Insanity is Dead Space’s Secret (and Underused) Weapon
HorrorScope is a recurring feature exploring the horror genre in gaming and drawing attention to its elements, its tropes, and its lesser-known but still scary titles.
Warning! This article is full of spoilers for Dead Space and Dead Space 2. Also, check out our analysis of why Dead Space 2 is one of the best sequels ever.
One of the best parts of the horror atmosphere built by the Dead Space games is the pervasiveness of insanity and dementia spread throughout.
It’s too bad that with all those hallucinations, unreliable characters and murderous rampages, Dead Space fails to really capitalize on the tricks it could pull on players. While insanity makes for great atmosphere in Dead Space games — something the titles excel at creating — they don’t ever really push players as far as the scares could really take them.
The psychological damage that pervades the games is an effect of exposure to Dead Space’s central MacGuffin, the Marker, a pseudo-alien artifact that reanimates dead flesh, creates paranoia, causes visual hallucinations of dead people to their loved ones, and seems to have sentience. The Marker itself emits a signal that plays all kinds of havoc with people who are near it, and even seems to actively confuse and corrupt their thinking; often, they’re working at understanding or destroying the Marker, but they’ll actually be acting under the Marker’s manipulations without realizing it.
The Dead Space games take this concept a bit further by using it to create some scares and drive the plot forward. Dead Space 2 in particular is awash with moments where protagonist Isaac Clarke is seeing things that aren’t actually there, and these are good for jump scares and the like. Much of Dead Space is spent following Nicole, Isaac’s girlfriend, through the USG Ishimura; when Isaac sees Nicole in Dead Space 2, she’s a clear manifestation of the Marker, but she never seems to physically exist.
Insanity is nothing new to the horror realm, and lots of games — maybe more than should — use it as a means of sneaking scares (often cheap ones) into their games. There are many a horror game that rely on some painfully weak twists born of the unreliability of the narrator: most common, we see “it was all a dream” or “YOU were really the killer all along.” There are a lot of cliches in this space, and that weakens any game that deals with insanity at all.
Dead Space manages to circumvent these issues to a point. For one, insanity created by the Marker has a lot of backing in the overall lore of the game, which helps legitimize it as a gameplay mechanic. Second, the collision of subjective and objective reality reminds players that while you might see and interact with things that are not there, these brief moments are the exception, not the rule. Reality is still reality, and you’re not playing a game that’s entirely in Isaac’s head. That sort of thing usually fails as a story twist, because it renders all the action through which the player just slogged meaningless. And that’s often no fun.
There are some neat ways that Dead Space really plays with your perception all the way through, however. The first game introduces a number of elements really slowly — it starts with a burst of action and then moves on to slow-burn meandering through the dark industrial halls of the Ishimura. Careful listening can detect all sorts of audio tweaks that suggest the mental state of the player, like unintelligible whispers emanating from the walls. From an objective view of reality, just about everyone on the Ishimura is already dead by the point the player comes aboard, so these whispers don’t just serve the purpose of creeping the player out, they show what’s going on in protagonist Isaac’s head.
But for a game that questions everyone’s sanity — something of a unique position in horror — Dead Space never really goes to the Lovecraftian depths it could plumb, especially in terms of gameplay mechanics. Isaac is seeing things, the motivations of characters like Dr. Kyne and Dr. Mercer in Dead Space are suspect, and Isaac’s fellow Marker-zapped test subject Stross goes crazy violent in Dead Space 2. But none of that affects the player beyond being driven through the story and the occasional jump scare.
Isaac is never truly an unreliable narrator in the strictest sense. He’s just a guy who occasionally has disturbing flashes that scare him.