In Dead Space, your safety is in your hands

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Prompted by an invisible touch, the pneumatic portal sloughs its locks with a metallic sigh. Despite being armed to the teeth, you’re unprepared for what horrors wait on the other side. You saw them earlier – pegged a few, even – but just like before, there’s no warning this time. No signal of the horrors to come. Nothing prepared you for this moment of uncertainty, of gritting anticipation, nor will you be ready for the dozens like it littered across the next 15 hours.

In this moment, your sense of isolation is completely by design.

Most of Dead Space‘s runtime passes without so much as a camera sweep. Musical flourishes are about as dramatic as the game gets in its first two acts. Incidental encounters and boss battles come and go without much fanfare. Even literal fanfare doesn’t last long, and it’s used with incredible restraint.

Mostly, in Dead Space, things just happen.

there’s little emotional space between Isaac Clark and the player.

In terms of design, the most useful games are the ones that highlight glut – the detritus that builds up between player and the experience they’re consuming – mortared in over decades of ‘more-is-better’ design principles. By refusing to cede to tradition, Visceral Games’ 2008 dread opus, Dead Space, shone a supernova on all the ways survival horror games failed to engage players.

Just as Isaac Clarke appropriates the Ishimura‘s industrial labor doodads to eviscerate the horrors of the black, Dead Space adapts common game design elements to better communicate its systems and atmosphere. Self-indulgent text, obtrusive HUD, audiovisual cues that clutter play space – no didactic is spared the plasma cutter.

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That minimalist ethos extends to Dead Space‘s cinematic presentation. In video games – particularly of the survival horror genre – cameras can kill immersion, reminding players that someone made the authorial choice to force their focus for just the right mise en scène. In Dead Space, whenever the camera is pulled from under the player’s thumb, an on-screen event contextualizes that action: Isaac’s being manhandled by a necromorph, flinging the situation into chaos; he’s stepping into one of those creepy, vertical coffins to get a spiffier suit – a passive event. Rarely is the player’s view manipulated solely for the purpose of exposition.

That visual immediacy alone, especially in cramped corners of the Ishimura, creates a genuinely intimate experience. Without black-bar cues and camera pans before every encounter, there’s little emotional space between the danger surrounding Isaac Clark and the stake the player has in his well-being.

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Isaac’s efficacy as an avatar comes, perhaps regrettably, at the expense of his office as a character. Mute throughout with the exception of grunts and screams of pain, he’s little more than a placeholder for which we can only feel as much as we see on the surface (extremities flying, bones crunching, et cetera). Athough Isaac is without personality, the horrors by which he’s beset draw him in a context that allows players to shape him in their image.

Even Isaac’s movement animations are, in a way, conducive to player connection. Controlling Isaac, a damaged but capable laborer, ‘feels’ as clunky as he looks, all gussied up in his gothic copper maintenance suit. His movements are visibly deliberate, patient, not rushed, adding tangible panic to the enemy encounters that force players into chaotic button-mashing segments. That rhetorical connection of character design to the feeling of commanding the protagonist through a zero-G hellscape tears away another layer of separation between game and player.

cameras can kill.

Character through animation is just another way Dead Space creates a clarity that allows the player to see the developer’s vision. Its creators knew the rules the gaming audience has played by for decades and took it all for granted. Beyond serviceable control tutorials (which often run alongside rather than in between gameplay segments), the game gives its player a nearly uninterrupted connection to the narrative and to the world in which it unfolds.

One of Dead Space‘s universally-lauded design choices isn’t the presence of a particular feature or set of features, but the lack thereof. Button prompts, ammo counters, meters, and maps are torn away from the screen and relegated to the game world (often, in fact, to Isaac’s own body): The now-iconic health bar on Isaac’s spine, evoking yet another of Dead Space‘s twists on body horror; the button-command guidance system, which magically shows you the way but makes perfect sense in an industrial labor context; cutscenes playing from an onboard holographic projector in Isaac’s suit. They’re treated as an extension of Isaac, of the Ishimura, and of the world – or the player’s view of it – rather than HUD fodder.

Most horror games constantly remind the player that they’re looking at a screen by filling it with game-y clutter. They rely on crafting the experience around the story, assuming these pedagogical distractions as evils necessary to designing the player experience. That approach, overly didactic and often distracting, automatically creates distance between the player and whatever vision the designers have by inundating the player with information they already take for granted.

But Visceral subverted those principles in Dead Space by communicating vital information using in-fiction mediums and minimizing the flair of the game’s overall presentation. All of these show the studio’s deep understanding of the tools that the video game medium provides to creators, the canvas on which they utilize them, and the audience that will consume the product.

Dead Space works as well as it does because its creators not only acknowledged the high-context culture surrounding it – the part of the player’s brain that instinctively takes so much of a game’s design and flow for granted – but they embraced it and used it to guide their design decisions. Because they knew the player, Visceral could safely rely on the their existing game literacy and build mechanical tension from there.

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Dead Space isn’t without its tutorial aspects, but it uses them to impart necessary information to the player before putting them away, never letting them get between the player and the game. It achieves its core goal – i.e., horror – by putting its cameramen in the backseat, dialing back its scale, and taking the player for granted.

What little room exists between Dead Space and the person in front of it – between what’s being shown and the feeling of being there – is alive, writhing with a mutual awareness. Among the virtual graveyard of dated horror gaming experiences (and not just looking at them, but studying them – learning from them), Dead Space lives.

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