Flashbacks and Archetypes

5 Feb

I recently started playing Dead Space (the first one, which I’d never gotten around to playing, despite being interested in doing so), and it’s created a fun kind of nostalgia in addition to telling me a lot of things about how rapidly games have progressed as a cultural medium.

I’m not all that far into the game yet, given that I currently lead the busy life of an academic-slash-circus-performer, but thus far Dead Space has been summoning fond memories I have of cooperatively playing through System Shock 2, first with my husband, and then with the “usual” crowd (with whom I also play Gears and other things). In terms of the surprisingly abandoned ship; the creepy zombie-like-converted-human-things who appear to be suffering from a bizarre genetic virus that’s somehow connected to a religious cult-like-thing; the empty labs and hallways with artful blood spatters on the walls; even the spontaneous “surprise” victims getting eviscerated through a window that I can’t possibly break and have to watch their screaming deaths… It brings back fond memories of System Shock 2.

So here’s the thing. Despite just having given a full catalog of all the reasons why Dead Space should be derivative, none of that bothers me at all. In fact, I like the idea that videogames are as capable as literature of creating homages to the earlier games and stories that shaped the developers’ awareness of the medium in which they work. There are differences, too, to Dead Space, certainly in terms of graphics and technological innovation; the weaponry is different; there are other NPCs for me (Isaac) to talk to; there’s (sadly) no multiplayer… It isn’t that Dead Space is just a remake, because it isn’t. It’s that videogames now have a canon of older, innovative and expressive games – like System Shock 2 – upon which to draw in order to enrich the experience of play for those who recognize the allusions.

All that said, I’ve been finding that Dead Space is itself dated, not because of graphics, but because of its lack of complexity. This may in part be due to the kinds of games I typically play, but in comparison to Bioshock Infinite, Dishonored, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and even Tomb RaiderDead Space seems almost two-dimensional. Perhaps this is because I haven’t actually progressed very far (I’m in chapter two) or because it feels so reminiscent of System Shock 2, so I’m willing to say that I may end up changing my mind, but Isaac feels more like a hollow shell than he does an actual character. The NPCs (Kendra and Hammond) recite bit dialogue that is formulaic and archetypal (and these are the full NPCs, not random mooks or Dishonored‘s guards), and which appears to be deliberately leading me to a particular conclusion (that Hammond is crazy and is going to kill her), and which is making me think that the opposite is likely true (that she’s the crazy one and she’s going to kill him).

The point is that while I am enjoying Dead Space, the game isn’t actually all that complex, particularly in terms of its narrative and plot devices. And, honestly, I’m okay with a plot that’s fundamentally an homage or a standard sci fi trope (this is obviously both), I like my games to have more depth than what I’ve seen in Dead Space so far. But we’ll see where it takes me.