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Dead Space proved that in horror games, bigger isn’t always better

Visceral Games’ first Dead Space game was intimate and terrifying

Isaac, in a space suit, looks down upon a space station structure in a screenshot of Dead Space. Visceral Games/Electronic Arts

The tensest moments of the Dead Space trilogy are usually centered around a very simple image: Isaac Clarke, in his bulky engineer suit, stands in a narrow, dark corridor of an abandoned spaceship. His spinal indicator shows your health, which is often as comforting a light as you can get, and you can hear his breath rasping inside his helmet. A light flickers, you pause, and just when you finally feel close to safe, there’s a noise — the rattle of a vent, the sound of bone and flesh scraping against floor — and you remember you’re not safe, and you never were.

Even as you graduate to deadlier weapons and larger, more horrific enemies, the best settings in Dead Space are intimate, quiet and carefully balanced to provide the right amount of detail while still allowing the player to project themselves into that heavy, slow-moving engineer suit.

While Dead Space 3 famously fell apart, the franchise’s problems started with Dead Space 2... or maybe with the expectation that there be a franchise at all. It wasn’t the Necromorphs or the Unitologists that doomed the world of Dead Space; it was the inexorable scope creep that marched forward. The setting’s horror worked best on the USG Ishimura, with a silent protagonist and a small supporting cast.

A Dead Space surprise

Dead Space came out of Electronic Arts at an unexpected time, alongside titles like Mirror’s Edge and Mass Effect. These were new titles and games that took interesting balls and ran with them in wonderful directions. A massive space opera RPG with romance and danger like Mass Effect or a musical party game for the gang like Rock Band was easy to sum up and easier to market. Dead Space came from a studio that hadn’t made an original IP yet, EA Redwood Studios. It was a survival horror game at a time when the genre wasn’t in vogue.

Dead Space was more than happy to borrow a page from previous titles in the same genre. Messages smeared in blood from survivors, or breathless diary entries recorded in someone’s last moments, warning an unlucky protagonist about critical plot or gameplay elements? Dead Space has those aplenty. A Resident Evil 4-style over-the-shoulder camera that gives players agency enough to aim, maneuver, and flee? There’s that too, along with the new “strategic dismemberment” mechanic and some sci-fi gadgets. A small cast of supporting characters who are trying to guide you through this nightmare by giving you a series of missions over voice comms? Dead Space had that.

When it comes to the brass tacks of the story, characters, basic mechanics and environment, Dead Space didn’t do anything unprecedented and wild. It just took a game genre that hadn’t received a lot of love and it polished the hell out of each individual element. Isaac’s initial, panicked run as the team docks on the Ishimura and it becomes clear something has gone horribly wrong starts the game off right. The engineer suit, with its iconic HUD, and the way its mundane, utilitarian shell contrasted with the visceral unpleasantness of hearing Isaac gasp and pant felt amazing. The terror of having a cluster of Slashers rush at you, shrieking and flailing could be mastered, and Isaac slowly grew more powerful (and you grew more capable at figuring out which Necromorphs to take out, how to rotate Stasis and your plasma cutter, and how to sever limbs right quick).

It’s not as though the game is free of surprises. The Zero Gravity sections, where you face the same threats in a silent void, are still memorable and deeply unsettling. The sci-fi engineer element was a super fun hook, letting you take powers meant to make Isaac’s day a little easier on the job and use them to hurl crates around and desperately try to save ammo. To this day, I still remember the terror I felt throughout the entire game. Even as I powered up, I’d stop at every corpse that seemed dead and empty a clip into it.

The game was so confident with the environment and tools it gave you. There are long stretches of quiet tension, where it’s just you and the USG Ishimura, which is a character in its own right. The developers were fine with leaving you alone with the ship, past when you might expect the jump scare to wind up, and letting your imagination do the work before winding back for another hit. Dead Space is quietly competent, offering an amazingly polished take on a familiar scenario.

But that’s not all

The problem is that Dead Space doesn’t just refer to the title of the initial 2008 release, but the entire franchise. Not only did Dead Space wind up with three main titles, with 2 and 3 coming out in 2011 and 2013, respectively, but there are the spin-off titles Extraction and Ignition, a mobile title, animations, comic books and novels. Redwood Shores, now known as Visceral Games, forged onward in continuing its new IP.

