Over the past few nights I’ve been playing Dead Space, the new sci-fi horror shooter from EA. It’s an extremely well-made and entertaining game, and I’m enjoying it a lot. I want to make that clear up front, because I spend the rest of this post complaining about it. And I’m even going to go so far as to unfairly single it out as an example of everything that’s wrong with the current state of storytelling in games.
At least from what I’ve seen so far — I’ve finished three of twelve levels — Dead Space is the perfect title for this game, because it’s the only combination of words that could possibly be more generic than SciFi Horror Videogame. It says nothing about the game and leaves no lasting impression, and it has the added benefit of being indistinguishable from a billion other videogame and movie titles, from Freespace to Dead Rising.
In Dead Space, you play as an engineer for some futuristic mega-corporation, separated from your group and making your way through a derelict sci-fi shooter haunted by the memory of past videogames, as you’re attacked by wave after wave of cliches. Bodies of victims are littered about the ship, their last warnings scrawled on the walls in blood, right next to alien, demonic-looking runes. You walk from one darkened room to the next, surrounded by flickering lights, audio and video logs, locked doors that need to be unlocked, health and ammo pick-ups, bodies hanging from hooks, lockers to search, ironically cheerful corporate advertisements, glass-walled rooms that show a survivor being attacked in a gruesome fashion, medical centers containing the zombified remains of the sinister scientists who knowingly took advantage of the situation, and monsters leaping out of air ducts at ostensibly unpredictable moments.
The cliches pile up so high so quickly that I was surprised just how entrenched and downright complex sci-fi horror cliches have gotten. I don’t play that many shooters (mostly because I’m terrible at them) or see that many horror movies, and yet everything I’ve seen in this game is recognizable several times over. At its core, it’s like an attempt to cross System Shock 2 with DOOM 3 (which was itself an attempt to cross System Shock 2 with DOOM). Toss in some Resident Evil and Half-Life 2, along with some smaller elements of Deus Ex, Halo, and Gears of War, and put your main character in a big suit vaguely reminiscent of the Big Daddies in BioShock. Now, Dead Space has been in production for at least two years, probably much longer, so I’m not suggesting at all that they “ripped off” those recent games. That’d be like complaining that the Sci Fi Channel Original Movie Tsetse Fly Rampage rips off the movies Mantis Attack, Night of the Snails, and Koalapocalypse*; it’s not necessarily that they’re stealing from each other, but that they’re all coming from the same source.
The game has outstanding production values: fantastic visuals, perfect sound design, extremely clear and well-thought-out level design, good controls, great balance, and terrific effects work (riding a tram through a cavernous engine compartment surrounded in fog as you hear howls and moans echoing all around you is a particularly cool moment). But it’s all in the service of a setting and story so distractingly uninspired and unoriginal, I have to wonder if the lack of innovation was intentional. I’m reminded of a quote from the EverQuest guys at a CGDC, explaining that the reason they chose such obvious fantasy cliches for that game was because they didn’t want to “confuse” or “overwhelm” players. But even in the rare cases where the game shows true originality and not just polish or attention to detail, the way they’re used just pulls the game back into generic shooter territory.
There are two aspects of Dead Space that are original:
- There’s no heads-up-display; all of your info is presented as if it were in the world instead of in a separate interface layer.
- The combat system consistently emphasizes aiming over firepower.
As I understand it, the goal of removing the HUD is immersion: there should be nothing reminding you that you’re playing a videogame. So Dead Space puts your health and other meters on the back of your guy’s suit, pulls the camera out and adjusts the field of view so you’re always able to see the back, and puts a big hologram generator around your guy’s neck to “project” all the UI elements. And this is a perfect example of solving a problem that doesn’t exist. It functions exactly the same as the HUD in every other game, with detailed maps and mission objectives and save points and descriptions of things you can pick up popping up all over the place. This is all stuff that players already accept without question: the game also gives pick-ups a shiny glow without any explanation, and that does nothing to break the immersion. So if the goal is immersion, why devote so much attention to a neat but ultimately irrelevant presentation, instead of taking that idea and applying it to the game as a whole?
Where they do that is with the combat system, and it’s actually pretty ingenious. The basic equation for “survival horror” games is: dark spaces + unpredictable attacks + limited ammo and health = tension. And where most survival horror games have the “shoot zombies in the head to kill them more efficiently” strategy, Dead Space gives you monsters that can only be killed by severing their limbs. The monsters so far are pretty unimaginative and forgettable visually, but designed perfectly for that gameplay mechanic: different numbers of limbs, some can retract and expand their limbs, some move at different speeds, etc. Your weapons are all designed for cutting (which makes perfect sense in the story’s context), their secondary functions are all designed to let you choose how to handle an attack. Your special abilities — variations on the RPG “ice” spell and HL2’s gravity gun — are occasionally used for ludicrously simple puzzle solving, but mostly to help you take out monsters while conserving ammunition. It’s all consistent, it all supports the theme of the game, and all the systems are balanced and work together in interesting combinations, so purely from a game design standpoint, it’s a thing of beauty.
