Time Ex­tend

Why Isaac Clarke’s tool­box of hor­rors is also a blue-col­lar man­i­festo


Re­tread­ing the blood-spat­tered cor­ri­dors of the USG Ishimura in Vis­ceral’s ter­ri­fy­ing Dead Space

Dead Space was brought to us by EA in the same year as Mir­ror’s Edge, dur­ing a short-lived spell of op­ti­mism when it seemed as though in­vest­ing in new IP, rather than iter­at­ing big hit­ters such as Call Of Duty at the pre­cise speed it takes a na­tion of 14-year-old boys to save up £40, might be the key to suc­cess in the game in­dus­try. This was never a re­al­is­tic hope, but the up­side is that we’re left with Dead Space, a dis­tinct and ac­com­plished sci-fi orig­i­nal ( even if it be­came a se­ries that it­er­ated it­self into ir­rel­e­vance by grasp­ing for the at­ten­tion of 14-year-old boys).

Dead Space is the griz­zly end of sci-fi as learned from the blue-col­lar crew of Alien’s Nostromo. The future, it says, will be a place where re­plac­ing wash­ers and mak­ing sure hu­mans can breathe in trans­galac­tic flight will trump having a name like Dex Fore­arm and re­gen­er­a­tive health. Its pro­tag­o­nist, Isaac Clarke, fixes things – trams, lifts, shut­tles, nav­i­ga­tion mod­ules – and wears a rusty brown suit. As an en­gi­neer, he’s like­ably func­tional, and the game is com­mend­ably fo­cused around him. His weapons are tools – cut­ters, saws, flamethrow­ers – and his en­e­mies re­quire pre­ci­sion dis­mem­ber­ment rather than undi­rected ag­gres­sion. He is the earnest shed-dad on an au­tumn af­ter­noon of videogame pro­tag­o­nists, and he lives in a sat­is­fy­ingly unglam­orous future of re­al­is­tic mov­ing parts de­signed with bril­liant co­he­sion and strik­ing vi­su­als.

All of which there is to say there’s a pu­rity to Dead Space, and its sci­ence fic­tion; an ef­fi­ciency of char­ac­ter, pre­sen­ta­tion, and even lan­guage. The game’s open­ing scene is a model of sharp ex­po­si­tion that in­tro­duces ten­sions, ob­jec­tives and per­sonal sub-plots, while throw­ing in a world-build­ing set of just-gras­pable jar­gon (“planet cracker”, “grav­ity teth­ers”). There’s a con­fi­dence here too, all calmly taken in from the sin­gle-shot per­spec­tive of a cock­pit over­look­ing a dra­matic scene: a bro­ken planet, a crip­pled ship, and a scat­tered de­bris field, all glow­ingly back­lit by a daz­zling sun.

This is a world not in need of a hero so much as a man-shaped set of work­ing parts. Clarke achieves the ul­ti­mate ef­fi­ciency of lan­guage by re­main­ing silent through­out, and his face isn’t shown un­til the game’s last scene (even then, he looks flab­ber­gasted rather than promi­nently jawed). Whether by de­sign or ne­ces­sity – the game’s ini­tial pro­to­type was scraped to­gether by a small team us­ing bor­rowed tech – Clarke is as much a tool as the im­pro­vised weapons he uses to dice his en­e­mies.

While there’s an ele­gance to Clarke’s sim­plic­ity, there’s a cor­re­spond­ing rich­ness to the so­phis­ti­cated world Dead Space builds around him. The game’s ba­sic blocks of in­ter­ac­tion, its sound ef­fects and UI de­sign, su­perbly con­vey a sense of both fu­tur­ism and func­tion­al­ity. Again, some­thing is owed to Alien here, and to the ana­logue future as col­lec­tively imag­ined by Hol­ly­wood on the bur­geon­ing fringe of the blockbuster era in the 1970s and 1980s – a future of bur­bling pips and squawks, of holo­graphic in­ter­faces and work­shop tex­tures. It not only cap­tures the same truth re­vealed by John Car­pen­ter’s Dark Star and Ge­orge Lu­cas’s Star Wars (that when we get to the future ev­ery­thing will look worn and you might have to slap the dash to hit light speed), but does it with such ac­com­plished uni­for­mity that ev­ery menu nav­i­gated, ev­ery door opened, and ev­ery ma­chine worked in­ten­si­fies the re­al­ity of the world, and the hold it has on us.

