Dead Space and the Visceral death

With the demise of Visceral Games, it's worth looking back on just what made its best-known single-player game work.

Last month, Electronic Arts announced that it was shutting down Visceral Games. The studio has been responsible for a number of excellent horror franchises and was in production on a new Star Wars title helmed by Naughty Dog alum Amy Hennig. The news came as a shock to fans: it was a highly anticipated game from a respected studio and EA’s apparent argument -- that single-player games were no longer profitable for the major publisher -- helped set off another round of Discourse about the state industry and the place of studios like Visceral within it.

What got lost in all that conversation on the marketplace was Visceral itself, which is still, you know, getting shuttered. So what better way to honor Visceral’s legacy, and to see where the games industry is losing its grip on single-player experiences, than by unpacking one of the best survival horror series of all time and its slow descent into where we find ourselves now?

Dead Space (2008)

In 2008, Dead Space came out, and changed everything I thought I understood about videogame horror. And, additionally, how loud I could scream in the privacy of my own home. I had bought an Xbox 360 just to give this game a try, and from the opening moments I knew that I was in love. A spaceship has stopped responding to communication, and because you (Isaac Clarke, a terrible sci-fi reference name) are in the area, you are the only one to check in on the crew of the spaceship Ishimura. I mean, sure, you show up with a crew of fellow engineers, but after the first few seconds of gameplay you are left completely alone.

You soon learn that everything on the planet-cracker Ishimura has gone full Event Horizon. Seems that a cult (which is in no way based on Scientology) has retrieved an artifact called The Marker that changed the DNA of the crew and turned the entire ship into a hellhole overrun with zombies. Leaning into a new and brilliant shift in the formula, you can’t shoot any of these abominations in the head. You have to sever their limbs from their bodies to bring them down. The first few encounters before you crack this code, you’ll die a lot. When you do crack said code, it is somehow worse.

One of the things Dead Space does better than anything that came before it in games is to fully ground your character as exactly the wrong person for this job. Isaac is an engineer, not a soldier. As such, Isaac never acquires a gun. The weapons he acquires and upgrades throughout that game are all in his wheelhouse because they’re just repurposed construction devices. Most improvised weapons are in the welder family of tools, except now you’re trying to weld nine spiked tentacles off of the body of a screaming monstrosity. It’s the worst on-the-job training imaginable.

Dead Space

While there are stories to tell here, including the protagonist’s developing mental illness and the weird religious background of humans ultimately responsible for what happens here, this engineering bent is what crafts Dead Space into the structure that makes it so singularly memorable. In film school, I once heard that the best horror films are the ones that would have been terrifying even without the monsters: think about the plight of the women in The Descent even if they never dealt with the creatures they find. The same is true in Dead Space where, even without the infestation of Necromorphs, Isaac Clarke is still constantly trying to keep a quickly failing spaceship in one piece long enough to escape it. One of the most brutal sequences in the game involves attempting to deal with the damage from a meteor shower that will tear the ship apart while also being constantly attacked by monsters that hope to tear you into the void with them.

The best horror films are the ones that would have been terrifying even without the monsters... The same is true in Dead Space.

It’s these situations that make the Ishimura a character just as large and layered as the protagonist of any game. Structurally, just like Isaac and his skill set, everything here exists for a purpose. This is a living breathing environment where you can see exactly how life functioned long before mutated beasts tore the staff limb from limb. Each part of the ship has a function and that function is always under attack. Prioritizing systems and progress over your own survival takes a toll. And it would take that brutal of a toll even without haunted memories stolen from your brain being made manifest at the worst possible moments.

As previously mentioned, I bought the 360 just to have this game. As such, this was my introduction to paid DLC. The game offered some slightly improved weapons and battle suits in exchange for paying real world money. I…. couldn’t process this at the time. What was the point of being scared and underpowered if you could just pay to… side-step it? A decade later this seems quaint. At the time I was furious. Especially as someone who adored the game and played it through four or five times, I couldn’t believe people were paying to be cheated of the complete experience.

I’d learn to change my tune.

Dead Space 2 (2011)

Dead Space 2 launched in 2011. Isaac Clarke returned after the horrific events of the Ishimura by awakening on a space station where things go skin-turning-inside-out bad in the first ten seconds. Here on The Sprawl, a gigantic space city, things have gone terrible because guess what? That’s right, they found the Ishimura and pulled it into dock, and then everyone went all Alien Fleshpuzzle. But here’s the new wrinkle: you know that your player character was driven to madness during the events of the first game, so how do you trust what’s happening now? You can’t. So when new aliens start running at you, out from the day care center on the space station, and you start mowing them down -- are you actually mowing down astronaut children? Christ, you’d think you couldn’t make this series any darker but here we are.

Dead Space 2 added some story-based DLC, but it also tripled the amount of paid downloadable content for the single-player story. Did you ever wish that the engineer out of his element at the center of this series could have an assault rifle? Now you could pay for that privilege. I was still so shellshocked from the first game I pre-bought most of the DLC this time around, just to settle my nerves before starting the game.

