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Bodies in Space

By (March 1, 2011) No Comment

Dead Space 2

Developed by Visceral Games, published by Electronic Arts

This review is, in effect, the work of some two and a half years.

It began when I received a copy of Visceral Games’ Dead Space as payment for a playtest during my desperate, unemployed days in Austin, Texas. It was a PC copy (a copy designed, as I was later informed, to have slower reaction times to ‘encourage’ its purchase on consoles like the X-Box), and I switched my Mac over to its festering Windows partition expressly to play a game I had heard beat out the renowned Resident Evil series for survival horror thrills.

The genre of survival horror – a field originally ruled by Japanese games such as Silent Hill and the aforementioned Resident Evil – has a handful of defining features. The feeling a good survival horror game should evoke is fear, and the gameplay is focused around staying alive in a highly hostile environment. Zombies (or some setting-appropriate variant) tend to be the chief antagonists, and resources are limited – making combat not something to rush into headlong, but something to be planned for and even avoided.

These two elements are united, of course, the danger augmenting the sense of dread, the sense of dread itself an appropriate response to, say, being trapped in a deep space mining vessel filled with the hungry dead. And the original Dead Space (developed by EA Redwood Shores in 2008) dropped the player into just such a situation. You, Isaac Clarke – space engineer – are sent to the U.S.G. Ishimura as part of a rescue and repair operation. The Ishimura is a ‘planet cracker’, a massive space vessel that uses gravity warping technology to pull tectonically large sections of a planetoid free for resource processing.

When you arrive, however, you find that the latest planet-crack has unleashed a nightmarish infection that transforms humans into Necromorphs, hideous monsters created from human corpses. Infected corpses – in classic zombie horror fashion – get to work making more corpses to infect. Dead Space spared no gruesome details, and you know Visceral Games means to continue that tradition when they have you fighting Lurkers, the result of Necromorph infection applied to human babies. Twisted, mutant infant corpses with slithering tentacles, clambering on the walls? Even Silent Hill, for all its heavy-handed psycho-sexual elements, doesn’t put babies and children on the chopping block quite so explicitly.

And if the dangers of space zombies weren’t enough, the ship itself is becoming more and more of a scuttle-worthy death trap as time wears on, with systems failing and infected organic matter tangling the works of the Ishimura. Isaac Clarke is an engineer, and he spends a great deal of time jury-rigging quick fixes to ship-wide problems – much of the game involves shuttling about from ship section to ship section, fixing the air purifiers so you don’t suffocate, restarting the gravity centrifuge so the ship doesn’t do a swan dive into the planet, restarting the automatic asteroid defense system so the debris field from the planet’s cracking doesn’t tear the hull apart. The ship itself is as much a staggering, zombified version of its former self as any of those poor Necromorphs.

It’s this last challenge – dealing with those free-wheeling chunks of planet – that put me off my PC copy of the game. My mousepad was too slow to track the incoming hunks of rock as they descended upon me, and my last sight was always a huge piece of jagged stone hurtling towards my viewport, followed by shattering glass and a fiery explosion, then a prompt to restart the game. Frustrated and a bit nervous, I reasoned that maybe my time was better spent looking for a job. I set the game aside.

Two years passed, and I heard a sequel – a good one – was in the works. Advertisements began to plaster my virtual spaces, and gamers I respect began to anticipate eagerly. So I wanted to play. But I couldn’t just play a sequel. Not without playing through the first game.  So I made a conscious decision to overcome my fear and press on. I finished Dead Space, and then bought its new sequel, Dead Space 2.

I just finished the final chapter of Dead Space 2 last night. From here on out, it’s spoiler city, so be ready.

The first Dead Space ends with Isaac escaping the Ishimura, but not escaping his own trauma and guilt. As the first game reveals over the course of play, Isaac has a personal investment in this mission – the Ishimura is the last posting of his beloved, a woman named Nicole who worked in the medical wing (where all the mutant infants are later found). She appears as a hallucination to Isaac while aboard the ship and down on the planet below, though the fact that Isaac is hallucinating isn’t revealed until the very end, when we discover that Nicole killed herself early on during the Necromorph outbreak. The phantom Nicole is some product of his own deep desire for her to be alive and the psychic emanations coming from the source of Necromorph infection – an object called ‘the Marker’ which is mistakenly viewed as the focal point for human transcendence by a religious organization called Unitology (one whose bland universalism and high profit margins invite comparisons with other -ology’s). The Marker and the infection are destroyed at the end of the first game, but the hallucinations do not cease, and the final frame of the first Dead Space shows a monstrous Nicole lunging, screaming, at Isaac from the darkness of his escape vessel.