Ex­cept it’s not re­ally a world but a sin­gle ship, nav­i­gated in decks like the floors of a haunted house (that the means of travel between decks is a tram is just per­fect). Wel­come to the USG Ishimura. Like Alien’s Nostromo, it is a min­ing ves­sel, and like the Wey­land-Yu­tani Cor­po­ra­tion, it hails ahead to a pos­si­ble in­ter­na­tion­ally con­glom­er­ated des­tiny. It’s also a densely packed ware­house of clichés, and so it’s tes­ta­ment to the game’s other qual­i­ties that we barely no­tice. The ship’s geog­ra­phy is dom­i­nated by strobe-lit grey cor­ri­dors and grand guig­nol mon­u­ments of splayed car­casses that re­call a litany of an­tecedents from Doom to Event Hori­zon. They are, how­ever, oc­ca­sion­ally and spec­tac­u­larly in­ter­rupted by defin­ing mo­ments of orig­i­nal­ity: a dis­ori­ent­ing fight in a de­bris­strewn anti-grav cham­ber, or the fran­tic tra­ver­sal of the ship’s hull set against the suck­ing black­ness of space.


The thor­ough­ness of the game is ap­par­ent in th­ese space walks, where the sound of ev­ery­thing ex­cept Clarke’s ragged breath­ing is swal­lowed in the vac­uum. Again, the best of Dead Space is lean and stripped, and it’s with this min­i­mal­ism that the game con­tex­tu­alises the hor­rors Clarke en­coun­ters. Re­vealed through logs and text files – crude ne­ces­si­ties of nar­ra­tive, though well de­ployed here – we learn of Uni­tol­ogy, a cult-like reli­gion in­volved in the re­cov­ery of the alien arte­fact be­hind the game’s trans­for­ma­tive hor­rors. Cru­cially, we’re not given specifics, just a taste of fa­nati­cism and a hint of con­spir­acy. It’s enough to am­bigu­ously shade what are al­ready mys­te­ri­ous events. Sub­tler still are veiled nods to­wards the wider state of our so­ci­ety four cen­turies from now, in the Ishimura’s var­i­ous pro­pa­gan­dist public ser­vice an­nounce­ment posters. “Where would you be with­out sci­ence?” beams one, a bright-faced tech­ni­cian smil­ing out above a pile of skin­less ca­dav­ers. There’s a heavy echo of Philip K Dick in their en­forced op­ti­mism (“We can re­mem­ber it for you whole­sale!”), and they say a great deal, with­out say­ing any­thing in par­tic­u­lar, about the ar­range­ment of peo­ple and power needed to drag hu­man­ity into space.

The best thing about all this is that Clarke doesn’t care. In­stead, he has his rusty suit and a long job sheet of things to fix and do, which ex­pands to in­clude cut­ting the arms and legs off most of what used to crew the Ishimura. The the­matic con­sis­tency of

Dead Space is re­ally clinched by its weaponry and en­e­mies, and the com­bat that brings them to­gether. Clarke’s in­ven­tory is a tool­box of sharp, hot things jury-rigged for sur­vival, and key among th­ese sharp, hot things is the Plasma Cut­ter. In one sense,

Dead Space is an it­er­a­tion of Res­i­dent Evil 4, and the Plasma Cut­ter is a nat­u­ral suc­ces­sor to Cap­com’s laser-sighted pis­tol, now with three blue lasers rather than a sin­gle red one. But it’s more than that, too – it’s a po­tent sym­bol of Clarke’s un­fussy hero­ism, a small, effective tool (up­graded prop­erly, it’s the only gun you’ll need) with a sim­ple, prac­ti­cal em­bel­lish­ment of a re­volv­ing head that turns the strip of blue lasers from ver­ti­cal to hor­i­zon­tal and back again with a sat­is­fy­ing bleep.

