I’m playing through Dead Space again, what with the sequel coming at the end of the month, and getting one of the graphic novels for Christmas. I’d forgotten that there was actually quite a fleshed out universe there, with all the Unitology and shock rings and government interference. All the good stuff that makes a world rich; Religion, Technology and Politics. Naturally, all of that is only hinted at, alluded to, in the original game, but it’s there, and I like a world that feels like something that might exist beyond the space corridor I’m currently dismembering space mutant zombies in.
This is the second time I’ve played it through, and it’s made me realise two things, relatively quickly. The first is that it’s much, much more scary to begin with. Not only is it all a mystery what the hell has gone on here, but you don’t really have the skills or weapons to deal with the necromorphs in any way, shape or form. In fact, the first encounter you have with them, right at the start, is just you getting cut off from your crew, and them shouting ‘RUN!’ at your already sprinting back. You don’t even have the Plasma Cutter yet, and so you’re entirely powerless. It’s terrifying, and when you finally get to the elevator and see those doors close, only for one of the Necromorphs to pull open the doors, starting to lunge at you, is pretty nerve wracking. Naturally, the doors to the lift slam shut, neatly (not very neatly) dissecting the poor mutant bastard and leaving you to shove your heart back down your throat.
However, as the game progresses, you get more guns, more upgrades to the guns, and an understanding of where to shoot and when, and suddenly they’re not scary any more. Occasionally they can get you to jump, when they drop in behind you and suddenly startle you, but even charring their skin and increasing the number of shots required to sever their limbs doesn’t really add much; if anything, it detracts, forcing you to labouriously dissect each one before it finally stops twitching. When, around the mid point, the armoured necromorphs arrive, they’re still not genuinely scary; the first one you fight is in a huge space, easily allowing you to sidestep its clumsy charges, and rain down hurt on its exposed rear. Sure, the second one might pop out in an enclosed space, but you’re adept; you know the ropes.
And then, just as you’ve grown complacent, the Regenerator bursts out of a test tube and comes for you. Naturally, you cut off its legs (always legs first, slows them down, makes them easier to manage), and then go for an arm shot. Pop goes the limb, and you turn away, looking for any ammo that might have dropped off the bugger. Except, it’s not quite dead. It’s still twitching, and then a fresh set of limbs burst out of the severed sockets. Yeah, that’s terror.
And so fear really starts to settle in, during that section. Suddenly you’re not in power any more. Suddenly you’re running, and not systematically clearing levels. And, to compound issues, every fucking door requires a confirmation button press, when all you want to do is GOGOGOGETOUTOFHERERIGHTNOW. It’s a wonder they didn’t force you to do some sort of ‘fumble the key into the lock’ minigame, followed by ‘drop the key’ minigames, and then ‘lose the key, all the while swearing and sweating and whimpering and dying’. It’s these little stutters, obstacles that aren’t really obstacles, but just enough to slow you down and think that, at any second, you might get a huge fleshy boney blade in your spine.
It gives the game momentum, when it had been plodding along. It’s the knife in the horse’s flank, spurring it onwards to a new burst of speed. And the worst part of it all is that its the worst part. And I don’t mean that from a game critic’s perspective; technically, it’s brilliant, because it suddenly inverses the power role, and changes the pace, for just long enough to be thrilling. But from a player’s perspective? God, I dreaded that part. It’s the powerlessness of it. The vulnerability. All the power nodes in the world don’t make a jot of difference; if he gets me, he gets me. I just have to pray that none of the doors I need to get through are locked, or I don’t get lost. Of course I don’t, but my fear addled brain doesn’t know that.
So I guess I’m raising my glass to that horrible bastard, the Regenerator, because he provided a few moments of hysterical fear in a game that was slowly removing the fear and replacing it with confidence. He’s an exclamation point in the middle of a sentence, feeling wrong and right at the same time. And when you find something to break the monotony of space corridors*, that’s got to be a good thing.
*I actually quite like Dead Space’s space corridors. They look dangerous, all knobbly and sharp. That’s why I keep in the middle.