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When I sat down to write this article, I intended to write a list of things that would make a perfect survival-horror game. It only took me about half of it to realize that I kept bringing up Dead Space over and over again. Why try to create a template for future survival-horror games when I already have the perfect example right in front of me?
Older games in the genre (mostly those on the original PlayStation) used what are referred to as “tank controls,” meaning that pushing left and right rotates your character on the spot, and only by pushing up can you move forward. This often meant getting stuck on corners or furniture and made it hard to get away quickly.
Dead Space opted to go with a control scheme similar to Resident Evil 4, but it made some smart changes like allowing you to shoot and move at the same time. This makes everything feel much tighter and responsive. Unlike early survival-horror games where I fear the controls more than the enemies, Dead Space makes me feel like my deaths are my own fault.
It seems like one of the reasons these games offer such poor controls is because they have such poorly designed enemies. This artificially keeps the tension high, but in a way that is more frustrating than fun. The developers at Visceral Games were smart enough to not only fix the controls, but to also make the enemies more frightening.
Speaking of, the Necromorphs are some of my favorite video game monsters of all time. They are quick as a cat, very hard to kill without proper aim, and extremely deadly if they get to you. Their design is appropriately disgusting as well, with flesh tumors, mouths that open much too wide for comfort, and even long proboscises that bury into their victims. Truly terrifying.
Another very divisive concept in the games of this genre is inventory management. Having to juggle ammo, first-aid sprays, and key items makes players think hard about using resources, but it can get really annoying when you have to backtrack for a single key or a puzzle piece.
Dead Space simplifies this with its lack of any keys or puzzle objects in the inventory. This leaves you free to use your space for important things like ammo and health. It cuts down the item management to the truly important things but still manages to maintain the balancing act of having to drop precious ammo for health or vice versa. As the game progresses, you get more inventory spaces and it becomes less of a problem, but I still feel this is how future survival-horror games should approach it.
The absolute most important thing in a survival-horror game, without any doubt in my mind, is the atmosphere. This is where Dead Space truly shines. Brilliant lighting effects, clever jump scares (or fake jump scares), and incredibly detailed and massive environments make the Ishimura (the space ship the game takes place on) a surprisingly creepy place to traverse.
Also worth mentioning is the fantastic sound design. Players have no choice but to listen to the hissing pipes and buzzing engines, the chilling Necromorph growls and screams, the crunch and snap of enemy limbs as you stomp them to death, and the protagonist’s screams and groans as he gets attacked. My favorite is when you are out in a vacuum and you can only hear his breathing and nothing else. Top to bottom, the sound design is impeccably done.
These two things together make up so much of what I like about Dead Space. It brought back memories of walking down that hallway in the police station in Resident Evil 2 and practically crapping myself when the crows break through the windows. I can’t believe that RE2 ever affected me that way when I look at it now, but I feel that Dead Space will always impress me with its atmosphere, no matter how far we go with video games.
It is this enjoyment of the first two Dead Space games that makes me very anxious about the third. EA seems to be pushing for an action focus — which is certainly something the games already had — but I hope it doesn’t get in the way of what made those first two games great.
Even if EA manages to completely ruin Dead Space 3, at least we have the original as the perfect template for what makes a modern survival-horror game. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for one of my favorite genres if others follow its example.