“Dead Space 2” has finally been unloaded into your local game shop, bringing to a close a preview tour for the nation’s most frightened and revolted mothers. Off the positive early reviews and the previous game’s success, hero Isaac Clarke and his gory enemies the Necropmorphs will surely be the talk of the game-o-sphere (and possibly parental watchdog groups) for the next couple weeks. And so it should be. The game is a step forward for the franchise in practically every capacity: more violent, more action packed and more human now that we see the Isaac Clarke’s face for more than couple minutes. But it is less scary, a strange regression for a franchise firmly tucked into the survival horror genre. Why’d developer Visceral Games relent on the spooks?
“Dead Space” was a slow survival horror game. Your gun was always a little too weak, your ammo low. Not a lot made sense — in a good way. The story required you to piece together what happened on a seemingly abandoned ship stranded in deep space. Why is this writing on the wall? Where are the people? What are those “things”?
“Dead Space 2” still has a handful of terrifying moments. Well-lit corridors have a tendency to lose power. The glass windows that separate oxygen rich rooms from the vacuum of space are curiously fragile. These tense environments, however, serve as passages between epic set pieces in cathedrals festooned with viscera and vulnerable walkways perforated by artillery from a 10-story tall gunship.
Call it the Scott-Cameron Effect. Ridley Scott’s “Alien” was a horror movie. The astronauts were ill equipped to deal with a foreign creature they couldn’t comprehend. The monster was alien, not just in the literal sense, but in its very being. How it reproduced, attacked, bled. As viewers, we learned alongside the character the perils of battling the beast. There is fear in the unknown and “Dead Space” and “Alien” share that fear.
For James Cameron’s sequel, “Aliens,” much of the mystery was gone. Cameron, the man who would later make “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “Avatar” filled the void with neck pulled back action, putting the original movie on its head, and steering the franchise — for better and worse — in the direction of the summer spectacle. “Dead Space 2” does the same.
This won’t be the only blog post to note the similarity between the games; it’s noticeable within the first 15 minutes, as a lab of humans is relieved of their extremities by creatures with blades for arms. It’s interesting however that “Dead Space” isn’t the only property to follow this well-carved path. In fact, it’s just the latest of many.
Franchises like “Uncharted,” “Gears of War” and “Halo” — in varying degrees — have used sequels to inflate the grandiosity of their narratives. Budget’s increase typically for sequels, so it’s logical ambition follows.
But what if a game tightened the experience? What if the extra money was used to create a smaller, richer, more haunting world.
We saw a hint at this potential with “Halo: ODST.” The game weakened the protagonist, plopping him in a open, dark and dangerous world. Developer Bungie even rolled the dice on a jazzy soundtrack. But the game felt more like filler than an earnest attempt at something proudly, even defiantly small.
What big budget games would you like to see more contained and refined? Or is the future always bigger and better?
Fantastic “Dead Space”/”Alien” mash-up art by Victor Zago. Visit his DeviantArt page.