The polite horror game.

Dead Space: Extraction is a game that knows what it wants to be. Within a series that wears its horror film influences on its sleeve Extraction is the most direct translation of those influences to the video game form. As an on-rails shooter the cinematography and pacing are an obvious point of comparison sharing as they do many of the hallmarks of the horror cinema the game draws from. Though many games make pretensions to having Hollywood  level scripts Extraction is the first game I’ve played in several years that actually felt like it had a script that could be from a film, based as it was around a limited cast of characters and the interactions between them more than on some plot critical MacGuffin. Each character you encounter over the course of the game’s approximately six hour campaign is clearly differentiated by their background, their visual design, their personality and their accent. It presents one of the most authentically diverse casts I’ve seen in a game in a long time, and manages to be a rare example of a game that passes the bechdel test.

Forced together under extreme circumstances the differing motivations of each character begin to reveal themselves and the plot is propelled forward primarily by these reveals and the direct obstacles the characters find in their path. Even the most limited experience of the conventions of horror films will be enough to realise not all of these people are going to make it out alive, and though some tropes become overused the script does manage to leave you guessing as to who exactly is going to make it out alive, if anybody.

Suffice to say some people don’t make it. All of these characters harbour a secret and this is at the heart of what prevents them from devolving entirely into clichés.

While Extraction succeeds on many aesthetic and technical levels it’s notable that the one area where it struggles the most is when it tries to be scary; when it tries to evoke the same emotions as the horror films it aspires to. The unbroken first person perspective, while capable of providing moments of brief tension and some surprisingly effective jump scares, doesn’t allow for the dramatic irony that is successfully exploited throughout horror cinema. While the other Dead Space games use a similarly restricted camera, the ability of the player to control both the camera and the protagonist’s movement actually adds to the suspense; events can occur and threats can arrive from areas not currently within the player’s field of view. Extraction is kinder in it’s presentation, the camera will always turn to direct your view to the current threat and the Necromorphs will limit themselves to attacking from that direction. Only once all threats have been dealt with will the protagonist then turn, allowing subsequent attacks from a different direction.

Only attacking when players can see them is decidedly polite on the part of the Necromorphs an attitude reminiscent of the mooks in an action film who will patient wait for their turn before attacking. As a means of preventing the player from feeling cheated this consistency makes sense, yet it also undermines any attempt to provoke a sense of unease or fear in the player. When you know you are always going to be pointed towards anything threatening there’s no uncertainty yet it’s within the uncertain and the ambiguous that fear grow.

Seeing is not always believing. Extraction does not shy away from presenting situations and encounters that are not always what they seem.

As a game that allows, we could even go so far as to say expects, to be replayed for higher scores and better ratings, there is a further logic to this consistency. To enable players to master each level it makes sense for enemy placement and attack patterns to be consistent and predictable. Yet there might be ways to keep to the optimising requirements of the score chasers while still providing an experience able to provoke fear and unease.

Interestingly some of the the best techniques for doing this are ones I would be reticent to recommend for any other style of game. There are a number of variation but the underlying principle of all of them is to use the fact the player has a limited ability to move the camera against them, to actively work in opposition to player desires and expectations, to intentionally obfuscate and frustrate. The way to make Extraction more frightening is to do the opposite of what the first person perspective is used for in other genres, by reinforcing the already existing separation between protagonist and player. It’s a difficult line to walk, too much frustration and nobody will want to play, but too little about you have a horror game that is only scary because of its context not its content.

  • Instead of only moving the camera once all Necromorphs have been dealt with we could instead link certain camera movements to a timer: face this way for thirty seconds then this way for ten seconds. Under threat from all sides the protagonist would naturally shift their view between each threat instead of focusing only on one to the exclusion of all others leading to them turning away while there are still enemies approaching in order to deal with threats from a different direction. With known threats now approaching from beyond your field of view the threats you can see become not just a problem in their own right but also an obstacle to your ability to deal with the other threats.
  • Foreshadow attacks by allowing players to see threats that the protagonist doesn’t react to. A Necromorph moving fast across part of the screen, clearly a threat but the protagonist turns away before the player can react. It’s still out there and will become a more direct threat at some time, but when, and from which direction?
  • Require the player to use some portion of the to screen perform one action while still engaging in combat on the rest of the screen. This technique is used a few times in the early chapters of the game with the screen split between a combat sequence and a puzzle, but it is abandoned thereafter despite it providing one of the most tense moments of the game.
  • Allow the protagonist to keep moving while under attack, throwing off the ability of the player to aim accurately at the approaching Necromorphs. This is something Extraction does begin to do in the later levels but even then it is used sparingly. Not knowing if you are going to stumble and miss a shot is frustrating and makes the environment itself a threat.

These tweaks, along with variations and combinations of them, could really help to increase the tension of Extraction with only few changes to the core systems and while maintaining the balance between player and protagonist that exists in any game that doesn’t allow the player control over basic movement and world interaction.

