Published on March 13th, 2013 | by Boman12l1
Dead Space 3: The Problem is on the Inside
There are plenty of reasons to be disappointed in Dead Space 3. The series has gone from being one of the best examples of modern game design, to swimming in mediocrity. Yes, new enemy types are kept to a minimum. Its item crafting system could have been a great addition to the game, if it was not so exploitative and unbalanced. Many of Dead Space’s interactive cut scenes return in greater numbers, playing out exactly how they did in Dead Space 2; however, they are less memorable this time around. At its core, the game plays fine and to its credit, players will not find slowdowns, poor frame rate, bad A.I., graphical clipping, low-res textures or the abundant glitches that normally plagues games dubbed “let downs.” Dead Space 3 suffers from another form of mediocrity: lazy storytelling. While this problem is not exclusive to Dead Space 3, it was an aspect the previous game in the series excelled in.
Dead Space 2, the series’ opus, was a masterpiece of set design, pacing, and variety. The crew at Visceral Games addressed the faults of the first game and refined the sequel into one of the best experiences of the generation. It may not have been Shakespearian literature, but Dead Space 2 told one tightly crafted story, that propelled its gameplay forward in natural and meaningful ways. The principle cast featured interesting characters with clear motivations. The environments throughout the game helped tell the story. Dead Space 3 features boring characters and bland environments. The game tries to force players to care, but it makes no attempt to connect players to its characters or story. Staged as the grand finale in the Isaac Clark trilogy, the stakes are supposed to be at their highest, but this is never communicated to the player.
Dead Space 3’s fails to establish a compelling internal conflict. It is something plenty of games fail to do and the reason why many video game narratives feel like characters are only moving from set piece to set piece. For any narrative to work and capture an audience, it must have both compelling internal and external conflicts. Often they will appear as two or more separate narratives that seem unrelated to one another. The external is always the big issue in the game (save the world) while the internal is normally smaller in scope and affects only one or two characters (How can I save the world if I keep forgetting to pick up eggs at the store?) It is only when characters solve their internal conflicts can they tackle the external problems. It is through these internal conflicts that players truly connect and learn about a narrative’s characters.
Having both forms of conflict is not enough. These conflicts must be clearly established. Dead Space 3 fails at laying down the basics and makes for another one of its shortcomings. Dead Space 2 made it a point early on to establish how much time had passed since the previous game and what Isaac was up to. Dead Space 3 leaves us with many questions early on: How many years have passed since Dead Space 2? When did Isaac and Ellie become a thing? Does Earth Gov blame him for the Titan station outbreak? How has Earth Gov responded to the fall of Titan station? Why is Earth Gov in shambles? Dead Space 3 often fails to establish its setting or characters and that makes it hard for players to have a vested interest in either.
The first image players see in Dead Space 2 is the supposed last transmission Isaac had with his deceased girlfriend Nicole. It is a simple conversation, but it has greater implications for the story. From there the game opens up. From the beginning, the stakes are made clear: Isaac is suffering from a rare form of dementia, stemming from his exposer to the Marker. Receiving transmissions from a woman name Daina, Isaac is told that three years have passed since he has been held by earth Gov and if he does not reach her quickly, his dementia will likely kill him. Dead Space 2’s opening works so well because it gives the player an excellent sense of urgency, while laying the foundations of its story. Isaac is invested early on. His conversation with Nicole may have been short, but teaches players about Isaac and foreshadows the coming confrontation. Isaac’s dementia is a viable reason for him to traverse Titan Station to find a cure, instead of looking for the nearest escape in the mist of another Necromorph outbreak. Daina does a good job of giving Isaac – the player- contextual information. Most of these elements are missing from Dead Space 3.