There’s more Dead Space than you can shake a stick at, and part of that came from the ramping up of the main titles. Dead Space 2 was a big-budget sequel to a modest success, with a marketing budget to match. Whereas Dead Space was quiet, confident and centered around a simple concept of good, old fashioned survival horror, Dead Space 2 entered the room with trumpets. Did you know that your mom would hate Dead Space 2? If you were interested in picking up a new game in 2011, and you didn’t know that, someone in EA’s marketing department didn’t do their job.

Dead Space 2 is bigger and louder, with a voiced protagonist and a bigger cast. The world is blown up, and the Ishimura even shows up; one environment within a larger world with a system-spanning conflict. There was even a new asymmetrical multiplayer mode, giving the game depth beyond just the campaign. Not all of this is inherently bad; in some ways Dead Space 2 feels like a successful victory lap. Some of the environments are appropriately terrifying, the combat is fun while still remaining unsettling, and the narrative breaks out beyond the barebones bundle of cliches that worked so well in the first game... but it all blurs together.

The sequel doesn’t have the same stark imagery as the first title. The stakes are higher, but do we care as much? Isaac can talk, and that’s great for his character, but it means that you’re constantly reminded that there’s a guy in that suit — and he’s kind of a dick! There’s a bit in Dead Space 2 where you’re about to be sent off on another fetch quest, an homage to the first game’s structure, and Isaac snaps back over his radio and shuts it down. It’s cute, but every moment that Dead Space 2 insists that the world and characters can stand on its own, the less we’re interested in imagining what we would do in that primarily terrifying situation. The brush strokes become less broad; it’s harder to invest yourself into the action, even if you’re really enjoying mowing down rows of Necromorphs.

It’s all about a scope gamble; and here’s where the economic part of the conversation inevitably rears its head. Dead Space 2 was certainly successful at making a fun game and turning Dead Space from a one-off into a potential franchise, but it wasn’t a hit. While most of the conversation about the evolution of Dead Space comes down to sales, which was certainly on EA’s mind. The goal was for Dead Space 3 to sell five million copies, and that would enable the creation of more games in the Dead Space universe.

There was no way to balance this larger scale with a scary game. Dead Space 3 was happy to trade in gore and jump scares, but the scope is out of control. You’ve gone from one ship to a space station to planets and entire moons that must be destroyed. The writer for the original Dead Space, Antony Johnson, commented on 3 — a title he did not work on — saying, “I know the developers always wanted to go bigger, in terms of scope. And I’ve mentioned before that the universe we created was huge, with lots of elements, which simply didn’t make it into the first game. It was inevitable the settings and environments would open out a bit, become a bit more epic in scale.”

Otherwise, Johnston notes, “You’d just have the same game on a different ship each time, and that’s pretty dull.”

But that’s not necessarily true; the scope didn’t have to keep expanding, and that’s a mistake horror franchises keep on making. It’s hard to hit the reset button, but that might have been a much better direction for Dead Space than the third game. Just look at Resident Evil 6, which launched a worldwide bio-terrorist attack, a wide cast of protagonists, an infected President of the United States and impostors disguising themselves as Ada Wong and and and...

Then, Resident Evil 7 discards all of that. The game takes place in one house, and you deal with one family. It’s certainly not a perfect game, but it manages to pull the Resident Evil franchise back on the highway after it went careening off into the wilds. There’s still the Umbrella corporation and a conspiracy, sure, but the smaller locale and tiny cast makes even the silliest plot twists land. Now, one of the most anticipated titles of 2019 is Resident Evil 2, which goes back to Raccoon City. Even 2017’s Prey returned to the basic concept of a survivor, a ship and an alien danger and makes it sing. Cliches are cliches for a reason; a simple story isn’t a bad story, if each individual aspect of it appeals to us.

Bigger always seems to be better — it looks more impressive in marketing copy and hype, and it vows to leave behind the old game. You don’t want to play an old game, the sequel to a horror title usually promises. You want bigger environments, deadlier enemies, stronger weapons, more intrigue. That’s not always a losing proposition, but it’s a dangerous one for keeping a horror game, well, a horror game. Horror works best when it’s in small, intimate settings, when we can project ourselves into the protagonists’ boots. We may be impressed by the spectacle of a sequel’s larger scope, but it’s harder to care. There are so many lessons to learn from the Dead Space franchise, but the biggest one is that bigger isn’t always better.

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