Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Dead Isn't

Everyone's talking about Dead Space 3 now. Most of them are pretty much saying what I would probably say if I played it: "it's not scary". "the constant money-shop pestering is annoying", "well, it's fun when they stop with the bullshit."

I won't be buying it. I wasn't pleased with Dead Space 2 - it was formulaic and boring to me. I tried to think about why.

The general theory about scary games is that the main character needs to have no real power. You get scared because you can't really win - you can just claw your way towards desperate survival.

I'm not sure I buy that theory 100%, because System Shock 2 was scary as hell. So was one of the Aliens vs Predators games, although I can never remember which is which given their Capcom-esque naming conventions. In both games you play heavily armored space marines capable of taking down any enemy you face. Even the bosses are usually brought down by simply shooting them a lot. But they're pretty scary.

Dead Space was kinda scary. Dead Space 2 was scary for about an hour, maybe. Crew Cut Beefy White Guy #102,911,158 cuts his way through the two games pretty much the same way, so why is one scarier and the other not? Why are neither as scary as Aliens vs Predators Ultra Turbo Gold Edition? Hell, why is House of the Dead 2 (Suffer like G did?) scarier than Dead Space 2?

I think it's my immersion in the threat. That is me, the player. How threatening the world feels to me.

In both System Shock 2 and AvP, the threatening world was really tangible. It was extremely rare for either game to feel "cheap". Every threat you ran into felt like it belonged. Of course there's a mech in there. Fuck, the room is labeled "mech storage". None of the threats are popped into existence solely as a transparent challenge to the player. You are in this hellish world, and it is tangible. It works like the world would work.

On the other hand, Dead Space 2 (and 3) both suffer from serious monster-closet disease, where enemies basically just randomly run into rooms to give the player a challenge. There's not really any reason why the monsters constantly attack the decontamination chambers. There's no reason for them to come crawling out of the walls right at this moment. They just do it because it's their job to scare the player. It's a haunted house ride instead of a horror game.

Of course, the challenges making sense are not the only thing that makes games scary. There's also how often you die. And that number should be extreeeeeeeemely close to "once".

Dying is a constant threat in Dead Space 2. On the other hand, in truly scary games, it's actually pretty easy to beat any one encounter. The question is how many resources you come out of it with. If three dogs jump in through the window, you probably have enough time to blow them all away... but how many bullets did you waste? Is it maybe better to try and use a shitty weapon to save good ammo? Maybe even the knife - but then you might actually die!

Dying in a scary game should be close to taboo, because dying means getting to try the same damn thing again and again and again. It's not scary to die when you respawn at a checkpoint. It's scary to reach the end boss with only a few bullets left.

Dead Space 2 features a huge number of cheap deaths - presumably because they want you to see the implausible death animations they've created. More than once I died after completing an objective, and it reset me back to an old checkpoint. This isn't scary. It's fucking annoying.

Death isn't scary in a video game. It's annoying. Saving your progress when you have only a few bullets left is scary.


Isaac said...

"Death isn't scary in a video game. It's annoying."

I think this lesson is the one I want to spread the furthest and the loudest.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I noticed this when I played Amnesia, a game that many people said was the scariest game ever. Well, I encountered an invisible water-based enemy and it killed me in a way that seemed pretty cheap (because it didn't follow the "rules" that the game told me existed). Then I played the section again...and one more time. After that, it wasn't a scary experience. It was just an annoying part of a game.

Dying and trying again makes the fact that you're just playing a game far more apparent, and distracting.