The beginning of Dead Space 3 fails to meaningfully invest Isaac into its conflict. After a short prologue, during a previous outbreak, on the ice Planet Tau Volantis; Dead Space 3 begins Isaac’s tale in his messy, one room apartment on the New Horizon Lunar Colony. Isaac appears lost in thought, staring at photographs of himself and Ellie Langford, another survivor from Dead Space 2. Soon after, he is jumped by Robert Norton and John Carver (the co-opt partner). They tell Isaac that they need him for a mission to destroy the Marker source. Isaac is anything other than willing, but his hand is forced to join them once the Church of Unitology starts bombing the colony and he is told Ellie is missing. The three fight through the streets and escape the colony. It is made clear Isaac does not want to be there, there is nothing in it for him. If the protagonist does not care, why should the player? This is the type of situation he has been looking to avoid. He could care less about Earth Gov or the Church. No one asked for his help, he is forced into it. For all intents, Ellie is supposed to be the motivating factor for Isaac, but that is not really the case here.
One of the major points of contention for the game’s narrative is the relationship between Isaac and Ellie – we truly learn little to nothing about them the entire game. Isaac has a photo of Ellie he keeps with him, but that honestly tells us nothing about the two. It does not help that it is two separate photos of Isaac and Ellie and not a picture of them together. For all we know, she could have given it to him as a reminder. Nothing at the end of the previous game pointed towards them being an item. More importantly, we never see or have any hints to what they were like as a couple. Why should the player care that Ellie has left Isaac? If the relationship was bad, it was bad! Sometimes things fall apart. But if you expect the player to feel sympathy, sadness, or sorrow for Isaac you have to at least show them a part of what he is missing; the good times and bad.
Players had clear context with his previous relationship with Nicole. Isaac was the one that encouraged her to take the position on the USG Ishimura, he feels guilt towards her death. This guilt would manifest in the form of hallucinations that would antagonize him throughout most of Dead Space 2. Given the opportunity, he chooses to save Ellie. In a small act of redemption, he makes sure Ellie does not end up in a similar situation. It is simple and touching. It may not be the most profound choice a character has made in a video game, but gives Isaac a nice arch. Ellie has one too. Players learn that Ellie’s survival is largely because of the actions of her friends. She shows sadness stemming from their sacrifices. Others are constantly giving up their lives so she can live. Isaac would do the same. Not wanting things to repeat, she ignores his pleads to escape and manages to rescue Isaac before Titan Station exploded.
Dead Space 3 seems to have forgotten about this moment. The only reasons given for Ellie and Isaac’s falling out are: One, he didn’t believe in her (no context given) and two, he didn’t want to go traveling around space destroying Markers. One of his defining moments was getting Ellie out of danger. Why would he willingly place her in danger hunting down Markers? Perhaps even worse, their poorly constructed relationship in Dead Space 3 is based on Ellie being recast in the role of the damsel. In Dead Space 2, she was fiercely independent, never having to be saved by Isaac. They both played critical roles in facilitating their escape from Titan Station. Even after Stross stabbed her in the eye, Ellie was able to fight him off. Now she is simply the object of Isaac’s desire and only after she is rescued can she return his affection. When the two get back together, there is no payoff for Isaac or the player, only an old trope playing out on an ice planet. Many of the game’s “dramatic” moments fall flat because there is no build, no subtext, no base, only characters going through the motions. Because the game fails to establish anything about the two early on, their reunion means nothing to the player. It is hard to care for characters you know nothing about.
The same can be said for the supporting cast of Dead Space 3. Isaac’s ragtag group of Marker hunters consist of: Ellie’s new boo, Mean Soldier man, Bald Black Lady, Isaac’s old Boo, Female ship co-pilot, Old Man who is injured and White man who is pissed at Isaac for no reason. Not much is known about these people, not even their job functions in the context of the mission. When they start dying off, their deaths are not tragic but meaningless. Why should players care that Buckle freezes to death when they are still trying to figure out what his role was? He was introduced as a liability and no effort was made to demonstrate how his contributions would aid the mission and how he not being there would make Isaac’s job harder. Nathan Stross, one of the main supporting cast members of Dead Space 2, role was defined early on. He knew how to unlock the secrets of the Marker and destroy it. It was clear Stross was losing his grip on reality, but it was a gamble Isaac had to take. Stross’ death was impactful because he was a character who was with Isaac almost from the very beginning and up to that point, was the only one who knew how to destroy the Marker. His struggle with madness reflected Isaac’s and was an example of what could happen if Isaac did not succeed. Stross’ death directly affected Isaac both internally and externally.