The prac­ti­cal­ity of this re­volv­ing head only be­comes truly ob­vi­ous once Clarke en­coun­ters the ne­cro­morphs. Th­ese too-hu­man aber­ra­tions are a shot­gun-wound wed­ding of Stan Win­ston’s crea­ture ef­fects in Car­pen­ter’s The Thing and the dis­torted fig­ures of Fran­cis Ba­con’s sec­ond Trip­tych – writhing ex­am­ples of fallen man in fu­ri­ous agony. Yes, we’re es­sen­tially talk­ing about space zom­bies, but space zom­bies with pedi­gree, as well as ra­zor-like scythes for el­bows and dis­tended, snap­ping jaws. The game’s per­sis­tent stroke of ge­nius is that brute force won’t de­ter them – what’s needed is ac­cu­rate dis­mem­ber­ment and dis­posal. This is where the punchy Plasma

Cut­ter comes into its own, slic­ing off legs then, with a revo­lu­tion of the head, clip­ping off an arm at the shoul­der, me­thod­i­cally cleav­ing along the hor­i­zon­tal and ver­ti­cal.

This gives com­bat a pur­pose over and above the sim­ple de­ploy­ment of as much ord­nance as pos­si­ble in the short­est time. Each kill be­comes a small, crafted piece of hand­i­work, and when com­bined with other ar­ma­ments and Clarke’s sup­ple­men­tary abil­i­ties, it re­sults in a lay­ered model of com­bat that’s skil­ful in a way few hor­ror games man­age. Ini­tially, the ne­cro­morphs come in twos or threes, but by the mid­way point they’ll be in­vad­ing rooms in waves, squirm­ing from vents and pour­ing from the ceil­ing in mul­ti­di­rec­tional am­bushes. At th­ese mo­ments, the full range of Clarke’s toolset is stretched, and there’s a grim man-with-ham­mer sat­is­fac­tion in switch­ing between pow­ers and weapons to se­lect the right thing for the job. You’ll slow on rush­ers with Clarke’s Sta­sis power, clear a cloud of crawl­ing par­a­sites with the flamethrower, telekinet­i­cally toss a propane can­is­ter into a crowd, and switch to the trusty Plasma Cut­ter to har­vest the sur­vivors. Having bor­rowed so much from Alien, Dead Space solves the prob­lem of­fi­cial adap­ta­tions of that se­ries tend to have: how do you keep your in­hu­manly lethal mon­ster in­di­vid­u­ally ter­ri­fy­ing when at some point our hero needs to take on ten of them at a time? The an­swer is with a dex­trous, skill-based ap­proach to com­bat that makes it feel like you’re sur­gi­cally craft­ing your way to safety.

Ev­ery­thing good about Dead Space comes from its un­der­ly­ing co­he­sion, which binds the no-non­sense stomp of Is­sac’s iron suit to the Bronx drawl of the en­gi­neer whose au­dio logs clue you into the ne­cro­morphs’ weak­ness. Dead Space is a game with a point of view – that build­ing things is valu­able, that de­sign is beau­ti­ful, and that the small­est de­tails in the mech­a­nisms through which we in­ter­act with the world can have the big­gest im­pact. It’s a game about re­source­ful­ness and re­pair, about pre­ci­sion and craft, about how de­fault hero­ism is bor­ing and how a real pro­tag­o­nist should do things. And it re­minds us, graph­i­cally, that when ev­ery­thing goes to Hell and a col­lec­tion of ra­zor limbs with a hu­man face scut­tles at you, be­ing able to mend a flex is go­ing to be pretty handy.

Dis­tinc­tive diegetic UI de­sign char­ac­terises Dead­S­pace. This translu­cent holo­graphic menu is far more mem­o­rable than the generic se­cu­rity lunk be­yond it, though both he and his mous­tache aren’t long for this world

TOP Pos­ing Isaac out­side in the noth­ing­ness of space runs the risk of suf­fo­ca­tion, but those views al­most make the restart worth it.

ABOVE The open­ing scene is a per­fect mix of minute dra­mas of prac­ti­cal­ity in­side the cock­pit and the sub­lime in­dif­fer­ence of space be­yond

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