Dead Space – “Dead Space”

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“Dead Space” is an academic work on how to create a (western) horror game. It’s as if a game design student were asked to devise an action/horror game out of existing models. What would happen? The student would go do some research on how to design such a game, he’d then borrow ideas from the major genre references both in and outside the means, seeing how he could glue them together and come up with a  formula of sorts. “Dead Space” is the end-product of that formula. The quality of this academic exercise depends solely on the quality of the student, on his choices for references, and on his ability to (re)interpret them correctly. So how good is Bret Robbins (“Dead Space’s” creative director) as a game student?

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The basis for “Dead Space’s” model is obvious: “Resident Evil 4”. Whatever the view on “Resident Evil 4”, it’s widely regarded as a great game [though I have some issues with it… but that’s a different story], so the choice to use it as a major reference seems spot on. For all intents and purposes, “Dead Space” is “Resident Evil 4”; copied with precision and perfectionism, which is more than you can say about most plagiarists. There’s the claustrophobic camera angle, the sluggish tank-like movement, the “stop, aim with laser pointer and then shoot” interaction, the overwhelming odds against hordes of living dead monsters, the silly item/weapons store in the middle of a war zone, the grueling old school inventory management, etc, etc. Its a thorough and well designed facsimile. Even the less obvious notions that made “Resident Evil 4” a success are mimicked. For instance, level structure: like in “Resident Evil 4”, levels are built as mini-roller-coasters, each starting with a slow crescendo of enemies, properly paced with exploration sequences, but quickly ramping up to a succession of hectic encounters with several monsters. The result is a non-stop thrill ride till the end… and that’s what action games should be all about.

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To add some variety into the “Resident Evil” action formula, there’s the occasional puzzle. The importance of puzzles in survival horror games could be easily overlooked, but for once, it was actually understood. Because puzzles force players’ mind to focus on something other than shooting enemies, they establish the perfect occasion to catch him off guard and unprepared for combat, as another batch of monsters jumps out of nowhere. It’s a cheap trick of course, but a very effective one at getting your adrenaline flowing – “Dead Space” uses it constantly. Moreover, the jumpy chair moments fit perfectly with the “Resident Evil 4” survival horror vibe, thus adding more excitement into the roller-coaster ride notion. Obviously, the puzzle models had to come from somewhere else, and, once again, our student did the job. He borrowed from “Half Life 2’s” gravity gun, arguably the best use of environmental puzzles in modern videogames; “Prey’s” gravity twisting, which allowed players to run through walls and ceilings, a great idea left undeveloped in the original game; and the now standard time bending mechanics from… well any game with time bending – which game is complete without it?

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What Bret Robins lacked in his formal exercise was something that could weave all these game design fabrics into a consistent piece – he needed a game world, a set of artistic assets that could establish a believable background for the interactions. Consistent with his approach, he turned to classic horror movies, specifically, sci-fi horror movies. He took the “Alien” saga’s set up, the environment and religious undertone from “Event Horizon”, spiced it up with a monster design based on “The Thing”, and weaved everything together with a story. The result is a dark, moody scenario, perfect for any survival horror game. And because it’s sci-fi, all those crazy game design notions could be made believable –  in the future, anything is possible. The only thing left was how to translate the story. The word out on the media is that cutscenes are a thing of the past, so “Dead Space” avoids them by incorporating the narrative devices from “Bioshock” (or its predecessors, “System Shock” and its sequel), most notably, the use of disembodied objects, such as text-logs, audio-logs and video-logs, to translate story. The choice is a smart one, because, like in “Bioshock”, these elements effectively allow for the absence of characters’ physical presence, thus enhancing a sense of loneliness and helplessness face the environment – a crucial factor in a survival horror themed game. Once again, our student passes with flying colors.

