I'm a video-game reviewer who insists on playing 90 percent of my games set to the "Hard" difficulty. I'm also an idiot. Why do I do this to myself? I have no idea. Possibly it's just simple masochism, but someone once said to me, long ago, that you're not truly playing a well-designed game unless you've allowed it to nest inside the circuitry of your central nervous system.
This stuck with me. Video games, even (especially?) excellent video games, are pretty much defined by arbitrary rules and restrictions. When you're really playing something, though, all that ridiculous game-y stuff winds up getting internalized. You don't question why you can't jump, or why your enemies insist on attacking you in groups of three rather than, say, 50. In fact, both things seem totally logical. Why can't I jump? Because it's not part of the rule set. Why don't they finish me off with one overwhelming attack? Because that's not what they do. Being locked into a game feels a bit like one of those dreams in which you realize you're dreaming but can't wake up, or like experiencing a fugue state in which you remain paradoxically attentive. What I'm describing might sound a little terrifying, but just about anything intended for a human audience wants to be held in the mind, the longer and more powerfully the better. Video games are unique because, as systems of immense complexity, they create the illusion of having living, accessible minds themselves.
That's the highfalutin version of why I play games I'm reviewing on "Hard." The practical reality, however, is this: It's somehow two in the morning, I'm trying to turn on the machine that will save the universe, and monsters are coming at me from all directions. I've gruesomely died 15 times in a row, and I keep dying because I don't have the right gun for this kind of fight and my ammo is preposterously low. I actually punch myself hard on the thigh when I die for the 16th time — sliced in half by a growling, red-eyed, stab-armed tar monster. As the screen goes red, I realize I've been struggling to get through this ridiculous fight for close to an hour. I go to the "Change Difficulty" sub screen and toggle to "Normal," and the game asks me, "Are you sure?" No, I am not! My will to fight embiggens. I try on "Hard" yet again. I die yet again. Then I lie down on the couch and close my eyes and curse the Red Marker for all the interplanetary pain it has wrought. Welcome to Visceral Games' Dead Space 3.
The Dead Space games have a story — really quite an operatic, elaborate story. It involves an ancient artifact called the Red Marker, around which a deranged and murderous religion called Unitology has formed. (Lawrence Wright isn't the only problem the Church of Scientology has this season.) Over the course of the three Dead Space games,1 a humble deep-space engineer named Isaac Clarke becomes, well, the Lawrence Wright of Unitology, only heavily armored and brandishing a Plasma Cutter. Wherever Isaac goes, outbreaks involving space zombies tend to follow him. These space zombies, called Necromorphs, are howling, living-dead beasts of various sizes, shapes, and abilities, but all of them are capable of cleaving Isaac's torso from his lumbar region with a few savage blows.
That's what the Dead Space games are about. Also this: You're walking alone down an abandoned corridor in some spooky, stranded spaceship. The third-person camera, trained on Isaac's slightly hunched back, is a hair too close for optimal visibility, an effect that is obviously intentional. Bloodstains on the floor. Above you, the industrial track lighting buzzily flickers. You're a little freaked out. More than a little. You're supposed to be finding a fuel cell (or whatever), and after a few nuisance enemy attacks you know you're probably drawing close to your goal. In the Dead Space games, you almost always find the thing you're looking for2 in larger, more open rooms that have ample ammo and health packs scattered around, and so you know the moment you grab the thing you came here to get, the unrelenting attack will begin.
Dead Space is not about picking up the thing you came to get. That is, the narrative might be, but the game is not. Dead Space the game is about not picking up the thing you came to get. Instead, it's about walking around and taking note of the location of every vent in the room, whether on the wall or in the ceiling or floor, because most Necromorphs travel par le conduit, and you never know from which vent they'll emerge. You plot out a defensive strategy, figure out which corner you'll retreat to in a pinch, anticipate which weapon you'll use on which enemy, say a prayer to the god of Necromorphancy, grab your goddamned fuel cell (or whatever), and furrow your brow as the incoming monsters roar with glee. When they come, there are always too many monsters. Not too too many, not overwhelmingly too many, but objectively too many, like four or five too many. And they're always too fast. At a distance, many Necromorphs affect the appearance of lassitude, but a lot of them have this little explosive lunge they do when they get close, which tends to break down strategy and trigger acute panic. You start out wanting to take them on one by one, picking your shots, but soon you're running around the room saying, "Oh shit, not good, oh boy." And whenever you're done blowing the last of the reanimated devils apart, you feel like you've just come out of some demonic trance.
