Why Dead Space 3 is an Important Question

I write horror. So do hundreds to thousands of other people out there. And serializing horror is not something that has ever been done particularly well. For that reason, Dead Space 3 is something anyone who takes their craft seriously should keep an eye on.

It’s certainly been tried so, so many times. Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Resident Evil, Silent Hill. Each of these movies and game series have their hey day and begin to fade, their sequels becoming derivative. A recent interview over on IGN certainly suggests that the artists and designers at EA and Visceral Games are doing their best not to let the horror element get away from them.

Now, I certainly don’t feel any need to defend EA or the game. I am looking forward to it, but that’s not to say I cannot be disappointed. It might be, as many other gamers worry, too much action and not enough scares. But I think that overall, based on a few things I’ve seen and heard, there are three things worth discussing and thinking about when it comes this trilogy’s ending.

So how do you keep horror fresh?

Extreme Venue Change

In the past two Dead Space Games, outdoors meant trying to find oxygen tanks and avoiding floating bodies, because you were in zero gravity space. While I certainly hope that there will be some actual moments spent in the void again, the frozen tundras of Tau Volantis have all kinds of possibilities too.

The open spaces make for an unusual set of circumstances. Before, we always had reason to fear the vents and the tight, claustrophobic tunnels and shafts. Which means that if the necromorphs (or whatever monster you are writing about) want their prey, they have to develop new, interesting ways to get close. Hunters always adapt or die, as is the law of the jungle. Camouflage? Tunneling beneath the snow? Masquerading as a snow mound? All possible. Even probable.

But here’s an idea. What if you had to trudge through a snow storm and you see a human looking figure ahead of you. (I know of at least one monster type that is already doing this.) Crazy thing is, your mission is to rescue survivors. And let’s say you can hurt or even fail your mission if you shot them just to be sure.

Which means you have to get close to confirm. Kind of like The Thing. A real moral dilemma.

Admit it. It would freak you out as you have to guess. The question alone causes hesitation.

Someone Else’s Madness

"There is no John Carver, fleshling! It is I, Megatron!"

“There is no John Carver, fleshling! It is I, Megatron!”

John Carver. We don’t know crap about him. Except that one, he’s a soldier. Two, he’s starting to hallucinate. Badly. And three… you’re stuck with him. Now if these ingredients aren’t a recipe for disaster, I don’t know what is.

That first point is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on the second point. What if the game designers decided to really play with your mind, and player one looks like a necromorph on the screen from a hallucination? And friendly fire hurts?

Yeah. I’d be furious myself. You got necromorphs, the environment and unitologists trying to kill me. And now I got to deal with a rampaging player who is freaking out? No wonder they didn’t want split screen co-op. And I couldn’t really blame the other player. When I see a necromorph, my first instinct is to blast away too.

Oh yeah, nothing adds scare like desperation. Survival horror, not just horror. How are you two going to divvy up the ammo and credits? The last thing I need is to find out my partner is an ammo hog and a really bad shot…

The Still Unknown

One large and very disturbing fact is that no one knows what or where the marker actually comes from. There are theories and ideas, but the only thing that seems to stick is that it’s alien. But obviously, there must be a marker on Tau Volantis for there to be necromorphs. Possibly even the original, the black marker. The Dead Space 3 trailer suggests as much, but it could be something else.

It would be strange at this point not to use the marker to open up a larger possibility. Maybe humans and necromorphs won’t be the only foes Carver and Clarke face. Maybe there’s one more thing somewhere down there. One more faction to the already expanded list, that wants its property back. As Dead Space has proven over the last two games, what you don’t know can and will kill you.

Imagine something comes after you. Something that is not remotely human, its skin is smooth. Its features more animal like terror. There is no rot, no gore, the blood it spills is different in color. It might even sound like it’s saying something. You manage to kill it. And Clarke examines the body.

And admits it does not even look like a necromorph.

… guess we’ll find out on February 5th.

Dead Space: The Best Blend of SciFi and Horror

After reading this blog post, this picture will take a whole new meaning.

After reading this blog post, this picture will take a whole new meaning.

Science fiction and horror are like a pair of abusive lovers.

SciFi attracts horror with its possibilities and potential. Horror pulls science fiction in because it’s a “bad boy”, something SciFi is constantly told not to date but that only makes horror more enticing. The result is often a bad mix that seemed so promising at first, only to end in violence and a lot of screaming. Anyone remember Prometheus?