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But though the exercise was pulled off, there’s something fundamentally wrong with this approach. Copying from others in such a systematic fashion may achieve good results, but can only be regarded as plagiarism, something that challenges the very notion of Art – which is based on human creativity, not xeroxing. That’s one of the greatest problems in this industry, this notion that mimicking others is a good way to achieve great products – the result is out there for every one to see: endless remakes, sequels and rehashes flood the market every year. Furthermore, even if one could accept this  academic process as a valid notion on how to address game design, “Dead Space” could still be criticized. Because, though its author had the knowledge and the resources to pull off the formal requirements, he lacked the ability to reinterpret his references in a meaningful, artistically profound way. His blind faith in successful design models stopped him from criticizing and deconstructing those references, in the process reconstructing what could’ve been a new game, that though based on a couple of references, went further with its own ideas. But there are no original ideas in “Dead Space” save a few stylized gimmicks (dismemberment shooting, in-game HUD/menu system viewed as a hologram, …). The end result is a well executed work, that while amusing in itself, never transcends the sum of its numerous parts. Adding to that, its infatuation with superficial gimmicks and technical minutiae leaves its core experience a hollow shadow of its predecessors. It ends up lacking texture and density in every one of its expressive vehicles: the story is detached and bland, its environments are too predictable and dull to become scary, and as a pure action thrill, you can’t but shake the thought that it never achieves the mastery of its main reference, “Resident Evil 4”. And that’s its greatest downfall. If a game doesn’t add anything substantially new to its genre, and can’t pair up with the game it tries so hard to imitate, then… why bother playing it? The answer is: you don’t.

Overall: 2/5

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  • Comments (4)
    • Emanuel
    • January 3rd, 2009

    Well sorry to say this, but I think you should really try and review your reviewing method lol

    The fact that you base an entire review for a game on saying that it pulls many aspects from it’s genres predecessours, and that, for the entire review, you keep calling the game’s developer a “student” with no method, really makes it hard to take you seriously =/

    For starters, the “copied” elements that you speak of, from RE4, aren’t really that much copied from RE4 are they?

    “There’s the claustrophobic camera angle, the sluggish tank-like movement, the “stop, aim with laser pointer and then shoot” interaction, the overwhelming odds against hordes of living dead monsters, the silly item/weapons store in the middle of a war zone, the grueling old school inventory management, etc, etc.”

    Claustrophobic camera angle? Oh you mean over the shoulder view point? The one used in oh so many games, not really just RE4 copies? >_> Sluggish tank like movement? The kind of movement that’s common to basically every other shooter with cover system or almost any recent survival horror? stop, aim and shoot? Now this isn’t even right is it? You ARE aware of the BIG differences in control scheme from RE4 to the more recent shooters aren’t you? In RE4 you DO have to stop and aim. Since you control the game with one analog alone. Walking and running, and then aiming with it as well. DS doesn’t use this schematic. Dual analog control is obviously used, and you don’t even have to stop dead to be able to aim, you can walk and aim, just like in most recent shooters.

    And you even go on saying that the fact that you battle against a lot of undead monsters is copied from RE4. Lol that’s like saying that every movie that has a lot of dead creatures attacking the protagonist is copied from what? Night of the living dead? >_>

    I could go on commenting on a lot of other wrong notions you’re implying, but I’m not the one making reviews here ^^’

    Just wanna point out the fact that if you want to review games, you should give an overall view on the game, and review it as a whole, as well as a sum of it’s parts. The FEW really wrong aspects of this excellent game, which would be the lack of actual challenging bosses, and the fact that game is a bit easy and not that chalenging overall, you didn’t even mention, since you were so distracted in criticizing every good thing about it, just because you feel it’s not original, and is copied from 100 other titles out there.

    • Miguel Coelho
    • January 4th, 2009

    Dear mister reviewer

    There’s something fundamentally flawed with your insights on this game. It’s essentially the downfall of every critic. You enjoy the work in itself, but feel like you must nitpick on the details for smugness sake. It’s what you guys do. I understand.

