Insanity is Dead Space’s Secret (and Underused) Weapon
In Dead Space 2, we get a chance just how well these ideas could work. The chapter in which Isaac returns to the Ishimura, which occurs late in the game (No. 10 of 14), begins with a vast opening portion that is a perfect mix of ambiance and expectation — largely because nothing happens. Players are wandering through familiar halls, all of which are littered with the detritus of construction and renovation to make them old but new, remembering where the first game’s scariest moments happened and wondering what they can expect.
It’s during these charged moments, when you’re re-entering the place that first exposed you to necromorphs and everything related to them, that the tension in Dead Space 2 is at its highest. So the developers mess with you, replaying a few key set piece moments: the first time a Brute’s arm busts through a nearby window; the moment when you opened a door and a huge tentacle shot around a corner and started dragging you, feet first, into a hole in the wall. These moments aren’t really happening, though, and after a second, Isaac realizes that they’re not real. But in those few seconds, there are some of the best scares in the game. One wonders what Visceral Games could have accomplished if these hallucinations were bigger and more involved, and didn’t just flash out of existence a second after they occur.
Few titles have really made the most out of the ability to alter a gamer’s perceptions through the medium of video games. The best to even make the attempt is, famously, Eternal Darkness, which would even make you think the hardware of your game console had malfunctioned in the middle of play. That was a brilliant way to build the horror and unreliability of the game’s story and characters — who among us hasn’t freaked out when a console red-ringed, for example — and it’s a shame that while the Dead Space series has the resource of all manner of insanity in terms of its plot, it never really accesses it to a degree that would make it a bigger part of the Dead Space experience.
But at least as an element for building atmosphere, Dead Space and Dead Space 2 play with the mind of their protagonist in some really great, smart ways. Nothing in Dead Space is trustworthy anyway, including the very walls around you, so messing with the perceptions of the protagonist could have had some serious consequences. What exists in the game often does well to unnerve players; but with so much fertile ground to till, one has to wonder how deep Isaac’s slide into insanity could have gone.