Why Dead Space is so F-ing Scary

Major spoilers for the Dead Space series. If you didn’t watch/play, what are you doing here?isaacclarke copy

This post is dedicated to all of the people out there who don’t exactly get what’s so freaky about Dead Space. You brilliant bastards are above such trifling things as jump scares – and frankly, you just don’t get why anyone else would find a game like this frightening. Well, when I was eleven I spent two months unable to go near a sink after watching fifteen minutes It. I’m a chicken.

And even a seasoned horror junkie might quake in his boots when he plays Dead Space. But somewhere out there, there are these mythical creatures – these purported humans – who endure that game and go: I don’t get it. Was that supposed to scare me? Roughly 76% of these people are lying through their teeth, but that remaining 24%* really doesn’t get it.

To that twenty-four percent: this is how Dead Space scares the shit out of people, and this is why you might have terrible survival instincts.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Necromorph…

Let’s talk about the wild misappropriation of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star for a minute. Seriously, if that doesn’t make you twitchy you either have no soul or you didn’t listen to nursery rhymes as a toddler.

For all of you who just went “huh?” Dead Space taps into the kid-creep factor that horror movies have been exploiting for decades. Inspiring trauma-worthy levels of fear means taking something that feels safe (dolls, bathrooms, religious practices) and making it extremely unsafe. In fact, a pinnacle of the horror genre is the corruption of innocence – it takes artifacts of our childhood and makes them sinister. Chucky, It, The Shining – our toys, our experiences, even the image of the child is twisted. Nothing is safe!

What’s worse (or best?) is that Dead Space amps up the fear by lowering the sound: there’s a reason you hear a hell of a lot more in this game when you have headphones on. The objective is to have the noises hover just above our hearing threshold – so that they are whispers in the dark… soft enough that we aren’t entirely certain if it’s in the game, or just in our head.

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Fun fact: our house is designed such that sound carries through our air vents to different rooms in the house. At one point my little sister had to listen to the Dead Space soundtrack while she took a shower.

I would have stayed away from the drains.

It’s All in Your Head, Dude

And if that’s not the stuff of your nightmares, try the dementia the Ishimura crew members exhibit (when you come across living ones.) This also makes us start sweating and twitching. It would be easy to make it so that everyone’s dead – believable too, considering how nasty the necromorphs are. But as humans we respond to other human faces – particularly when we’ve spent the entire game alone with monsters. How damaging is it to our increasingly fragile psyches that most of the humanity we find in Ishimura is completely devoid of reason and hope? The crew members mirror our fears of insanity, despair and helplessness.

With the exception of Dr. Mercer, who’s just an ass.

There is nothing more terrifying than feeling like you’ve lost your mind. I had a week in high school where I had this recurring feeling I had already seen what was going to happen. Maybe I’m an inter-dimensional alien with prophetic sight – cool, right? Wrong. I felt like I had a red light flashing over my head. Something is wrong with you, it said in a mild panic. Something is very, very wrong with you.

The dementia that Isaac and the surviving Ishimura crew members plays into this fear. How do you trust your instincts – how do you know the game is just a game if you can’t trust your brain?

The whispers in the dark play with that fear, but also remind us that even if we manage to avoid becoming a necromorph, even if we build an airtight bunker with food that will last us a lifetime we will not be safe. The longer we stay here, the less we can trust ourselves.

A lot of fear in the Dead Space series as well as other media in the horror genre depend on psychological games. You’ve got to destabilize your audience by taking away ‘safe spaces’ and make them feel helpless. Think Amnesia or Outlast. A lot of this depends on how much that audience member empathizes with the victim(s) or protagonist, how confident or delusional they are about their own hypothetical survival chances in the situation, and how easily they can be startled.

Our survival instincts have been tailored and groomed to horror tropes. Dark basements = bad idea. Saying “Is somebody there?” = super bad idea. Splitting up to search the house? = terrible idea. We freak out because our brain is going: Danger! Danger! Danger! with a bright, red light flashing over our heads.

Your instincts, perhaps, have not adapted to the rules of a horror fiction. So let’s hope for your sake that we’re not extras in a horror apocalypse, or living in the eye of a blue-eyed giant named Macumba.

Nowhere is Safe

A key element to creating uncertainty and helplessness is paranoia. If you’ve spent your entire day watching videos of kittens falling into boxes you’re not too concerned about what’s under your bed. If you’ve just read the wiki page on Slenderman, you can’t even linger in a well-lit hallway.