This was around the same time that EA started down a path of company-wide dictate towards “games as service.”

This was around the same time that EA started down a path of company-wide dictate towards “games as service” -- moving towards more paid content, more “replayability” in single-player, and more online multiplayer elements. Dead Space 2 contains a bafflingly unnecessary multiplayer component wherein possessing various necromorphs feels brutally unfun. It has every indication of a last-minute tag-on component, right down to the fact that there are no achievements tied to the multiplayer aspect, which is fairly rare.

Between part the first and part the second, Dead Space knew there was a lot of expanded universe here to expand upon. The lore and the monsters and the religion were all ripe for development, and that led to some of the standard choices and then… some bizarre additions. There are two different animated films, a series of books and comic books, and then the tie-in games. Dead Space: Ignition is perhaps the worst: it’s a mix of visual novel and circuit arrangement games, with multiple endings to force replays, which can unlock some upgrades in the main game.

Dead Space: Extraction (2009)

The rather delightful Dead Space: Extraction was a Wii based rail-gun shooter which featured other engineer characters in a prequel situation. The absence of actual bullet guns in favor of rivet guns to reinforce barriers lived in the spirit of the original and brought the game to a platform where direct port would have come off woefully poor. Finally, in connection with the release of the sequel, there was an iOS tie-in (which EA would repeat with Mass Effect) that mimicked the gameplay in a bite-sized chunk. These EA mobile titles were known for being perhaps too much for the mobile platforms to handle, but also for introducing microtransactions that were priced up to $50 for in-game credits that could translate into possible in-game boosts on the consoles. This was DLC for DLC for DLC. No matter what enjoyment I could suck from having necromorphs in my pocket, the desperation of this cash-grab became impossible to ignore.

Which brings us to 2013 and Dead Space 3. Set on a frozen planet, DS3 mined the exact same premise as Capcom’s Lost Planet 3 (engineer blue collar protagonist on frozen alien-filled world). The problem is that, especially to me, DS3 is nearly unplayable because of EA’s influence. The basic skeleton of a story exists here, filled out by more human characters than the series had previously toyed with, and in many ways fulfills the progression of what the bonkers Unitologist plot had set forth. Unfortunately, large chunks of the story are locked off to co-op only gameplay, which I was never going to engage with in a Dead Space game. And following in the steps of the previously released Mass Effect 3, an even heavier system of microtransactions was introduced. John Calhoun, producer, defended the inclusion in a nonsensical tirade at the time:

“There’s a lot of players out there, especially players coming from mobile games, who are accustomed to microtransactions. They’re like ‘I need this now, I want this now.’ They need instant gratification. So we included that option in order to attract those players, so that if they’re 5000 Tungsten short of this upgrade, they can have it.”

Obviously, folks took issue with this idea that console games and mobile games should share similar line-ins, especially since console titles already have a $60 entry price-point whereas mobile releases are often free. The effect is felt in-game, and I succumbed to the microtransaction necessity early on in my first run. Why? Because it was already established in my brain that nothing here was beatable without burning more money in effigy -- even on the easiest level.

Dead Space 3 (2013)

I never finished DS3 and it was directly related to this moment. If I bought a game, and was already sinking nearly the same amount of money via microtransactions into the title just to proceed forward, why wouldn’t it keep screwing me over in this way? I always intended to come back when prices lowered, but prices only lowered on the game itself -- never on the transactions in-game. When you rely on transparently unfair systems like this, why would anyone ever give you a second chance?

This is not the story of a studio just fumbling an opportunity.

This is when the series died. And it hurts. It hurts because I worry that me not finishing that game somehow played in. It hurts because I worry that there was some kind of micro-buy-in I could have participated in that would have saved a thing I truly believed in. It hurts because I wanted to “showrun” this project some day. It hurts because a great concept is forever stalled now thanks to the mismanagement of expectation.

Visceral Games had every opportunity. It participated in other game franchises (especially Battlefield) and could have done incredible things given more time. This is not the story of a studio just fumbling an opportunity; it’s the story of EA trying to force a group of creative people into a position where the fit was never going to work. And in the process, they tried to either force (or by their measure “respond to”) an entire generation of gamers, and misplaced their focus in a catastrophic way.

A sampling of Dead Space 3's unlockables.

In the last few weeks, there have been innumerable stories about how the industry is moving away from single-player experiences. That’s true. There’s nothing that can beat Overwatch for how it drags money from the entirety of the world, and EA as a mega-corp deserves to demand stock incentives for its investors. But the tragedy is that you see how it can tear a promising IP to pieces. Horror film director and recent video game addict John Carpenter has demanded that he get first right of refusal at directing the Dead Space movie. People believe in this, and people have been changed by it, but also the industry has moved to a place where brilliance is suffocated by extra-fiscal purposes.

There is a true threat of single-player dying out in games now, but the greater threat is that the only opportunity for their survival is offset by microtransactions that demand even more. Visceral is only the latest, not the last, casualty in this race to the bottom.