Home > Essays > Story Vs. Gameplay in Dead Space

Story Vs. Gameplay in Dead Space

September 16, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Kob Monney

[This article contains spoilers regarding Dead Space’s ending]

Dead Space is, at times, a terrific survival/horror. However, the ending of the game left me in two minds about the effectiveness of a story within a game.  It made me wonder why we play games, is it for the story or the gameplay? I felt unsatisfied by the ending, something was amiss throughout my playthrough and it was only until the last cinematic that I could elucidate further on this problem in the form of a question.

Am I supposed to care?

In the last cinematic Isaac takes off his helmet (which he had been wearing for the entirety of the game) and reviews a video log left by his wife. In this video we see his wife commit suicide, we see his gaunt face, he is haunted by what he sees but I could not bring myself to care and this feeling bothered me considering the content in this last cinematic. It seemed to me that the developer had wanted to make an emotional connection between the character and the player where there was none. The way in which the story was executed, the characters that I had witnessed seemed hollow and perfunctory. They had purpose but nothing was ever revealed about them, the story seemed contrived, the quests created by the story seemed forced and this lack of connection was compounded by the decision made about the character of Isaac, the main protagonist and our point of reference in this fictional game world. Isaac had been rendered mute and as a result suffered from a distinct lack of personality and at times I thought that this could have been some sort of ploy by the developer; an “everyman” to allow to us to comfortably ensconce ourselves in the shoes (suit) of Isaac, similar to what Bungie had done with the Master Chief and other Halo games.

Yet this last cinematic demanded a connection on an emotional level, a level that the game had barely pursued in that manner for the entirety of its duration. By rendering Isaac mute they robbed the character of any personality, there was little insight into who Isaac was, the relationship between his wife, the relationship between his crewmates and any relationship he made onboard the frigate simply because he never talked. It does not help that Isaac wore a helmet for the duration of the game so no connection could be made through seeing his face. It always felt as if Isaac was being talked to rather than being a ‘living’ participant in the story, he was very much an errand boy who was told to go there and do that without question. While it made for some interesting (if at times conventional) scenarios that method of telling Isaac where to go seemed unintuitive. It reduced my participation in the story as I had no vested interest in what happened and as a result I felt very isolated by the story.

In some cases it may work, it was effective in Bioshock where the character was also mute. But in Bioshock the protagonist was the never the main aspect about the game. It was Rapture and the ideology between Ryan and [] that we as a player were witness to. In Halo the character may be mute for the majority of the game but he is surrounded by characters all of whom talk more than your average NPC. When you’re alone to your thoughts, with the character only responding when he’s low on health with audible breaths it may make the sense of danger palpable but it also reduces any kind of enjoyment or interaction between character and the myself. You may argue that in Dead Space Isaac is never the focal point, more so the goings on in the USG Ishimura, but again that last cinematic suggests that there was some emotional breadth in the story that the developers simply did not tap into well enough.

Yet when the game tried its hand in extracting as much tension and horror in a given situation, it worked but there was never a correlation between the experience of Dead Space and its characters and story. At times I felt frustrated by the game, feeling that the game was punishing me by overwhelming me with enemies but it was not frustration I was feeling. It was fear. It was the fear of running out of ammo on a particular gun and having to resort to a less effecting weapon; the fear of dismembering an enemy in ways which it made it worst to combat against. This Dead Space gets right, the prevailing mood of danger and the impact that a wrong move may make a situation harder weighs on your mind and creates tension especially when you’re faced with different enemies at the same time. Yet the spaces in-between this development of tension is almost ruined by the listless and bland characterisation. Is there room for both story and gameplay in certain games when the story is constricted by the gameplay?  It would seem that despite the strides gaming has made in the last ten years, the technology at the disposal; there can still be a lack of convergence between the story and the gameplay to the point where they feel like two distinct things that have been meshed together in an uncertain way. Dead Space is not the first game to suffer from this hindrance and it may not be the last but if games are to be taken seriously then they must decide what it is that they do best.

Copyright Kob Monney 2010

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Categories: Essays
  1. Midnight Special
    September 20, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    Some valid points here Kob, and a very well written piece. A lot of games get the balance between story and gameplay right on the money. Oblivion, GTA4, Modern Warfare and, to an extent, Mass Effect 2 are four such examples that manage it, and it’s no coinidence that these are prehaps the very best games yet on the current gen.
    I think the main point of Dead Space was to try and instil tension and absolute fear. To that end I agree that the ending seems slightly trite because the main character is pretty much anonymous, and really I have no idea what the point was. The developers maybe just shouldn’t have bothered.
    But that’s what it comes down to – individual developers. Those who can make the most of it, do, and this invariably leads to the titles that stand out. Some may try and fail. My point is, the balance is there for the people that strive for it.

    • September 22, 2010 at 1:27 pm

      I’d like to add Alan Wake to that list: I think it’s my favourite game storyline this generation, if not all time. It really rewards just stepping back and thinking about it thematically, as well as throwing up some awesome “OMG!” moments and providing some really instense action.

      Also, great piece, Kob. It’s an important point that will hopefully get analysed and explored much further in essays to come.

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