Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Dead Space

I keep not writing about Dead Space because I keep thinking to myself that I'll go back and play it, because I was really enjoying it up to the point that I got to. And then I remember that my last save has fuck all ammo or cash and is two rooms away from some double-hard wall-based monster that requires hardcore precision shooting and I get scared again and then I think about how much of a failure I am and how my life is meaningless and incomplete.

Yeah, I know. I really ought to be saving that kind of overreaction for something a bit more special, like Rainbow Islands (never got past World 2 on my own). Dead Space is just Zombies on a Spaceship; blah blah Resident Evil blah blah. The thing is, it's really good zombies in space, and the change in setting, in palette and in character design really is refreshing.

It is also one of the most seamless attempts to model a realistic space I think I've played. Whilst remaining functionally linear, the linearity in Dead Space feels justified, and is rarely enforced counter intuitively. Partly this is due to the setting - a spaceship makes a very good haunted house because death on exit is not merely implied, it is necessary and unavoidable without the need for extra narrative work or distracting exposition (one of the things that works so well in Alien); a malfunctioning spaceship is even better, as bulkheads and corridors are far more convincing constraints than the standard insurmountable waist high fence, or the need to stick to the mission rather than just piss off out of there that seems to pervade the later Resident Evil games. Partly however this is due to the cleverness and the light touch with which the game leads you around the sometimes relatively open areas, making you fix this or switch on that is made to feel necessary, rather than arbitrary. You are telling a story as you do it, not just collecting key cards.

This cleverness extends to the puzzle solving elements of the game (all survival horror games seem to have puzzle solving elements. It's apparently a thing). Again, the puzzles tend to be integrated into the environment in a much more naturalistic way, they feel like part of the world, rather than elements of a game.

That integration of game elements to world design has always been a problem as games become more realistic in design - there has to be an understandable, and recognisable challenge, but very often that seems to break one out of the world. It's in the curse of the quicktime sequence: 'press X not to die'; it's in those tedious gate puzzles, where apparently the in-game designers of some factory didn't think one switch per gate was sensible enough; it's in the blocks and crates that litter all sorts of locations and only ever slide in proscribed paths or areas.

The other big problem with realistic game design, and another place where Dead Space won out for me, has always been distance and time. Big, open world games like Fallout 3 do manage a very strong sense of realism, and they tend to be pretty good at not imposing the sort of arbitrary puzzles I just talked about onto the player, but they have the big problem of space. The space between places, while still vast, has to be necessarily contracted, or else you would notice it as being immensely boring, rather than just kind of tedious. Similarly, if you want to differentiate between day and night the cycle needs to be  sped up to something that is likely to occur within a single session of gaming.
This is something older or more abstracted games are much more capable of getting away with, with different maps at different scales, turns, or simply the fact that because it doesn't look real, you don't expect it to act real. Now, the best games tend to have these contraction effects pretty fine tuned, so that you don't notice it unless you are looking to, but still, you can understand why, when making a game about sea travel and harnessing the wind the Zelda series went all cell shaded for Wind Waker - that game is full of scale-shifts and time contraction, as well as a setting that, played real, would probably end up very dismal-looking indeed.

But yeah, all this started off with the fact that I've never actually finished Dead Space, but also haven't quite brought myself to trade it in. If only there was a game that atmospheric, that integrated and that real-feeling but that wasn't that pant-shittingly scary. Maybe I'll just go play Kinectimals or something.

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