    And while you are right in some aspects of your review, you should really stop to consider what is important while playing. Is it the fact that it’s an enjoyable experience? Or the fact that you can actually have fun while playing something not entirely original? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just possible to enjoy it because it has elements that are in other games. Elements that work.

    By taking those elements and cohesively turning them into a game experience that not only works but excels at what it’s trying to achieve, EA have outdone themselves and a pat in their collective back in in order. Critics like yourself only take negativity into account and fail to realize (or don’t want to) that this should be viewed as whole. You also fail to mention that there’s a slew of new weapons that have never appeared in any games before. And anti-gravity sections. And unlike any game in the “survival horror” genre, you can move while shooting.

    What you don’t seem to grasp in this “review” is that every work takes inspiration from something else. Every game, movie, book or any other entertainment form. Nothing is ever entirely new simply because everything has been done before. Maybe we should start criticizing writing itself as mankind’s greatest evil, since it kills creativity?

    • ruicraveirinha
    • January 4th, 2009

    Ok. Guess I should’ve predicted this kind of response to such a review. Well, first up, let me start by thanking you for your comments, as a critic (or pseudo critic, depends on your view) I love criticism, whether good or bad and that’s why I think every opinion is valid and indeed always welcome (something some people seem to need to learn). My thoughts on your comments.

    To Miguel:

    “There’s something fundamentally flawed with your insights on this game. It’s essentially the downfall of every critic. You enjoy the work in itself, but feel like you must nitpick on the details for smugness sake. It’s what you guys do. I understand.”

    For obvious reasons, I’m not going to respond to generic attacks against “critics”. You’re entitled to not adhere to the notion of criticism and to disagree with a particular opinion or critic, in the same way as I may choose otherwise. As to the part about nickpicking for smugness sake, that’s what your preconceptions tell you about me. Is it that hard to conceive that I have a valid opinion about a game that expresses what my real feelings towards the game are? Or is it, that just because I disagree with you, I have to be acting smug, because you’re right and I’m wrong? You should think thoroughly before spewing such non-sense.

    “And while you are right in some aspects of your review, you should really stop to consider what is important while playing. Is it the fact that it’s an enjoyable experience?”

    You see, that’s the thing, you need to read carefully before attacking an opinion. First up, this is a blog where I judge games from an art standpoint, therefore, for a game to be deemed good, it has to deliver on more than just mindless entertainment. “Dead Space” is enjoyable as long as you don’t expect much from it. It’s like watching a good B-movie horror type flick, its fun and thrilling, but you don’t judge it high on an art scale, do you? Because it doesn’t make a point, doesn’t translate any new ideas or feelings, doesn’t even try to move its audience in any way. It just tries and stimulate you on a very basic level, through formulaic, pre-processed artistic vehicles. You watch – you have mindless fun. That’s it. Next day, you forget it. That’s not art.

    “You also fail to mention that there’s a slew of new weapons that have never appeared in any games before. And anti-gravity sections. And unlike any game in the “survival horror” genre, you can move while shooting.”

    See, that’s your notion of a good game. One that revolves around cool weapons, and gimmicky puzzle sections (which were inspired by “Prey” and “Mario Galaxy”, but who cares, right?). As to the player been able to move that’s true, but he doesn’t move freely does he? He walks about really slowly and sluggishly… which isn’t that different from not moving at all, is it?

    “What you don’t seem to grasp in this “review” is that every work takes inspiration from something else. Every game, movie, book or any other entertainment form. Nothing is ever entirely new simply because everything has been done before.”

    That’s absolutely true. To answer that question I’ll quote from the review: “His blind faith in successful design models stopped him from criticizing and deconstructing those references, in the process reconstructing what could’ve been a new game, that though based on a couple of references, went further with its own ideas.” The problem with “Dead Space” isn’t that it’s based on other works, it’s that it doesn’t add anything new to its (legitimate) references – I think I made that pretty clear in my text.

    “Maybe we should start criticizing writing itself as mankind’s greatest evil, since it kills creativity?”

