Sunday, 12 July 2009

Semi-Coherent Observations on the Video Game Dead Space

(I found this on my computer and thought I'd put it up; it's nothing but a half-finished rant, but I think it's a pretty good half-finished rant.)

Dead Space
is derivative. And how. It’s militantly, unapologetically derivative, like the designers are actually so fucking postmodern that they don’t even believe in the possibility of creating something that’s not a totally self-conscious hybridization of a string of other things that were baldly rehashing ∞-hand ideas in the first place. Most notably, Dead Space is an enthusiastic rip-off of hack-director-extraordinaire Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1997 schmasterpiece Event Horizon, a movie already neck-deep in its own lack of ideas and dialing Michael Bay for swimming lessons.

From the F.E.A.R.-style opening, in which the player is treated to some clunky real-time exposition from his digital co-stars (after a shot of a lover’s distress call, intended to establish the human angle of the tale), to the appearance of the stricken spaceship that is the game’s setting, to the crash landing on said ship, to the initial exploration and subsequent attack by terrifying The Thing-type beasts (which, naturally, separates the player from his cohorts) and so on; every aspect of Dead Space is wantonly uninventive. It fairly shrieks of a high-concept brief that never really got expanded on (“It’s Resident Evil – IN SPACE.”), except for being stuffed with the scooped-out innards of various books, movies and other games.

Of course none of this would be worth pointing out were it not for the fact that this title is being feted as an envelope pusher: the gameplay boasts an unprecedented level of immersion, with the H.U.D. and sub-menus operating in real-time; plus there’s a whole zero-gravity dynamic to play around with. Besides that, the production values are roof-bypassingly high: graphics and sound and all that are consistently impressive, and the whole thing’s just about as cinematic as hell, which seems to be the primary concern of games designers these days. Unfortunately, it’s cinematic in the increasingly pervasive sense of the word that connotes ‘spectacular’ or ‘eye-catching’ or just plain ‘loud’; a sense that makes no allowances for the different capacities of the gaming medium.

This approach to game design is currently most conspicuous in the Gears of War series, wherein the player is generally called upon to do no more than move forward periodically in order to activate the next action set-piece (basically like arcade rail-shooters, and now I think of it, also vaguely analogous to American football). Dead Space has a bit more to it than that, but there’s a prevailing feeling that game aspects such as the storyline and characterisation and resource management and equipment personalisation etc are all supplementary; the developer would be just as happy having the player passively witness a series of sensational audio-visual events, and is only making minimal concessions to the notions of interactivity/immersion/active involvement.