Antiestablishment in Dead Space

George A. Romero, of Dawn of the Dead fame, read the zombie genre as being about “revolution, one generation consuming the next.” The idea of the living dead stems from social change, people fearing the downfall of one culture as another consumes it. The conservatives — or the survivors — are the ones refusing said change, as they attempt to quell the revolt. The dissent from the impeding social mores are then nullified by a shot to the head, or some miraculous concoction that cures the walking dead of their ailment — a subversion of one opinion for traditional norms.

The spice Dead Space peppers on its decaying entrée is similar to the former, but varied by a focus on dismembering multiple limbs to subdue a hostile, rather than the trite mechanic of aiming for the head. This may be considered a simple gimmick to add nuance to a tried scenario, however given the importance of organizations within the series’ narrative, this new convention actually manifests itself as a metaphor.

In the average zombie story the undead serve as obstacles for the survivors, merely trifles to be disposed of for the advancement of the narrative, and enforce the protagonists’ persistence in preserving their ideals. Though the unimportance given to each zombie is utilized to express how the threat is social change as whole, across a body of shambling corpses rather than something unique to an individual. But in this syndicate’s tangible manifestation, the rising trend exists in an array of individuals, each brought to naught with a coupe de grace to the cerebrum.

Isaac severing the limbs of a necromorph.

Severance through severing.

But what if these individuals — these zombies, represented something less than themselves, or the sum of their combined efforts? That’s exactly the case with the Dead Space series as the necromorphs don’t represent a change in the tides of society, but rather the consumption of society by organizations. In this case, the objective of the individual’s malevolence is replaced by subservience to a cause greater than it — a future it doesn’t necessarily see itself a part of, but rather a reason it can’t question or understand, leaving it in a state of blind obedience.

Necromorphs are therefore used as pawns, tools, or cannon fodder. Their sovereigns are earthly organizations that are familiar to players, yet hyperbolic nonetheless. Government, military, science, religion — all the major institutions of civilized society attempt to harness the power of these brutes as means to their insidious ends. Naturally, their modus operandi is pure hostility, slashing and corroding everything in their path to impel a state of vulnerability in their prey. Consider this a breaking point, a place for the organization to employ the target when it’s at its weakest. What follows is recruitment, or, indoctrination if you choose to be cynical about the matter. In the most literal sense, this is the conversion process following the subjugation of the quarry, transforming the human into a necromorph. It parallels with how social inequities impel people to join particular groups. For example, the recruitment of the poor for military purposes, or the absolving sins and instilling hope by means of religion — the diegetic counterparts being EarthGov and Unitology, respectively.

Though the blind submission to organizations is coupled with a blind persistence, in which Dead Space uses mechanics to shimmer in its dingy halls by using dismemberment as metaphor. Isaac may be an engineer by trade, though ironically, he spends the majority of his escapades destroying everything in his path. Thusly, he is quite anarchic in nature by not only neglecting the conventions of his profession, but by disestablishing the puppets and constituents of organizations.

The Church of Unitology.

Unitology represents the dangers of religious fundamentalism.

Disestablishing, is putting it lightly — Isaac brutally tears apart necromorphs using the myriad weapons at his disposal. Decapitation does little to hinder a necromorph’s intent as it relentlessly uses the resources it has left to inflict harm. Only by mutilating its limbs can the threat be put to rest. From the point of the game’s narrative, the monster is made immobile by the lack of appendages. However, to look at the underlying imagery would show that Isaac destroying necromorphs in said manner, is actually an allegory for disassembling an organization.

The destruction of an organization is a feat difficult to accomplish, but that’s exactly what’s exhibited in a necromorph’s struggle: the attempt to survive without all of its limbs. Like a necromorph, companies will do everything in their power to survive despite the loss of their constituents. Though only though the disablement of significant partitions can an organization be rendered non-functional. The panned out view of the entire story reflects this core principle, as Isaac’s strife in fending off the various organizations of the Dead Space universe are never enough to keep him out of harm’s way, because as he cuts of one arm of organization, the other still swings.

It’s by this metaphor for dissolving companies that Dead Space truly sets itself apart from the rest of the zombie stories littered across the medium. Instead of relying on the lumbering, pedestrian trope of acute gameplay through shooting someone or something in head, Visceral Games focused on delivering unique and varied gameplay that gave deeper meaning to the story, and efficaciously added depth to the antagonists through the absence of character in its pawns.

The Choreography of Dead Space

Remember the first time you walked around The Deku Tree in Ocarina of Time? It taught you the ropes: sights, sounds and all the monster slaying in between. “Cobweb in the way? I can burn it. Strange flora? Must be dangerous. A change of music? I’m ready for a fight. Jovial chime? The room is clear.” You’re comfortable. You know what to expect because you’ve been taught that certain sounds and certain visuals, indicate the presence of, certain obstacles – and that’s fine, this is a fantastical action-adventure game.

However in a survival horror, like Dead Space 3, these audial and visual cues can be a detriment to the very fear the game is trying to instil. Dead Space 3 actually employs these qualities so well, you know what to expect from each area. A good horror game needs that haunted house feel; invoking a fear in the player that immediately causes dread, and in the process, removes any comfortability. This should come naturally from the congruence of audio, visuals and the interaction the player assumes.

The visuals are gruesome enough, but where Dead Space 3 really loses its focus is the music, or more specifically, the very presence of music at all. The series has some of the best sound editing in the industry, but for whatever reason Visceral Games felt that a score was also needed. Music can add or subtract from fear, through a chilling soundtrack like that of Silent Hill 2, or unsettling irony, like in Bioshock. But Dead Space 3 instead adds a triumphant score to complement vistas or chapter endings, removing all sense of danger. Sounds familiar? Sounds comforting? Because that’s the same effect used to plot accomplishments in Ocarina of Time‘s dungeons. In Dead Space 3, music that accompanies combat tides in before the threat is even present, and only recedes when said threat is eliminated, removing all tension and essentially composing the fight’s cadence for the player. I am well aware that the music can be turned off from the settings menu, but I feel like the music wasn’t even necessary. A lot of money would have been saved while contributing to the game’s atmosphere.

Link expectedly defeats a Deku Scrub.

Ducts in the Dead Space series are used the same way anomalous plants are in 3D Zelda games.

This predictability is further accentuated by the blatant enemy spawn points. While walking around a seemingly empty room, you’ll notice conspicuous ducts on the walls and ceiling. Guess what? Yeah, you’re right: these holes are the only places enemies emerge from. Not only does this ready you for combat, it strips the room of any jump scares. In later parts of the game, you run about structures that aren’t even manmade — but hey, the enemies have to spawn somewhere right? That’s why there are duct-like apertures everywhere.

Visceral does take advantage of the game’s more frigid vistas, and delivers genuine surprises by lessening the player’s vision; an effect reminiscent of Silent Hill‘s fog. Enemies may spring up from snow, or sprint through a blizzard. Though I’m bemused by how little this was used. Instead of having enemies spawn from the obvious locations, why not have them tear through a door, a wall, or the floor? This would have removed the anticipation of an attack, and therefore, mitigate any visual cues that were previously applicable. Apparently necromorphs have the strength to tear people apart limb from limb, but when it comes to walls they’re impotent.

I understand that these issues were prevalent in previous games in the series, but they are definitely most pronounced in this third instalment. These may not have been issues for some, but I believe that removing audial and visual cues from the game could have strengthened the caliber of horror found in the Dead Space series as a whole, but most primarily, in Dead Space 3.