There is one character that has drawn the bulk of Dead Space 3’s criticisms, the game’s primary antagonist, Jacob Danik. The first two games presented the Church of Unitology as knowing more about the true nature of the Markers than they appeared to let on. The inner circle of the church was covering their tracks as much as Earth Gov. Danik does not come off as a member of the inner circle of the church, but a simple man following what the church has been feeding him all these years, only taken to the extreme. Truthfully, he seems like a cheap villain ripped straight from the Die Hard films –a one dimensional terrorist with dark sunglasses and a heavy British accent (his accent is supposed to make him more threating).
The antagonist of the previous game, Hans Tiedmann, was a constant thorn in Isaac’s side. He frequently impeded his progress and truly made players’ life hell. When players were finally able to eliminate Tiedmann, it made for a cathartic moment. However, Tiedmann was not a simple villain, whose sole purpose was to screw over Isaac. It is clear every decision Tiedmann made was with a heavy hand. Tiedmann’s true motivation was his desire to protect Titan Station and its citizens. He did not necessarily have anything against Isaac, as he showed sternness, remorse and even admiration towards him. Isaac was too big of a liability and he could not let him succeed. Because of that, Isaac and Tiedmann’s conflict was unavoidable. For very different reasons, these men could not let the other succeed.
While Isaac could be is a direct threat to Danik, the same cannot be said the other way around. Because Isaac is not necessarily invested in the conflict, Danik cannot antagonize him in the same way Tiedmann did. Rarely is Danik the source of Isaac’s external problems and the two rarely cross paths. To succeed Isaac does not need to defeat or come into contact with Danik. The two are far removed from each other and there is no tension or conflict building between them. It is solely one sided on Danik’s behalf for most of the game.
A large part of any Dead space game’s story is not only told with its characters, but through its set design. Much of the series’ distinctive atmosphere comes from experiencing the horrors of a Necromorph outbreak in the middle of a large population center. Dead Space 2 did a tremendous job with its level design. No two portions of the game looked alike. Isaac’s journey took him through a Unitology cathedral, a solar station and even a reunion with the ISG Ishimura. Each area was distinctive and helped push the game’s narrative forward. The Unitology cathedral was especially memorable as its architecture was both beautiful and haunting. As Isaac travels through its halls, he learned about the church and its dark practices. Beauty gave way to horror and players were glad when they escaped.
Dead Space 3’s primary location is the Ice Planet Tau Volantis, both in its orbit and on its surface. The site of a previous outbreak some 200 years prior, much of the game’s set design is base around efficient military engineering. That in itself is not a problem, what makes it an issue is when the same design assets are being reused repeatedly. Rinse and repeat seems to be the motto for Dead Space 3. There are numerous sections of the game that use the same level layout, only flipped so players are clearing out the corridors in reverse order. The new optional missions are the worst offenders. Not only are players clearing the same rooms, but the repetition makes world building nearly impossible. They seldom add to the external conflict, expand the narrative in interesting ways or reward players with anything worthwhile, outsides of resources for the crafting system.
Dead Space 3’s set design is at best functional – it gets the job done. Given the setup for the narrative, it could have been utilized better to show players what life on that colony was like some 200 years ago. Instead it is just that place Isaac has to go. There are frequent comments about it being old and the doors must now be all opened manually, but there is little in the environment that teaches players about the lives, hopes, and dreams of the soldiers, dig teams and scientists that died on the planet, outsides of rehashing the same Marker rhetoric left in text logs that have been heard before.
Dead Space 3 fails because it tries to propel its story around an external conflict only. The world ending is not enough. It is the people that populate that world that make it interesting. Their personal struggles and conflicts are what decide whether or not the world – these characters – are worth saving. If players have no relationships to your characters, then all their external problems are pointless. Dead Space 2 was a step in the right direction. Isaac’s personal struggle related directly with the events around him. Unless he was able to face his own personal demons, he would not be able to destroy the Marker. Destroying Markers has never been Isaac’s main goal nor is that what defines him. It is Isaac’s personal struggle that compels the player and story forward. With out that, you are left with a hollow experience.