Some tasks one simply must perform in the dark: Sorrowful wallowing, certain forms of love making, nude sleepwalking and, of course, tackling nightmarish sci-fi action horror shooters—or so I thought.
I started doing this with the Silent Hill series, only allowing myself to play in near-complete darkness, always waiting for night to fall before I could begin. I kept this tradition alive through the Bioshock series and the first Dead Space. I thought I’d do the same with the second. Alas, I could not, but not because it was too frightening.
Sure, seeing the ruined space station on Tritan through Isaac Clark’s needle pierced, PTSD-stricken, crazy eyes is a terrifying experience, but the real reason I broke my own rule was even simpler: the game was too good to wait for sundown.
Most of the raving over DS2’s new sheen, updated zero-gravity experience and overall expansion sits right with me (see Fearless Leader’s Complex work) , and I have neither the space nor the desire to echo it. One thing I did notice that nobody seems to be talking about is what makes the Dead Space experience so comfortably addictive.
The psychology of tastes tells us that our brains desire a combination of familiarity and novelty: what cognitive psychologist and musician Daniel Levitin recently referred to as “finding new paths to the old watering hole,” or Don Draper’s “Derivative, with a twist.” The Dead Space series has always found ways to deliver this, employing the latest in graphics and player interface along side the most fundamental aspects of story and gameplay reaching back to the groundbreaking designs that made Nintendo into a superpower.
For example, DS2’s aforementioned zero gravity interface is an incredible improvement upon that of the original installment, and is rightfully at the forefront of any review and discussion of the game. Yet, there we are using it to float past patterned blasts of flame or slamming waste disposal doors with the same knack for timing we learned dodging Mario’s lava columns or Link’s sliding blades.
And don’t think for a minute that the creators don’t realize all this. There may be a time when you find yourself reunited with the Ishimura, and if you look closely at Isaac’s shadow at that familiar train station, its pixelated rendering immediately recalls the classic games in question, almost as though the designers are willing to mock themselves for relying on those titles as they do. Somehow, though, that 8-bit shadow is one of the scariest and most lasting images of the game.
Visceral’s crystal clear understanding of their demographic, from the life-long gameplay experiences of their oldest gamers to the pop-psychology of repetition and interruption the developers use to lull their youngest and oldest alike into false senses of security only to induce heart stopping shocks thereto, makes a Dead Space 2 feel like a return, like it’s your childhood friend that’s jumping out of all that dark to scare the life out of you, and you love them for it.
Daniel Imperiale is a Willie Loman figure whose tragedy demands your audience. You can follow him on Twitter via @DPIWins.