We take a deep dive into Dead Space and take a look at how their Dead Space franchise became one of the most renowned franchises in gaming history.
On Oct. 13, 2018, it’ll be ten years since the release of Dead Space from the now-defunct studio Visceral Games and publisher Electronic Arts. While Visceral Games is no more, their legacy lives on through one of the most renowned horror franchises in the history of gaming. In 2008, Visceral Games delivered a rather visceral experience with their games, graphic novels, and their animated films.
During this period, running until the closure of Visceral Games in recent days, their Dead Space remains one of the most noteworthy horror franchises in the world. Their games stood out thanks to their atmospheric storytelling and ultimately, their approach to creating a widescale event while keeping true to what made Dead Space stand out among its peers.
But to really understand why it’s so unique, we need to dive deeper than just these very few facts in order to see why this series has become one of the most beloved franchises around the world.
The atmosphere was something we’d never before experienced.
When you play a game or watch a movie, we start building emotional responses to the worlds put before us. We look for things to remember, small details that immerse us within the world before us, we listen to the music, the soft whispers that float about us through the air ducts, and the soft, albeit clicking of the Necromorphs as they slink around inside the walls, beneath the floor, and above us in the ceiling.
Over the course of the game, we find that these small tidbits that bring the USG Ishimura to life and eventually, the Titan Station in Dead Space 2. The reason these locales work so well is the fact that the developers have built a world that we could imagine ourselves in, a world we imagine we could actually visit. In a way, the games themselves were built to trigger an emotional response whether we are playing them or not.
As we traveled through the game a time or three, nothing felt the same. Sure, we knew what boss was where, but the number of resources Isaac has at his disposal, the way you will approach those scenarios, are never the same. The same could be said about Dead Space 2 and the less-successful sequel, Dead Space 3. But one point remains, we could relate to them, that’s why we found ourselves lured in and still able to appreciate what they are to this very day.
Even with how different Dead Space 3 was from its predecessors, we know the series for its imagery, through the story that is told throughout the game through scribblings on the wall, audio logs, and documents strewn about these hulking labyrinthine stations. While Isaac does eventually find his voice, our stories aren’t just told through character dialogue, but also, the experiences we have. Each one is unique in its very own right, which brings the atmosphere of Dead Space to be something completely unique and unlike anything we’d ever experienced before.
The atmosphere was also brought to life through the use of Isaac’s hallucinations due to the Marker.
In order to really make Dead Space stand out from its peers, there was a lot of work put into the overall design of all three games. In the first one though, the one that really helped define the franchise, the designs within the game aren’t just about the atmosphere of the USG Ishimura.
Over time, we also get to see the effects the marker as you progress through the game. You may recall, if you played the games, the soft whispers you would hear while you explore the world about you. Sometimes these whispers may mention the ship’s systems while others may mention the Marker.
While these small utterings would seem as if they were part of the ships intercom systems or Isaac’s suit picking up nearby survivors, all of these were small atmospheric sound designs to immerse a player into the story as it unfolds before them. To put it short, Isaac wasn’t the only one that began to hallucinate. We all were and that was part of the magic behind the Dead Space series.
Over time, these small changes would begin to take bigger shapes, sometimes appearing as Nicole, Marker symbols, or the vanishing man. All of these designs were to help immerse the player. The way they approached these designs helped form the Dead Space identity. I can guarantee you, once you’ve heard Dead Space, you’ll know its unique sound design and even if I were to put you in a pitch black room and play its sound files, you’d know exactly what game you are hearing.
The feeling of isolation and helplessness evolved throughout the series.
The environment of Dead Space also stands out across the series. You are often put into locations that are often huge, ones that show the true scale of the game, giving you an idea of just how far you have to go in order to get from one point to another. Somehow, somewhere, someone decided to make these rather huge locations rather claustrophobic even though they dwarf the player in size.
To do this, they’ve filled in these vast spaces with beautifully designed set pieces ranging from damaged benches to bodies strewn about. They’ve even used gigantic monsters that lurk about, making it so that these rather large corridors and rooms feel smaller than they are. Remember when you had to hunt down the creatures filling the rooms with poisonous vapors? Those rooms were gigantic in size, and yet, they still felt small, they felt as if they could choke a player out if they made one wrong move.
