top explicit, it absolutely is. Dead Space leverages body horror to a degree unparalleled for the time, and rarely matched since. Every time you zip off a leg or five with the Plasma Cutter you’ll feel a little nauseous. Safety often comes at the price of a queasy stomach, and its one of Dead Space‘s most notoriously enduring virtues. It’s just extremely, overwhelmingly gross. And it never lets up.
Though you’ll eventually find a variety of other actual weapons (combat rifle, trip-wire, useless laser punch), the simple brutality of the Plasma Cutter is the guiding principle of all Dead Space combat. In every single fight you’ll find yourself looking for weak points in the enemy carapace – say, a joint – and pop them off one by one. It’s a quietly revolutionary approach to Horror combat. If you’re going to empower the player at all, have it be a way that makes sense in-universe. Then, make it as unpleasant as possible. It’s horror, after all. Simple as that.
Plus, you’re an engineer. You put things together and take them apart. Why not enemies?
Isaac’s career as a galactic engineer repair-man doesn’t stop at combat.
On the front of his heavy metal suit there’s a holographic projector that displays his health, inventory, objectives and map, right in front of his face. It’s perfect for hands-free use in the vacuum of space. There’s no menuing in the game, save the one Isaac controls in-game by tilting his head. You’ll be looking over his shoulder, so you can check menus as you wander around – just make sure no enemies are coming. Along Isaac’s back there’s a neon strip that displays his health – the better for his coworkers on the site to judge his safety. When he recovers the ability to throw large objects with telekinesis (so helpful on a job site!), the gauge on his back tells fellow workers if he’s low on juice. In zero-grav, zero-oxygen environments a different readout pops up, also on Isaac’s back, to tell his companions how his air supply is doing. In fact, every single part of Isaac’s uniform is tuned to safety and teamwork at a dig site. It just makes logical sense – Isaac wouldn’t have to see that stuff, or he can see it on the helmet readout – why not put it on his back?
Of course, in Dead Space Isaac’s only coworker is you.
Isaac’s suit is named the Resource Integration Gear, or RIG, and it’s yet-another quietly revolutionary feature. Dead Space has no health bar, no ammo count, no waypoint of any kind that doesn’t appear somewhere on Isaac’s RIG. If you want to check a map, it’s in Isaac’s projection display. If you want to know where to go, you activate the waypoint that beams a laser across the floor. At no point will you ever leave Isaac’s field of view, which also means you’ll never leave the Ishimura itself. Whether you’re equipping an item or using an oxygen pack, you’re never really safe and play never stops. The impact on player immersion is immense.
This kind of in-universe storytelling, where everything from the ammo-count to the menuing is literally occurring in the game-world, is called Diagetic Storytelling. Dead Space absolutely excels at it. Since Isaac is an engineer and a tradesman, his weapons are literally mining tools and he battles Necromorphs with knowledge born of a construction site. Because the worksite has to be safe, Isaac’s health readout is visible on his back, to the benefit of his coworkers. When Isaac steps outside into a zero-grav environment, he (and you) can only hear whatever sound is produced by the reverberations of the environment against his suit, whether that be gunshots, enemy attacks or other impacts. After all you’re Isaac, or the invisible coworker behind him. And in space no one can hear you scream.
Everything is justified, everything makes sense. Everything is ‘real’.
Therefore, everything is terrifying.
From the moment Isaac puts on the helmet and walks off his landing craft, the Kellion, he is the last truly working-class person on the Ishimura. He’s the only tradesman left alive, and it’s worth examining why.
Isaac wears a mask because he’s meant as the playe-insert, which is the same reason he never speaks a word, even in the most emotionally-charged scenes. More than that, he is a faceless, super-capable laborer, surrounded on every side by lying technocrats, government agents, zealots and literal screaming monsters. In a lot of ways he’s the epitome of the working class. Dead Space is, believe it or not, a class commentary.
Turns out it has even more in common with Alien than it first seems.
It’s worth pointing out that the scenario of Dead Space (if not the script) was penned by Warren Ellis. This is the same Warren Ellis of Transmetropolitan, Castlevania and recent sexual-misconduct allegation fame. While this article isn’t about Ellis (good.), it’s worth pointing out how far his shadow falls over every part of Dead Space, right down to its thematic core.
To point at his most famous work, Transmetropolitan (loosely) focuses on a disenfranchised labour-class being jerked around by the endlessly corrupt, irredeemably evil powers-that-be. A great deal of Ellis’ work is like this. Isaac Clarke is absolutely one of these prototypical workers, signified early-on by his competency, his silence and his physically-distinct appearance. Isaac is, notably, the only person in the game to show up to work in the engineer’s armor, and it’s one of the only things that keeps him alive. His silence also keeps him honest: everyone else aboard the ship has an agenda, a secret the hiding, or a murky plan for the Necromorphs and the mysterious obelisk that seems to connect them. Everyone, that is except Isaac. He’s brought on as a labourer compelled only by the mystery of his missing wife and, later, by his own survival. His missions are never complex, his needs never obscured by his desires, and his mission never as mystery. He’s the only cast member without a secret.
Isaac wants to save his wife and he wants to go home. That’s it.
Yet from the moment he arrives on the Ishimura, Isaac is manipulated by, literally, everyone. The secret obelisk aboard the ship, the payload of its mining expedition, is a matter of governmental and religious significance, and everyone wants their hands on it for a different reason. The mining expedition is a cover up for a cover up, and it turns out everyone is lying to everyone else at once including, apparently, Isaac’s own mind as he’s slowly driven insane. The metaphor slowly becomes clear.
Pulled in every conceivable direction by forces outside his control or understanding, Isaac’s only recourse is to find honesty in the work itself. Which he does.
He’s the only honest man in space.
Beloved on release, Dead Space is a truly unique, incredibly unpleasant horror experience that in many ways is still ahead of its time. The interactive puzzle of its combat married to the elegance of its diagetic storytelling remain more or less peerless – even 12 years and several sequels later. For those with a strong stomach and steady nerves, I recommend it completely. Just make sure to watch Event Horizon first for all the spoilers.
Take a trip to Rancid Moon, it’s fun and gross.
Just don’t believe anything you see, hear, or dismember.