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News Opinions 16 February 2023, 15:37

author: Krzysztof Lewandowski

Dead Space? More Like Dread Space! Going Mad With Its Splendid Narrative

In terms of narrative goals, Dead Space Remake may seem like a shipwreck mechanic sim. However, this is just superficial and simplification that's harmful to this survival horror, which also tells a story through its environment.

If I had to single out a point where the modernized Dead Space isn't actually thrilling, it would be the quests. Sure, USG Ishimura is barely holding together, and we play an engineer, duh.Despite this, our goals sound terribly boring – they often boil down to repairing or activating various technologies to restore the functioning of the ship.

But apart from said layer, Dead Space offers much, much more. In this game, we face terrifying monsters in the confined space of a spaceship, alone, haunted in the dark by various shimmers and clinks of machinery that can easily be taken for the sounds of an approaching enemy. The game is great at instilling a sense of unease. Maybe it wasn't the machinery after all? Maybe the necromorph just slipped by without attacking because it's looking for a nice ambush spot?

Narration through environment, or what and how the game wants to convey

So there's a few ways a game can tell a story – the obvious ones are dialogs and action, the non-obvious one is the environment. The plot of Dead Space Remake would be drier than sand in the desert without the latter, and the locations would be mere mock-ups only meant as vessels for completing stages, shooting enemies and collecting resources. In other words, pure mechanics without any interesting content.

Dead Space? More Like Dread Space! Going Mad With Its Splendid Narrative - picture #1

What could have happened here and what does the writing mean?Dead Space, EA, 2023

I hadn't played the original, so all I heard about the franchise were mentions of the phenomenal environmental narration in 2008's Dead Space – the remake fully commits to the same idea. In this horror, the environment speaks to us. The flagship example of the conversation between the world and the player are, aptly enough, writings on the walls. They function as advice – e.g., the famous "cut off their limbs," pointing to the weak point of the necromorphs, i.e., limbs – but they can also be more cryptic, forcing you to flex some neurons to figure out what their author had in mind. And then, there's no guarantee they had anything specific to say. After all, the circumstances in which we find ourselves in the game are deeply messed up.

The writings were done by the ship's crew; some of them clearly wanted to leave tips for people who would end up on Ishimura, warn them against the danger and help to overcome it. Or just leave behind their last thought before perishing. Hence the environment becomes a vessel of the story – more of its fragments than a specific thread, but still.

Ishimura isn't a tomb yet

While exploring Ishimura, we come across signs of the crew's fight for their lives. The game doesn't spare drastic images that say more than words – shocking events took place on the ship, and death came amid fear, stress and growing madness, coming from the influence of the mysterious Mark. Let's emphasize, however, that the mining ship is not full of only necromorphs – there still are some survivors, though many will die right in front of our eyes.

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One of the crew members we see moments before his death.Dead Space, EA, 2023

The prospect of navigating a ship that's already a coffin drifting in space would feel completely different. The experience offered by Dead Space would lack an important factor – the feeling that we still have someone to save, whilst the collective insanity and the worst nightmare continues, still claiming new victims. Isaac Clarke joins him during, but not quite after, tea. And so, we can see a few surviving individuals conclude their existence.

Dead Space Remake doesn't insist on being overly transparent in this matter, either. Through its environment, it subtly tells additional stories that make exploration of the ship more immersive – we forget that it's just a world made of textures and experience the images with real emotions. We often see people whom we can't help, separated by a screen of thick glass. Another character can be seen bleeding out. It's happening right then and there.

Cutscenes? Who needs them?

I tentatively cross a location, tense as a bow, having already learned that the enemy be expected at any given moment. I see a moving shadow; I move closer and watch as the ship's crewman bangs his head against the wall until he dies. Then I walk into a mad scientist's lab and watch the horrors he committed. Through the window, I watch as a woman, who appears to be a member of the research staff, disembowels her patient before slitting her own throat. Someone is moving, I start running towards them, and suddenly they disappear – as if they were never there.

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Another striking image – included in gameplay, of course, not just a cut-scene.Dead Space, EA, 2023

These scenes are even more surprising because they're part of the gameplay in which we still control our character. What we do in response to these events, and whether we pay attention to them at all, is entirely up to us. Although we're not talking about interactive elements (we can't prevent these suicides), the way they are embedded in the world amplifies the illusion of participating in history. It's still part of the gameplay, and I'm not forced to follow additional events. Maybe they're even supposed to lull my vigilance? There's no thick line separating these fragments from the gameplay proper, which affects the way we perceive them.

