Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
18 November 2008
Dead Space: A conversation
One of EA's big titles this quarter is Dead Space, a survival horror game set in a shipwrecked mining vessel sometime in the future. It draws from a lot of familiar games and movies: Alien, Aliens, Resident Evil 4, Half-life 2, BioShock, and others. I was only mildly interested at first, but I got drawn in as I learned more after its launch.

I noticed that Josh Birk (of Cathode Tan) was playing it, and after LittleBigPlanet got pushed back a week, I opted to pick it up. What follows is a discussion Josh and I had after we'd finished.

JB: My quick take: this is still a top tier shooter which plays off previous games really, really well. It managed to spook me and keep me pretty tense, which isn't the easiest thing in the world.

JVM: I think my recent experience with shooters is so sparse that borrowed ideas in Dead Space would have seemed completely new. (I've played only two hours of Half-Life 2, for example, so my experience with a gravity gun is pretty limited.) So my perspective is different there. I'd say I've played more survival horror lately, and I'll add that I was very spooked in the beginning. Toward the end, however, I felt the game jettisoned scares in favor of action, and while I generally agree with that choice, they forgot to shorten the key-hunting to maintain the energy.

JB: Still, it's also example of why storytelling in games is hard. Why exactly am I returning this evil thing to this evil planet again? And the whole Nicole thing was contrived and a bit B-Movie.This is all compounded by the fact that Isaac could be replaced by a robot and the plot would remain nearly the same.

JVM: The designers attempt to humanize Isaac very late in the game, and it simply did not work for me. I even found myself trying to inject some emotions into the game. In one scene where there is another human in danger, I tried to rescue him with the kinesis module, but it did not help. I was disappointed that I was trying harder than the game to be a real person.

And not only can't Isaac react to other humans, but they don't even acknowledge him. When I was in a scene with another character speaking directly to me through a pane of glass, that character's model didn't even bother looking in my direction. I ran around on my side of the glass and the other character simply stared straight ahead, oblivious to my actual location. So not only did the design remove any options for me to act human, but they failed to add the obvious things that would have made the NPCs at least treat you like another human.

JB: The glass became something of a metaphor for me - that the game couldn't connect characters to each other. I consider what goes wrong in Dead Space when it comes to the character interaction twofold. One is this concept in modern gaming that you can't have cut scenes. Dead Space has a few cut scenes - and they actually work very well. The first few scenes of the game feel like the intro to a really decent sci fi movie. I've honestly never cared for the Half-Life approach and I think Dead Space is a good example why I'm not - to tell a good story it helps to have good characters. When you remove the main character from the equation, it doesn't take long for the story to unravel.

And the story here really unravels. I'm still confused by the whole Kendra hijacking the shuttle thing. The twist about Nicole in the end feels confusing and odd, not clever and insightful. I end up on this planet with little choice in the matter when I've got no reason to think Isaac wouldn't bolt at the first possible chance - and that's because I know nothing about him as a character.

I hope the sequel will introduce a real main character and decent camera direction. I've said all along that Dead Space is a good amalgamation of previous mechanics. They should play Uncharted a few times through before continuing the franchise.

JVM: Visually and aurally, Dead Space is at the top of class. Its vision of the Ishimura is so seamless and detailed that immersion is virtually guaranteed. To this end, I think the in-game holographic interface was essential. Moreover, having Isaac's suit itself display health and stasis energy was downright brilliant. The only time this broke down for me was the opening of doors -- they appear to be used to cover the loading times, and that's a shame.

JB: This is a beautiful game. I saw a couple of collision problems (one humorous one where the undefeatable deadite was sticking his head out of a crate) and occasional the physics on the bodies was odd. The HUD is design genius. The Girl kept telling me to turn the sound down, too, because I really liked playing this game in the dark with the volume cranked up. The Ishimura just breathes at times.

My real complaint visually is that we didn't get enough views of the scenery. When I first hit the bridge, I saved the game just to show The Girl the meteor storm. The inside of one Chapter begins to feel the same as the next by the end of the game, but the outside is usually interesting.

JVM: Dead Space communicates very effectively with sound. Obviously the scary noises are important, but the atmospheric sounds flesh out the world and enhance the sense of spatial relationships. What really blew me away was the effect of almost no sound when Isaac had to work in a vacuum. After the game trains you to know the sounds of your enemies, you suddenly find yourself in an environment with practically no sound at all. That contrast is one of the game's high points. Each time Isaac had to enter a vacuum after that, I shifted my play style to constantly scan the corners of the room for any movement, relying on vision almost exclusively.

