Ah, time for another delve into the world of madness and terror. You had to know this one was coming after playing any amount of Vampire: The Masquerade again. But, we won’t be talking about that game this time. Oh no, we’re going back into Dead Space and it’s sequel, to see just how horror can be handled and the effects it creates. Needless to say, there will be spoilers in here, so read ahead at your own peril. Of course, there could always be something worse just lurking in the darkness…

Dead Space: This is the most blatant offender of the startle that it serves as the perfect place to start. If you’ve never seen or heard about it before, the basic jist is Necromorphs = Space Zombies x Xenomorphs (of Aliens fame), and like to pop out of vents at you. And play dead occasionally. But that’s basically it. After the first few times, it becomes routine, predictable. See a vent, line up a shot, nail the stupid space zombie for doing the same thing every other space zombie did. The actual fear wears completely out, and is just replaced by a startled sensation. I was startled when the family cat jumped in my lap once, that isn’t the same thing as being terrified and looking over my shoulder at every turn. Likewise, ‘cat-scares’ as their sometimes called have extreme diminishing returns when overused. Emotions quickly swing from being genuinely afraid, to just startled, to neutral, then things start getting bad for you. Even more use swings into annoyance as monsters repeat the same action and the player is forced to keep ‘falling’ for the same trap without being able to attack first or really prepare when they know it’s coming. More and more the emotion pendulum swings into anger and annoyance as the same thing keeps happening. This is why jump out scares should be used rarely to maximize their effectiveness.
Now then, as for what Dead Space did right… Well, the original Necromorph scares were well done. They were just overused to the point of absurdity. One thing that was done exceptionally well however, was the Hive Mind. Until the end, but we’ll get there in a second. Every now and again the Hive Mind would bash a tentacle limb through the wall and grab our stubborn mute protagonist, dragging him until he either reached the breached point and died horribly, or shot the sensitive mass and was released. And those sections are well spaced and genuinely terrifying  because the Hive Mind wasn’t seen. It was a sense of Other on that ship, something that was distinctly so far out of the normal as to overshadow the entire Necromorph outbreak. And part of the reason why it was so terrifying is because we never saw it. It could have been anything in there, hell, it could have been the entire ship slowly mutating and devouring those on-board. But it wasn’t. Oh, it wasn’t.

"EVENING"

Words don’t even describe what that thing is. When I saw it the first time, I was taken back at its design. By the time I was finished looking at it, I had to wonder what kind of acid the designer was on, and where oh where I could get some of it. Hive Mind is too much to remain within the realm of immersion. This thing literally moved fast enough to slaughter Kendra in seconds while surrounding Issac with its huge tentacles, then it… did what, exactly? Slap the ground with the speed of a flailing beluga whale? All of the build up from the scant interaction with Hive Mind on the Ishimura were destroyed by the last encounter. That was the thing hunting you? Really? Hive Mind should have stayed an unseen force that tormented you rarely. Think of how much more that would have haunted you in Dead Space 2. Speaking of…

Dead Space 2: Overall leaps ahead of its predecessor, but while sharing many of its flaws. Necromorphs still burst out of vents with extreme regularity, only now you can look inside with a bright little flashlight and find out that some of the vents are… enclosed spaces. Really? I would almost be willing to wage that too much emphasis is put on the necromorphs to scare by their ‘sudden’ appearance than any real attempt to truly unnerve the player.  Almost. While Dead Space 2 does share many of the flaws of its predecessor, let’s see what it does right:

  • Infected Children: Something that has always been more or less Taboo in gaming, Dead Space 2 doesn’t shy away from using children as an enemy, and I love the game for it. Few things are as unsettling as hearing childlike screams while small pale monstrosities with massive claws barrel down on you in what could best be described as a pack of evil. Babies too make an appearance, as crying suicide bombers for the infection to spread. If you are sitting there at this point going “That’s horrible!” then good, that’s the point. The point of a horror game is to, well, horrify and unnerve the player/audience and to force them to challenge their own morality and ideals while trying to survive an apocalypse.
  • Visual Ques: This is something Dead Space actually did have, but it was often only for introducing a new kind of monster. Dead Space 2 uses visuals to unnerve the player, either through Issac’s continual breakdowns, or signs of the infection in the distance. The bad thing about horror is, things become less scary the more armed and armored you become. The way around this is to show inevitability. The Sprawl in Dead Space 2 is dying, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. This isn’t like Dead Space where the infection was treated like an invasion, now it’s treated as a plague. A force of nature that simply rolls over humanity, often with no way to fight back. Showing this to the player can go a long way in re-installing the sense of unease that will truly terrify a player.
  • Nothing is Scarier: Spoilers ahoy, you were warned. The Ishimura returns with vengeance in the sequel, only many, many times more horrifying than in the past. For the first twenty or so minutes, there is nothing. Nothing. Tarps cover the walls and roof, blood has been scrubbed away, but you still know they are here. Just about the time the player thinks the ship is actually safe, you can stumble across an audio log of a janitor, complaining that something is in the floor. Following him. Another log states he was pushed down and lost his way in the bowls of the ship, only turning off the log when he saw someone, joyously running and calling out. Right there, you know, the necromorphs are on board. Watching you from the darkness. It’s a relief when they do attack again, because at least now you have something to fight back against.

This is the ultimate distinction between the two games. For most of it, Dead Space startled, giving scares to be sure, but never really leaving the player with anything. The scares had no substance, nothing to contrast to. The only thing to compare them to was the sequences with the Hive Mind, and that could be why those sequences stood out so much. In Dead Space 2, the fear is more palpable. There is a sense of unease and despair in the game that follows through. The jump-out scares are better in Dead Space 2 because they are supported by that dreadful unease that follows them. By itself, cat-scares or a sense of unease isn’t enough. You couldn’t have the entire horror game set in behind a glass window, and you can’t have the entire game be sequences of monsters jumping up screaming “Boo!”

"I see you."

The key is to combine them. Use the ambiance of the world to introduce more monsters, not dead-end vents that retroactively shatter fear and immersion. Horrify the player with unexpected cat-scares or set them up for one and never deliver. Let the tension run high and nerves short as your world takes its toil on the player’s mind. Give them enemies to relieve themselves on, something to fight. But don’t make the enemies the only thing trying to get them. Use the right tools for horror, and make the player think the entire world is dying around them. Let the enemies be their one act of defiance.

Above all, make the player be afraid. That’s why they’re here. So why not let the fear stick for a few hours after the controller goes down?