The Steam Summer Sale is blissfully over, and my wallet has emerged more-or-less unscathed. However, there were a few deals that were simply too good for me to pass up, and one of those was the third-person survival horror science fiction game Dead Space, something that’s been out for years but I’ve never had a chance to own and play – until now.
I had missed an opportunity to play the game when it originally came out in 2008. In fact, my brother had loaned me his copy, but my DVD-ROM actually tried to eat the disc when I inserted it, literally chewing it up and bending it, so I ejected it in a hurry and apologized to him profusely. Life went on after that and I never had an opportunity to pick up my own copy of the game, but when it went on sale last week for $4.99 I couldn’t say no.
Survival horror games and I go back a long way together, right back to Resident Evil on the PlayStation. Any game where you’re fighting for your life against hordes of ravenous monsters in an environment where resources are scarce is the digital equivalent of crack cocaine for me. I have absolutely loved getting the shit scared out of me for as long as I can remember; watching an old VHS tape of An American Werewolf in London that I technically wasn’t supposed to be watching because it would invariably give me nightmares is one of my earliest memories, which only partially explains what a fucked-up individual I have become in the years since.
Things reached a peak for me in undergrad. I was a Resident Assistant at the time and I was on duty during Halloween weekend, which meant I had to stay in just in case some idiot drunken freshman locked themselves out. My entire wing of the residence hall was empty, so I decided to play Silent Hill, all alone and by myself, in an 8-hour marathon on the spookiest night of the year in an abandoned building. I absolutely demolished that game, but something inside me shifted subtly – or became unhinged more accurately – and ever since then it’s been difficult for me to play through other survival horror games, especially as technology progressed and games became more photorealistic.
While technology has vastly improved from the pre-rendered backgrounds of the original Resident Evil and the fog Silent Hill used everywhere to save on computing power to limit draw distance, gameplay has kind of stayed the same. Survival horror games have almost always featured clunky controls as a mechanic to artificially inflate the difficulty; there’s nothing worse than trying to slowly and laboriously turn around so you can run out of a room because a bunch of zombie dogs jumped through the window and you’re out of ammunition. It’s maddening to watch your doom coming for you and knowing that no matter how hard you jam down on the controller thumbstick or how frantically you drag your mouse across the desktop you’re probably going to end up prying some half-invisible demon baby from your character’s trouser leg as it tries to chew off your kneecap.
Dead Space uses this mechanic to excellent effect. Your control of the game’s main character, a systems engineer named Isaac Clarke after two of the greatest pioneers of science fiction (I guess Harlan Heinlein didn’t have the same ring to it?), moves like a lumbering tank in his heavy pressure suit. Isaac has to investigate why exactly the USG Ishimura, the Planet Cracker-class interstellar mining ship, is infested with these horrible mutated necromorphs that are trying to kill him; he has nothing in the way of weapons except re-purposed mining equipment, so you’re constantly scavenging things in order to fight these miserable bastards off. Making it worse is that it’s not simply enough to shoot these things in the head – instead you’ve got to dismember the things in order to kill them, though I’ve taken a fancy to going up to them as they’re lying on the deck and just shit-stomping them until the body stops quivering. It’s viscerally satisfying to hear Isaac grunt and yell as he makes necromorphs kiss the curb, especially after a hard fight where you’re struggling with the controls to cut off the damn thing’s arms or legs before it gets to you and tries to bite your head off.
The game is incredibly atmospheric, capitalizing on the feelings of paranoia and claustrophobia that accompany being trapped inside a massive mining ship with countless freaks lurking around the corner, ready to jump out of the shadows and tear your face off. It’s the kind of aesthetic that the first two Alien movies harnessed with such success, and it works like a charm. I’ve found myself only able to play it in short bursts, especially since most of my free time comes in the dead of the night with all the lights in the house off, and all of a sudden I’m six years old again, hiding behind the couch as Rick Baker’s ridiculously gory and realistic animatronic transforming werewolf writhes on my parents’ television set.
Dead Space is an excellent game with high production values and heavy on the atmosphere. It’s not for anyone who doesn’t enjoy getting the shit scared out of them or who has no patience for intentionally cumbersome controls, but if you’re anything like me you’re probably going to have a blast playing it. Just remember: aim for the legs.