After Pressing Start: Dead Space
Horror and terror sound like interchangeable words. If the marketing departments behind slasher films are to be asked, they both fill up a movie poster pretty well. But to Devandra Varma, a Himalayan-born expert scholar of gothic literature, the distinction between the two couldn’t be more elegant.
“The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse.”
The first four minutes of Dead Space lack the presence of corpses, but by the fifth, there will be plenty of that. This is a game where the corpses stumble into you. But, before the game hands you an industrial laser cutter and informs you of the effectiveness of dislocating enemy limbs, there is darkness and quiet. It doesn’t matter that you’re in the vacuum of space. You can still smell the scent of the dead.
It all begins with you, Issac Clarke, who will very quickly become the universe’s least fortunate space engineer. Humanity’s greatest galactic achievement is a powerful mining ship, the USG Ishimura, and the crew has stopped answering the phone. The vessel has gone dark and you need to find out why.
It’s easily found, drifting among the scattered debris of a planet already split to its belly. But, like all stories of a rescue missions in space, something goes wrong. Three minutes in, and you and your crew are stranded in the Ishimura’s docking bay with a battered ship. Without alternative, your team heads deeper into the bleak, steel hallways to find some sign of life. But, no one answers your hails. The loading bay is littered with abandoned cargo. These first steps are reminiscent of being introduced to Bioshock’s Rapture and we all know that how well that went.
The elevator to the rest of the ship is sealed and as the resident mechanic, you begin working on a solution. It’s then that the lights go dark and are replaced by the dim swirl of orange hazards. Quarantine, the console in front of you reads. Your team draws weapons and their voices lose levity. You stand idly, impotent without a firearm or further commands, even as you watch a figure skulk the room.
There’s a cacophony of gunfire before you can identify the frame. It looks partially human, but it stabs your nameless pilot with arms that function like blades. A heartbeat monitor flatlines. There’s no way back into the room, even if you were stupid enough to want it. The best you can do is pace the glass as your team fires erratic bursts of gunfire and their sentences fall incomplete to each other’s screams.
That’s when they break through to your side. Your computer specialist, Kendra, yells for you to run and a door miraculously opens. The creatures are inches behind you as you enter the dark hallway. There’s no cutscene to theatrically display them for you. For a few moments of unbroken sprinting, whatever just tore your pilot in half, and maybe your whole crew, is just a twisted image in your mind. All that’s clear is the sound of its appendages scraping on the steel floors behind you.
You finally get a look at one – two, in fact – as you turn about in the elevator at the end of the hall. They are bones and blades in some combination with contorted flesh. There’s a human element to their figure – a stance and upright gait – but it’s lost in a bent torso and mangled joints. You press the button and the doors seem to move like a malfunctioning garage door, but manage to close in time. The piercing shrills of the soundtrack settle, the string section still humming like an engine just switched off.
But, it’s only a fraction of a second before the violins return, louder than before as one of the beings uses its appendages like two gangly crowbars and pries your door open. Weaponless and cornered, you try to frantically recall if the game has yet taught you any of the button commands. Is there a melee? A kick, perhaps? Maybe there was a gun in the hallway and you missed it. Your character shuffles, because you don’t know. The answer comes with a thud as the elevator doors slam closed again, slicing the creature in two.
That was minute seven. You haven’t fired a gun and, provided you ran with purpose, you’ve yet to come into contact with these walking corpses. You will, but it was the smell that had your breath first lodged in your throat. There is much to be scared of aboard the Ishimura. But, as you hear a noise around a corner or a flicker of shadow down a hall, it isn’t the images of the twisted monsters that flash into your head. It’s the smell. You never forget that smell.