Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Analysis: Dead Space and the Enjoyment of Other People's Suffering

Rollercoaster rides are a funny phenomenon: rational, sane people who value their safety will allow themselves to be hurtled through the air at precarious speeds just for a thrill; these same people will then celebrate the terror that they put themselves in by screaming and yelling in an irrational manner. Of course, it makes sense: by putting themselves in a risk situation that is safe and controlled, rollercoaster riders are able to experience the thrill of danger without actually being exposed to it.

Horror movies aim to provide the same exhilaration as riding a rollercoaster, with the difference that a horror movie provides zero direct risk; there is no chance that the operation of a horror movie will injure or kill you. Instead, the people at risk in a horror movie are the characters in the narrative who recently had sex and are now being chased by a serial killer.

Lingering nightmares aside, horror movies can affect the viewer only so deeply when compared to a the genre of survival-horror video games where the concept is that you are in inside a horror movie. The interactive component of video games demands that, when playing a survival-horror game, the player be responsible for his own safety at all times and thus making every moment playing it a visceral, heart-pounding adventure. Survival-horror games differ from other video games from the omni-present feeling that you are never safe, even when standing still in an empty room.

The challenge in a survival horror game is to stay alive, especially with enemies seeking your bodily harm that are horrible and monstrous. In fact, the struggle to preserve one's own life in a survival-horror game is so important and thrilling that any story elements of the game are shunted to a secondary or even tertiary level (the second being the level of gore and violence to be enjoyed).

Such it is with Dead Space (2008) by EA's Redwood Studios which proves that survival-horror video games are incapable of telling a story because you are the story. You are telling it with your fight to survive against overwhelming odds. Anything else that happens is not as important as the very life you are trying to protect.

Dead Space has a well-thought out plot and background involving science-fiction technologies, religion, deception and appeals to the player emotionally by having the protagonist's love interest involved in this catastrophe and her whereabouts and safety unknown. The influences are outrageously cribbed from the same three favorite sci-fi movies everybody has seen. However, "Dead Space" has interesting characters like the doctor who accepts the extermination of humankind as a higher calling, or innovative concepts like the "planet-cracker" spaceship that can tear a planet asunder to mine for valuable resources, and interesting themes like the role religion will perform in futuristic society. Dead Space is well-planned and scripted.

However, Dead Space is not very thoughtful when you are constantly involved in putting off the purchase of the proverbial farm. A case in point are the game's cutscenes where dialogue is used to move the plot forward. Much like Half-Life (1998) the perspective never changes from the gameplay view allowing for a greater sense of immersion and different experiences on following playthroughs. While this immersion in Dead Space heighten the tension and the horror, this also has the effect of invalidating the story's importance by emphasizing the need to survive; you are never ever truly safe, even in a cutscene. A traditional "movie" cutscene would cut away from your perspective and would allow for a feeling a "safety" by taking the immersion and interactivity from you, if just for a moment. Indeed, when the player, Issac Clarke, finally meets up with Nicole Brenner, his girl-friend, you are likely more concerned with collecting the precious ammunition and health scattered about the room rather than anything she has to say.

The nature of self-preservation is a strong one, and would prompt someone in a simular situation to ask, "How can I help you when I can't even help myself?" This leads the main/emotional story arc of Dead Space out to dry in a vaccuum. This is further hampered by a protagonist who is silent and not revealing of any character or feeling. While this tactic has served to be useful in games like Dragon Quest VIII (2004), Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy (2001), Half-Life and the survival-horror game play of Dead Space itself, this silence separates us from sympathizing with a character who appears emotionally detached from the proceedings of the game. Unlike these other games, Dead Space doesn't have many other characters to speak for or empathize with the main protagonist. In fact, Clarke will be both stoically silent at the game's emotional climax as well as fully masked, leaving us to guess at his thoughts and feelings from his body movement alone. The only time we are allowed to see Clarke's heart is when a zombie successfully attacks him and rips him in half.

