Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Ab Initio

(Post contains mild spoilers for Chapter 1 of Dead Space 2. Abandon hope all ye, etc.)

When I taught high school English in a former life, I used to tell my students that if a book didn't grab them in the first 15 pages, it was probably the book's fault, not theirs. Unless it was one of the books I assigned in class, in which case it was definitely their fault.

A strong opening chapter is just as essential for a game with any pretense of narrative. Crafting a successful opening isn't an easy feat in any medium, but games have the added complication of needing to teach the player how to play in the first several minutes. I've learned to appreciate it when designers can insert tutorial elements into their opening moments with dexterity and thematic relevance, as opposed to the wanton extra-diegetic shoehorning most games make us endure.

Similarly, bogging us down in long cutscenes or copious text in the opening is an equally solid way to guarantee we won't give a crap about your game's story. We want to play right away. We want to inhabit the game world, not simply view it or read about it. This is especially important in horror games like the Dead Space franchise, where so much of the tension is dependent on the player's reaction to in-game sights and sounds. The backstory is relevant only inasmuch as it informs the conflict of the moment. (That's why I think the franchise masters have made the right call in shunting most of the series' lore to other media like novels and comics instead of burdening the games with it.)

So I was pleasantly surprised by the in medias res opening sequence of Dead Space 2. After a cutscene that establishes multiple conflicts in relatively short order—Isaac is still hallucinating his dead girlfriend, he's being interrogated in some kind of quasi-fascist insane asylum—we're thrust right into the action as an attempt to rescue Isaac is thwarted by a Necromorph outbreak. So we have an unreliable, possibly insane narrator, an implied shady government/corporate conspiracy, and an alien invasion. And who are these people trying to break Isaac out, and why? What's happened to land him in this facility? We're not yet five minutes in and already several conflicts have been established. So far, so good. But then things get interesting.

Once Isaac is released from the gurney he's been strapped to, he's forced to flee the ward as Necromorphs jump out from around corners and burst through ducts. Cue the frantic escape sequence. But here's the fun part: he's still tied up in a straight jacket. A prompt instructs us to hold down the left shoulder button to run. The straight jacket conceit makes this particular piece of scaffolding feel natural while also playing on that horror movie trope, the powerless protagonist.

I actually intentionally failed this sequence a few times so I could indulge my curiosity about the environmental storytelling in the surrounding area. Wheelchairs and debris litter the hallway. Other inmates in adjoining cells convulse in their straight jackets while the Necromorphs attack. (Mrs. JPG posited two good questions: "Can you save any of them?" and "Wait, why are they in straight jackets if they're already locked in cells?" The answers are, spoilers, "No," and "Beats the hell out of me.") Some inmates have scrawled cryptic messages on the walls (sigh); but instead of using blood, they've apparently used their own excrement (...yay?). Which, from what I understand from Lockup, is fairly realistic.

More remarkable than the fact that I could fail this opening sequence—I suspect few games in this genre allow you to die almost immediately after first taking control of your avatar—was that it was accomplishing so many objectives at once: Teaching the player a key ability; building a horror movie sense of powerlessness; setting up multiple conflicts; establishing setting; introducing enemies; and hinting at backstory. For a short sequence, it's quite elegant.

The rest of the first chapter contains additional flourishes, including some outstanding sound design and lighting effects, a couple predictable but effective "thing goes bump in the dark" scares, and a few nifty claustrophobic tunnel-crawling sequences. There's also some fun environmental storytelling to come across, like the interrogation video of another prisoner or the Marker made out of toothpicks in the arts & crafts room. The jury's still out for me on the newly-speech-capable Isaac—mostly because the things he's said so far are pretty generically action-movie dopey—but I am intrigued to see what happens with the "dementia" mechanic, if managing Isaac's growing insanity will become an Amnesia-like challenge.

What I'd really like to see, and what I'm sure Dead Space 2 won't give me because it's a big budget AAA title that needs to move lots of units, is a high-flying freak flag. I want the game to disorient me more, to be more Stanley Kubrick than Ridley Scott. The power of the in medias res device is that it forces the audience to play catch-up, to use their imagination to fill in gaps, make logical leaps, and interrogate details. With a well-designed world, that can make for a much more enjoyable experience. The horror genre allows for a lot of creativity in that sense. Here's hoping Dead Space 2 can deliver.


  1. Thanks a lot, JP. I'm over the top now. I might actually have to go spend American dollars on this game, instead of Goozex points.

    I had a blast with Dead Space. Not even in the smirking, condescending way that I usually enjoy big-budget games destined to be triple-A smashes—for such games are the senators' sons of the gaming world, and inspire in me much resentment. Dead Space was a fun shooter with a strong gimmick, a taught narrative, an underrepresented genre setting (space sans marines), and a clear awareness of its horror forebears in both games and film.

    As you point out, Visceral seems to understand that cutscenes are often most effective when they focus on the things that games do not do well (conversation, pacing) rather than the things they do (balls out action). Many developers never learned this ::cough Kojima::. The combination of confident cinematic presentation and clever environmental storytelling was really effective.

    Slagging off Scientology also didn't hurt, if only because it felt brave in an EA-published title. Isaac's motivations were the only ones that mattered in the first game, so the twin political and religious conspiracies were really just levers to set the artifact of doom rolling down the space-hill (

    I think you're right to identify the unreliable narrator-cum-player mindfuck as the weakest aspect of the franchise. Not because it's out of place, but because it needs to be explored in greater depth. Videodrome isn't scary because some guy's head explodes, or because James Woods grows a vagina on his stomach (OK, that's a little disturbing): it's scary because we can't tell where his madness begins and ends, and thus where ours does.

    Of course, that's a tall order for a game whose marketing campaign was "your mom will fuckin' hate it!"

  2. Max, you'll be glad to know Dead Space 2 doesn't veer too far into X-Files conspiracy theory territory, at least halfway through. The artifact of doom (love that!) is again most likely a MacGuffin, and although nothing particularly interesting has happened so far with Isaac's episodes of dementia, the game seems to be promising a payoff later on. Dead Space 2 again plants itself very firmly in the action-horror genre, leaning much more toward Aliens than Lost Highway. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Aliens was a killer flick. I just didn't want to have a three-hour debate about it afterward.

    The production value of the original Dead Space was very high, and the sequel's is even more impressive. They've excised some of the minor annoyances, too, like having to refill your kinesis meter or saving space for extra oxygen tanks. The challenge level is still there, although I think the level design is better than the original's: In the first game I often felt like I died unfairly, whereas in the sequel I may fail the same sequence multiple times, but I can always pinpoint where I messed up. Moving the setting away from the cramped confines of the spaceship was a smart move.

    As for the Scientology analogue, although EA will deny it forever, it's very much there, and thank goodness for that; it lends the story some fun subtext. You'll learn more about Unitology in this game, although the storytelling is again strongest when it's environmental and not direct. I get the sense they could have pushed the envelope a lot further had they really wanted to stick it to Tom Cruise & Co., but that's perhaps a bit beyond their purview as blockbuster shooter game designers.

    As for the marketing campaign: Have you seen UI designer Dino Ignacio's mom's reaction? The editing here is classic:

  3. I think you'll be a bit disappointed where Isaac's dementia leads -- I thought, for everything else the game gets right, Visceral played it safe with the insanity. The typicality of the condition is as hokey and predictably go-to as his dialogue. Personally, it didn't take away from my overall impression of Dead Space 2, but certain things intruded on the moment-to-moment wow. You'll definitely have to follow up here.