In the original, Isaac Clarke didn't even speak. However, giving him a voice strengthens the hero's relationship with the environment – he becomes an active participant in the story to a greater extent, reacting to events verbally, although perhaps more detached than the player. Don't know about you, but I cursed a few times when playing Dead Space Remake, because the world induced such intense emotions every now and then. It disturbed me with an opponent with a nasty appearance and the noises of a derelict ship coming from every direction. It intrigued me with the story of people fighting for their lives, both in the past and present, and expertly drawing them into a psychedelic and occult atmosphere that could drive you crazy. Isaac is an interested character against this background, but again, he doesn't comment on it all that often.

Above all, however, these scenes are very powerful. They're memorable, they visualize the bloody drama, they give the horror an almost tangible feel. They also reinforce the concern that the madness will eventually engulf the hero as well. It is from his perspective that we see the events – but how much can we believe him to be sane? If the others went psycho, why not Isaac? As a lover of Philip Dick and Lem, I can't ignore the reasons to question this reality, especially with the enigmatic hair-raising voices that can be heard sometimes. You have to ask yourself a question: is everything you see and hear even real?

Imagination is the most terrifying

As promised by the creators, Dead Space doses the tension – it watches our actions and assesses when to turn the drama on and when to give a moment of respite. It's hard to say how it works. I am curious at which moments I communicated to this mechanism that I needed a different level of stimuli. One way or another – the very structure of the game, abundant with surprises and fears, rendering us more sensitive to the environment, also affects the perception of the story.

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The walls in this location are not smooth, so I have a feeling that another monster might jump out of them.Dead Space, EA, 2023

The game doesn't have to communicate all this directly; just enough to capture the imagination. In this respect, the location design is instrumental. It taps into our own, innate vigilance, which sometimes gives us the wrong idea about a shape we see in the dark. The mind often suggests unsettling stories to us, perhaps just to keep us extra safe or entertained, imagining dumpsters or fallen trees are rabid dogs or monsters from the underworld.

Imagination simply goes haywire sometimes. It suggests things that are not necessarily true, sometimes causing anxiety in the process. Dead Space Remake does something very similar. In the darkness filled with alarming sounds, we can easily consider a safe element of the decor to be a threat. For example – I went into one of the toilets, suddenly I heard a shot inside and I thought that another necromorph was attacking me – while it was, I presume, a sewer pipe cracking or something like that. There are also locations that looked like they were designed by the devil himself, and though nothing attacked me there, the strange shape of the interior and the unsettling sounds made me want to be somewhere else as soon as possible. I just didn't feel safe.

Psychosis, occultism and space monsters

The influence of the Mark – an extraterrestrial object found on the USG Ishimura responsible for all that slaughter – can be seen in the presence of a new occult faith. The very idea of worshiping the Mark reminded me of the Shrike Church featured in Dan Simmons' Hyperion. The remnants of religion the game shows us are reminiscent of satanic rituals that we've seen in horror movies – places that John Constantine would surely enjoy. In addition, there are the necromorphs – that is, people that turned into terrifying creatures – there's also no shortage of evidence of the crew going completely cuckoo.

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This circle looks like a place to summon demons.Dead Space, EA, 2023

These are the foundations of this atmospheric survival horror – no wonder that the environment itself subtly impacts the imagination, suggesting what could have been happening on board the ship before. The rest – and quite a lot of it – is left to our imagination. For example, since the necromorphs are created from humans, then the little ones were probably once... children? And now, we proceed – out of necessity – to fight them, armed with a substantial arsenal, shooting and cutting all enemies to pieces.

If I were in Isaac's shoes, I'd probably go crazy right away. In a comfortable gaming chair, with coffee at hand, a laptop screen and a candle for light, I am also going crazy – with emotions that my flat mate can certainly hear, but for which he has not (yet) decided to chop me up. And when I fall asleep and there's a noise somewhere in the walls, the floor creaks or there are footsteps above, after playing Dead Space, I think that space speaks to me not only in the game.

Dead Space

Dead Space

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