The Dead Space of My Ears

Event Horizon has always been one of my favorite films, and even if its critical reputation was not exactly stellar, the classic setting – an abandoned place where something has gone terribly wrong – was something I latched onto. There’s a reason that this backdrop has endured for so long: it works. It taps into our innate human curiosity, our love of mysteries and the unexplained, and throws in all the morbid fascination of a train wreck. The videogame series Dead Space marries this with the claustrophobic settings of the outer space frontier, and, for good measure, borrows its character designs from John Carpenter’s “The Thing.”

Film theory teaches us that the two requisite components for effective horror are isolation and helplessness. Being trapped in outer space and unable to contact humanity would certainly satisfy the former, and the ragtag band of astronauts, at first, seem all but helpless when they find themselves pitted against a horde of creatures designed to kill humans. The game goes one step further and makes the brilliant decision to cast the player as an engineer rather than a soldier, further distancing us from a traditionally survivalist role.


Isaac Clarke, mild-mannered engineer.

But even with all of these excellent ideas, most of the time, it seems like the game’s idea of horror is just a very noisy one. I imagine the designers thought to themselves, “It’s not scary enough… make it louder!” The travelling orchestra that accompanies the player throughout his adventures is much more scare-prone than anyone else in the game. Every time an enemy is spotted, it sounds as if the entire orchestra has a fit of hysteria and accidentally drops their instruments on the floor.

This is what most of the game sounds like.

The discordant cacophony is jarring at first, but eventually, we become used to the monsters in a way that the orchestra is unequipped to articulate. The hyperactive strings and jittery percussion section are just as shocked from first creature to last, and eventually, we, as players, begin to suspect that this is all some sort of cynical plot to get us to share in their terror. It’s difficult for horror to work when a player knows all too well how a game is trying to scare him.


Isaac Clarke, mild-mannered engineer?

The majority of the game consists of fixing one thing only to find that another is in need of repair. As engineer Isaac Clarke, the player will mow down beast after beast, with never a moment’s rest, hopping from one broken power conduit to the next. The ship becomes the Road Runner to Isaac’s Wile E. Coyote, and we resignedly begin to expect that any sliver of hope will be dashed upon our finding it, just because that’s what is supposed to happen. The weight of any negative outcome in the game is diminished by virtue of the fact that the forces of good apparently do not exist in Isaac’s universe at all. It’s no wonder that he displays no visible reaction to the horrors he is enduring. To him, these are not horrors at all, but simply another day in a universe of eternal darkness and despair. It’s okay. He’s used to it.


Mild… mannered…

More than that, it’s difficult to fear something that is so readily conquerable. The villains Isaac faces are all nightmarish abominations, but weapons, ammunition, and supplies are never far from hand. It’s the same issue that has made labeling Resident Evil a “horror” series in the wake of its fourth title problematic. We shouldn’t be feeling like we are conquerors, especially on a ship that had its entire security force destroyed within a matter of minutes.


…engineer…

In horror experiences, the mere act of survival is what should be our crowning achievement, rather than ultimate victory and the unconditional surrender of our enemies. The direction that the “horror” label is going now contradicts this. The Dead Space series is still wonderfully atmospheric, and it’s a blast to play, but it’s an action game through and through.

A very loud one.

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