Almost all the combat encounters in the Dead Space games have been crafted with immense care. Everything from the disgustingly gratuitous violence to the incredible prop and weapon design to the masterpiece-level audio is the work of men and women who value the experience they're trying to give you. Their ruthless infliction of terror and anxiety is best understood, I think, as an ectopic gesture of respect — maybe even love — for the player. The Dead Space games are sick, twisted, messed up, idiotic, gripping, brilliant, ridiculous, utterly indefensible, and, at their best, they represent the pinnacle of big-budget game development.
The first Dead Space remains one of the finest, most atmospheric horror games ever made: one part Alien, one part Resident Evil 4, and one part System Shock. From its brilliantly innovative HUD to its riveting, minimalistic narrative, Dead Space should have been the game that reinvigorated video-game horror. Unfortunately, it underperformed commercially, thereby helping to push the once-venerable genre of "survival horror" — the Eastern Europe of video-game genres, defined by oppressiveness and difficulty — deeper into a commercial wilderness from which it has yet to emerge.
Dead Space 2 attempted to blend its horror with a more cinematic, action-game feel, and initially I made every attempt to hate it. That proved impossible. Since this fantastic game appeared in 2011, I've played it through four times, once on "Zealot" difficulty, which at the very least should score me a free Sunday brunch at Hollywood's Scientology Celebrity Centre. Yes, I'm aware that Dead Space 2 is no longer a survival-horror game, and yes, the fact that Isaac, hauntingly silent in the first game, talked and emoted his way through Dead Space 2 bothered and continues to bother me, but I've come to accept these things as reasonable (if lamentable) commercial concessions necessary to get another Dead Space game out the door.
Dead Space 3 makes many more, and potentially more alarming, changes to the formula. Anticipatory reactions have not been kind, even among the smart, reasonable gamers of my acquaintance. What follows is a partially accurate conversation between two avowed Dead Space lovers that occurred earlier this month:
Dead Spacer No. 1: No way I'm buying it. Forget survival horror — it's not even a horror game anymore! How can you sit there and tell me you like it?
Dead Spacer No. 2: It is, actually, still a horror game, and a Dead Space game. Using a health pack still makes that wonderful little drinky-drinky sound.
Dead Spacer No. 1: Yeah, but human-on-human combat? What is this, goddamn Call of Duty? And now Isaac can roll away from enemies? How can you accept this utter shit?
Dead Spacer No. 2: I need to know if we are actually talking about Dead Space 3.
Dead Spacer No. 1: What do you mean?
Dead Spacer No. 2: The vehemence with which you're enforcing pretty totally subjective distinctions is weird.
Dead Spacer No. 1: They're casualizing my favorite franchise. That simple enough?
Dead Spacer No. 2: But you haven't played it.
Dead Spacer No. 1:: I refuse to play it.
Dead Spacer No. 2: OK. So my view — informed by having played the game — is that complaining about your favorite franchise daring to include a slightly different type of combat encounter, like, say, human-on-human, is entirely unjustified. And unreasonable. But mostly it's just dumb and depressing, because you and I don't get to define what Dead Space is. Listen to yourself. There's like half a dozen human-on-human encounters in the whole game — and they fit! The actual gameplay, meanwhile, is tough as hell. I'm glad Isaac can roll. I'm halfway through, and I need Isaac to roll.
Dead Spacer No. 1: You're playing on "Hard."
Dead Spacer No. 2: Of course I am.
Dead Spacer No. 1: OK. Look, I hear you. What bothers me is that it sounds nothing like Dead Space.
Dead Spacer No. 2: It's not. But I'll tell you what it's exactly like, and that's Dead Space 3.
Dead Spacer No. 1: I guess the real problem is that I'm a gamer. And gamers are inherently conservative. We don't want to admit that, but I think it's true. Loving a video game can be such an intimate experience, you know? People who don't game have a hard time understanding that, I think. A great game feels like it's yours, which is why gamers fear change. Change by its nature endangers connection and intimacy, and we don't like that one bit. And here's the thing: We have this brand-new art form that's often crass, bizarre, and stupid in ways both great and troubling, and which is, for now, largely and indisputably subject to the commercial anxieties of a few large, risk-averse corporations. When a game that sells 15 million copies gets an annual sequel, we call out "Commercialism!" — as though this even makes sense when you're talking about a $90 million production budget. "But I paid my 60 bucks!" the gamer will say. "What about what I want?" And sure, 60 bucks is a lot of money. But a good game is going to give you … what? Ten hours of entertainment? Twenty? Maybe even 50? At the lowest imaginable ratio, you're still getting six dollars' worth of entertainment per hour. Try being a young, underemployed person who loves theater. Try paying upwards of 50 dollars per entertainment hour and see where that leaves you. Comparatively speaking, video games are a goddamn steal. It's like we don't even consider what drives video-game development. When some game we profess to love alters its formula the tiniest bit — and these are tiny alterations, mind you, because how much "innovation" is even possible in a game about chopping up monsters with industrial tools? — we wage our one-man guerrilla wars against it. Please realize I don't want to be this way. No one wants to be this way. But I know it's possible to love something so much you also wind up hating it. To be a fan of something is to demand of it things you have no right to demand, and when this thing you love feels so personal on the one hand yet is so obviously mass entertainment on the other … You know what? It's so unbelievably confusing sometimes.