JB: This is where that shooter genealogy kicks in. Since Doom designers have played with just how much information to broadcast to the player via sound without giving too much away - and I think Dead Space hits it just about right. Totally agreed on the vacuum - some of the interior vacuum scenes are about the most memorable.

So about half way or little more through the game - you analyzed the ammo system. Did this break you out of the game, realizing at one point that the ammo is somewhat rigged? Also, the ammo drops themselves - I wonder if this isn't a mechanic starting to lose its welcome. I had a party last week where guests tried Dead Space out a lot and the most frequent question they had was "why do all these dead things carry plasma rounds"?

And I wonder - if I only carried the cutter, would I only get plasma rounds?

JVM: Right. To explain briefly, there was a checkpoint in the game right before an ambush that I found particularly challenging. After each restart, I would go past the same locker and pick up whatever item was in the locker. This revealed that the item generation was pretty random -- I could get ammo or a health item or money -- but not completely random. I had upgraded two weapons and not another, and the game would generate ammo almost exclusively for the weaker, stock weapon. In effect, the game was acknowledging that each round for a stronger gun was more valuable, and balancing the probability distribution accordingly.

To the extent that I was nearly completely taken in by Dead Space's world, this did break the illusion. I realized that I could game the system in precisely the way you suggest: carry only one weapon. Ultimately, I wanted to carry only the line gun and the plasma cutter -- one for crowd control, and one for precision amputation. Instead, I used my cash and upgraded the third weapon I had until all three were effectively equals. At that point, ammo drops went back to completely random, and I enjoyed the game much more.

And that's the invisible hand of the designer, pushing me toward what I think they intended people to do: upgrade weapons evenly. That annoys me.

JB: At the same time, I appreciate the designers trying something new. This wasn't a game breaker for me, but it's something I'd like to see tweaked for a sequel.

JVM: Incidentally, how much cash did you have when you finished? I fell back into my usual survival horror habits, originally learned playing Resident Evil on the PS1, where I conserve every resource I can. As a result, I didn't do much upgrading of weapons for the first couple of chapters, and then didn't spend money for much of anything until the last two chapters. I ended the game with 250,000 credits and that was after a big spending spree before the final confrontation (and before the 50,000 credits you get as a reward for finishing the game).

JB: I'd have to pull it up, but I think the last time I hit the final confrontation I blew through most of it. Mind you, in that last run I also had a lot of leftover rounds and health packs, and I think I went ahead an bought a couple of power nodes that I didn't really need. I was way more spendthrifty though, I wasn't too afraid of running short of supplies in part because the game seemed to provide when I needed it. I'd love to know how much I has spent on plasma rounds by the end of the game though, since the cutter was by far my prime weapon.

I'd be curious to know how much you managed to conserve on ammo by using the kinesis more. I don't know if I couldn't get the hang of it or if I just liked knowing that the cutter was effective.

In the long run, though, I have the same question here that lingers from RE4. Is a store metaphor really fitting for a survival setting? I can't think of an example in movie or fiction which really fits. I get that resource management is an important part of the whole dynamic, but it seems like the horror side of things might need an update.

JVM: I'm about to start BioShock. I've tried to shield myself from spoilers, and have only played the demo that was made available on PSN. From what little knowledge I have, it would appear that Dead Space and BioShock share some traits: upgrading weapons, an enclosed environment, and modified humans. However, here is what I'm wondering: did you feel that BioShock had a mature treatment of Objectivism and how does Dead Space's treatment of Unitology/Scientology compare? EA had a series of Dead Space trailers produced in graphic novel form that really fleshes out the Unitology cabal angle, but that seemed terribly underplayed in the actual game.

JB: Oddly, I think Bioshock does a better job of presenting some of the underlying concepts of its backstory. The whole religious aspect of Dead Space felt like it mostly window dressing, as if the designers had a hard time tying these elements to what was happening to Isaac. This is partially because the resulting carnage is less direct than most games and the scenery in Bioshock is more diverse. At the same time, in both games you're dealing with just that - the aftermath.

For both games, and it will be interesting to compare when you get done with it, I'd honestly rather see a prequel for the next one than a sequel.

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--Matt Matthews at 21:32
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