Holding my nose and picking through the comments on my Dead Space 2 review, I’m seeing a lot of argument over what the game is “intending” to be. Is it survival horror, or psychological horror, or action horror, or hammer horror or what? Some argue that its over-the-top gore means it’s not trying to be serious, but I don’t believe that. If it’s not trying to be serious horror, what’s with the soundtrack and the environment design? There are moments (and one moment in particular involving an eyeball and something that does not belong near an eyeball) that are quite genuinely unnerving.
Really, though, the argument isn’t the issue. What is the issue is the fact that people can argue over the game’s “intention,” which implies flat out that the game has failed to bring across a consistent tone, another example of the lack of discipline that now seems to universally affect triple-A games. The eye thing is an example of gore carrying weight and effectiveness, like the finger removal in Heavy Rain, but if the game is supposed to be about the constant meaningless gore going on everywhere else, then that makes the eye thing out of place. And frankly, I’m still unclear on what the whole point of the eye thing was, plot-wise, besides someone thought it would be cool to gratuitously throw in.
Despite Isaac’s tendency to spout action hero one-liners throughout the game’s second half, I don’t buy that it isn’t trying to be serious because I know there is such a thing as light-hearted horror, and this isn’t it. It’s a category in which I include films like Evil Dead 2, American Werewolf In London, or Peter Jackson’s Braindead (Dead-Alive in the US) which manage to be both funny and disturbing. Resident Evil 4 also comes to mind, for want of a gaming example, a lot of the gameplay of which Dead Space borrows. And you know what underlines my lukewarm opinion of Dead Space? Even though Resident Evil 4 was unashamedly trying to be a bit silly in a B-movie kind of way, it’s still scarier than Dead Space.
Although RE4 subscribes to the exciting action horror lack of subtlety that some parties are dubiously arguing is Dead Space‘s intention, RE4 still retains enough subtlety at its core to be unnerving. While you do at times have to kill giant scorpion men with exploding barrels and action movie somersaults, for the most part you fight enemies that look human. Dead-eyed Innsmouth-look humans who occasionally sprout tentacles from their neck stumps, but humans nonetheless, wielding farming implements and jabbering in slightly iffy Spanish. The human element is what matters. Horror is virtually by definition about inflicting misfortune on others to stir our instinctual sympathy. There’s even a post-credits sequence in RE4 showing how the innocent villagers were slowly transformed into the nightmare they became by the machinations of the evil cult, and it’s actually quite an unexpectedly heart-rending sequence.
Which in itself may be another example of awkward tonal shift, but comparing the Necromorphs to the Ganados I see in Dead Space a game that’s just trying way too hard, a ham-fisted attempt to get under my skin that completely doesn’t understand the principles, like psychological horror as attempted by Michael Bay. It’s just cranking things up to 11 without the benefit of editors, like piling so much kindling onto a newly-sparked campfire that you snuff out the flame. Humans turn into necromorphs virtually instantaneously, there’s no sense that the flesh is resisting the horrific transformation, they just pop out of their skins like they’ve been waiting all day for the opportunity. And they scream in your face. If there was anything still recognizably human about them, if they had intact vocal chords that scream or beg for death like an actual person in pain, that might have touched something, but they make the same noise every video game monster makes – a nondescript ear-splitting roar made by leaning too hard on your mixing desk.
But I don’t want to spend this whole column reiterating points the video made. There’s one other point I want to make that was way too petty for prime time but if I don’t get it off my chest it’s going to drive me spare. I am really, really bothered by all these fold-out helmets sci-fi characters have nowadays.
You know what I mean. It’s in Dead Space 2 and it was in Vanquish, as well as the Iron Man 2 movie and a couple of others. It’s when you have a helmet or piece of complex armour that starts off packed away in an incredibly small mass behind your head or somewhere and then automatically folds out section by section to completely cover the head or body. Every time I see it, it bothers me because I simply cannot be convinced that this is a more efficient alternative, in any practical or monetary sense, to simply lifting your helmet on and off and holding it under your arm. Maybe you could argue that a rich wanker might have it but not on a mass-produced uniform like Isaac’s presumably developed by the lowest bidder.
Firstly, the helmet isn’t gaining or losing any mass, it’s all folded up. And forgive me if you were already au fait with these matters, but a helmet is protective gear. It’s supposed to be heavy and bulky and strong to soak up heavy impacts. It’s going to be none of those things if it’s made of material thin enough to easily fold away like that. And even if you have successfully developed some kind of superdense Adamantium that still offers full protection even if it’s one millimetre thick, when its folded up its entire mass is going to be hanging off the back of your neck, and you can’t tell me that’s going to be good for your posture.
But even if your Adamantium is also supernaturally light, when you make a helmet fold away like that, you’re adding fifteen million gaps, flaps, hinges and points of articulation that all create weak points in the structure, I’m not convinced the entire thing wouldn’t shatter into eyeball-bursting shards after one sturdy bop on the bonce. And this is assuming all those moving parts don’t cock up by themselves. I have a fold-out umbrella that’s supposed to open out to full size at the touch of a button, and that needs a good shake now and then. It doesn’t have anywhere near the number of moving parts these helmets have. I don’t care how close to the technological singularity your future setting is: one of those flaps is going to stop working at some point. In Dead Space 2, you even go out into space with this helmet on. It’s actually relied upon to create an airtight seal, you’d better make fucking sure you’ve gone over all those bits and pieces with WD-40 before you press the open airlock button, matey. And what if your helmet is slightly too small and you’ve got sticky-out ears, are they just going to get sliced off?
To top it all, there is only one obvious benefit to this technology to counterbalance all these possible issues: you can have both hands free when you don’t have your helmet on. But the only reason you wouldn’t have your helmet on is if you’re not on the job. And if you’re not on the job, you don’t need both your hands. QED.
Yeah, I know, this was the most consequential rant I’ve ever done, but I’m sorry, these helmets have started really taking me out of the story. Next week: why the ability to carry fifteen two-handed guns at once makes Half-Life the worst game ever made.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.