Toss in limited resources, a handful of NPCs that are either with you or against you, and you feel small, alone, and powerless against the forces that oppose you. Even in Titan Station you can’t help but feel alone. You can’t help but feel that those few humans you do encounter such as Ellie are only temporary due to the horrors you have seen and have come to expect whether they happen or not.
The entire time, you feel isolated. You are forced to feel that isolation over and over again. Toss in the set designs that constantly remind you of the chaos that has ensued and will ensue and you can’t help but feel as if those few 40s-era propaganda pieces for the Unitologists and you can’t help but wonder if there is any sense of hope that should remain.
Even as your hope begins to vanish, the fight to live still remains.
Fights themselves are where Dead Space really begins to set itself apart from the rest. Sure, there are other games where you have to sever limbs from your foes, but it’s thanks to Dead Space, that this mechanic actually stands out the most. Battles are tense, they are difficult, and the focus on limb-severing is what sets Dead Space apart from the rest.
Sure, as I’ve said, we’ve had games that focus on cutting limbs of your foes, weakening them by any means necessary as long as their limbs are involved. It’s your quickest way to victory, but it also represents something in its own altogether. Dead Space itself isn’t just a game where you’ll blast your way through endless hordes of Necromorphs in hopes of winning.
This very component to the Dead Space franchise is what helped make it stand out from its peers, it’s what helped instill a sense of fear and dread as their supplies dwindle down against bulkier and harder to eliminate Necromorph variants. Top it off with some that could take up entire rooms and it’s an experience unlike any other before.
Once you fire off a few rounds of ammunition, you soon realize one very sobering fact: Your inventory is nearly depleted. You are almost out of ammunition, your health supplies are nearly gone and you have nothing to recharge your O2 or your Stasis.
Everything in the Dead Space universe has been created to work cohesively
It’s hard not to state it: Dead Space is unique, brilliant, and in a lot of ways – an artistic masterpiece that can never be replicated ever again. While limb-severing is a vital piece of the game, it’s hard to not acknowledge the game’s controls. They weren’t and aren’t clunky. They are responsive, they make you feel as if you are in full control of Isaac Clarke as he stumbles around the USG Ishimura, Titan Station and Tau Valantis.
Even with the fact you have full control of everything Isaac does, you still feel the weight and mass of his armory and inventory. He feels heavy, he feels clunky, but he feels human no matter what the situation is. To complement this very fact, you can take a look, again, at the level designs throughout each of the games.
Each of them adds to the situation at hand. Each of them helps bring to life the feeling of restricted movement, slow and steady progression, but without the game actually being clunky, slow or even restricted. Toss combat into the mix, you may soon realize that the game isn’t about combat at all. It’s about the struggle to live. It’s about the need to take control of every encounter. It’s about picking the fights, picking what areas you explore and what resources you have.
Exploring, combat, inventory management; all of it helps bring gravity to the situation at hand and the elements that make Dead Space stand out from all the horror games on the market.
The very thing that makes Dead Space what it is is influencing the player’s emotional state
The very core of the Dead Space experience is your emotional state when you play the game. When you think about your emotional state playing a game, what do you imagine? Do you think about the tension that raises the hairs on the back of your neck as enemies begin to flood the room? Do you imagine hitting the button to replenish your health only to hear it click as a warning that sliver of health is all you have for that fight?
That’s where Dead Space really shines. It’s all about influencing the player’s state of mind as they progress through the story. Games like Alien: Isolation and Slender suffer from the one-hit kill system that many horror games feed themselves upon. It ultimately leads to a flat, overplayed experience, one that is no longer welcome by many fans.
Games such as The Evil Within and Resident Evil have even acknowledged this very problem and returned to making players ration the items they have, backtracking to collect those few items that determine whether or not an encounter is life-or-death. Now, imagine (if you’ve never played Dead Space) not just managing your medkits, your Stasis Recharge kits or O2 canisters. Now you have to toss weapons and ammo into the mix.
Now, let’s add into the equation that you just blasted your way through an entire corridor of Necromorphs that came busting through the vents, the floors, and the walls. Your ammo is low, the only weapon you have ammo for is your Pulse Rifle. Sure, 75 Pulse Rounds sounds awesome, but is it enough to take out that boss just ahead? You didn’t pay attention to what you had, now, you’re being overwhelmed by the boss once you enter its room. You can barely afford to fight back even with the aid of those few precious bits of ammo floating about the room.
