Rune Of Play

By Daniel Slawson

Flaws in the Formula: A Brief Look at the Dead Space Series

The Dead Space series is an example of horror done reasonably well; there are certainly more strengths than weaknesses. After multiple playthroughs of each game in the series, I noticed many design decisions that bugged me. This is a list of all the problems that weren’t corrected after three games, and should have been.

Time shouldn’t stop when you’re grabbed.

If there are other enemies in the room, being grabbed or knocked down should invoke a sense of imminent doom (and to the designers’ credit, it almost always does). But then your brain catches up, and realizes that the other enemies in the room are just waiting politely for the grab animation to finish. This moment of realization cuts into the realism and sense of danger. Of course, it would be too overpowered if enemies could freely damage you while you’re pinned, almost a death sentence–which is undoubtedly why the designers made the rest of the room freeze during a grab in the first place.

I would allow all necromorphs to move and attack during a grab, because I think you have to take that step to get rid of that awkward moment of unrealism. But to compensate, you can do one or both of the following:

  1. Make grabs much quicker to escape from
  2. Knock Isaac out of the grab if he’s damaged by a different enemy.

Either make stasis recharge faster, or stop it from passively recharging altogether.

Admittedly, this is a minor one, but it’s always felt awkward to me (and I’m a player who usually forgets about Stasis). After a tough battle, players can go make a sandwich to restore all charge. Even fully upgraded, though, it takes an eternity: around 80+ seconds to restore one level (of three).

Removing the recharge altogether (so it only recharges at benches or refill stations) is a viable alternative. I know I’m in trouble when the game gives me access to stasis: it tells me a boss, tough room, or stasis puzzle is in my immediate future. While slightly artificial, this makes a player feel nervous. This is a useful tool in any game, horror especially.

Another reasonable option is to admit that players can make a sandwich to restore stasis, and make it more convenient for them by lowering the time it takes. This would remove the need to artificially give the player access to stasis to make sure they can advance, and reliably give them access to about 3 shots each battle.

Its effectiveness would have to be toned down to compensate, so you’d basically be trading the ability to freeze targets for very long durations in exchange for using it more frequently. I always felt that stasis slowed down enemies a little too much anyway, so this could make sense. Something like 8-10 second recharges by default (meaning around 24-30 seconds from empty to full), to be upgraded as the player advances to around 4-5 seconds per charge (for 12-15 seconds from empty to full). In a battle, four seconds is a long time.

Less inventory space (sort of).

This may be a function of how I play, but beyond the very beginning of the game I very rarely ran out of ammo, or even worried about running out of ammo. It’s worth noting that enemies are programmed to drop ammo/health more often according to how low you’re running on each, a mechanic I respect: it gives the player a bit of momentum when needed to make the game less punishing, and taps the reward center of our brains.

Dead Space players know the iconic green of the medical gel looks even sweeter when you’re desperate for health. These moments of vulnerability are exciting and memorable, but also much too rare. What isn’t rare is having to shuffle through your inventory after opening a cache of goods, a boring exercise in book-keeping that offers little strategic depth. My solution is two-pronged:

  1. Have a separate space for miscellaneous items like upgrade chips, blueprints, frames, etc. — anything other than the three core items that actually help you in battle: medi-gel, ammo, and stasis packs. Group types of items together into stacks (3 different upgrade chips would show a chip icon with the number 3), with details on each item if the player selects the stack. This space should be compact visually, but offer almost unlimited space. This simply frees the player from book-keeping, and works just like the “important quest items” space that has always been present.

  2. Have just two rows of “regular” inventory space for ammo, medi-gel and stasis packs (rather than the 5 max you can upgrade to normally). This puts pressure on the player: they’re more vulnerable and mistakes (which really boil down to managing and preserving your health, ammo and stasis effectively) are more punishing. This is balanced out by the game giving you more items the less you have, to keep the player within that edge-of-your-chair sweet spot. Players might be able to upgrade to 3 rows over the course of the game.

More consistent weapon balance.

The weapons in Dead Space are almost all fun to use, but fun doesn’t mean viable. For every effective weapon in Dead Space 3, for example, there are maybe 1.5 more that aren’t as good. Each weapon type (or “tool” in the game’s parlance) has maybe one or two optimal choices, too often because their stats are just notably better. In all three games, too many fun weapons are left by the wayside because their numbers aren’t quite big enough, which is a shameful waste.

Another issue with Dead Space 3 in particular is that some weapons are much less ammo-efficient than others, because of the unique way the game handles ammo. Say one weapon has a clip size of 1 and another a clip of 60. If you fired a single shot from the weapon with a clip size of 1, it’s the same as depleting 60 shots from the other weapon. This means that upgrading your clip size from 1 to 2 doesn’t only give you another shot before reloading: oddly, it also makes you conserve twice as much ammo.

Therefore, weapons that deal the most damage with the least amount of ammo expended end up being much more resource efficient than they have a right to be. This is actually functional, except that it exacerbates an existing problem: it lengthens the already present gap between good weapons and the rest.

A better way to test weapons straight from any bench.

The Dead Space games have always presented the player with the (usually expensive) option of buying new weapons, without giving them any clues as to how effective or worthwhile they might be. Experimenting with different configurations is half the fun, especially in Dead Space 3. It’d be nice to be able to play with them without having to burn through all your ammo, or have the dedicated “test mode” (a welcome addition to Dead Space 3) actually throw some difficult enemies your way, and be accessible without having to flee to the main menu all the time.

More uneasiness, more subtle scares.

Too many of the series’ scary moments result in something abruptly making a loud noise and/or jumping out at you. The creepy atmosphere is generally good, but would gain so much by adding more of the small things: random skittering sounds, darkness/flashlight sequences, subtle hallucinations of small details that can’t be real, along with the final, most important detail:

Enemies spawning randomly.

I saved the best for last: to me, this is one of the core things that kept the Dead Space series from reaching true greatness (from a purely gameplay perspective, at any rate). It’s hardly a problem the first time you play through the game (unless you frequently repeat sections), but renders subsequent playthroughs stale.

The player should be left alone around benches, but should be at risk at any time nearly everywhere else, except for some scripted scenes and other rare places they’d logically be safe. Necromorphs are everywhere: the world would feel more real if it actually felt like they moved around and could find you. From the moment the player realizes there’s randomness present in the game’s environments, traversing them becomes more tense — and more meaningful. Ironically, random encounters are often more personal than scripted ones: they provide more opportunities for unexpected outcomes that the player can claim a heightened connection to.

This is clearly a pretty tall order, but there are some more manageable methods:

  1. After all scripted encounters in an area have been experienced, define a few (logical) spawning locations for enemies (perhaps 1-2 enemies have a 50% chance of spawning whenever the player enters an area).
  2. Have variable starting positions for enemies in scripted encounters. Instead of a necromorph emerging from a particular vent every time, it could enter the room from two to four different vents.

Doing both would be optimal, but it doesn’t take as much effort to implement the first option only.

If I could incorporate just one thing from this list, it would be this by a mile. But imagine how much better the Dead Space games would be with all these changes. I’d say at least 50% better — and with stronger writing, you could definitely push 100%.

Text and artwork copyright © Daniel Slawson 2019