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Dead Space 3 wasn't scary. To be honest, it wasn't trying to be. You can take that for what it is, but is this simply the natural progression of the franchise? Or is it just an attempt at homogenisation and an appeal to a wider audience?
I can certainly understand the argument for the former. It's been three games now, and Isaac's probably used to this, as is the player. Is this a good justification for the franchise's more action-oriented focus? As a Dead Space veteran, I figured the reason Dead Space 3 fails to scare me is simply because I'm not scared of Necromorphs anymore.
Then I played Dead Space again on Impossible. Oh, how wrong I was.
An Oppressive Atmosphere
If there's one thing in which this series has always excelled, it's atmosphere. The snowy cliffs of Tau Volantis are certainly fun to explore, and its derelict ships are still pretty creepy, but the horrifying halls of the USG Ishimura seem more haunting.
Whilst the series's scares have often been dismissed as nothing but jump scares and monster closets, this isn't an entirely terrible thing. There's an art to making monster closets and jumps scares. They may not be the most terrifying, but they're powerful in their own right, and can be amplified by having an oppressive and truly horrifying atmosphere.
As I said, I recently replayed Dead Space on Impossible difficulty. When I started, I told myself I wanted a real challenge, so I didn't touch any of the downloadable content I had purchased. This certainly contributes to the fear factor, but I'll get more into that later.
What made this game so scary is its set-up. The game takes it time letting the severity of your situation dawn on you. As you slowly approach the Planet-Cracker class vessel (complete with expository dialogue via Hammond), a mystery unfolds. Why isn't anyone responding? Why is everything offline? Where the hell is the crew? The answer to that last question of course, is pretty horrifying.
The Ishimura herself is claustrophobic and foreboding. It's in space, which makes escape a bit tricky. It's walls are dark, and as you progress, ambient sounds creep you out as logs chronicling the crew's demise send shivers down your spine. All of this slowly sets in, so that when something finally does jump out at you, you're in the perfect position to be scared. This atmospheric tension building is what makes you vulnerable enough to be frightened by the game's jump scares. It's more than monsters popping out of vents. What matters is getting the player primed for it. Putting them in an uncomfortable place at all times, then springing the trap.
Playing alone in the dark, I found myself more susceptible to the jump scares. The gurgling man in Chapter 2: Intensive Care made me scream, and the insane survivor banging his head against the wall actaully made me take pause, even though I knew by then what it was. Every sound scared me, because this game broke me down into a scared, paranoid mess. That means an awful lot when you consider that I've played nearly every Dead Space game to date, and gotten the Platinum on Hard Core in Dead Space 2. Despite being a badass Necro-slaying Dead Space veteran, this game from 2008 still scared me.
Dead Space 2 managed to scare me with its Stalker segments. These sections slowed combat down to a crawl, forced your back against the wall, and made you constantly observant for charging enemies. It kept you on your guard, and played with your mind. In the end, that's what's horror is all about: mind games.
Dead Space 3 doesn't do this nearly as often, though it's prologue is excellent. Some are content to simply say the opening chapters take place in space and leave it at that, but it's simply not the same. The tension and atmosphere was no where near as oppressive as the Ishimura.
That said, the first chapter does start off with several explosions and gunfights. The one part that does shine is Chapter 9: Onward. The logs and audio recordings served as an excellent introduction to the ferocious Feeders, and now that stealth is a viable option, it makes engaging them all the more frightening. Well, it is when you don't have a quadruple-barrelled shotgun, anyway.
Threat and Disempowerment
What Dead Space does right is putting you in the shoes of a very ordinary person thrust into an extraordinary situation. Isaac's just a lowly systems engineer, and you feel that as you play. His movements are clunky and sluggish, and melee combat is practically useless. In fact, stomping and swinging your gun can leave you vulnerable. All of this contributes to making you feel helpless and afraid. This becomes apparent when you play on the hardest difficulty setting, Impossible.
This forces Isaac, and thus the player, to be more resourceful. On the highest difficulty setting, ammunition is scarce, and health packs are scarcer. Unlike Dead Space 3, enemy encounters aren't as frequent, and not nearly as long. This is because any encounter with a single enemy can be deadly or damning if you aren't careful.
Threat and disempowerment are a very real factor in creating a horror experience. Disempowerment isn't the same as difficulty, however. Throwing wave after wave of annoying enemies isn't scary. It's just hard. There's nothing wrong with hard (though Dead Space 3 did have some ungodly difficulty spikes), but it simply isn't that scary. There are other ways to make the player feel like they are at a disadvantage other than simply increasing the amount of damage the player takes. By being less forgiving of missteps, and forcing the player to move a certain way, Visceral created a true sense of panic during the game's frantic fights, even if it was against a single Slasher.