    Yes, that makes all the sense in the world. We should stop thinking too, because we might not enjoy “creative games” such as “Dead Space”. I mean, come on, you talk about “Dead Space” as it were a Da Vinci… You explain to me why “Dead Space” is creative and artistic… and then I’ll stop writing about games.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • January 4th, 2009

    To Emanuel:

    “The fact that you base an entire review for a game on saying that it pulls many aspects from it’s genres predecessours, and that, for the entire review, you keep calling the game’s developer a “student” with no method, really makes it hard to take you seriously =/”

    It’s a metaphor… The thing is, the game’s director acted like a student, not like an artist. In a classroom, a student studies references and learns how to use them, in effect replicating the notions that he studies. He learns a language if you will, an artistic language that allows him to translate certain meanings and objects. An artist, however, creates. He takes his knowledge of semiotic languages (which he had to learn), their signs and translations, and uses them in order to build a new piece, that translates something unique, that’s new and original. He adds something to what he has learned. Something that only his ideas and values can create, something which channels his own message, his own idea of beauty and entertainment. In my opinion, Bret Robbins does not do that, I’m sorry.

    “Claustrophobic camera angle? Oh you mean over the shoulder view point? The one used in oh so many games, not really just RE4 copies? >_> Sluggish tank like movement? The kind of movement that’s common to basically every other shooter with cover system or almost any recent survival horror? stop, aim and shoot? Now this isn’t even right is it? You ARE aware of the BIG differences in control scheme from RE4 to the more recent shooters aren’t you? In RE4 you DO have to stop and aim. Since you control the game with one analog alone. Walking and running, and then aiming with it as well. DS doesn’t use this schematic. Dual analog control is obviously used, and you don’t even have to stop dead to be able to aim, you can walk and aim, just like in most recent shooters.”

    First, yes, every game nowadays uses those elements, but who started the trend? RE4 did. As to the control scheme, I don’t really care if it uses dual stick control or three stick control. I care about the way the games allow you to move and interact. The expressive power of your control over the characters. And in that regard, I find it to be an obvious copy of RE4’s movement dynamic. And sure, you CAN move the character while shooting, but you move him so slowly that in essence, the result is the same as in RE4. It’s just a slightly refined version of the same set of interaction dynamics. It’s not really different or innovative, at least, not in my view.

    “And you even go on saying that the fact that you battle against a lot of undead monsters is copied from RE4.”

    The way in which they appear, their flow in terms of level design is very similar. Take “Silent Hill” for instance, its enemies usually appear one at a time, mostly stuck to predispositioned locations. In RE4, enemies appear in waves, usually triggered by a certain event, and have to be killed before you advance in the scenario. The scale of the encounters matches that of RE4. The fact that they’re undead is also similar. These are not exclusive to RE4, but are shared with it. It’s so obvious, come on, give me a break. Play “Dead Space” and tell me with a straight face that you don’t believe it was inspired by RE4… Almost everything in the game screams RE4.

    “The FEW really wrong aspects of this excellent game, which would be the lack of actual challenging bosses, and the fact that game is a bit easy and not that chalenging overall, you didn’t even mention, since you were so distracted in criticizing every good thing about it, just because you feel it’s not original, and is copied from 100 other titles out there.”

    Dude, you talk about videogames’ good and bad aspects as if they were some sort of objective facts that everyone has to agree with. That’s not criticism. Criticism is about a subjective form of analysis, with which you might agree or disagree. That which you refer as “really wrong aspects” are not defects to me, and that which you refer as “everything good” is everything I think should be banned from videogames. See? Different opinions. Learn to live with that, because the day in which people stop expressing their own, unique opinion about art, is the day criticism dies. Because if critics express what everyone else thinks, why are they even writing? So pardon me for having a different opinion than your own.

    Once again, thank you for the comments. Hope you can now understand a bit better my opinions towards “Dead Space”, and videogames in general.

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