Thursday, August 9, 2012

Retrospective: Dead Space -or- EA can't fuck up ALL the time

Electronic Arts is the serial killer of the gaming world. They butcher companies, buying them out and gutting them, and turn the corpses into meat puppets. One has only to look at the necrophilic orgy that is Origin Systems or the slaughter of Westwood and subsequent closure of the Nevada studios to see this statement clearly evident, sensationalist though it may be.

However, they have still managed to put out some decent games. Back when EA let its companies work as they would, we had Westwood Studios blazing the trail for Real-Time Strategy, beginning with the Dune games and graduating up to their grand achievement, Command & Conquer. The first two C&C games, and their Red Alert spinoffs, were fantastic to say the least.

Then EA happened, stripping Westwood apart and implementing all new rules and restrictions that stifled the creative minds of the Nevada team. Frank Klepacki, brilliant games composer who singlehandedly helmed the scores of Command & Conquer, C&C Tiberian Sun, Red Alert AND Red Alert 2, was chased off because he wouldn't sign a new, much more limiting contract. Dozens more developers who helped put EA on the map in the 90s, who made EA at the time a symbol of quality gaming, were ousted and forced to seek employment elsewhere.

Electronic Arts murdered the Ultima series, imposing a stranglehold on the already of-questionable-mentality Richard Garriott, aka Lord British and outright obliterating the eighth and ninth games.

I already did a post about how EA gutted BioWare's creative integrity and the fetid abortion that was Mass Effect 3, so I won't even go into that again.

However, just as rotting corpses can produce new life, so too can EA make something good on that rare occasion - appropriately, with rotting corpses.

Enter Dead Space, the hands-down scariest game I have ever played, and a true joy to experience.

Now, before the horror-game diehards grab their torches and pitchforks, let me explain my above statement. I have experienced the greats of horror, from Silent Hill 2 to Amnesia. None of those scared me. I could speculate on all number of reasons that they didn't, but my best guess is that my own mind is far scarier than any dissonant pseudo-world that those games can create, and the inner demons I've faced during my deepest throes of depression are a thousand times scarier than any lumbering humanoid in those games.

What works in Dead Space, especially for me, is the feeling of direct malevolence. These aren't creatures that just drift around, attacking you only if you get too close. These beasts are out for your blood, and they're built explicitly for that purpose. The monsters are faster and more mobile than you are, so running is out of the question. It's kill or be killed, prey against predator, and that alone is eminently terrifying.

Humanity has spent so long at the top of the food chain that we forget what it's like to be hunted. This is why movies like the original Halloween produced such visceral terror: we get to experience, often for the first time, the feeling of being prey.

In Amnesia you are being hunted as well, but it's a rather "false" hunt, a disingenuous kind of fear. You have no capacity to fight back, so over time the effect changes from, "Holy god I'm gonna die" to, "Ah shit, gotta reload my game."

Giving the player a means by which to fight and even defeat the predators, Dead Space creates a truly animal setting: kill, or be killed. This is different from fighting other humans, because in shooting games like Call of Duty you've done something to incite combat. Against the monsters of Dead Space, your only crime is being food.

Many critics complained that it was too easy to mow down legions of enemies, that it should have been more like Silent Hill. That's fine for survival-horror games, but Dead Space is action-horror, a different breed. In addition, the reason why the monsters are so scary is precisely because of how many you kill. The ease with which these monsters will kill you shows how dangerous they are, and when you realize how many there are... When I first saw the legions of necromorphs in Dead Space 2 I was reminded of the army ants. Indeed, necromorphs take the most horrible parts of the Amnesia monster and the army ant and fuse them together: they're designed explicitly for killing, and there are so many of them that they overwhelm damn-near anything.

The religion that rises around these creatures - a real religion, not just some blood-drinking cult - is also a part of the terror. Unitology, the Marker, "Make Us Whole"... As the story of the two games unfolds, you realize just how little anyone knows of the true inner workings of Unitology, how little anyone understands the necromorphs' hive mind.

I think that slasher movies have since desensitized most people to the predator-prey concept, so games like Dead Space are dismissed as just jump-scare fests without real scares. However, I believe that if one allows oneself to be immersed in the world of the hunted, to actually experience the isolation and tension of being alone against an endless legion of predators that the game presents so masterfully, one can truly find one of the most rewarding - and chilling - experiences in modern gaming. Likewise, for every jump-scare there are two, three or more subtle occurrences that can be missed if one's eyes aren't open. To me, that's much scarier than an endless barrage of cutscenes that outright order the player to be disturbed. Finding yourself in a living world, one that goes on with or without you, and is falling apart regardless, is to me far more terrifying than being trapped in a world made up of inner demons that would piss themselves at the dark thoughts running through my head when I'm off my meds.

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