On Dead Space

Isaac was screaming. He was screaming as his arms were ripped off. He was screaming as the spines of otherbeing went through his torso. He was screaming when he was sliced cleanly in two, his upper body falling to the ground in front of his still-attempting-to-walk-body. He was screaming when the small things burrowed into his face and neck. He was screaming when a tentacle, so long that it couldn’t be measured in the panic, grabbed around his leg and pulled him, piece by piece, into a burrow. He was screaming when he was electrocuted. He was screaming when he fell. He was screaming when a fan blade sliced through his body. He was screaming when he was crushed. He was screaming as a former friend betrayed him.

Isaac was always screaming.

Dead Space is monstrous. It isn’t easily defined; it shifts. Sometimes it is an action game, sometimes a puzzler; sometimes it shifts into an uncanny survival horror. Sometimes it isn’t even a game, but an art piece. This monstrosity, intended or not, makes it strange to play. As I remarked on twitter last week, I don’t enjoy the act of playing the game. I don’t like to do fetch quests, move big bricks, or shoot the limbs off of monsters.

My lack of enjoyment comes from the tension that informs every part of the game. The creatures in the game, seemingly existing only to kill Isaac in the worst possible ways, are quick. I move like a tank. I can never turn quickly enough or move out of the way of projectiles. As I progressed through the game, Isaac actually began to resemble a tank, covered in armor, hiding his fleshy humanity away underneath ribbing and bolts and a welders mask from hell. The tensions proliferate further: Isaac is a space engineer who can only seem to plug power sources into sockets or flip switches. He constantly performs rational quests with objective right and wrong approaches that are given to him by a delusion.

But, honestly, those tensions are gone when I think about my experience of playing the game. The otherbeing, the alien, permeating the ship; creating a new environment in which to live. The ultimate adaptable being, putting the xenomorph to shame, assimilating all matter in its path. The aesthetic of biological machinery, of production outside of a human frame, production that occurs in the absence or possibility of a human interpreter–it draws dread.

There is also Isaac’s screaming, of course. Inside his metal helmet, barbs and blades pinging off of his medieval suit, Isaac is infinitely distant from me. Inside a virtual world, one that I can only touch with sometimes-responsive controls, he is never really accessed by me. I can’t “know” Isaac. But there is another layer, beyond the screen and keyboard. The infinite gap between Isaac’s mouth and my ears. A whisper. A sadness. Sometimes it picks up wind and volume and rage, bellowing out, but it is never louder than the biological screeching of an alien maw. Isaac, as loud as he can be, is drowned out by the world.

Isaac is a silent hero even when speaking.

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