Now available free on PC, Dead Space came closer than any other game to replicating the look, feel and atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi thriller.
This week, Electronic Arts has made one of the most interesting and atmospheric narrative games of the 2000s available for free to users of its Origin gaming service. Released in 2008 and created by Californian studio Visceral Games, Dead Space remains a heady, often terrifying thrill ride and if you’ve never played it before, it’s worth taking this chance – especially if you’re a fan of the Alien movies.
Although there have been numerous attempts to bring Alien directly to video games – most successfully, Creative Assembly’s incredibly tense Alien: Isolation – it’s Dead Space that has got closest to replicating the look, feel and atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s original film.
Dead Space is about a small crew travelling out into space to investigate a research ship, the USG Ishimura, with which all contact has been lost. Like Alien’s vessel the Nostromo, this is a labyrinthine mining vessel, a multilayered nightmare of interconnected corridors, labs and living spaces built from metallic walls and lit by strobing neon. Like Ripley and co, the rescue team discovers the ship has been invaded by a hideous alien species, and that its shadowy corporate owner may know more about the infestation than anyone is letting on.
And, like Alien, Dead Space seamlessly combines science fiction, conspiracy thriller and horror tropes. It’s a game about a spaceship and aliens, but it’s also a haunted house filled with monsters and ghosts. As you explore the craft, you’re subjected to regular jump scares as the hideous Giger-esque Necromorphs leap out at you from shadowy corners – but there is more going on than shocks. The fact that the beasts are reanimated human corpses infected with extraterrestrial DNA plays with the same fears of impregnation, metamorphosis and subjugation as the Alien universe. These are narrative worlds loaded with psychosexual terror – an element underlined in Dead Space by the protagonist’s regular hallucinations of his wife, a missing crew member on the Ishimura, who continually begs him to “make us whole again”.
In choosing a lowly engineer – the world-weary Isaac Clarke – as its protagonist, and a mining ship as a location, Dead Space also echoes Ridley Scott’s explorations of class and galactic industrialisation. These are not the sterile, high-specification interiors envisaged in 2001: A Space Odysseyor Star Trek; these are working spaces and working people – drab, battered, rusty and downbeat. Ridley Scott was heavily inspired by his own upbringing amid the dying industries of north-east England when he visualised both Blade Runnerand Alien, and Dead Space plays on the same tensions between the wonders of the future and the everyday boredom and dirt of working with heavy machines.
What really works in Dead Space is its incredible sense of place – the endless passageways and unfathomable technology capture a convincingly oppressive atmosphere. For Alien, Ridley Scott built a vast set filled with small interconnected spaces and effectively trapped his actors within this spaceship simulcrum for long filming periods. In this way, their very real tensions and frustrations fed into their performances. Dead Space’s art director Ian Milham has said that, while designing the Ishimura, his team discussed their own fears and dreads – narrow doorways, low ceilings, dentist rooms – and fed these into the design aesthetic. The spaces within the Ishimura teem with anxiety.
Dead Space had two sequels, but publisher EA enforced a more action-orientated approach for the second and, especially, the third game. Sales slumped. Most of the original development team left to staff a new studio called Sledgehammer Games, which is now entrenched in the Call of Duty development rota. The remaining staff at Visceral were buffeted between other franchises, passing from Battlefront to Army of Two before ending up on a scintillating Star Wars project headed up by Uncharted designer Amy Hennig. But last year, the studio was closed, its new project cancelled.
We’ll probably never see the likes of Dead Space again. It’s worth mentioning that it was released at the same time as Mirror’s Edge, another wild, flawed, original game that fans love, but that couldn’t quite be replicated in a sequel. Dead Space, like Alien, played with genuine unconscious fears and desires while throwing monstrous shocks at you. It takes vision, guts, craft and faith to make something like that, but it also takes money.
Dead Space really connected with people. It scared and thrilled them in ways that couldn’t easily be expressed on a spreadsheet. For the modern mainstream games industry, that’s perhaps the scariest thing of all.