Good horror - real, hair-raising, scrotum-shrinking horror - relies on fear of the unknown. Once we know what lurks in the shadows it’s no longer as terrifying, and that’s just as true in videogames as in other media. Familiarity is the death of horror, so it’s no surprise that by the third installment Dead Space just isn’t very scary anymore.
But oh, how it used to be! Forced into contending with reconstituted and deformed corpses of your former crew members aboard an abandoned spaceship, the original Dead Space scared millions. It’s a fairly grisly time as well, as we soon learn that the only way to put these “necromorphs” down for good is to dismember them limb by limb, stomping their remains to tiny chunks in order to ensure they never move again. But Dead Space explored more fears than just monsters. The ship itself was a character, a creaky, clanky place that was always a little too dark for your liking. Venturing outside the ship into space leaves you in a silent, alien environment, making you feel even more tiny and alone and helpless. Dead baby necromorphs make you feel nauseous about stomping their tiny bitey heads in, if only for a second. There’s even an alien creature that flies around jamming its proboscis in corpses to create more Necromorphs and work that innate human fear of rape. Protagonist Isaac Clarke was given more abuse than Bruce Campbell in an Evil Dead movie, thrown around and beaten up and just absolutely doused in blood and slime.
All of that combined with a stunning proprietary graphics engine and some of the best sound design of this console generation for an experience that was as scary as it was fun. The second one was even better, but by then the horror was holding on by a thread.
Not that they didn’t try every trick they could to make it scary. Isaac’s slowly unraveling mind made perfect fodder for lots of hallucinations in Dead Space 2. The worst vision he sees is his dead girlfriend, who appears in shadowy corners with light streaming from her eyes, as they do. But the constant jump scares are never effective until the very end of the game when you return to the USG Ishimura, the ship on which the first game is set. There the genius developers proceed to positively prey on your memories of what took place and use them to fuck with your expectations of what will happen. It’s that moment that you start to understand how unnerved Isaac must be, because you are too.
Dead Space 3 is pretty much straight-up action. Oh sure, screaming monsters pop out at you left and right like they were all waiting for you to appear (even on planets that have been abandoned for hundreds of years!) and it’ll certainly make you jump more than a few times, but there’s never any real dread. Isaac may be an engineer by trade but by this point you’ve dismembered thousands of creatures and know just how to handle them. You know that in the future designers make vents way too damn big and they’re just crawling with monsters, so each one is a potential spawning point. You know to always aim for the yellow weak spots in boss creatures like you’re playing a shooter from the 1980s. You’ll cut off limbs without consideration of the former human it was once attached to, only to send them flying back to impale their former owners. Running out of ammo is a ludicrous thought as you’ll have hundreds and hundreds of rounds just waiting for the next silly enemy to jump into your gunsights.
That’s not to say it’s a bad game, at all. It’s not scary but it works fantastically as a dark action game and is just a blast to play through, even if the plot is inane and the story seems to keep looping over and over. (You’ll constantly join up with survivors, lose track of them, have to take an alternate path back to them, and then repeat the cycle.) You can now craft your own weapons using pieces taken from fallen enemies and crates (or by spending real cash), and there’s a massive amount of options for firepower. Most each weapon can be combined with two different guns and a staggering array of attachments and power-ups. Place a machine gun whose bullets slow down enemies on top, and a giant spinning sawblade on the bottom? Why not? A plasma cutter combined with a rail-spike shotgun? Go for it. You can save blueprints of your handiwork and even trade them with friends.
Oh yes, because there is co-op. If you needed early proof of how this wouldn’t work as a horror game, this announcement was all you needed. When you play with a friend the enemies are a lot harder but having someone to watch your back helps take the edge off, in every way. There are side missions that can only be attempted in co-op and they’re great, even if the second character (a guy who lost his family named John Carver) is disposable otherwise, and for the fact that the game becomes even less scary with a friend cracking dick jokes in your ear.
Weirdly enough, the only parts that work as horror are some of the side-missions. There’s one in particular involving a starving military base which is perfectly poised to creep you out. It actually does for a minute, but it’s over far too quickly. Horror fans should definitely do every side mission in the game and take things slow because the environment says a lot more than the game ever does, and sometimes your mind can come up with more horrific situations just from noticing bodies frozen into the ground outside near a tent, or a kitchen full of empty cans that’s swarming with emaciated creatures. But otherwise, this is the Aliens to the original’s Alien.
But that’s the deal with all horror media, isn’t it? Horror rarely survives into a sequel, which usually brings in action or comedy to help pad the material. Look back as far as Bride of Frankenstein, a beautiful horror movie which goes full-on ridiculous at moments. The big horror franchises all eventually went silly, from Freddy Krueger donning a Power Glove to Busta Rhymes socking Michael Meyers in the jaw. Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Gremlins 2 are perfect lampoons of their original installments. Evil Dead 2 happened.
Others delved into action, everything from The Devil's Rejects to Blade II to (rec)2. Phantasm, perhaps my favorite horror series of all time, starts off with a trippy and nightmarish first entry before handing Reggie Bannister a four-barreled shotgun and letting him go nuts. And of course there’s always Aliens, the definitive sci-fi/action/horror hybrid, a clear influence on the series and every other damn game involving space marines (we will not speak of Aliens: Colonial Marines here.)
It’s certainly not impossible to keep scaring people with sequels, but it seems like the only way to do it is by introducing new stories and characters. It’s the same with games - System Shock 2 is still perhaps the most successful, as a sequel or any other game, and Silent Hill 2 is still the shining mark of the series, although damn if the fourth game didn’t have some deeply unsettling moments in that room. But a protagonist has to seem mortal if you want to fear for his or her sake, and having them keep popping up in more sequels and fighting increasingly greater odds is not the way to keep things grounded.
So what’s the future for Dead Space? Do they take off on this and lead it into a great new action/horror franchise or try to return to its roots? There’s a lot of backstory here already and they could take the series in many different ways, but perhaps the necromorphs should hang up their limbs for now before they become a joke.