Ugh: Dead Space: Ignition

I’m sure there are people who are really into the story and the mythology behind Dead Space. I’m just not one of them. To me, the game could be plotless for all I care. All that’s important about the first game, to me, is that there’s a creepy ship with terrifying monsters on it, and you’ve got to fight your way out. I don’t care about the tension between Isaac “Mime” Clarke and his girlfriend Nicole “I’m Dead” Something-or-Other, I’m not bothered by the fact that I’m being betrayed by someone whose name I don’t remember, I don’t really give a shit about the significance of the fact that the marker isn’t really the real marker and OMG what will the real marker do, I’m just not interested. Dead Space isn’t scary because I’ve connected to a group of characters and I worry about their welfare. It’s scary because of the claustrophobic atmosphere and the genuinely disturbing creature design, the game’s sense of timing and pacing, and judicious use of scare chords.

So while I consider Dead Space to be one of my favorite horror games, I don’t have nearly that charitable an opinion of any of the spinoffs. The motion comics were–well, I mean, I’m sure it’s very difficult to get art that’s worth looking at, but at least, you know, color it in and finish it. The motion comics looked like half-assed sketches. I’ve already written about Dead Space Extraction–let’s just say that while I’m sure it’s POSSIBLE that someone might one day make an interesting and engaging rail shooter that doesn’t feel like a hyperactive kid who keeps grabbing the controller because you’re not playing in the way he’d like you to, this game is not that. I haven’t bothered with the movie because why.

A lot of it has to do, I think, with the fact that the narrative of survival horror has three distinct phases: Before Shit Went Down, While Shit Went Down, and After Shit Went Down. In the first, we’ve got the day-to-day life of an environment; in the second, that environment is invaded by an occult presence, and in the last, our protagonist fights and usually defeats that presence.

For somewhat obvious reasons, the first phase is the least interesting, and I’d like to switch topics for a moment to demonstrate why. If you’ve played a lot of RPGs, especially SNES ones, there’s an opening that most of us by now should be exempt from. Your character wakes up in his sleepy little village–often after a prophetic dream–and is told that he’s late for school/the town festival/lunch with his girlfriend/his audience with the king. You’re encouraged to talk to all of the villagers–bonus points if the game mandates this–who all give pleasant permutations on on the theme of Gee, isn’t it swell to live in this sleepy little town where no monsters are, although I hear that there’s some sort of gathering darkness that hopefully won’t unseal itself sometime in the next hour of gameplay that you’ll have to fight, but what are the odds of that happening? Indeed, after an hour of this, the evil will unseal itself and destroy your hometown, rendering the entire prologue a waste of time. There’s rarely any significance to establishing the routine of this town–generally “sleepy” is all you can glean from the town, although occasionally games will make forays into “pastoral”, and the repetitive nature of this introduction rarely leaves anything to differentiate it from any one of a hundred other games. It’s something you sit through because you know that at some point, plot is going to happen.

And so the opening chapter of Dead Space Ignition features two characters whose names I didn’t catch and about whom I didn’t notice anything beyond the fact that one is black and one is a woman. (The series rarely gets credit for this–it boasts one of the most race- and gender-blind casts of any game I’ve ever seen; given the lack of diversity that’s often found even in Western games, Visceral deserves some kudos.) I think he’s an engineer–even though the tutorial are of his supervisor explaining how to do his job–and I think she’s a cop, and either they’ve dated or they want to date or they’ve hooked up or they’re just pulling some generic sexual tension on us. And they’re going through their routine of fixing, I dunno, doors or something. We’re supposed to be getting some idea of what Daily Life on this space station is like, but this fails for a few reasons. Number one, the dialogue…let’s just say that Visceral didn’t put their best writers on this one, because everything they say falls pretty flat. It’s pedestrian at best and rarely boils down to anything more than “Okay, now we have to go here to fix this thing,” and “Oh, boy, it sure is dull being a maintenance man on a space station where nothing interesting ever happens.” I want to get to monsters.

