Fear and Loathing and Dead Space

June 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

I recently played Dead Space 2 and, full disclosure, enjoyed it. It’s fun, chilling, and so garishly over the top it makes me smile. If you haven’t played any games in the series, the alien zombies (because the only way to make zombies these days is to do it IN SPACE) have to be killed by gorily dismembering them. I tried several times to do it cleanly, but the game frowns upon tidiness. If you’re not a fan of bloody explosions, then I would stay away. If you are, though, it’s a fun romp that’s got a decent story, a very atmospheric setting, and a cool protagonist who is also an engineer.

Doing four years of math never looked so cool.

What Dead Space 2 isn’t, is scary.

I was thinking about this recently because by trade, I’m not really a horror writer. I enjoy it, much as I enjoy horror movies, but I don’t have a  particular attachment to it as opposed to say, fantasy (OH MY GOD DANCES WITH DRAGONS BREATHEBREATHEBREATHE). But, being as I am writing horror and unable to look at anything without breaking it down (deconstruction is sooooo post-modern), I asked myself why I like horror movies, and then I wondered why things are scary.

I mentioned the atmosphere, which is an excellent example of making the setting do the work for you. It takes place mostly on a dark, cramped spaceship where enemies come out of tight spots to attack you, blood covers the walls, and a few survivors to freak you out and waste your ammo. The coolest part is actually going into vacuum, where the sound cuts out except for your character’s breathing. It’s tense, it’s exciting, and it can make you jump out of your pants (which you probably already soiled).

But what got me about Dead Space 2, as opposed to number one, is that they go for the cheap scares. Any monster movie worth its salt will have the shock moment that gets the audience to yell, but you have to move beyond that to actually be consistently frightening and genuinely scary. Watch this scene. That is a genuinely scary movie that has little to no shock moments. Being unable to understand until the last second what is going on is exactly the point.

So you want to see what I mean? Look at this:

Ahhh! That's kind of scary!

That’s a Zombie, the standard enemy. They’re made of people, as all good zombies are, but aren’t really that super-scary. So Dead Space says, “Aha! So you know what’s scarier?”

Ahhh! That's scarier!

ZOMBIE BABIES. But in Dead Space 2, that isn’t enough, so you get:

Ahh, it's scary! Well, sort of.

ZOMBIE CHILDREN. But these don’t look that scary, and in game terms, you’re a juggernaut with a plasma cutter by this point. Hell, you can just stomp the zombies into paste and yes, it is easier because they are children. No, none of them have candy. So what about it sets your teeth on edge? I suppose it should be the imagery and the mental idea that you’re stomping a kid’s head off. But…you’ve spent the last few hours doing just that, and you also have high-powered weaponry. You even have magical health packs in case you get scratched. How can you not be a little jaded? So Dead Space 2 decides, finally, that you need to be proper scared. I rubbed my hands together. I was eager. Come at me, I said. LET ME SEE YOUR TRUE FORM. So you face this:

I see. Well, ahh, I guess.

MORE ZOMBIE BABIES. THAT EXPLODE. I was disappointed, to say the least. This isn’t something you haven’t seen before, it isn’t something you haven’t crunched before, isn’t something you haven’t overcome before. Just stomp stomp stomp your way to victory. In terms of scares, it feels cheap. Of course you’re going to be bothered by zombie babies, but you’re inured to it by this point. If you had a movie where there was nothing but jumps around every corner, you’d be scared because it gets unpleasant to walk around corners. Not because of legitimately scary things that lurk behind them. Not because of that naggling little dread that you’re going to end up like your father no matter how hard you try not to. Not because you are reminded of his breath as he did those things to you. Not because you wish you had a bigger blanket to cover your toes or else the thing out there can get you. Not because you’re half-naked and terrified how easy it all was.

See what I did there? Cheap thrills. It wasn’t thought-out, it wasn’t well planned, hell, it wasn’t even designed to scare beyond grabbing a visceral reaction out of you. And that’s what a lot of Dead Space 2 was like. You weren’t being scared because it was scary, you were being scared because the game wanted so damn much for you to be scared. Why else have a school filled with zombie babies? Is that any more or less scary than a tower filled with adult zombies?

Now, some of you might be scared by this and that’s ok. See above: strokes, folks, etc (aww yeah stroke folk). But the problem is that they wanted to do the same thing to scare you both times. Is making scary things just a question of suggest, don’t tell? Of leaving the monster unseen? Of delving so deep into humanity’s flaws that you can’t come back? I don’t know, but I do know that it takes more than a platoon of zombie babies.

ESPECIALLY when you have a plasma rifle.

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