A Few Thoughts On Dead Space: Chapter Ten

For some reason, at around episode five of my Dead Space video playthrough, I started getting bizarre audio distortion. As a result, I've given up of the longer less edited videos with included commentary. The playthrough will now be much shorter and bereft of my text prattling. Anyway, my thoughts on the game as a whole are pretty well summarized in an older blog post. But I did want to get these thoughts down somewhere.

Chapter Ten: End of Days is where the shine really fades off the apple, so to speak. The game becomes much more about resource draining enemy encounters rather than a sustained, tense atmosphere or suspenseful exploration. Dead Space puts Isaac in a room with enemies to use up ammo and health packs, ensuring the way forward is scary. It has been done many times already. The fear now is drawn from distracting game design.

“What weapon or ability does the designer want me to use here?”

“Am I supposed to just run away from this fight?”

“I’m pretty sure I already destroyed that body, but now it has re-spawned intact. Is the game setting up a scare even if I’ve already out-thought it? Joy.”

This is the unofficial padding section of the game, and it continues through most of the remainder of Dead Space. It’s a problem that carries through the two main sequels as well. These games don’t have good third acts.

Another issue (for me, at least) is the stereotyping on display at this point in the game. Dead Space doubles down on unappealing horror cliches by exploiting mental illness and religious dogma. I won’t defend fanaticism or narrow, inflexible thinking here. However, the Dead Space universe only appears to have one religion -- though I think I heard someone shout “Christ!” at some point. And this one religion/suicide cult appears to be peopled entirely by dangerous fanatics. No other perspective is offered. You’re either an non-theistic victim of crazy people or a crazy person victimizing the generally level-headed faithless. That’s a different kind of narrow mindedness. It gets worse with each subsequent game until the Church of Unitology becomes an actual in-game foe in DS3. And I wish Dead Space could be more sophisticated than that.

I don’t think any of the games clarify who Altman was. But the peripheral fiction expands upon his life and legacy. He did not found Unitology. It was founded around him. Altman didn't worship the marker; he understood its danger. His fate is apparently explored in the book Dead Space: Martyr. I haven’t read it. In further expanded universe lore it’s revealed our man Isaac has a history with the church. His parents sacrificed his college fund to the Unitologists, likely hurting his career prospects. Self-destructive fanaticism has chased after his footsteps over the years. Even within the first game’s fiction Isaac has an understandable axe to grind with religious fanatics. Unitology seems to have endangered the woman he loves, killed thousands, and threatens all life in the universe.

But where’s the other side to this conflict of ideologies? It isn't hard to imagine a species scattered by interstellar distances might feel a lack of wholeness. The promise of unity could be quite enticing to humanity’s space-born generations. Unitology, regardless of its origin offers that to the believers. Can’t we have one moderate Unitologist who examines their faith and acknowledges the horrors inflicted by the church and still manages to keep their head on straight? It would be nice, yeah?

Whatever; they’re all religious and therefore crazy. And therefore dangerous. And therefore deserving of the brutality inflicted upon them throughout the trilogy. I guess. Or so Dead Space seems to want us to believe. Keeps it simple.

           I’m not asking Dead Space to pick a one side over another when it comes to religion. Rather, I’d like to see many sides, like an icosahedron of nuanced ideas. I want more sophistication from this game I adore.

A Few Thoughts On Dead Space

I'm posting a multi-part video playthrough of Dead Space on Youtube. As a result, I took a look at something I wrote years ago in response to originally playing the game. Here it is, re-edited somewhat:

I played the original Silent Hill for about fifteen minutes before I had to press power and go for a quiet walk in the real world, perhaps secretly hoping to remind myself that everything would be okay. Stubbornly, I refused to play Resident Evil until the fourth numbered title. And, even then, only out of a sense of obligation in the face of the game's overwhelmingly breathless praise. At what I'm guessing was the half-way point, it got to be too much. Though I enjoyed RE4 as an action game, the survival horror foundation turned me away. For years I've tried to periodically expand my horizons as a game player, but--much like the point-and-click adventure--horror has never dug its hooks into me.

I don't mind being afraid and I can appreciate sustained tension punctuated by jarring scares. I do not, however, have much patience for feeling helpless. The Clock Tower series and Haunting Ground are fair examples of games I'm told are excellent, but I'll experience them as an observer. For me, there is nothing entertaining in constant terror without much (or any) self defense.