One of the more clever things about Dead Space is that it tries to remove some artificial elements of game play that help bolster the gamer’s confidence – one of these being the idea of “safe” spots.

Aside from save stations, the ‘game’ is never off – in other words, you can be attacked at a workbench, at a store, solving puzzles – there is never a “pause” or a “breather” in-game.

While you can reasonably assume that you’re safe for at least a few moments once you’ve cleared the room, it’s the idea of the threat that is so compelling for us scaredy-pants. Especially in those first 30 minutes of game play, when there’s the possibility hanging in the back of your mind, a nagging reminder to NOT LET YOUR GUARD DOWN. We’re sweaty and twitchy because we’re thinking about the worst case scenario.

So our adrenaline surges and our survival instincts kick in, making sleep or even calmness difficult to obtain. And then of course, we imagine there’s necromorphs lingering in our air ducts. Fun times…

 [Don’t shoot for the] Braaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaains

One thing that might actually get to some of you brave souls is that, in a way, the developers disarmed you.

This has more to do with the game play mechanics – and is really impressive because it shows that the developers thought about all the possible ways they could unnerve you. Creepy monsters? Check. Confined space? Check. Alone? Check. Well, how can we make the game mechanics unsettling?

How about reject one of the most basic video-game instincts? No head shots.

This isn’t necessarily the keystone of fear in Dead Space, but it adds to the atmosphere of helplessness. An excellent or even competent gamer can go into a horror game with some confidence because they have mastered the basic video game skills to take down an enemy. The rule to aim for the limbs undoes this somewhat. You’re now uncertain about you environment as well as your own competency – a combination that easily equals disaster. Welcome to self-fulfilling prophecy.

Don’t Look Around the Corner

What Dead Space does so well is atmosphere. Those first minutes of game play are so unbelievably tense. Every step, every sound, every movement is constricted with the idea that there is something out in those hallways that is waiting for you. Just the timing in that sequence – play it again, like it’s supposed to be played the first time (and not like the boss you probably are) and notice that the necromorphs don’t show up too soon. The game developers give you time to stew in your fear.

It’s easy to scare people. Just let Linda Blair’s possessed face pop up on the screen.

HA!

Just kidding. I actually have no idea how to do that. But if I did….

Anyway, it’s easy to scare people once, but building an atmosphere of fear is quite another thing – which is why Stephen King is so stinkin’ rich.

Some of the scariest moments of Dead Space are not when something attacks you, but when something doesn’t. In Chapter 4 of DS 1 there’s this brief moment when a man appears at the end of the hallway.

“Make us whole,” he whispers and runs away.

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So what? you’re thinking. He didn’t do anything to me. But why not? Look at the man’s body language, look at his movement. Something is wrong with him, your brain says in a mild panic, a red, flashing light flailing over your head. Something is very, very wrong with him.

It’s a mix of flat out skeeviness and anticipatory terror.

And then, there is – in my opinion – the most frightening moment in the entire series: when you return to the Ishimura in DS 2.

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Ugh. Uggggggh.

Why? you ask. Why is wandering down plastic-covered hallways, listening to audiotapes of cleaners slowly becoming unhinged so frightening?

What is wrong with you, sir?! (or m’am)

It’s like an episode of game play PTSD – reliving and being reminded that nothing ever turns out well in the Ishimura. Listening as voices on the audiologs confirm that you are in deep, deep shit again.

The boss battles are hard and that ubermorph is a giant pain in the ass, but that ten minutes of quiet, still silence on Ishimura, that’s the most nerve-wracking part of the game. We know what’s coming – we just don’t know when.

Survival: Unlikely

Most importantly, the reason your chicken-shit friends come undone over the course of the game is because there is no “way” to survive convergence. Sure, Isaac does through some freak streak of luck (an element which I think detracts from the later games’ effectiveness) but we scaredy-pants are thinking ahead – we’re thinking real life, future scenarios. We’re falling apart because we aren’t deluding ourselves: those things are everywhere and, in the depths of our imagination, if this really happened we’d be totally screwed, like 99.99% of the human race. And so would you.

(Unless, of course, you’re a crack shot with a slightly disturbing level of interest in extreme survival. In this case: be my friend?)

And so, to all you brilliant bastards: I admire you. It’s great you have balls of steel. In fact, I’m going to recommend you’re put on the front lines if there’s ever a zombie apocalypse. I will be in a tree, giving you helpful advice from a safe distance and trying to learn how to use a crossbow.

It’s a shame they take so long to reload.


*Of course I made that stat up.
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