More importantly: from a player’s standpoint, it’s a lot of fun. There’s a tactical element to each encounter, where you’re forced to decide which weapon to use, where to aim, and how best to take down the enemies without wasting your reserves.
But I never really had the opportunity to learn the system for myself. During my first encounter with an enemy, one of my crew mates told me over audio that regular attacks don’t work; you have to sever their limbs. They said this right as I was looking at a dead body slumped on the floor right next to the message “YOU HAVE TO SEVER THEIR LIMBS” scrawled on the wall in blood. I was holding a weapon called a “plasma cutter.” I did not feel particularly clever for figuring out my plan of attack.
And that kind of thing happens throughout the game. A person will come through on the radio telling me that I need to fix the fuel supply, I think “Oh, I’d better start figuring out how to reach the fuel supply,” and before I can finish the thought, he explains exactly what I need to do, and it’s added to my list of objectives, and the path is highlighted on my map. (And the levels are so clearly designed with exit signs and labels over doors, the map is mostly superfluous even for someone with my horrible sense of direction). They do follow the adventure-game standard practice of giving you multiple linear tasks to accomplish at once, but each one is explicitly spelled out for you. Whenever you have to use one of your special powers, it’s marked clearly in the world with an icon and the words “USE KINESIS HERE” (literally). The only thing you ever have to figure out for yourself is which gun to use, and often, there’ll be some reminder nearby that tells you which gun to use.
There’s a very strong and defensible case to be made that I’m missing the point. The story is just there for setting and atmosphere; this is an action game, and it’s all about the gameplay. The game isn’t supposed to be frustrating, it’s supposed to be suspenseful. Being stuck with no clue what to do next would be tedious, not tense. The game is designed to keep you scared and keep you moving, not make you think. Putting in a complicated puzzle would break the immersion and the pacing, just as if you’d put a lengthy monologue into a horror movie.
But I’m skeptical that all those arguments I just made up are valid. And it all comes down to that story vs. gameplay divide that I’m always complaining about. Dead Space could be used as a perfect example of a good game with a lousy and uninspired story. The story is so uninteresting it actually repels intrigue; I actually dread picking up audio logs, because I know I’m going to be disappointed at the next predictable non-twist. But I’m still engaged in the game and want to finish it. So isn’t that proof that “gameplay” is more important than story?
What I’ve learned from Dead Space so far is that gameplay is to videogames (again: story-based, single-player videogames) as cinematography is to movies. It’s absolutely crucial, it can be compelling on its own merits, and doing a lousy job of it will bring everything else down with it. But it’s not the whole experience, and insisting that it is the whole experience means that we’re missing out on the true potential of what games can do. In other words, why should we accept boring and unoriginal stories when we know that they can be better?
I can play armchair game designer and pretty easily come up with a few examples that would improve the game for me, without impacting the mood, pacing, or the game balance. Why not let me discover the monsters’ weaknesses on my own, instead of explicitly telling me to cut off the arms? Since the entire first level is a heavy-handed tutorial, why not let me figure it out in a relatively safe environment?
Since having clear objectives and an easy-to-use map are useful to keep the action moving, why not keep that but find ways to subvert it? Maybe give me a path based on faulty data and let me find an alternate route? What if one of the evil scientists or whoever turns out to be the villain is corrupting my data, or maybe one of my own crew members is giving me bad information? Currently I’ve got two crew members whose rivalry just seems to be backstory; what if they gave me conflicting information and I had to choose for myself which objective to follow?
One of the earliest levels has a section of the ship blocked by a barricade, and forces me to get two parts to make a specific type of single-use bomb. Why not give me the more general objective “get to here,” and let me figure out how to get past the barricade? Why not let me figure out how to get all the explosive tanks that are littered around and use them to blow it up? How about finding an audio log from someone who explains how to take an alternate route to where I’m going, avoiding the barricade altogether?
As I said, I don’t play that many shooters, but I’ve still seen the same things repeated over and over again in every shooter I’ve played. Dead Space is a fine game, and it’s a lot of fun, but I can’t help but think how much more compelling it would be if people weren’t so accepting of mediocre story as long as the gameplay’s good, and even downright hostile to the idea of storytelling’s being important to an action game.
* Not actual Sci Fi Channel Original Movie titles, as far as I’m aware, although I wish they were.