Afterwards, SciFi gets up, dresses and takes the walk of shame home, hoping she doesn’t wake up horror. Her friends, fantasy and time piece fiction, tease her and tell her to stop seeing him. So SciFi goes back to work, becoming interesting and credible again. She has a date with crime fiction, which results in Looper, a great movie.

Suddenly, the phone rings. She risks a glance. It’s him. No, not just horror. Someone more meaningful than that.

Him. The one that got away.

She doesn’t want to answer the phone. If she does, it’s a chink in her armor that he’ll exploit. Or did SciFi hurt him, walking away? She saw his violent side and yes, it scared her. But he did not hurt her. Only scared her.

No, it was more than that.

He explored her to the fullest. She helped her see more, reach for the stars. Together, they created an amazing world, rich in detail and history. They crafted a wonderful story that played on the old rivalries of church and state.

Before SciFi realizes it, she’s driving over to his place. No fancy dinner, no coffee. There is no fine dining nor wining. She knocks. He’s at the door, and takes her hand. He leads her straight to the bedroom.

They do not pass Go. They do not collect $200.

Yes. He shares with her everything. The tight spaces, the darkness, being bound together. Even his ugly side, his inner monsters, are something special. They beg to be explored, their behavior intriguing and meaningful, a Mr. Hyde to his Dr. Jekyll. And she was his Nicole, the one he hallucinates about.

Being apart from SciFi is what hurts him.

Dead Space is the best sex that science fiction and horror ever had. And before you ask, yes. He used the handcuffs.

Why I Heart Isaac Clarke

Look at em! Ahhh, this guy's a coconut...

Sleep much?

This post containers spoilers.

The thing that makes Isaac Clarke so great is how flamin’ ordinary he really is.

You see, a lot of heroes tend to be these one-of-a-kind characters with skills and abilities above and beyond those around them. A lot of video games are made on the premise of being someone or some group’s last hope for no other reason than being unique during a time of great need.

For example, the Master Chief from Halo was the last Spartan. Captain Titus of Space Marine had some strange resistance to the power’s of the warp which helped him, on top of being one of the rarest soldiers the Imperium has to offer. In Skyrim, your character is dragon-born. In the Castlevania series, the Belmont clan has a long standing tradition of opposing vampires while Alucard is Dracula’s only son. And many main characters from the Final Fantasy series, such as Cloud Strife, Zidane Tribal and Terra Branford, all are incredibly unique and rare for a variety of reasons.

They can do it because no one else can.

But in Dead Space, there’s nothing super unusual about Isaac Clarke. Oh sure, he suffers from dementia from exposure to the marker (which is more a curse than blessing), but he’s not the only one and probably won’t be the last either. He stands up to the Necromorphs, but he’s not alone there. Nor is he the only one who can destroy the marker, as I’m sure both the Unitologists and EarthGov can. Only they choose not too.

Nope. Isaac Clarke’s quest is a bloody one of self-discovery and healing, but its overall effect on the world around him is fairly minimal, despite how huge it must have seemed at the moment of completion to the player. The player only explores the world around the eyes of Isaac in the main Dead Space series. We only ever see this world of political intrigue and struggle through the eyes of Isaac, whose condition made him highly useful, but not irreplaceable.

Indeed, Isaac is caught up in that long going struggle between church and state. Much like the Dark Ages of Europe where the popes and kings sometimes allied and sometimes struggled against one another. Neither side is particularly interested in Isaac’s welfare. Today, whether the conflict of church and state continues is a matter of personal opinion. But just about everyone knows what it’s like to be sandwiched between two power hungry giants in some shape or form, be them political, economic, religious or otherwise.

Also, Isaac is a nerd.

Even without super powers or unusually beneficial aspects, gruff soldiers are a common enough hero type. The Master Chief, Marcus Fenix of Gears of War, Commander Shepard of Mass Effect. All these games make the player feel remarkably qualified to save the world.

Not so with Isaac, who carries on a growing tradition similar to Gordon Freeman of Half Life. He’s not a soldier, he’s bloody tech support. He’s the guy you call when your hard drive crashed or you need permission to install the latest version of an application, or when your engine is on the fritz. His weapons? Mostly modified mining tools. His mission? Fix the damn engine before we get charred falling into the atmosphere.