There is a lot to enjoy in Dead Space: Extraction, from a plot that actually makes sense, to characters that are relatable without relying entirely on clichés, to more of the superb Dead Space aesthetics and environmental design. With all that going for it, it was sad to find the moment to moment experience failing to reach the highs of tension and fear that it felt like it was striving for. If Extraction had been able to capture the unease and prevasive dread of the original Dead Space, or better yet that of the thematically similar System Shock, I think it would have had a strong claim for the best of the series.

What a Waste.

There comes a moment in Fallout 3 where, standing staring around at the skeletal trees and blasted earth, you realise all the mounds of rock you’ve been climbing over were once buildings; offices, apartment blocks maybe even shops and schools. In that moment you can see in your mind what that alternate history version of Washington D.C. might have looked like. A blink and it’s lost, everything is again sickly yellow and brown, blasted, broken, and irradiated.

I was wrong

Fallout 3 is neither “teeming with life” nor “harmless”, it’s a true wasteland. It’s strange, when I made my original comments I’d already spent several hours exploring the world but somehow it hadn’t clicked exactly how terrible everything was. I could obviously see that nothing was particularly pleasant but still there were people scraping out a life and it felt like there was always something to see only a short walk away.

fallout-3-16

How many people once called this home?

At some point the revelation hit me, and it was an entirely mundane action that provoked it. In order to get a better idea of where I was and where I was going I started to climb a hill. It was a simple thing really; I wanted to get to high ground so I could get a better view of the world. An entirely plausible natural thing to do when you’re outside. Standing on the top of that crumbling masonry, looking out at the rising sun for a moment I realised what I was actually seeing. Those four houses clustered around that crossroad surrounded by low hills? That’s meant to be a town? That’s not a town,  it’s barely a dozen houses…

… That’s not a town, it’s a fraction of a suburban neighbourhood. Those aren’t low hills they’re the remains of the rest of that neighbourhood. What freak chance spared those few houses I’ll never know but as some of the last buildings left intact of course they drew what few survivors there were to them; humans crave other human contact. That’s not a town, it was never meant to be a town, but right now it’s the closest anybody here has got.

It was so easy upon entering the world of Fallout 3 to simply accept that yes this is a post apocalyptic wasteland. It’s an intellectual acceptance, a theory, and as such easy to dismiss when presented with the grim reality. Within the first few hours the logical questions begin to surface. If this is a wasteland then why are so many of the buildings intact? Why are there so many people still alive? Why is there so much food around? All perfectly valid questions, on face value a surprising amount of civilization seems to have survived relatively intact. It’s only when you stop and consider what the world must have looked like before the bombs fell that you realise how utterly wrong everything now is.

There seem to be a lot of buildings around but before the war there would have been hundreds, thousands. The people? There was likely a time when you’d not be able to move without bumping into dozens of  men, women and children. That food? Almost all of it is tinned or heavily processed so laden with salts and preservatives it was was probably barely edible when it was made let alone now.

Maybe this is what the experience of Fallout 3 is meant to be like? Having finally left Vault 101 at nineteen you have no idea what to expect, why wouldn’t you just accept the world as it is. It’s different from the world you know but you’ve seen little to tell you what the world was like before. You know in your head that there was some sort of war, but what does that really mean? Maybe things have always been this bad or something close to it?

“This seemed like such a nice place.”

Rapture, the USG Ishimura, the Von Braun, we are so accustom to visiting worlds that have been destroyed, or are fated to be destroyed within minutes of our arrival that it’s difficult to associate what they are now with what they might have been. I can’t remember seeing what it was like on Sera prior to the start of Gears Of War, so how am I supposed to care about what it has become? There’s barely enough time or opportunity in the game to tell the narrative it has, let alone convince me that the world is somehow worth fighting for.

Only by spending hours in its world could I reach the point of realisation that Fallout 3 provoked, where I understood the reality of the situation with my heart and not merely my head. I needed to explore that environment and its inhabitants thoroughly before I could grasp the full horror of their situation on anything more than an intellectual level.

The war torn African nation of Far Cry 2 is a brutal, hostile place, that much is obvious within minutes of your arrival. I just wonder if that depiction is very far removed from how a lot of people in the west see Africa? Are depictions of the tragic, dehumanising, effects of war that powerful when common perception is often“well that’s what it’s like there anyway”? I very much doubt that’s an accurate portrayal of life in sub-saharan country, but I have little first hand knowledge, no foundation on which to base a comparison. I accept the Africa of Far Cry 2 as an inhospitable place but it rarely feels like something has been lost.

Being told how something is or used to be can only ever give you a concept, an idea. Unless and until you actually experience it that concept has little emotional weight  If you’ve never seen the world at its best, its most vibrant, how are you supposed to care about it at its most desolate and hostile?