Innovating on many of the aspects of the horror genre we now take for granted, Dead Space was a complete triumph for horror gaming and one which still retains its brilliance nearly a decade and a half later. Who could forget their first confrontation with the scraggle-limbed necromorphs, or the claustrophobic, blooded hallways of the Ishimura space freighter where spiralling madness is the only order of the day?
With EA officially announcing work on a remake for Dead Space, now is as good a time as any to revisit the original and see why it is still one of the best horror games ever made.
Be warned, your mom hates this Dead Space article.
The Birth and Death of a New Franchise
Once upon a time, in the halcyon days of the mid 2000s, EA were still in the market for new intellectual properties to add to their roster, rather than just regurgitating only the same 4 games over again.
From around 2006–07 EA had shifted around management positions and were looking to reinvigorate their market strategy by seeking out wholly original IPs. Former EA president John Riccitiello had returned to the company to take over as CEO and was keen to add more variety to the publisher’s library beyond its existing sports behemoths. This resulted in the likes of Dead Space, Mirror’s Edge, and even Left 4 Dead under EA publishing to get their chance. Unfortunately, however, the former two performed under EA’s expectations which quickly put an end to this strategy, with EA then instead opting for buyouts and mergers of studios and mobile games with pre-existing, successful IP’s that would guarantee a license to print money.
We of course all know how this only proliferated from there to the mega-corp, loot box loving, micro-transaction manic publisher that EA tends to be today.
This shift would also be the later death knell for Dead Space too as Dead Space 3 was strategically moulded to be more like the popular action franchises of the moment like Call of Duty—a series change that proved to be unpopular among pretty much everyone. For one brief moment, however, we got two exceptional horror titles that were oh-so-lovingly crafted and totally re-imagined the way we would think about games of the genre.
The Innovative Design of Dead Space
Series creator Glen Schofield was smitten with Resident Evil 4 and wanted to develop something of his own that would be like a “Resident Evil in space”. Enamoured, too, with the hard sci-fi of Arthur C Clarke and the horror/sci-fi genre blend of Event Horizon, the idea for Dead Space began to take shape under the initial name “Rancid Moon”.
For Schofield, to keep the horror aspects of the game intensive throughout the gameplay all had to revolve around total, unbroken immersion. Thus the very best and most innovative part of Dead Space was born wherein every piece of information in the game exists as a diegetic part of the world—that is to say, there is no part of what you see on screen that exists outside of the game’s world. Typically, games have a HUD where the likes of your health, ammo, etc are shown but for Dead Space these pieces of information all had to exist as “in-universe” components. Hence Isaac’s health bar becomes a gauge on the back of his suit; ammo counts are displayed on weaponry so that we’re seeing exactly what Isaac sees; even the game’s waypoint was incorporated into Isaac’s suit abilities.
There was no pause to the action either with inventory or menu systems that halt the game, as these too become screens projected from Isaac’s suit while the game world still continues to exist in real time around you/Isaac.
This early strategy to the game’s development helped to shape the team’s approach overall. With the onus that the world was always moving the horror had to keep its pressure up at all times. Players couldn’t be allowed moments of respite where they knew they could be safe for a little while to check their resources, so to keep the ever-present tension and doubt in a player’s mind enemy placement was done procedurally. Where enemies spawned in rooms or which vents and when the necromorph’s would burst out of is kept random throughout (for the most part anyway) meaning that players could not always account for patterns or presume their safety. The tight hallways of the Ishimura, littered as it is with openings and ominous vents, meant that you were always on your toes for a rogue necromorph to burst forth at any moment. It was sublime horror and tension-packed gameplay of the greatest kind.
The other unique aspect to Dead Space lay in its approach to its protagonist and his combat abilities. Counter to other titles of its ilk (like Resident Evil), Isaac Clarke is explicitly not any sort of combat-trained action hero. While other games often seek some sort of police trained or military background to their protagonist to explain their comfortability with firearms, Isaac is instead a mere engineer caught in a bad situation, and that role therefore influences every which way that he scraps to survive. For the most part there are no actual weapons (in the traditional “gun” sense) in Dead Space’; instead, Isaac finds unique uses for old engineer’s tools to hack and slash his way through the Ishimura. This granted the game a novel approach to combat and weaponry.