Dead Space, which I bought completely on a whim the week of its release, delivers a reliably enjoyable experience. And that's the best endorsement I could give for the game: as someone horror averse I to the well-crafted and consistent atmosphere of the surrounding unknown and the exhilaration of wiping out a room full of killer undead. There is a very solid sense of location and that alleviates another peeve of mine: confusing, maze-like settings. And though the player is being pushed down one corridor after another, exploration is encouraged for the bold and rewarded for the observant. The handy objective trail usually points one in the right direction, so there is little aimlessness. While this game still holds on to the traditions of restricted movement and limited resources, it also takes pains to help the player experience the adventure in his or her own way. It works with you and not against you.

Some may see Dead Space as a horror genre lightweight--merely an action game with a few scares and a fistful of survival horror trappings. I, however, compare the game to the movie Independence Day in as much as that film was a 1950s era sci-fi B-movie dressed up for the 1990s, a worthy member of a long tradition that sought to set a new standard of presentation quality for its sub-genre. Dead Space is frequently as unabashedly juvenile in its attempts to provoke, but rarely does it lose focus on the pure goals Visceral seems to have set.  

Check out the playthrough. 

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Wolf Unit Syndrome

   It's barely a song. But I sure did make it.

   It turns out Mortal Kombat: The Motion Picture had a pretty big impact on my youth.

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   My experience with Dragon Age: Origins was largely unpleasant. And, though I'm sure I'm in the minority here, I greatly preferred Dragon Age 2 while still acknowledging its flaws. DA: Inquisition fits somewhere between its predecessors. It was very good and I adored the characters (for the most part). The art direction was stunning. Combat was fun. But other elements were... dauntingly overwrought. In the end, I enjoyed my time controlling a dragon-slaying dwarf archer. 
   I played on the 360. Here's a video of my initial thoughts after a few (dozen) hours.

A Few Thoughts On Rival Turf

One thing I find interesting about brawlers of the early 1990s is the very 1980s inspired grungy vigilante street justice tone still present in their art direction and settings. Popular exploitation cinema of the 80s celebrated violent punishment of crime amid urban decay. Games followed suit, frequently using oddly helpless women as plot catalysts and street gangs as fist fodder. But there was change in the wind; brawlers were moving toward science fiction and fantasy. So, Rival Turf was kind of a relic even in its time.

The heroes of Rival Turf are allegedly the baddest of good guys, with certainly the silliest of names: Jack Flak and Oozie Nelson. Their more mundane names in the original Japanese release, Rushing Beat, are Rick Norton and Douglas Bild. That version apparently even tries to convey a story with an introductory cutscene, though either version you choose translates to your basic setup: two men are tasked with defeating an army's worth of gangsters. A kidnapped sister might be involved. Or maybe she’s the main guy’s girlfriend? I don’t know. Look, this is a remarkably unremarkable brawler. Rival Turf is an uninspired also-ran attempting to capitalize on 1992’s fever for console beat-em-ups.

Combat is fine. Sometimes less than fine. But never better. Movement feels hampered by a distraction lack of frames in character animation. Enemies aren't especially fun to fight. After being knocked off-screen, your foes take their sweet time shuffling back into view. And there are very few fighting moves on either side of gameplay: enemies are listless dull punching bags and each of our heroes pulls off a tiny array of punches and kicks. And that speaks to an overall lack of variety and excitement in the game. There are only six regular enemies plus a single palette swap for each one. The bosses are slightly more interesting. One of them might be Vega. One seems to self-identify as a genie. The final boss is an angry karate man.

If you're familiar with Rival Turf, this is likely the image you remember.

The only interesting things Rival Turf can claim to do are adding a run button and including an optional Angry Mode which gives the player brief invincibility and higher damage output after receiving a beating. But it’s difficult to utilize the latter feature due to the sluggish, generally poorly paced combat. The lack of movement fluidity might not come across in footage of the game, but within seconds of play I was sick of the game's combat.

I'm partial to the Super Famicom box art.

It's a shame that I feel a need for flashy gimmicks in a game. But a lack of any interesting mechanical features, art direction, music, etc. leaves this SNES title almost entirely flat. It’s not a pain to sit through, but the early 90s had better brawlers on offer.

Also, I kept wanting to call this game Rival Schools. Which it most certainly isn't.

There's a video version of this post here. Please check it out.

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