And like many nerds, Isaac Clarke doesn’t seem to have much luck with the love life either. I just don’t see a happy ending for him. Like, ever. The first game was a sick joke on the man, when he find sout that his girlfriend, who he thought was alive and helping him, was actually dead. And the second game, he wrestles with dementia as the memory of long dead Nicole tries to kill him. Oh and the new girl? Poor gal loses her eye babysitting a guy for Isaac. What a lousy first date.

So yeah. It’s a shame that Dead Space 3 maybe the last we see of Isaac Clarke. It’s generally acceptable that we have to move on from characters after a while, after their story is told and the challenge has been overcome. But I’ll bet that the archetype of Clarke will endure. It’ll be thought on, reinvented and introduced in future games, books and movies.

I’m sure Dead Space 3 will do fine for itself. It’ll be a good game that is remembered, but not the break out smash hit that the series never was. At least for now. Sometimes, today’s moderate successes are tomorrow’s greatest hits.

Mass Effect Thoughts

Because no one ever suspects Richard Nixon Shepard.

Because no one ever suspects Richard Nixon Shepard.

I finished Mass Effect 2 last night. Don’t worry. No spoilers in here.

I found the overall structure of the game interesting. Unlike the first game, which paced you along with about five or six major plot arc missions, this one kind of dangled a major challenge in front of you. All the other missions are completely built around this one challenge in the end. There’s little room for side exploration.

And I mean that. One of the things I found myself missing from the first game was the exploration. No, I absolutely do not miss the Mako. But when you went down to the planet surface for some assignment, you go straight into the action. No Mako drop, no drive out there. The game really pushes you along, and if you leave many of these assignments there is no returning. Except for reloading the mission, the game is pretty bad about letting you recheck certain areas.

For every one thing I miss from the first game, there are two things I don’t.

For starters, the inventory system. What your party can and cannot equip has been streamlined, while the upgrades to your gear with a few quick clicks on the research team. This is so much easier than before, where you would have to go through the inventory screen, find the best weapon, equip it then find the best ammo and upgrades and then do this for every weapon slot and armor.

I also really like how each weapon and armor has unique properties with regard to firing rate, damage per shot and ammo capacity. There was no variety with this from the previous game, but having experienced the FPS options you get from Brink, I still feel there wasn’t enough of that firearm variety in this game.

I love how the weapons and armor upgrades are universal and applied everywhere immediately. But not before some tiring planet probing. It was like they had to add a grind in there somewhere so why not here? The mini-game aspect of it isn’t that bad, but after a while of it you get bored. So note to self, if I ever create a game (and I’ve been thinking about one helluva one for sometime), I will:
1) Allow the mini-games to be nicely spaced throughout the main game.
2) Make them completely optional, but considerably rewarding.
3) Find a way to add the character’s personalities to them to spice it up.

The grind isn’t fun, and isn’t as rewarding as regular gameplay. Not many games have figured this out, but in my opinion RPGs should be grindless, like Diablo 2. There’s so much satisfaction derived from slaying monsters in that game, and the loot system is the perfect Pavlovian response to keep you going.

But there are game rewards, and real rewards. Not just things that help you survive but the humor and joking that you get to keep post-game, and sometimes share with the nerds you call friends. When EDI gave me sass for probing Uranus, I laughed so hard. That’s the quips I could use while I play. Like so.

Don’t misunderstand me. I know that these kind of great quirks and scripted moments are not as developmentally scalable as loot or resources (although Team Fortress 2 pushes this out a new gag with every new item they sell). But they make the game unforgettable.

Believe it or not however, I really miss the leveling system. In the previous game, it was kind of like a little reward. The abilities each character has in this game make them more unique and intriguing, but they didn’t reward me fast enough. Choosing your team’s abilities in smaller increments can be quite satisfying. However, I did like how each ability ended in one of two choices to make them more powerful however, adding a nice twist on reaching the top.

Combat was a definite improvement. I feel as though they snatched an idea or two from Dead Space, like having these in game HUD displays for ammo. But I cannot chide them for it: A good idea is a good idea. Anything to reduce UI clutter. The cover system was also greatly improved; I actually used it now, and used it extensively. The clumsiness of the previous game’s fighting is gone, although I was shocked that I have to collect ammo.

Mass Effect 2 was full of interesting changes compared to the original game, and most were improvements. But I kind of worry that the considerable number of changes can risk a game losing sight of what made it so great. Sometimes it’s these tiny details of how the game is played that make it awesome. And if those features are lost with nothing better replacing them, it just feels different and not quite right.