The Dead Space team founded a core principle of “strategic dismemberment” around their game design. Instead of the oft “headshot is king” strategy of other shooters, Dead Space’s necromorph’s are weakest at their limbs, and so Isaac’s engineering background comes quite handy all of sudden. What better way for an old steel cutting plasma cutter to be refashioned for deadly use than against an enemy who waves its elongated arms around wildly, or who is stopped with a quick chop to the legs. Most of Isaac’s retooled weapons are focused on cutting in one respect or another either horizontally or vertically, meaning that throughout Dead Space you can satisfyingly chop through the bloodied limbs of your foes with ease. Weapons usually had a primary and alternate mode of fire to match the demands of certain scenarios. The weapon play, especially as you upgrade your tools, easily becomes one of Dead Space’s strongest suits, with immensely satisfying play and feeling that entirely justifies its more novel approach.
This again became much of the issue with Dead Space 3 by contrast. The series was founded on the satisfaction of its limb dismemberment play, with weapons like the plasma cutter or line gun proving immensely fun to wield, but Dead Space 3 instead opted for the bullet action that Dead Space had specifically left out previously. Gone was the satisfaction of cutting down Necromorphs—and in its place was a derisory, stale shooter with generic “pew pew” machine guns that didn’t have the same novelty or satisfying “crunch” to them.
In Space No One Can Hear You Scream
Aside from being an innovative piece of work, Dead Space is quite simply just damn terrifying by its own right. Few games can boast as strong and horrifying an opening as Dead Space, and few even still can build on that momentum throughout. The opening scene to Dead Space thrusts us straight into the disaster of the Ishimura and immediately confronts us and Isaac with these monstrous beings to which we know nothing about yet other than they are currently brutally killing all of your crew. All you can do? Run.
By minute 5 of Dead Space you are already breathless and utterly terrified of your journey ahead. When it comes to monsters it can often feel like its all been done before, and yet here was a game that was introducing an entirely new being that was altogether alien to us and all the more terrifying for it. The design of the necromorphs is disturbingly based on hundreds of images of crash victims (a fact that haunts the development of this game, too) which came to inform their mesh of blood and skin and limbs along with their uncertain movement. As some reprieve to the PTSD stricken Redwood devs, their approach to the necromorphs works immensely. These creatures become works of uncomfortable body horror the likes of which Cronenberg himself would be dismayed. We recognize a distinct familiarity with them because they have qualities of human beings while at the same time being totally unrecognizable. That discordance makes for an uncomfortable, horrifying experience since we can see at once how, if caught or killed, we as Isaac might become like that too. It also makes ripping them apart more of a visceral, discomforting experience too since there is that vaguely human element to them, no matter how far buried it may be.
Adding to their mystique and horror factor is the way in which they can appear seemingly at any moment. The design of the Ishimura is a labyrinth of cramped, claustrophobic hallways with a vast internal network of vents and pipes running throughout it. Helpfully, the necromorphs appear to enjoy crushing themselves into these tight vents, itching to burst out on you at a moment’s notice. If that’s not enough, sometimes they like to play dead before rising up behind you if left untouched—so all in all it’s always best to show your immense respect for the dead by giving them a swift curb stomp to the torso; respectfully, of course.
With this the atmosphere of Dead Space is tense throughout since you always have to expect the unexpected. In classic survival horror style this tension is only ramped up by a dearth of resources. Proper resource management is key to survival aboard the Ishimura. However, to EA Redwood’s credit, too, this management is so finely tuned so as to not feel overbearing. You can hit a point in the game with proper care where resources do not feel too limiting, but by the same coin negligence can have you struggling.
A word has to go to the novel design of the Ishimura itself for playing its role as a character in the game too. The design team took inspiration from old Gothic architecture to give the ship a more grounded feel. Rather than the sterile, all-white cleanliness of other sci-fi pieces the Ishimura was to be a lived in, dirtied environment that would feel familiar to the player, making its horrors inside only more visceral. This dirtied architecture plays to the game’s artistic aesthetic as well as its tone, since nothing of this world is ever to feel sterile, safe, and comfortable.
With the graphical improvements to come of the series’ remake I’m certain that returning to the bloodied halls of the Ishimura is going to be a damn sight even more horrifying than it once was. Not since Alien Isolation will we have had a thorough, blood curdling sci-fi horror like this—and I, for one, cannot wait.