Thoughts on Dead Space 2

Two 99% unrelated facts:

  • I’m playing Dead Space 2, and
  • @mjayg tweeted a question to me: do I blog somewhere else, since this blog is so inactive?

What makes these two facts 1% related is that you could call my blog “dead space” lately. So here’s a belated new year’s resolution: I’ll try to post here more frequently.

So, on to my thoughts about Dead Space 2, which I’ll keep free of any major spoilers. If you want absolutely no spoilers, though, this probably isn’t a post you should be reading.

I like DS2 better than the original, which I didn’t manage to finish. I’m on chapter 8 of DS2, which I suspect is getting close to the end. I think it should be close to the end, because at a certain point in this kind of story, calamities start to feel contrived. That was part of my problem in DS: the elevator’s broken, and now the next elevator is broken, and now the air is shut off, and now the radio panels are broken, and now the door is jammed, and now…

The setting in DS2 is a lot more varied and more appealing: the same grimy futuristic industrial scaffoldings broken up by chapters set in modern living quarters and shopping districts. As I worked my way through those sections, I was reminded at times of BioShock, and even more of System Shock 2. It doesn’t have the same depth as either of those games, and it’s much more focused, but those similarities led me to think about the lack of agency in DS2.

It was hard to keep track of where I was, where I was going, and at times even why I was going there. So while it was great to wander through some of the more colorful areas and great themes, it felt like a theme park ride rather than an interactive journey. In System Shock 2, for example, it was my choice to go to a shopping district versus the medical section, a choice driven not just by objectives but by my play style and my decisions. When you don’t make a choice in where you go, you lose the build-up, the expectations–and that means you lose part of the sense of reward and also the ability for meaningful surprises.

Here’s an example that’s a bit more of a spoiler in terms of a themed area of DS2: the nursery/kindergarten area. Maybe I missed some audio or text logs, but I was surprised when the elevator doors opened onto this area. It felt interesting and creepy, and I enjoyed moving through it… but that’s not how I would have felt if I looked at a map or followed signs, and chose to go to the kindergarten area. If it had been my choice, I would have started wondering on the way: what will it look like, and what will I find there? I would have started developing expectations and even fears (“Man, I hope there aren’t any creepy necromorph kids there. Creepy kids are the worst.”). That sense of anticipation and dread is like seasoning on the meat of the game: not required, but certainly an enhancement.

In fact, I think DS2 would have benefited from a greater feeling of exploration. When you’re led from one environment to the next without any choice, you stop paying attention to detail (at least, I do). I think there are areas that I am visiting for the second time, but I’m never sure. Is this the same central transit center, or is it a different one? Are those the same shops, or new ones? I like the story they’re telling in DS2 very much, and you could tell a very similar, still mostly linear story in a game with a central hub area, mapped exploration, and a sense of choice. Finishing a difficult sequence and following the only path to the next shop and bench feels like a reward I earned, but it doesn’t make me feel ownership. Finishing a difficult sequence and choosing between moving to the next area or returning to the hub to resupply feels like a meaningful choice, and either option leads to me feeling ownership over what happens to me next.

A few other thoughts:

I don’t really like having to stomp on corpses to get the loot. It’s not the gore that bothers me, it’s the added step. There’s no visual difference between a looted and un-looted corpse, so I go around stomping everywhere which feels goofy in such a serious game. I feel like I’m leaving loot behind, which feels unfair in a game where ammo and health is in short supply–and even if I have all the loot, I can’t get rid of that nagging feeling that there is a corpse somewhere I haven’t stomped. It also sucks when you’re in a heated battle (like boss battles), because you often need to pick up loot to have the supplies you need to win that fight. You have two choices: stomp, which means you can’t shoot or defend yourself for several seconds, or shoot the corpse, which wastes precious ammo that you probably need (hence your urgent desire to loot the corpses around you).

A note to game designers and artists: this is one of those times you guys need to work together. The overall desaturated colors and slight blue tint of no atmosphere: cool! The hacking minigame where you rotate the left stick to avoid clicking on red sectors and try to click on blue sectors: cool! Playing that minigame on a timer (oxygen supply) when the desaturated colors make it super hard to tell what’s red and what’s blue: not cool.

This post makes it sound like I don’t like DS2, I actually like it a lot, and recommend it highly (at least through chapter 8). Give it a shot, and let me know what you think.

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