This article contains minor spoilers for the original Dead Space and the Dead Space remake.
Space. The repair ship USG Kellion en route to make contact with USG Ishimura. Static fills the screen. Through the digital snow, a figure appears. A doctor. Nicole.
Isaac, it’s me. I wish I could talk to you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry about everything. Wish I could just… it’s all falling apart here. What’s happening? It’s strange. Such a little thing.
The transmission ends. Watching it was Isaac Clarke, an engineer. A computer specialist, Kendra Daniels, was watching him.
How many times you watch that thing? Guess you really miss her. Don’t worry, we’re almost there. Sounds like you two have a lot of catching up to do.
Those are the opening lines of Dead Space, the original sci-fi horror from 2008. Now, here’s the same scene from the Dead Space remake, released at the end of January 2023:
Isaac, it’s me. I wish I could talk to you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry about everything. I just wish I could talk to someone. It’s all falling apart here. I can’t believe what’s happening. Strange. Such a little thing.
Almost exactly the same, but then come the big changes:
That’s her? Nicole?
Yeah. First I’ve heard from her in weeks.
We’re five minutes out, you still got that thing on repeat? Guess you really miss her.
The Ishimura‘s not a job you turn down, but six months apart with only vidcalls is rough. Easy to say the wrong thing.
Both are efficient, but the remake is much more elegant. In the original, the writing is stilted. The dialogue doesn’t feel like a conversation. The remake gives us a lot more information with only a few extra lines:
- Daniels knows the message is from Nicole and mentions her name casually. Isaac has probably talked about her.
- Isaac answers her easily, showing they’re friends, though confessing he hasn’t heard from her in weeks suggests he hasn’t told Daniels that.
- Daniels has noticed how often he’s watched the video and offers her sympathy.
- Isaac responds by adding some detail to the Ishimura and fills in his backstory with Nicole. Why hasn’t he heard from her in weeks? Because they fought the last time they spoke on the phone.
Not only is there more information, but it’s better communicated. It’s just as expository, but it feels like a conversation.
To be fair to the original, it’s difficult to have a conversation with a silent protagonist, as Isaac was back in 2008. Motive Studio, the developer of the remake, brought back Gunner Wright, who voiced Isaac in Dead Space 2 and 3, and he’s even better here. Wright brings a middle-aged weariness to the character that is rare in video game protagonists, who are often young, capable, and eager. Like Daniels.
In the original, Daniels serves one purpose: to get the player to trust her so a midgame twist hits harder. Her trust is garnered not through conversation but by the assumption that most players would be male, and they would naturally trust the Lady NPC over the Man NPC.
The Man NPC is Hammond, the security officer nominally in charge of the rescue operation. In the original, Hammond and Daniels are at each other’s throats before they even get to Ishimura:
So that’s Ishimura. Impressive.
The USG Ishimura.
Hammond hits the “G” so hard he almost ruptures the hull. This is what actors call a “Capital-C Choice.” There’s a school of acting that tells you to assign an active verb to every line, sometimes to every word, and Hammond slaps Daniels with that G. It’s effective — they obviously don’t like each other — and he’s emphasizing that the Ishimura is owned by their employers, but it’s not very professional. The tension is for our benefit, not the story.
It’s a B-movie schlock moment and reminds me of another Capital-C Choice in Event Horizon — obviously a significant influence on Dead Space — when Laurence Fishburne body-slams a crew member onto a table, then screams at him to calm down.
The nature of the Marker, Unitology, and the origin of the Necromorphs are seeded much more elegantly into the story this time, and the script smartly gives the player reasons to be suspicious of both Daniels and Hammond. In the original, Hammond is a stuck-up, by-the-book military man barely keeping it together, and Daniels is a frantic, emotional wreck.
The remake treats its audience respectfully, burying the tension between Daniels and Hammond in layers of professional calm and allowing it to bubble to the surface as things go from bad to worse on Ishimura.
It’s not just the script and performances that have been upgraded. Obviously, the game looks incredible and takes excellent advantage of PlayStation 5’s haptics, but the sound design really elevates the storytelling.
Alien: Isolation took Dead Space‘s gimmick of monsters that could hide and move around in air ducts and turned it into a major element of the alien’s lethality. You could hear the thing clambering all around and above you, and the sound of its breathing could alert you to the alien waiting in an open ceiling vent. The Dead Space remake takes this idea even further. Not only can you hear the Necromorphs moving around the walls, but you hear the ship itself moving and breathing like a massive steel haunted house.
Messages will periodically broadcast over the PA, sometimes in English but often in other languages. They’re indistinct and hard to hear at the best of times, and the fact that they are occasionally in French or Mandarin adds a layer of distance to the space — and they aren’t the only voices Isaac hears. Is he having auditory hallucinations or just hearing another announcement? You’re not always sure.
I was worried giving Isaac a voice would turn him into a paranoid, gibbering lunatic who constantly narrates to himself like the guy in Days Gone. Instead, Isaac only speaks when he has something to say. He communicates more with heavy breathing and winces of pain than he would by screaming “Oh shit” every time he gets attacked. Isaac’s heart beat gets louder and faster in moments of tension and combat, and the sound of his pulse slowing as he calms down is incredibly immersive. Instead of distancing us from the character, giving him believable dialogue and reactions deepens our connection.
There’s something about an older character, like the Master Chief or Sam Fisher, that makes for a great video game protagonist. They let their actions speak for them. Motive understands this and leans on its expertise and the original Dead Space‘s clever design to guide the player, like the in-world locator beam.
Motive could have easily taken the original and slapped more polygons into it for the remake, but by trusting its audience and letting Dead Space speak for itself, it’s made an early contender for game of the year.