Just One Scene

Sometimes a movie has just one scene that, entirely on its own, makes the movie worth watching.

It’s rare, but happens. I’m not talking about good acting, but something that’s difficult and executed so well that it awes you. If you’re watching the movie on DVD for the first time, you immediately rewind to see it again. Something amazing, usually cinema-graphically performed. Like the spinning, slow motion camera of in The Matrix.

The scene I have in mind is from the movie Let Me In. It’s a vampire flick that draws from the same vein as the Twilight series. The similarities mercifully end there however. Let Me In was a terrific film with intense drama, great acting, an exceptional story with a few surprises and a phenomenal action sequence that sets it apart from the rest of the horror genre.

The scene involves an escape in a car. The camera is in the back seat, filming how the escape goes horrifically wrong and detailing with surprising clarity the full extent of the auto accident.

I cannot show you the entire scene, but I can show you the first portion of it. The making of the scene is also available.

What makes this scene great? Many things. First, there are no computer generating effects. This makes the scene so much more realistic. CG has made a lot of directors lazy and has detracted from the overall experience. Sure, some things are alright in CG like the space battle scenes of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. But it’s real easy to let the CG kill the awe, like it did with Hulk. When you add CG to a real life scene, that reflective shine just takes something away. Believability.

Second, once the crash scene starts you get one shot of the entire thing from beginning to end. Scenes like this make it hard to blink because it’s just too easy to miss something. One shot! It’s so easy to break that moment up. But they didn’t.

Third is the fact that the shot occurs inside the car. You’re there with the guy from the rough start to the undesirable conclusion. Anyone who has been in a serious car accident before would probably feel quite uncomfortable by the scene.

If in a dream world, I would ever have the chance to do a Dead Space movie, it’s scenes like this and this (spoiler warning) that I would follow Let Me In‘s example.

Dead Space News

Blast off into spaaaaaaace! ... oh wait, that's a bad thing.

Blast off into spaaaaaaace! Wait, this is the opposite of what I wanted...

So Kotaku reports that EA is not only working on Dead Space 3, but also spinning off the main series with a first person shooter, adventure and… flight game. Furthermore, Dead Space 3 maybe the last game to star everyone’s favorite systems engineer, Isaac Clarke.

Huh. To be honest, I’ve got mixed feelings about these developments.

In one sense, I get it. EA wants to really develop a rich, interesting and original universe of its own that no one else has. And they’ve been doing that already, not only with Dead Space and its sequel, but the various spin off titles, comics, animated films and novels. Clarke, though a deeply interesting character I’ve come to admire, isn’t necessarily central to EA’s success.

I really do agree with Kotaku’s statement that these genre changes really risks moving a game great series away from its roots. First person shooter? Not much of a stretch given how great Doom 3 was in combining horror with fighting. Adventure game? Yeah, I guess it can work if they do it right, maybe.

Flight game? What?

The only way I can see this game working is if we move away from the horror aspect, as in the necromorphs, and focus on the rising conflict between the Church of Unitology, EarthGov, and any other factions we’ve yet to see. In other words, it would be a politically influenced game rather than survival horror.

Yeah, that worked well for Pitch Black‘s sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick. Oh, wait…

I’m also sad to hear how this maybe the last we see of Isaac Clarke. Whether he’s going to die or simply fade into the canonical background, I don’t know. It’s a real shame that modern gaming heroes can’t have the same timeless, lasting appeal of cute, round heroes like Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario or Link.

Nope, instead we’re getting used to bidding adieu to these characters after their trilogies and main arc series are complete. The Master Chief of Halo, Kratos of Gods of War, and Solid Snake of the Metal Gear Solid series. They come into our gaming lives with their dramatic and intense tales, leave their mark and then fade away into gaming history.

Gone but never forgotten. Not a hero, but a legend.

But there’s something about Isaac Clarke that is… I don’t know. Beyond mysterious. It’s tricky because he spent the very first game as a silent protagonist. So I wonder if maybe he has more story then what can be told in only a trilogy.

But I digress. In truth, Kotaku is only reporting on rumors and hearsay. Time will tell if we see Isaac Clarke after Dead Space 3, just as it will tell if EA’s bid to develop a fully detailed, expansive universe will pay off.

I am quite skeptical that they can do this. But then again, it is said that the Mobile Suit Gundam and Star Trek franchises were nearly canceled early in their beginnings.

And look what became of them.