That’s where the tension really begins to build up in the Dead Space games. There are moments where you’ve rendered yourself powerless and all you have are the weapons that may not help you fight back against the hordes ahead. You’re now uncertain whether or not you can progress, the more that uncertainty begins to build int he back of your head, the more terror that Dead Space will provide as you play through the game.
Dead Space helped us understand what makes a horror game a terrifying experience.
As a horror fan, I’ve played through plenty of horror games leading up to this very piece. I find myself growing bored quicker and quicker anymore. Most of the horror games placed before me include the one-hit mechanic, a mechanic that has become overused and downright obnoxious.
Sure, I loved my time in Alien: Isolation and I completely played it after hearing a few of my developer pals ramble on about its unique and terrifying experience. Yes, the Xenomorph provided some very welcomed jump scares to come along with its horrific atmosphere that seemed like it was pulled straight out of the 1977 production of Ridley Scott’s Alien.
But I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t terrified to turn a corner or worried that I may not last due to my dwindling supplies. The first time I’d actually felt fear in a game was when one of my best friends plopped a copy of System Shock 2 before me, booted up my PC and got the game installed. It was a horrifying experience, one where I felt my skin crawling due to the blood, spooky sounds, and a sanity system that made me uncertain of what was real or not. But that’s what is great about games like System Shock 2 and Dead Space.
Both of these great games use their atmosphere, their inventories, and their limited resources to their advantage. It wasn’t until the release of Dead Space and Dead Space 2 did I truly understand my love for all things horror. It was the fact these games took me completely out of my comfort zone, they made me endlessly count what supplies I had, keeping in mind that I may have a few rounds for my Plasma Cutter in the store, which means I’d have to backtrack a good 5-10 minutes and possibly encounter a Necromorph or two along the way.
Dead Space 2 only cranked that up a notch or ten and made it so that the game itself fed on what made its predecessor one of the most terrifying experiences to date.
Dead Space is a one of a kind that may never see a true successor
Even as tension mounted, dread began to sit in and the post-game hallucinations or paranoia remained, it’s hard not to remember why Dead Space remains talked about ten years since its launch. It’s a game that was designed so that its atmospheric designs, its maps, its sound designs, and its interactivity all cohesively worked together and gave us an experience we’d never seen the likes of before.
It’s a dialect that may never see a worthy successor ever again.
It’s a game that speaks to us in the fact it pushes on, it makes us want to feel the fear and dread the series made. It’s a series that made us want more, it made us want to see beyond the stars, to explore the endless possibilities of the Necromorph-induced nightmares that once awaited us.
While Dead Space 3 was certainly one of the weakest in the franchise, we have to realize one simple thing: It was an end to a trilogy, a trilogy that would allow us to move on, to see new terrors, to explore new worlds and dangers that await us. Sure, Dead Space 3 may have seemed to have lost its way by adopting the cover-shooter mechanics from Gears of War, adding human enemies, focusing more on its action versus horror, but Dead Space 3 was very much-so a Dead Space game.
It still used its large spaces, its limited resources, and overwhelming enemies to distill a sense of claustrophobia and helplessness in the player. Yes, we did get bigger rooms, larger maps, but they were still vast areas of space where we had to dart about, we had to scramble from point to point for oxygen or to take cover from the dangers ahead, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a Dead Space title.
Now, its legacy will all be but a memory in the upcoming years. Even then, Dead Space will remain relevant due to how it forever changed the horror genre, how it was a perfect mold of horror-survival fed by its artistic nature and unique approach to inducing uncertainty into those that played it.
Because of these very factors, Dead Space will go down into gaming history as one of the most well-designed horror games ever made.
About the Writer(s):
Dustin is our native console gamer, PlayStation and Nintendo reviewer who has an appetite for anything that crosses the borders from across the big pond. His interest in JRPG’s, Anime, Handheld Gaming, and Pizza is insatiable. His elitist attitude gives him direction, want, and a need for the hardest difficulties in games, which is fun to watch, and hilarity at its finest. You can find him over on Twitter or Facebook.