The Pillars of Horror: Dead Space 3
February 19, 2013
The Pillars of Horror is a look at the games, past and present, that have shaped the genre, showcasing the various mistakes and triumphs that have come out over the years. They may not all be gems, but they’ve all contributed something to scaring the controllers out of people’s hands.
Dead Space 3 was a really fun game, but was an abysmal failure if it was trying to frighten anyone. It should be scary when creatures can come right out of the walls, roof, and floors, right? It sure was when Fatal Frame did it. With its long moments of almost overwhelming silence and tense moments of extreme danger, shouldn’t this be the perfect game to set someone on their toes? It should, but there are some little aspects of the game that have huge repercussions for how scary it can be.
Let’s start with something small. How safe would you feel as your regular squishy self sitting in the middle of a busy highway? Probably not very, but if you crawl inside a huge dump truck then that changes your perception of how scary the situation is. Nothing has changed about the place you’re standing in, as there are still cars whizzing past you left and right, but now you’re safe within several tons of steel. You might get hurt if enough cars smash into the dump truck, but it will take quite a few hits. That’s how I see Isaac’s armor in Dead Space 3: as this heavy metal bulwark against all of the creepy, weird things that are crawling around these locations.
While you are still vulnerable to the creatures in the game, the image of your character encased in iron doesn’t do much to make me feel that way. Don’t get me wrong, I think the suit is very cool, but it does nothing to make me feel like I’m in any danger from the monsters. Just looking at that suit tells the player that they should feel very safe in their character and that he’s well protected from the creatures roaming around. It looks dense, strong, and above all, safe. If you’re trying to immerse yourself in the game, the thing you’re looking at all the time is visually telling you that you’re snug and protected.
Compare this to Leon from Resident Evil 4. Sure, the man lugs around an invisible briefcase filled with sniper rifles and rocket launchers, but he’s still just a squishy human walking about. Looking at him tells me that he’s just as vulnerable as I would be in that situation. I might logically know that he’s quite capable of protecting himself given his portable arsenal, but the game doesn’t tell me that visually. Instead, I see a regular human being holding up a gun against ten or fifteen angry villagers holding axes and pitchforks. When one of those weapons gets thrown my way and knocks Leon around, it takes away my confidence a bit. When I have an enemy with a chainsaw come bearing down on me, you’d best believe my heart rate goes up despite knowing I have a pile of guns to select from.
I just don’t get that same feeling when I look at Isaac’s armor. It is a constant reminder that I’m quite safe from the monsters even if some sections of the game have shown me otherwise. I could be quite underpowered when compared to what Leon is carrying around in Resident Evil 4, but that suit just makes Isaac look so well-protected that my brain has difficulty making the leap that I’m vulnerable. Given that I’m striving to feel afraid for what happens to a fictional avatar in a fictional universe, any little misstep that makes that more difficult can be disastrous for how scary a game can be. Just looking at Isaac before he’s even taken a single step is enough to make fear more difficult.
The enemies don’t really help things, either. Remember when I mentioned how many hits it would take to hurt you in the dump truck? Dead Space 3 can feel like it’s the same way a lot of the time. Instead of making each encounter small and intimate, the game has leaned more toward action by sending huge waves of enemies at the player at high speeds. Now, what this means for the player is that the enemies aren’t particularly strong when fought one on one. That becomes obvious as soon as the player starts getting a decent handle on the controls. So, in order to challenge players the game has to swarm groups of enemies at them; resulting in a complete lack of fear at the sight of a single enemy.
Big deal, since they always come in groups, right? If they’re always in groups then why would you care if single enemies aren’t frightening? Well, if you’re not scared of the enemies on a one on one basis then you’re not actually scared of the enemies at all. When the enemies rush at you in Dead Space 3, it’s more the horde as a whole that you are nervous about. The individual enemies inside of the horde matter from a tactical sense, but they sort of gel together as far as making the player afraid. The game has taught me not to fear these creatures if I ever catch them in small groups or one by one. It has taught me, by virtue of only making me afraid of hordes, that the individuals in said horde are nothing to be frightened of. The game is teaching me that there’s nothing to be afraid of in the basic enemy, so it’s already undermining a small but crucial tool in scaring the player.
If you want a lesson in making single encounters terrifying, attempt Siren for the PS2. It plays out like stealth horror in that an encounter with the enemies (the Shibito) is pretty much guaranteed to get you killed. You have little health, almost no weapons, and the enemies are completely relentless if they catch sight of you. The Shibito don’t really look like much, as they’re all mostly humans with gray skin and bleeding eyes, but it’s the amount of danger they represent that makes them downright terrifying. Having one of these things turn and look straight at my hiding spot was enough to stop my heart, even if the creature soon turned away and moved on. If it didn’t, I knew there was no place I could run. If two had seen me at once I might as well shut the game off.
There are a couple of different things at work there, but the point is that these enemies are terrifying on their own. The game’s most basic unit makes it quite clear that there is nothing in the game that I should take for granted. There is no point where I can look at the existing enemy pool and tell myself that I can take it easy now. Having hordes be the main source of fear is a decent idea, but eventually you’ll whittle those guys down and start to feel powerful again. If you’re down to only a few necromorphs it’s pretty hard not to feel superior to them, but if I even thought a single Shibito was looking at me then I’d be shaking. Dead Space 3‘s hordes just don’t provide a consistent sense of terror as the units within them don’t inspire any fear on their own.