Part Two, While Shit Went Down, is at least marginally more interesting because at this point there’s actually a plot. It’s at this point that the monsters or the ghosts or the zombies or the vampires or the aliens attack. By necessity, this phase must end with nearly all of the population of the enclosed world killed. If most of the people don’t die, then not only is the threat not credible, but you’re going to have a large cast cheering you on; horror is usually at its most effective when you’re alone. If you can address the threat as it happens, it’ll also not feel very threatening–let’s face it, we won’t be scared by monsters so ineffective they can’t kill a few dozen people before you defeat it. Normally your character isn’t even on the scene during this stage, which makes sense. Your character must be believable able to grapple with the threat and win in order to make the rest of the game work; there’s usually no legitimate reason for him or her to stand by and let the game’s monsters take over.

Horror games almost always begin in the After Shit Went Down phase, where your character happens upon the environment in question, explores, discovers that something very wrong occurred, and begins to set things right and stop the menace. The first two phases are usually relegated to backstory. A well-made survival horror game will dole out its backstory in a manner that’s akin to the well-known writing rule of “show, don’t tell”–but a much subtler version. We don’t know what day-to-day life is like in the Ishimura because we’ve witnessed it–we know what it’s like because we’ve seen the wreckage, rummaged through the scraps, and pieced it together ourselves.

Dead Space Ignition is a poor game narratively because the introductory segments are extremely banal–watch some characters you don’t care about doing repair work!–and once Necromorphs attack, we know the conclusion is fairly foregone–we won’t be able to completely stop them in this game, we can only watch as they attack and hope that our characters survive. We know that this is a prequel to Dead Space 2, which is going to feature the station overrun, and know that the best possible situation is getting out alive. There’s no catharsis in being able to defeat the enemies.

And there’s no physical catharsis either in that the game is not based on combat. At least Dead Space Extraction, for all of its many faults, lets you actually shoot enemies. Dead Space Ignition is best described as an animated comic choose-your-own adventure with a few setpiece puzzles that pop up. There’s no exploration, no control over character–just cutscenes interspersed with occasional choices. (At least they waited until the artists had actually completed the art this time.) If you’re not invested in the story–and again, the poor writing doesn’t do much to invest you in it–then you’ll find yourself bored.

And the puzzles? Look. I generally like puzzle games. But one of the puzzle types is irritating–it’s essentially an autoscrolling maze where you have to avoid the walls and get there within a certain amount of time; one is confusing–a mirror reflection puzzle whose graphics are extremely busy yet uninformative–and one is so convoluted and weird that I can’t even describe it, yet alone solve it. They’re not fun–and let’s face it. I’m into Dead Space because, again, it gives a well-designed environment to explore and populates it with some seriously frightening enemies to survive. Not because of the romantic comedy and the hacking minigames.

If the intent of Ignition was to drum up excitement for Dead Space 2, they’ve failed–I’m actually nervous now. I’m hoping that they got the backstory out of their system and are concentrating on creating that environment and those enemies this time. I’m going to assume–going to hope, going to pray!–that this will be the case: They’d be foolish to change the structure that greatly. I just know that out of all of the Dead Space-related media that I’ve experienced, I’ve liked exactly one piece. To be fair, that’s the main one, and everything else is all spinoffs. Perhaps it won’t be bad–again, maybe all of the spinoffs are cheaply-made potboilers designed to appeal to the story hounds, and therefore the actual meat can be in the main game. If that is the case, then I’ll be happy, and it honestly will be a good way of handling the narrative–make it almost completely optional.

Besides the fact that the game is free with a pre-order, the other reason I was playing Dead Space Ignition was because you apparently get some sort of bonus for completing it. During my time playing, I found myself so bored by the puzzles I attempted to look up a walkthrough. In my search, I found out that the bonuses you unlock–it looks like some extra audio logs, some credits and stuff, and a suit–actually get unlocked after completing the first puzzle. I (correctly, according to a plot summary I found) assumed that the game would more or less end with the station taken over by monsters and the introduction of Isaac Clarke who would go to save the day. Since he’s the one whose game hopefully has actual gameplay and actual scares, I can wait the week to enter the world of the game for real. There was no more reason to play Dead Space Ignition and I didn’t want to play it any more so I stopped playing it. And then I wrote this review, and then I had dinner. And that is the story of the 20 minutes that I spent playing Dead Space Ignition.

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