In the spirit of Halloween, I'll talk about my five favorite horror games. Mostly, I tend to gravitate toward this genre because whatever spectacular titles that come out of this section of gaming tend to present fresh ideas and/or diabolically clever game design. In fact, some games in this genre boast some of the most interesting stories that the virtual realm has to offer, rivaling those of the most famous role-playing games.
Although the following game, Dead Space, is not particularly notable in story, it certainly fits the bill for being a creative, clever game.
If I were to describe the narrative and overall setup of Dead Space, I would say it has the enemies from The Thing (in that the monsters are not-so-successfully assimilated versions of alien life) with the plot from Alien (being stuck on a ship in the middle of space with monsters and no chance of help). That being said, the overall plot of Dead Space is usual fare and, in all honesty, is the weakest part of the game. Not only is the story derivative, but the protagonist has the vocabulary of Link, shouting out grunts and reacting to taking damage but never saying an actual word, which does help the tense atmosphere but, at the same time, makes everything that happens seem trivial if the protagonist doesn't have a cemented personality that distinguishes himself from the metal walls. That all being said, there are so many things right with this game that it's one of those incredibly rare exceptions I make with modern games in that I overlook the story to praise the game play.
There are so many clever little things done in Dead Space that it's difficult to call it a bad, or even mediocre, game. What's most apparent, the enemy design, is delightfully macabre and strengthened by the (unfortunate) fact that the designers examined car crash photos to get a better grasp on how human bodies could be sliced, contorted and mutilated. Having this level of dedication in designing the visceral aspects of a game is something to be admired, albeit it's a little uncomfortable knowing such a thing. Even so, what it boils down to is that the enemy design is certainly a point in Dead Space's favor. Speaking of design, the atmosphere of Dead Space certainly got a lot of attention in that department.
What makes the atmosphere of Dead Space so dreadful is the emphasis on minimizing every aspect that would make it look like you were playing a game (i.e. any kind of HUD information being solely on the character's body) and opting the player to keep focused on the main character who, of course, remained at the center of the screen. This design forced the player to keep as focused as possible to the middle of the screen, allowing for events from any direction to be quickly noticed without having to look to the opposite side of the screen and having a chance of missing anything.
No HUD means more focus on...ew.
Space, being in the title and all, is a delightfully unique aspect due to how it was used. Throughout the course of the game, there are certain sections in which the player must navigate through areas of the ship that have been breached, giving in to the vacuum of space. In these sections, the desolate feeling of space is enhanced by the near-complete muffling of even the loudest noises and instead choosing to make the main character's breathing the most prominent sound. Depriving the player of almost all sound made each section that much more unnerving due to the fact that enemies could use your lack of hearing ability to their advantage and sneak up on you while you were occupied with getting to the next airlock.
But, what any horror game comes down to regardless of clever design choices, is scares. Dead Space is, for the most part, a notably scary game. However, a large weakness with this title is the ability to remain fresh in how it goes about instilling fear in the player. About three-fourths into the game, enemy encounters seem scripted.
See a vent? Monster's gonna jump out of it.
Didn't remember shooting that enemy? He's gonna jump up and attack once you get close enough.
Going down a long hallway with someone doing something unnervingly self-harmful at the end of it? Enemy ambush.
The thing is that the game is actually a pretty good horror experience for the first 75%, but it just seems like the developers fell flat in trying to come up with multitudes of ways to jump scare the player. In fact, most of the game could be considered jump scares. However, most of these instances are usually built up by something genuinely unsettling like a woman standing at the end of a long, bloodstained, corpse-ridden hallway and softly giggling to her herself in a half-happy, half-distraught tone. Such things, in my observation, make the scares more than just a bunch of "OOGABOOGABLARAHARGA" moments and instead a shake back to reality at times when the game is being suspiciously quiet (read: 85% of the game), giving it actual evidence that effort went into making the game creepy.
In all, while certainly not the scariest game I played, Dead Space is a cleverly designed game that utilizes the environment its mostly set in to its advantage. Though you shouldn't expect a Shakespearean narrative to go along with this game, Dead Space is certainly proof that, with enough effor, gameplay can supercede story in a horror game and still manage to stick with you.