So what, though? You pretty much only fight hordes, so that should be frightening enough. Well, even those hordes aren’t all that frightening once you factor in the insane arsenal from Dead Space 3. You don’t have to look much farther than a grenade launcher that doesn’t do splash damage to the player to get what I mean. The player is well-equipped to make short work of most hordes of enemies very quickly into the game. By the time the game is willing to throw really big groups at the player, you’ll have probably acquired some weapons that will make short work of the enemies. Even if you only stick with some basic weapons from the early games, you can still use a gun that fires buzz saws out at whatever height you like, forcing enemies to lop off their own limbs just to get at you. If that’s not going to make you feel powerful then I don’t know what will.
How threatened do you feel when holding a weapon like this? When you can blow up everything around you or just mow through enemies without slowing down, are you even close to being afraid of them? When you first build a weapon like this, do you find yourself looking forward to your next encounter with the monsters so you can try it on them? I know I was, and that’s when it became obvious how little these creatures scared me. The game had attempted to make the weak creatures frightening in groups, but it then handed me tools that made those groups seem weak and insignificant. Sure, I could get caught by surprise once or twice, but once I knew what was coming I could park myself in a corner and pull the trigger until the shrieking stopped.
These weapons make the player feel powerful while simultaneously removing the last of the monster’s ability to frighten the player. It adds several other reasons not to be afraid of anything that’s coming your way, as there really aren’t that many creatures that can stand up against you. Holding those guns makes you feel powerful, and watching the effects of those guns on the enemies only makes that feeling stronger. If you’re feeling stronger and more superior than the enemies, how in the world are you supposed to be scared of them?
What about Dead Space 3‘s atmosphere, though? They did a good job of pulling the side characters into the background for long periods of time so that you feel lonely and isolated, but the damage has already been done. They can set up really tense sections of silence punctuated by the most amazing sound design ever and it still wouldn’t matter because you have no reason to fear anything lurking in the dark, silent corners. If you already know that you are tougher than anything that might come lunging out from around the corner or rip through the vents then it’s just impossible to be afraid of the environments.
Yes, there are some environmental hazards that can make me jump out of my seat, but how many games make effective use of the environment itself to scare the player? Silent Hill might spring right to mind, but the environments there are just built to unnerve. It’s not like the ground is going to rip out from under you and present you with a Game Over screen. I’m talking the kind of game where you’re wandering around rickety old buildings after an earthquake or a house that is a living entity that’s trying to hurt you (although I’d argue it was just a large enemy). I think it could be done even if it would be difficult, but you just don’t see that in Dead Space 3. You can be killed pretty fast by the environment in a few instances and the atmosphere does a good job making me feel like I’m a small creature in a giant dangerous machine, but I wouldn’t say I was ever afraid of it. I do not fear the oven no matter how much I could burn my hand with it.
With Dead Space 3‘s work on the character, weapons, and overall enemy effectiveness, you end up with a game where it’s just about impossible to be scared. I’ve been startled quite a few times while playing Dead Space 3, but I really have no cause for alarm while playing it. When the game gets the drop on me, it’s the same as if I’d missed out on an unseen locust in Gears of War. It could be dangerous, yes, but I’m not afraid of it in any way. I look strong, I’ve got the tools to deal with the creature, and the it really doesn’t stand much chance against me without backup. You can really see how it leans toward an action game slant, one that makes for an exciting game but one that I couldn’t ever be frightened of.
An action game does whatever it can to empower the player; concentrating its efforts into making you feel strong. A lot of games focus on this because it makes the player feel good while playing it. You get to feel a sense of superiority against the enemies. Everyone likes to win, right? Horror looks to hamstring the player, leaving a sense of powerlessness against the enemies and environment. To be really afraid you need to feel like you can lose. In fact, you should be feeling that it’s far more likely that you’ll lose. In Resident Evil 4 I counted every single shot as my chamber dwindled; watching as enemy numbers grew and grew. I had powerful weapons, but such limited ammo that even a few missed shots would result in having to use my knife instead. In Siren that fear was even stronger as I had a few tools to fight the monsters with if I was lucky, but for the most part I was unarmed against a relentless foe. The more helpless I felt against the enemies the more scared I got; right on down to the SCP games where all I could do was run and hope I survived.
That weakness is the key to good horror. In many of my favorite horror games my ability to deal with enemies was poor at best. I needed to feel like I wasn’t equipped to deal with the creatures and horrors head on, but rather would have to take an extremely careful approach if I wanted to survive. Every second of life felt like it was earned, that my time in the game was not built around showing how cool I was. It was about the monsters, what they could do to me, and how little I could do to them.
It’s strange, as it works against a lot of the stuff that games are built on. Many games are built to make the players feel good, but horror games aren’t doing their job right if they do that. They have to be willing to make the player feel uncomfortable, risking player enjoyment in hopes that they will experience something special and different. It’s hoping that the player will get a kick out of being afraid in a controlled environment; that players don’t all need a story that makes them feel like a superhero to have a good time. In a market that strives to make players into the guy that saves the world, horror games ask that they be content to be the guy who lives to see tomorrow.
Dead Space 3 wasn’t willing to take the steps necessary to make the player feel that vulnerability. Instead, it was content to lean into action territory so that it could please the most possible players. It took the low risk approach, which is a shame because I can see the horror game that Visceral Games wish they had the courage to make. I can see the creepy storyline, unsettling atmosphere, and scary sound design that went into this game. I can see that they wanted the monster appearances and hordes to be frightening things to see and fight. Many elements of a good horror game are there, but they’ve been buried by the decisions that leaned the game more toward action and empowerment. It only took a handful of design and combat decisions to derail all of that good stuff, and I’m sorry to see it go.
Images courtesy of gamefaqs.com, gamerant.com, gajeles.blogspot.com