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Working Class Hero: How Dead Space’s Toolbox Of Horrors Is A Blue Collar Manifesto

February 19, 2017


Dead Space was brought to us by EA in the same year as Mirror’s Edge, during a short-lived time of optimism when it seemed as though investing in new IP, rather than iterating Call Of Duty at the precise speed it takes a nation of 14 year-old boys to save up another £40, might be the key to winning the games industry. This was never a realistic hope, but the upside is that we’re left with Dead Space, a truly distinct and accomplished science fiction original (even if it became a series which iterated itself into irrelevance grasping for the attention of 14 year-old boys).

Dead Space is the grizzly end of sci-fi as learned from the blue-collar crew of Alien’s Nostromo. The future, it says, will be a place where replacing washers and making sure we can all breathe in trans-galactic flight will trump having a name like Dex Forearm and regenerative health. Our hero Isaac Clarke fixes things – trams, lifts, shuttles, navigation modules – and wears a rusty brown suit. As an engineer, he’s likeably functional, and the game is impressively focused around him. His weapons are tools – cutters, saws, flamethrowers – and his enemies require precision dismemberment rather than undirected aggression. He is the earnest shed-dad on an Autumn afternoon of videogame protagonists, and he lives in a satisfyingly unglamorous future of realistic moving parts designed with brilliant cohesion and striking visuals.

All of which there is to say there’s a purity to Dead Space, and to its science fiction, an efficiency of character, presentation, and even language. The game’s opening scene is a model of sharp exposition that introduces tensions, objectives and personal sub-plots, while throwing in a world-building set of just-graspable jargon (“planet cracker”, “gravity tethers”, “encoders”). There’s a confidence here too, all calmly taken in from the single-shot perspective of a cockpit overlooking a dramatic space scene: a broken planet, a crippled ship, and a scattered debris field, all glowingly backlit by a dazzling sun breaking through the gaps.

This is a world not in need of a hero so much as a man-shaped set of working parts. Isaac achieves the ultimate efficiency of language by remaining silent throughout, and his face isn’t shown until the game’s very last scene (even then, he looks flabbergasted rather than stoic or prominently jawed). Whether by design or necessity – the game’s initial prototype was scraped together by a small team using borrowed tech – Isaac is as much a tool as the improvised weapons he uses to cut through his enemies.

While there’s an elegance to Isaac’s simplicity, there’s a corresponding richness to the sophisticated world Dead Space builds around him. The game’s basic blocks of interaction, its sound effects and UI design, superbly convey a sense of both futurism and functionality. Again, something is owed to Alien here, and to the analogue future as collectively imagined by Hollywood on the burgeoning fringe of the blockbuster era in the 1970s and 1980s, a future of burbling pips and squawks, of holographic interfaces and workshop textures. It not only captures the same truth revealed by John Carpenter’s Dark Star and George Lucas’ Star Wars, that when we get to the future everything will look worn and you might have to slap the dash to hit light speed, but does it with such accomplished uniformity that every menu navigated, every door opened, and every machine worked intensifies the reality of the world, and the hold it has on us.

We should also talk about that world itself, and how it’s not really a world but a single ship, navigated in decks like the floors of a haunted house (that the means of travel between decks is a tram is, of course, just perfect). Welcome to the USG Ishimura: like Alien’s Nostromo it is a mining vessel, and like Alien’s Weylan-Yutani corporation it hails ahead to our internationally conglomerated destiny. It’s also a densely-packed warehouse of cliché, and it’s testament to the game’s other qualities that we barely notice. The ship’s geography is dominated by strobe-lit grey corridors and grand guignol monuments of splayed carcasses that recall a litany of antecedents from Doom to Event Horizon. They are, however, occasionally and spectacularly interrupted by defining moments of originality: a disorienting fight in a debris-strewn anti-grav chamber, or the frantic traversal of the ship’s hull against the sucking blackness of space.

