Dead Space 3: Fearing Fear Itself
E3 has come, disappointed and gone since my last post. Sure, it wasn’t all bad, but it seems like most of us had higher expectations than we should have had. Nowhere was this quite as clear as in the case of my own reaction to the announcement of Dead Space 3 and its inclusion of co-operative play.
I was totally fuming when I saw the big reveal of the game. It seemed like yet another tacking on of a checkbox feature that made absolutely no sense other than as an attempt to cater to anyone who could conceivably want to shoot alien monsters. But, as I say, this reaction on my part was based on unjustified expectations. Because what is co-op if not the logical continuation of the change in direction that happened between Dead Space and Dead Space 2?
I do feel as I should be forgiven for not connecting the dots quite so quickly. I say this because if Dead Space 3’s co-op mode was just another few steps down the same path that the previous game had already travelled, then the thesis I wrote in that one post had a pretty major flaw. That flaw was that I assumed that EA were still trying to make a horror game, and that their inability to retain the core components that made Dead Space a scary game came down to not knowing any better.
To be fair it’s really difficult to isolate any one perfect recipe for creating a scary game and this is made obvious by the fact that most fans of scary games seem to have a different idea of which game is the scariest and why. This applies to most, if not all, video game aesthetics in my opinion. However, as a reductionist game designer I strongly believe that there are certain design choices that directly counteract the ambiences and dynamics of a given aesthetic, and that excluding those “incorrect” designs is much more important than making sure that to account for all the “correct” or “neutral” ones. In that sense I still stand by my analysis of Dead Space 2.
What I no longer believe, though, is that the aesthetic shift of Dead Space 2 was anything other than purposeful on behalf of EA. The rationale they have presented for the co-op mode in Dead Space 3 more or less proves that. Basically EA learned that there were a lot of players that were more likely to endure playing through the first two games in the series when someone else was keeping them company. And to be honest there is nothing wrong with wanting more players to enjoy and, of course, buy your game. The one thing I do regret is that co-op wasn’t included sooner.
The reason I say this is quite simple. There is redundancy in the dynamics that co-op gameplay will bring to Dead Space 3. If the co-op is indeed the next logical step in a long-term roadmap that was established immediately after Dead Space was deemed too scary, then it stands to reason that the changes introduced in Dead Space 2 – the ones that I wish hadn’t been – represented some sort of halfway house towards the ultimate end.
Now anyone who knows me also knows that I won’t shut up about the virtues of reducible complexity in game design and development. But for all the good it does in ensuring that progress is constantly being evaluated to ensure that it’s consistent with the ultimate goal of the project I really don’t think it’s a good idea to apply that same concept to the overall aesthetic or “feel” of a game. I’m all for being inclusive, but there is a fine line between inclusion and mutual exclusion (making something that is inoffensive, but ultimately bland, to everybody). Inclusion is for those times where there is no good reason to make a potentially divisive, exclusive decision. This is something that I think Dead Space 2 did poorly for my tastes, and it could have been avoided if the people who wanted someone to hold their hand while playing had gotten their co-op sooner. Maybe then all the other changes to the aesthetics would have been left on the cutting room floor. I would have had little problem with Dead Space 2 being a game where both extremes were represented, instead of a homogenized experience that wasn’t scary at all to me, but obviously still too scary for the people for whom co-op is now finally being added.
And the ultimate tragedy is that now that co-op is being added there is no going back for the single-player experience. The aesthetic shift inflicted on the single-player game with Dead Space 2 will in all likelihood remain in that same game mode in Dead Space 3 (not least because of the hot-joining, or drop-in-drop-out, nature of the co-op system). What this will amount to, I think, is a game that ultimately ends up satisfying fewer people than its predecessors. Those who, like me, were disappointed by the reduced scariness of Dead Space 2 won’t be reconverted by Dead Space 3. Those who thought that both Dead Space and Dead Space 2 were too scary may only take a chance on Dead Space 3 if they know it has co-op and if they have someone to play it with (this group may be very small indeed; it feels more likely that these people will have given up on the franchise altogether by now). Finally we have the group for whom the change in direction offered by Dead Space 2 made the game “just right” for their tastes. But judging by the sales difference between Dead Space and Dead Space 2 it would seem that this group isn’t all that big. Granted, my source for this is vgchartz.com – EA most likely have more accurate numbers, and theirs may well point in the other direction.
I guess we’ll have to see how it all turns out in the end. But it’s very saddening that horror seems to be so hard to sell. Not only that, it also seems like nobody even wants to try to move the genre forward. Whether they are right or wrong, the only way that EA could imagine making more people want to play their horror franchise is by making it less scary, and that’s essentially an indictment of the whole horror genre. Yes, there are still brave souls out there who are making less-expensive horror games that can afford to be niche because of better profit margins. But I quite like the big-budget, futuristic, Alien-y aesthetic of the Dead Space franchise, and if even EA – with all their resources – can’t figure out how to make that kind of game viable, then there is very little hope that anyone else will want to try either.
So here’s hoping that Dead Space 3 falls flat on its ass, and that it’s demonstrably because of the inclusion of co-op and the toned-down scariness. If that happens, EA might reconsider their pandering ways. Granted, they might also cancel the franchise, but I’m willing to risk it. Because if Dead Space 3 is a massive hit I can’t help but think that the next logical step is for Dead Space 4 to feature carjacking, bullet time and Nolan North.