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The Evolution of Dead Space: Why Going from Horror to Action is the Natural Path

by pedrovay2003   //   2:10 PM on 02.16.2013



*minor spoilers may be ahead*

I want to go on the record here and say that I absolutely LOVE horror. I never used to; It was the movie, Signs, of all things, that got me hooked on the genre. The Resident Evil series was my first foray into the world of horror in gaming, and I could never get enough. I recently played through the Silent Hill games, Fatal Frame is a personal favorite, and just hearing the name Amnesia gets my heart racing. But none of these series are closer to my heart than Dead Space.

I first played the original Dead Space the day it came out, after taking a chance and preordering a game that started a brand-new IP. I immediately fell in love with it, and it was one of the few games that I immediately started playing again as soon as I had finished it the first time. The dark corridors, the superb lighting, the constant whispering throughout the entire game... All of these things have stuck with me since the day I finished it, and I still think that the first game in the series is one of the finest I've ever played on any platform. With the release of Dead Space 2 and, more recently, Dead Space 3, it's not hard to tell that the games have collectively become a much faster-paced experience as the series moved forward. A lot of people think this is a bad thing, and EA even addressed it as a "necessary evil," because the original Dead Space was a masterpiece of horror excellence. While I do miss the scary moments from that first entry (and quite a few unnerving moments in the second), I believe the action-oriented gameplay the series has switched over to is a natural evolution that should, at least, to a point, be embraced, and it's all thanks to its brilliant main character, Isaac Clarke.

Isaac isn't your typical shooting game hero. In fact, he didn't start out as a hero at all -- He was an engineer. The entire reason he was even on the USG Ishimura in the first game was to fix some machinery, and he just happened to get caught up in the hell that the Marker created for everyone on board. He was often scared, as you could tell from his breathing and his own journal entries, and the weapon he was using wasn't a weapon at all, but a simple plasma cutter normally used for repairs. He had to rely on other peoples' experiences to figure out how to even effectively hurt the Necromorphs. In layman's terms, he was bumbling. He had NO IDEA how to handle the situation. He hadn't signed up for what he was going through.

Fast foward to Dead Space 2. Isaac is awakened on a ship that he had never even heard of, and one that is currently experiencing the same outbreak of Necromorphs that he had dealt with on the Ishimura. He may be a bit confused, and there may be a ton of unanswered questions, but he knows how to react: He runs. He even gets noticeably excited when he finds another plasma cutter to dismember his enemies with. He seems more confident than he did in the first game, as if his instincts are driving his actions.

Dead Space 3. Isaac has shotguns and rocket launchers. He's not insane anymore, he's got a grip on the situation, and he blows EVERYTHING to hell without flinching. He knows his enemy like the back of his hand.



Notice a certain similarity to something else here? No? Let me write it out in a different way:

You're not a typical shooting game hero. In fact, you didn't start out as a hero at all -- You were an engineer. The entire reason you were even on the USG Ishimura in the first game was to fix some machinery, and you just happened to get caught up in the hell that the Marker created for everyone on board. You were often scared, as you could tell from your own breathing, and the weapon you were using wasn't a weapon at all, but a simple plasma cutter normally used for repairs. You had to rely on other peoples' experiences to figure out how to even effectively hurt the Necromorphs. In layman's terms, you were bumbling. You had NO IDEA how to handle the situation. You hadn't signed up for what you were going through.

Fast foward to Dead Space 2. You're awakened on a ship that you had never even heard of, and one that is currently experiencing the same outbreak of Necromorphs that you had dealt with on the Ishimura. You may be a bit confused, and there may be a ton of unanswered questions, but you know how to react: You run. You even get noticeably excited when you find another plasma cutter to dismember your enemies with. You seems more confident than you did in the first game, as if your instincts are driving your actions.

Dead Space 3. You have shotguns and rocket launchers. You're not insane anymore, you've got a grip on the situation, and you blow EVERYTHING to hell without flinching. You know your enemy like the back of your hand.

See where I'm going with this?



Horror games are unique because you actually BECOME the character. It isn't like you're playing AS a character -- like Mario, for example -- and you're just trying to get that character to the end of the game. When something scares you, you feel it on a personal level. When all hell started to break loose in the first Dead Space, Isaac's animations showed how taken aback he was, his breathing became heavier, and he was obviously unsure of himself. He was scared.

YOU were scared. Because you WERE Isaac.

As the series progressed, the elements of horror started to become more and more rare. This isn't because the games were getting worse, or because Visceral had lost its vision for the series; It was because Isaac was growing, and you along with him. He knew what to expect and what to watch out for. He knew what could potentially be around the corner, waiting to take his head off, and, most importantly, he knew how to take care of those threats. And you knew these very same things. As Isaac (the character) started to become so much more brave and sure of himself, so did you (the player).

Isaac knew his enemy. YOU knew YOUR enemy. The Necromorphs didn't drastically change from game to game, and that's a key factor. In the first game, you had to rely on audio logs and messages written on walls (in blood, no less) to tell you how to kill those Necromorphs. Did that same thing happen in the second game? How about the third? No, it didn't, because the enemies were the same. You and Isaac had been through this before. You and Isaac knew what to do. Your experiences and battle scars were all you needed.

Cut off their limbs. Dismember them. Cripple them. Like a mantra that can never be forgotten, it was something you had learned in the darkness of the Ishimura's chambers, seared into your brain for the rest of your life. The gap between games didn't do a thing to slow you down. You were on top of things. You were sweating like crazy when these unknown aliens were first trying to kill you, but when you had to fight for your life, it became clear that you were more than capable of surviving. You had gone through hell and lived to tell the tale, and now you had a job to finish.

You were no longer an engineer. You were a soldier.



You and Isaac always fought the same enemy, but in different places. This experience that was repeated over and over was what made the games less scary as the series progressed. It's all a matter of familiarity. The enemies didn't change, so you had no reason to relearn everything you had already experienced. And I think that's a good thing; So many series nowadays try to drastically change from game to game that they don't even feel like they belong together. While Dead Space 3 had an atmosphere that may not have felt anything like the first game, you knew it was a part of the same series simply because of the enemies. You knew how they looked, how they moved, how they sounded, and how they died, like clockwork. Three games worth, and it was second nature. Sure, the scare factor may have dissolved after all that time, but that's only because there's so much more to them than wetting yourself while playing. The sense of familiarity and the knowledge that you possessed by the time you got to the third game are key elements of the entire franchise, and the quality of the games never wavered.

EA called Dead Space 3's progression into the action genre a "necessary evil," but I think Visceral did a fantastic job making it work. Dead Space is a phenomenal series not just because of the original scare factor, but because of how close to Isaac you end up feeling in the end. You truly sympathized with who I consider to be one of the most human characters in all of gaming. Through the ups and downs, you and Isaac Clarke were one and the same, growing together step by step. And in the end, horror wasn't the reason to come back to the series time and time again -- You came back to lose yourself in the world that was so familiar to you, yet from which you could never manage to pull yourself away. it was to hone your senses and sharpen your skills. You came back to become one with Isaac, to experience the rest of his -- your -- story. You came back to kick Necromorph ass. And scary or not, it's been one of the best rides in gaming I've ever taken.









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