None of this is to say that Dead Space 3 is without flaws. There's an uninvolving love triangle between Isaac, his ex-girlfriend, and her new boyfriend, the twists and turns of which have already bored me too much to finish this sentence. It wasn't always this way. The first Dead Space game traumatized me by brutally killing off Isaac's commanding officer right before my eyes. And at the very end of that game, when Isaac finally removes his helmet, and we see him silently sitting there with his wet, dopey eyes,3 my connection to him felt stronger and more genuine than at any time in the sequels. The lesson appears to be this: The more "realistic" Isaac gets, the more articulated his "journey" as a character becomes, the less effective the story around him feels. There's an emotional uncanny valley, too, particularly in a sci-fi game, when there are so many other headwinds of implausibility pushing against it.
Dead Space 3 debuts two highly controversial elements: a weapons-crafting system, which is initially confusing, and a real-money microtransactional system, which is evil. When I heard about the weapons-crafting system, I was worried and confused, and chalked it up to the salmon-cooking, dragon-armor-forging, house-building influence of Skyrim. The first two Dead Space games had such unusual and differentiated weapons that serious players wound up developing intense bonds with their armament of choice. (The only way to get my Ripper will be to pry it from my cold, dead hands.) Wouldn't a crafting system serve to obviate one of the pillars of the Dead Space experience? As it turns out, no. The amount of possible weapon mods the game makes available to you is a little overwhelming at first, but by the end of the game I'd bonded with my over-under electrified-buzz-saw-plus-acid-bullet-shooting-machine-gun quite well, thank you. Strangely, I went through Dead Space 3 having used the Plasma Cutter — the franchise's most iconic weapon, which never left my weapon wheel in the first two games — only once, in the very beginning. If you'd told me a week ago it was possible for Dead Space to abandon its central weapon without inspiring in me a single backward glance, I would have called you a dirty Necromorph and dismembered you. But it's true.
The less said about the microtransactional system — in which you can spend your own real money on in-game supplies — the better, particularly since I personally wound up dropping around $35 for health-pack-replenishing purposes. I accept that I'm part of the problem, that I have an overly itchy, panic-prone health-pack finger. I very much wish this were not the case, but it is. I hereby make a personal plea to the John Riccitiellos of the world to keep these crack-dealer schemes out of games like Dead Space 3, which they neither need nor benefit from. One of the worst things I've ever seen in a game, ever, is Dead Space 3's cheery announcement that by spending three bucks on in-game supplies, you give yourself a 50 percent chance of an additional weapons part. So we're just gonna go with straight-up online gambling here, huh, EA? Coolsies. Meanwhile I'll alert my local congresswoman.
The standout element of Dead Space 3 has to be its co-op mode. I first played through the game in single-player mode, which was as upsetting, unnerving, and alarming as any Dead Space game, but in co-op, the experience is a revelation. When you play through alone, a character named John Carver4 periodically turns up to help and guide you, but in co-op, the two of you fight through together, to the result of slightly different cinematics, vastly different in-game dialogue, and an utterly different gameplay experience. Co-op Dead Space might not feel Dead Space–ish, but whatever it is, it feels great. Dead Space 3 gave me my best co-op experience since the first Gears of War — and helped mouthwash the filthy, cavity-ridden maw of its microtransactional grossness.
The last two hours of Dead Space 3 are, to coin a phrase, something to behold. The story, by this point, has gone bombastically bananas, zeroing in on a celestial final villain that feels both preposterous and perfect. I'd been resisting the story until the end, when I realized that what the fiction of Dead Space had done was proceed as if L. Ron Hubbard's insane cosmology were actually, scientifically true. Once you grasp this, Dead Space feels more weirdly audacious than ever. The game ends with Isaac launching giant Markers into the eye of what appears to be a moon-size black moor goldfish. How you get here from the lonely apartment in which Dead Space 3 opens, I have no idea, but somehow it works — even if, at this rate, Dead Space 4 is going to have to end with Isaac Clarke decapitating L. Ron Hubbard while Jupiter explodes behind them.