Severing Limbs to Survive in the Original Dead Space
In the mid-2000 decade, there were two well-known and thoroughly established camps of horror video games. You had your shock horror games, Resident Evil firmly leading the charge with vibrant blood, gore and shock scares on one end. Then you had your psychological horror games, like Silent Hill and Fatal Frame twisting the player around with disturbing, grotesque and subtle-mind bending terror. Very few had ever successfully tried to put the two camps together. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Electronic Arts came out of the shadows with a horror that would blend both the psychological and the horrifically gory into one terrifying package. It was on this day in 2008 that North America learned to shoot for the limbs if they wanted to survive the nightmare fuel of Dead Space.
Development of Dead Space was rumored to have begun in 2006 at one of EA’s remote studios in Redwood Shores, California (soon to be Visceral Games). Having come off of titles like The Godfather and The Simpsons licensed games, the team at Redwood was looking to do something original and substantially darker. Huge fans of sci-fi and horror, the team opted to put their interests into making a new type of horror game. They began studying movies that they felt would help. The Dead Space team drew on classic sci-fi horror films like Alien and Event Horizon, the former of which can be seen in the claustrophobic design of the environment and lighting and the latter of which comes through in the grotesque and psychological elements of the game and the portrayal of an otherworldly force upon the environment’s inhabitants.
The game takes place in the depths of space near the planet Aegis VII. A mining vessel, the USG Ishimura has sent out a distress beacon and a small team of soldiers along with spacecraft systems engineer Isaac Clarke. Particularly, Clarke takes the mission because his girlfriend is one of the inhabitants aboard the ship. The team arrives and it isn’t long before they realize something is horribly wrong. They’re ambushed by terrifying mutated humans known as Necromorphs that shun conventional gunfire like mosquitoes. Isaac is separated from the team and the player is tasked with guiding Isaac through the Ishimura as he brings it back online and unravels the terrible events that led to its current state.
A central focus of Dead Space’s gameplay was known as “strategic dismemberment.” In combat, Necromorphs don’t die by simply taking gunfire, and in fact, that can simply make them even more recklessly violent and aggressive. Instead, the player is tasked with using their weapons to cut through enemy limbs and appendages. Not only does this kill the Necromorphs, but limit their ability to close distance or attack Isaac. To that end, much of Isaac’s arsenal isn’t conventional fire arms, but rather repurposed engineering equipment like the plasma cutter. Meanwhile, players must explore, solve puzzles and salvage any gear they can as they attempt to survive.
Dead Space was a spectacular offering to horror. In a time when Resident Evil was leaning far more into its action and Konami was having a hard time hitting the mark with the recent Silent Hill titles, Dead Space reminded players of what a truly frightening game is. Its release was a critical success and it would bring about several comics and animated features in addition to sequels that followed. When the last Necromorph is laid to rest and the credits rolled, Dead Space was the kind of graphic and psychological cocktail that would lurk in our minds years after we were done with it.