Human Interaction and Physical Contact in Dead Space
Dead Space…its horror at it’s best, well at least the first two were. So what exactly is it that makes this franchise so chilling? Well I could tell you about the enemies, the psychologically disturbed storyline or the cheap thrill of slamming all the buttons as fast as you can while praying that the door opens before you’re ripped limb from limb. While these are all great horror aspects, they get talked about all the time, so there’s not much point going over them again here. No, what I’m going to discuss is a little more personal than that. When you board the SS. Ishimura for the first time in Dead Space, you are violently split up from the rest of your crew. From this point on until the third installment, you rarely physically interact with another human being. Communication is done through the HUD and even when you do ‘meet up’ with other people, it’s usually done on two sides of a wall. What makes Dead Space so chilling? Complete and total alienation from all human contact.
Now you’ll notice that I refer to the player as ‘you’ rather than Isaac Clarke. This is vitally important. Isolation is so intrinsic to the horror value of the franchise because it’s you that feels the loneliness and the fear. Isaac may occasionally respond to events that are occurring in the game, but the action plays primarily upon the fears of the player. Recently studies have sprung up all over the world explaining how social media is tearing us away from real life interaction with other people. Loneliness is becoming a widely recognised human condition. What Visceral have managed to do is take this loneliness and play upon the natural human fear of it. By separating the player at every meeting with a wall, or a window, you never feel as though you are actually being helped by anyone. The threats you experience are shared with no one, and the setting really lends to this. Being enclosed in a claustrophobic freighter floating through (if you’ll excuse the phrase) ‘dead space’ already sets the tone of loneliness. Without the presence of someone else with you, you really feel like every action and reaction is yours alone.
When you do encounter someone close-up, it’s highly unlikely that Isaac will actually touch that other character. This “physical barrier” throughout the game is first shown explicitly when Isaac interacts with his wife, Nicole, through a video transmission. Their mind set already echoes the longing of companionship and the loneliness that they each feel being that far apart from each other. It is also interesting to note that the only time Isaac does actually physically touch Nicole after this, is during his horrific visions, during which she attempts to kill him. This shows that even when you think you’ll finally experience the contact that you desire, it ends in pain and grief. Game Designer, Peter Molyneux, spoke of the importance of touching in video games, particularly with his experiences designing Fable III’s handholding system. He explained that touching people besides killing them creates relationships and causes the player to really feel as though someone is leading them, and that someone beside himself or herself knows what is supposed to be happening in the narrative. Being deprived from this is key to the horror of Dead Space. It leaves no room for any relationships besides with those you kill, or those who you lose. It’s the feeling of total panic and confusion that turns hearts to ice.
This brings me nicely to my only gripe with the series, Dead Space 3. This game took all the horror values I loved about the series, including those mentioned in the prior paragraphs, and dismantled them. You physically interact with other people, and not very convincingly either. You are constantly shoved in the faces of the other cast of characters, and this only serves to break up the horror with moments of destitute sitcom acting. Even when this interaction is done well, (I’m thinking of certain scenes between Isaac and Carver) it still breaks up that feeling that every loss, and every fault is yours to bear. There are others you can blame and others who are contributing to a very clear and concise final goal. (For the majority of the game.) Psychologically, the format of the game is jarring. The open world-esque, space frontier you explore during the opening chapters is less confining, less chilling. Co-operative gameplay as an inclusion does not belong in the Dead Space franchise, sure it was done well, but it simply didn’t need to be there. It breaks apart exactly what Dead Space was for me. A game which loses you in it’s own somber loneliness.
So what makes Dead Space so great? It’s the knowledge that you are completely trapped in your own psychology, and that there is no one there to help you out and no one there that you can touch, or feel. Though Dead Space 3 does much to break it up, there are still moments that impressed me. Moments when the only faces you saw where inside closed windows, and the chill of the wind was felt only by you.