Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
Dead Space 2 Is No Resident Evil 4

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 15 Feb 2011 12:00
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Holding my nose and picking through the comments on my Dead Space 2 review, I'm seeing a lot of argument over what the game is "intending" to be. Is it survival horror, or psychological horror, or action horror, or hammer horror or what? Some argue that its over-the-top gore means it's not trying to be serious, but I don't believe that. If it's not trying to be serious horror, what's with the soundtrack and the environment design? There are moments (and one moment in particular involving an eyeball and something that does not belong near an eyeball) that are quite genuinely unnerving.

Really, though, the argument isn't the issue. What is the issue is the fact that people can argue over the game's "intention," which implies flat out that the game has failed to bring across a consistent tone, another example of the lack of discipline that now seems to universally affect triple-A games. The eye thing is an example of gore carrying weight and effectiveness, like the finger removal in Heavy Rain, but if the game is supposed to be about the constant meaningless gore going on everywhere else, then that makes the eye thing out of place. And frankly, I'm still unclear on what the whole point of the eye thing was, plot-wise, besides someone thought it would be cool to gratuitously throw in.

Despite Isaac's tendency to spout action hero one-liners throughout the game's second half, I don't buy that it isn't trying to be serious because I know there is such a thing as light-hearted horror, and this isn't it. It's a category in which I include films like Evil Dead 2, American Werewolf In London, or Peter Jackson's Braindead (Dead-Alive in the US) which manage to be both funny and disturbing. Resident Evil 4 also comes to mind, for want of a gaming example, a lot of the gameplay of which Dead Space borrows. And you know what underlines my lukewarm opinion of Dead Space? Even though Resident Evil 4 was unashamedly trying to be a bit silly in a B-movie kind of way, it's still scarier than Dead Space.

Although RE4 subscribes to the exciting action horror lack of subtlety that some parties are dubiously arguing is Dead Space's intention, RE4 still retains enough subtlety at its core to be unnerving. While you do at times have to kill giant scorpion men with exploding barrels and action movie somersaults, for the most part you fight enemies that look human. Dead-eyed Innsmouth-look humans who occasionally sprout tentacles from their neck stumps, but humans nonetheless, wielding farming implements and jabbering in slightly iffy Spanish. The human element is what matters. Horror is virtually by definition about inflicting misfortune on others to stir our instinctual sympathy. There's even a post-credits sequence in RE4 showing how the innocent villagers were slowly transformed into the nightmare they became by the machinations of the evil cult, and it's actually quite an unexpectedly heart-rending sequence.

Which in itself may be another example of awkward tonal shift, but comparing the Necromorphs to the Ganados I see in Dead Space a game that's just trying way too hard, a ham-fisted attempt to get under my skin that completely doesn't understand the principles, like psychological horror as attempted by Michael Bay. It's just cranking things up to 11 without the benefit of editors, like piling so much kindling onto a newly-sparked campfire that you snuff out the flame. Humans turn into necromorphs virtually instantaneously, there's no sense that the flesh is resisting the horrific transformation, they just pop out of their skins like they've been waiting all day for the opportunity. And they scream in your face. If there was anything still recognizably human about them, if they had intact vocal chords that scream or beg for death like an actual person in pain, that might have touched something, but they make the same noise every video game monster makes - a nondescript ear-splitting roar made by leaning too hard on your mixing desk.

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