The thoroughness of the game is apparent in these space walks, where the sound of everything except Isaac’s ragged breathing is swallowed in the vacuum. Again, the best of Dead Space is lean and stripped, and it’s with this same minimalism that the game contextualises the horrors Isaac encounters. Revealed through logs and text files – crude necessities of narrative, well deployed here – we learn of Unitology, a cult-like religion involved in the recovery of the alien artefact behind the game’s transformative horrors. Crucially, we’re not given specifics, just a taste of fanaticism and and hint of conspiracy, enough to ambiguously shade what are already mysterious events. Subtler still are veiled nods towards the wider state of our society four centuries from now, in the Ishimura’s various propagandist PSA posters. “Where would you be without SCIENCE?” beams one, a bright-faced technician smiling out above a pile of skinless cadavers. There’s a heavy echo of Philip K. Dick in their enforced optimism (“We can remember it for you wholesale!”), and they say a great deal, without saying anything, about the arrangement of people and power needed to drag humanity into space.

The best thing about all this is that Isaac doesn’t care. Instead he has his rusty brown suit and a long jobsheet of things to fix and do, which includes cutting the arms and legs off most of what used to the crew of the Ishimura. The thematic consistency of Dead Space is really clinched by its weaponry and enemies, and the combat that brings them together. Isaac’s inventory is a toolbox of sharp, hot things jerry-rigged for survival, and key among these sharp, hot things is the plasma cutter. In one sense Dead Space is an iteration of Resident Evil 4, and the plasma cutter is a natural successor to Capcom’s laser-sighted pistol, now with three blue lasers rather than a single red one. But it’s more than that, too – it’s a potent symbol of Isaac’s unfussy heroism, a small, effective tool (upgraded properly, it’s the only gun you’ll need to finish the game) with a simple, practical embellishment of a revolving head that turns the strip of blue lasers vertical or horizontal with a satisfying bleep.

The practicality of this revolving head only becomes truly obvious once Isaac encounters the necromorphs. These aberrations are a shotgun-wound wedding of Stan Winston’s creature effects in Carpenter’s The Thing and the distorted figures of Francis Bacon’s second Triptych – writhing examples of fallen man in furious agony. Yes, we’re essentially talking about space zombies, but space zombies with pedigree, as well as razor-like scythes for elbows and distended, snapping jaws. The game’s persistent stroke of genius is that brute force won’t deter them, and instead what’s needed is accurate dismemberment and disposal. This is where the punchy plasma cutter comes into its element, slicing off legs then, with a bleeping revolution of the head, clipping off an arm at the shoulder, methodically cleaving along the horizontal and the vertical.

This gives combat a purpose over and above the deployment of as much ordnance as possible in the shortest time. Each kill becomes a small, crafted piece of handiwork, and when combined with other weapons and Isaac’s supplementary abilities it results in a layered model of combat that’s skilful in a way few horror games manage. Initially the necromorphs come in twos or threes, but by the mid-point and beyond they invade rooms in waves, squirming from vents and pouring from the ceiling in multi-directional ambushes. At these moments the full range of Isaac’s tool set is stretched, and there’s a grim man-with-hammer satisfaction derived from switching between powers and weapons to select the right thing for the job: slowing on-rushers with Isaac’s stasis power, clearing a cloud of crawling parasites with the flamethrower, telekinetically tossing a propane canister into a crowd, and switching to the trusty plasma cutter to harvest the survivors. Having borrowed so much from the Alien series, Dead Space solves the problem official adaptations of that series tend to have: How do you keep your inhumanly lethal monster individually terrifying when at some point our hero needs to take on ten of them at a time? The answer is with a dextrous, skill-based approach to combat that makes it feel like you’re surgically crafting your way to safety.

Everything good about Dead Space comes from its underlying cohesion, everything from the no-nonsense stomp of Issac’s iron suit to the Bronx drawl of the engineer whose audio logs clue Isaac into the necromorphs’ weakness. Dead Space is a game with a point of view – that building things is valuable, that design is beautiful, and that the smallest details in the mechanisms through which we interact with the world can have the biggest impact. It’s a game about resourcefulness and repair, about precision and craft, about how default heroism is boring and how a real protagonist should do things. And it reminds us, graphically, that when everything goes to hell and a collection of razor limbs with a half-human face scuttles at you from a dark corner, being able to mend a flex is going to be pretty handy.


This article appeared in Edge magazine’s Time Extend section in 2014.

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