Nonetheless, Dead Space excels at letting gamers tell their own story of survival, and here it's a good thing Clarke is silent because he just wouldn't be capable of describing the horrors and atrocities committed in this game. It appears many video games try to shock gamers and outdo other video games in their depiction of barbarity and depravity of violence, if just to paint a picture of evil without actually having be evil itself: games like Bioshock (2007), Manhunt (2004) and the Mortal Kombat series comply to this mold. Dead Space doesn't shy away from this and rejoices in the gore and violence involved.

That's what Dead Space is good at being: letting the player wallow in the same level of violent debauchery as your evil enemy. It's for the better that Clarke is silent throughout or else he would express regret and remourse for having to kill an enemy that used to be people, even people he once knew, in an extravagantly vicious and spectacular fashion. Dead Space may be the first video game to have an melee attack for stepping on and squishing your enemy with horrendous and messy results. Much like the Grand Theft Auto series, Dead Space allows the player to partake in objectable behavior not endorsed or encouraged by the game but availible to perform. While Grand Theft Auto allows for the picking up and hiring of street prostitutes, Dead Space allows for the debasement of corpses in grisly and appalling manner that is oddly satisfying. Similarly, both games have tangential benefits to both behaviors: Grand Theft Auto rewards you with a health bonus, and Dead Space lets you disable (literally) a potential enemy--both availible if you are willing to cross that moral boundary.

That would then be the most compelling reason why Dead Space can't tell a story: that Issac Clarke survived this horrific ordeal in which he was forced to commit terrible acts just for the sake of our enjoyment. What is a horrific lifechanging experience for him is simply escapist, gory fun for us. His silence on the matter never lets us know how he coped with this test of the human spirit because that would humanise him and get in the way of our fun.

Issac Clarke isn't "Doomguy" from the Doom franchise, a hard-boiled space marine trained for combat and relishes violence; neither is he Gordon Freeman from the Half-Life series, a resilient scientist who is searching for the thing all scientists are searching for: truth, albeit by crawling through air ducts and fighting off military black ops personnel with a crowbar. Instead of trying to save the world, Clarke is some guy doing his day job but now just wants to rescue his girlfriend and go home.

Graphics have long been by far the most important aspect of video games. The "uncanny valley" is a concept that appears to be the most challenging for the development of computer graphics currently; the "uncanny valley" is the concept that the closer artificial characters or their likeness become to to being human-like will generate an equally large emotionally negative repsonse. Basically, the "uncanny valley" means until science finally gets it completely perfect audiences and observers will find these human-like characters as creepy and unrelatable.

However, regarding video games, this isn't the only thing that has simularily adverse results with the more progress made towards it. Likewise, video games appear to have an "unsympathetic valley", where the more something is said to explain something, the less we care.

Doom was a breakthrough first-person shooter and provided lots of fun action and scares; even though it was very shallow and didn't explain much in the way of plot or character, this simply meant that we weren't burdened with any emotional restraint that would accompany the enjoyment of murder using such satisfying weapons as a chainsaw and a shotgun. Half-Life took the devoted and well-used video game plot of an accident gone wrong and having to save the world, and freshened-up a tired cliched story by telling it well for the first time in video game history.

Almost ten years later with Dead Space it appears we are sliding backwards. Dead Space's straight-forward story of love and deception (and, revealed later, dementia) does not work with the unresolved story of survival against evil and horror. The more we hear the less we care making the experience of playing Dead Space fun but cold and empty.

"Dead Space"'s Game Pro's and Con's that can be summed up in point form


+ very specialized single-player experience crafted to scare you in innovative environments (zero G, the vaccuum of space)
+ fresh take on the well-versed zombie genre having players dismember enemies
+ a directional line to objective means never getting lost, encouraging exploration
+ takes a direct approach to gore and never backs down


- scares wear off after awhile, and most scares are fake, scripted events
- lame boss battles
- purchasable and ungradable weapons require several playthroughs to appreciate, leading to confusion on the first time around
- influences are very noticable, and isn't as innovative as it's potential
- story is predictable and forgetable, even though great pains are made to tell the story well

Played to completion on most difficult level on the Xbox 360.

Rated: two out of a possible three stars

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