Déjà Vu on the Ishimura
“Last time I was here, things didn’t go so well.”
Horror is found in many different spaces, through haunts and creeps and in noises coming through vents. Isaac Clarke is an engineer, a working class guy who chose to go on a mission to repair a spaceship because he was worried about his girlfriend. That’s what you get from Isaac at the start of Dead Space, and it’s enough to carry you through the game. He’s here to fix what he’s told to fix and find his girlfriend. And that’s what he does. Every interaction is him being told somewhere else to go, something that’s broken that needs to be fixed. The other characters stand around, giving orders, letting the mechanic work through all the issues. He’s trusted, he’s expendable, he’s betrayed. Isaac takes it all silently, letting nothing more than grunts from smashing infected crew-mates bodies with a weighty boot leave his lips. And through it all, Isaac follows waypoints. He’s never left directionless for more than a few moments. Various people know what he should do, are always telling him where to go, leading him through corridors and vents and the vacuum of space like he’s a dog playing fetch. He follows the glowing line on the ground, because that’s what a worker has to do to make it, no matter how much it hurts.
His girlfriend is dead. The ship is broken, and the planet it was trying to break falls apart beneath Isaac’s feet. Listening to the people above him didn’t let him fix anything for more than a few short moments, and he finds himself haunted by hallucinations of Nicole, his girlfriend implanted in his mind to direct him by the alien Marker that infected a planet full of people before spreading to the ship flying above it. He destroys everything he fought for hours to fix, gets in a small shuttle, barely escaping a planet imploding by the skin of his teeth, alone, broken, and haunted by a screaming, bloody apparition of Nicole. But he’s free from the Ishimura, and from the people that commanded him every step of the way.
Dead Space 2 has Isaac Clarke return to the Ishimura. Left to die in a city after having his memories stolen to create more of the Markers that destroyed him, he’s forced back onto the recovered ship to rescue two other survivors, still filled with the desire to fix, to save, to protect something, anything. He’s given a voice in this game, speaking frequently, but still never putting forward any idea of his own. The waypoints are still there, and Isaac still follows them every step of the way, without question. He curses, he shouts, he quips, and walks exactly where he’s told. The Ishimura is being repaired, sanitized, searched for more to help the government build up the Markers. Places covered with blood of crew-mates and allies are scrubbed clean, taped up, pristine. But the memory is still there, in the player, as they’re forced to retrace their steps to start up the gravity tethers on the ship. Isaac says one thing before returning to his personal hell and opening scars anew:
“This should be interesting.”
In the first game, after an action-filled set-piece, Isaac is led into a decontamination room, which starts the process of locking itself down, windows shuttering, a sanitizing liquid misting down through the room while you take a moment to breathe, to reload, to return to normalcy. Then Necromorphs break through the vents and invade this space, forcing you to run around the central table as more continue to burst through, fighting for your life even as the automated system says ‘decontamination complete’ while you stomp on the creatures corpses to make sure they stay dead. You go into the same room in the sequel. The same cleaning cycle starts again, and you’re twitchy, you remember what happened. And nothing comes for you. The decontamination is completed and the door opens, and you continue on your way, to be attacked further down the hallway. Without more than a room and a prerecorded message, the game brings out a memory, linking you to a horrible, terrifying moment. Isaac doesn’t react.
You continue making your way through the ship as more of the reanimated corpses, now including civilians and children along with military personnel, invade the ship. You restart the gravity tethers, and go to leave through a unique, curved airlock. In the first game, after leaving the airlock, Isaac was immediately grabbed by a massive, writhing tentacle, forced to shakily aim and fire his gun to dismember it before he was dragged deep into the vents of the ship. This scene is recalled as the door opens, the player shivering, dealing with the weight of the memory. Then the tentacle reaches forward, grabbing Isaac as he screams out, before flickering away. A flashback. Isaac stops for a moment, taking control away from the player long enough to shake his head, to express his own horror. It’s a move that expresses a lack of confidence. Following the decontamination room scene, something that passes without a word, without a reaction, the game forces you to watch a cutscene, not assured enough in its own level design, in its own ability to scare you through the absence of anything, that it has to remind the players and Isaac of something scary from the first game.
On the way back through the decontamination room, a bunch of Necromorphs burst through the vents. It’s not scary, and they’re the easiest type to defeat, falling apart after one or two shots. How could it be scary, if the game didn’t let you know that this happened once before, didn’t trust the players memory to understand the weight of the past? I wasn’t scared by Dead Space 2 after that. The game rang hollow, even in environments well-designed to be claustrophobic, haunting, I felt a disconnect, from the hands that had carefully crafted these areas, meant to keep you on your toes as creatures swarmed from all over, and the voices of the narrative. Isaac is sidetracked in the Ishimura, forced to go through the area his girlfriend died in. And she tells you, her haunting, bloodied ghost reminding the player and Isaac this is the area she died, and that her corpse was probably one of hundreds shot to pieces by Isaac. Dead Space 2 doesn’t trust the player, doesn’t believe it’s scary, has to push and prod you and overstep the lines of pretending to be a horror game because of its lack of confidence in the world its built up.
Isaac continues following the waypoints given to him. He saves Ellie and Stross before forced to escape the ship the same way a Necromorph had been ejected in the first game: thrown out in an escape pod. The game goes on, through spaces that try so hard to scare you with waves of creatures, but without any of the dread or atmosphere it had built up before. Isaac kills Stross, stabbing a screwdriver through another living beings skull after watching him stab out Ellie’s eye, the payoff to a running joke about an insane mental patient continuing to play with a screwdriver. Isaac speaks to nobody, justifies his act of murder to himself, fully armored and with several weapons, against a man in a hospital gown with a screwdriver:
“Why did you do it, Stross?”
He sends the injured Ellie away in a shuttle, saving her, trying to fix one last thing. Nicole is speaking to him more clearly now, acting as though this haunting he’s experienced was the process of going through the stages of grief, that’s he’s growing. Isaac attempts to open his map, to find a waypoint to lead him. There’s nobody to point him anywhere. He has to walk forward on his own. It lasts for all of five minutes, before Nicole speaks up again, offering him direction. And Isaac, grasping for any connection, follows it. Nicole isn’t Nicole, she’s an alien signal put in his brain, pretending to help him cope, but just another thing above him, placing waypoints, making him follow and fix. He kills Nicole, he destroys the Marker. He sits down as the building collapses, nowhere to go. He doesn’t have anyone, he doesn’t have a path to follow somewhere. The credits start to roll. Then Ellie’s voice comes through, and she’s guiding Isaac out. She breaks through the ceiling in the escape shuttle, coming in from above to lead Isaac, just as desperate to fix something as he is. They escape together. Isaac’s broken, but no longer alone or haunted. And he’s still got someone to follow, wherever the waypoints they set lead.