Finding movies that scare you is pretty easy. For one, the viewer is always in the role of the helpless onlooker, doomed to yell at the screen at best, unable to react to whatever horrific situations may unfold. Finding a game that scares you in a similar way usually is a lot harder. For one, games are an active medium. The player can always react to what’s going on on the screen. Also in most games the player is wielding a shotgun to put up into the nostrils of whatever the source of the scare was.
And that’s just the thing with games, scares like the infamous monster closets and other in-your-face ones are less scares, more heavy disturbances. When it comes to really, really scaring the player, very different, much more complicated measures must be taken, and very few games so far have managed to really scare and frighten me, not even speaking of keeping me up at night the way some movies have managed to do.
Dead Space is not really scary. Eerie sometimes, creepy at others, and very often stressful and disturbing, shocking even, making it sometimes really unpleasant to play. It is a very intense game, but the scares last only as long as the console is running. It’s a kind of horror experience that does not manage to get under the skin really.
Still playing can be unnerving. Mostly due to the superb use of audio cues and horrific imagery, as well as making the player plough through extremely tough situations like facing unstoppable super space zombies in a hard vacuum with the character’s air supply running out fast.
These situations are intense, nerve wrecking and brilliantly presented. But they don’t stay with the player beyond the game.
That is something few games are able to pull off really. The “horror” label is maybe falsely applied here, though Dead Space surely is exactly that. A horror game. Though maybe more than that it is a media item that firmly belongs into the splatter genre. Of course there are some mild allusions to body horror, the grotesquely deformed space zombies sometimes seemingly being aware of what they have been turned into, but those instances remain limited to a few certain types of enemies (or pieces of the environment) and are rarely really touched upon.
What does stay with the player after the game’s done is some of the backstory, especially the part told in the superb motion-comic pencilled by Ben Templesmith. The same aspects of the story told there are found again inside the game. People going insane, a crazy religious cult, space-zombies taking over. But that aspect is just a part of the backstory, it’s not something the player experiences firsthand. On top of it all, the superb motion comic is not included with the retail version of the game, so only those players who anticipated the game’s release enough in 2008 will have had read it before playing the game.
This does not mean however that Dead Space fails as a horror game. As that quick, intense scare, and of course as a splatter item it is quite good actually.
And it does offer highly memorable scenes and experiences, though a lot of those are not connected to the game being scary, but more to the beautifully realized and rendered environments and the truly outstanding soundscape.