Dead Space 2 begins three years later, with an opening sequence that initially had the video game world reeling.

Straight jacketed, with no memory of the intervening time, Isaac Clarke awakes to the same mess he just fought his way out of. His would-be saviors are seized by an Infector, a breed of Necromorph that exists expressly to create more Necromorphs, preying on either the living or the dead. Isaac runs, arms still bound, through the facility where he was held for so long to some purpose not yet revealed. It’s a well-crafted beginning, perfect for survival horror: danger and dread combined. Fear is pretty much guaranteed.

Until Isaac finds a (short-lived) ally to cut him free of his bonds, all he can do is run, as monsters burst from the walls and shriek down the corridors. It only lasts so long, but during this time you are not a vector of power or a figure of heroism (as in so many games), you’re just a powerless guy. Less; you are a body, a victim of the forces around you. In time, you gain weapons, you gain armor, you acquire forces of your own and establish yourself as the protagonist, with the powers such a role demands. But the game reminds you that you are, in the end, just a body. And it does so forcibly.

Survival horror has a physicality to it that Dead Space 2, even more than the games before it, is able to deliver on a (fittingly) visceral level that is not just about gore. There is gore, certainly, and plenty of it. You can be sliced apart by industrial mining equipment, pummeled to paste by garbage processors, incinerated by exhaust jets, and that’s just the damage the environment can do, unassisted by the legion of lethal dead. Yet, it’s in this very emphasis on the industrial, the very fact that Isaac the engineer has to fix ships to save the day, that the physicality of Dead Space 2 reveals its most basic principles.

These principles have nothing to do with the narrative of the game. Isaac’s struggle with Marker-induced dementia and crippling guilt over the death of Nicole – whom we find out was only on the Ishimura because Isaac pushed her to take the assignment – is fairly interesting as a psychological backdrop, and bears some connection to the larger plot of the series, involving the Marker’s psychic-memetic properties. (Isaac stored the Marker signal in his brain, and was employed in a reconstruction of the Marker by the sinister state power EarthGov, a memory he repressed). But ultimately the story doesn’t hold up nearly as well as the moments: the opening, of course, as well as thrilling plummets through vacuum, dodging vast chunks of debris, and the careful shifting through zero-gravity factory works going at lethal full-tilt. Perhaps most dreadful, near the very end is a ‘mini-game’ in which you are forced to guide a surgical needle into your character’s own eye while his pupils dilate with fear and his heart rate skyrockets.

All these standout moments have one thing in common: their dedication to our experiencing a virtual physicality in the game space, a literal physics as in ‘physics engine’, which is in many ways what this game shamelessly displays. The special features of the game all consist of physics tricks – a stasis ability that slows down time for an object, a telekinesis ability that allows you to turn objects into shields and projectiles, zero gravity motion – and all these tricks are involved in the game’s large-scale, engineering based puzzles. This physics doesn’t exist for its own sake, however, and is anything but abstract. It is physical in the hardest sense, and grounded in the notion of bodies in space and the fragility of those bodies in the face of powerful forces.

And the game time and time again reminds you that you are at the mercy of superior forces – you are tackled, pinned, hurled, dragged and otherwise treated with all the agency of a rag doll – and those forces are not experienced at the usual video-game-violence distance. The very potency of survival horror relies upon your direct, identification with the character on the screen – we play over Isaac’s shoulder, in the third person view common to games of this type, so we can see what happens to his body – and thus your visceral response to your avatar’s dismemberment. That the ‘needle in the eye’ scene is so painful to endure is a result not so much of the narrative’s own foreshadowing of the event (though it is foreshadowed quite well) but instead with our own physical identification with Isaac and the concurrent somatic response. It’s a cruelty rendered not surreal but rather all too real.

It’s apt, then, that the cover for the original Dead Space portrays a severed hand, floating in the starry void. When all other trappings are set aside, psychology dispensed with and plot left in pieces by the passing of the undead hordes, there remains an immutable, common law. That of bodies in space.

Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous video game reviews for Open Letters can be found here.

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