My memories of mooching around the USG Ishimura are nothing but good ones; terrifying, but good. Dead Space was horror, yes, but it was a slicker, more sophisticated offering than we’d been used to, a new adventure that perfectly fused a grim sci-fi story with stunning set design and gorgeous aural soundscapes. I can’t say I enjoyed every moment of it – protagonist Isaac Clarke and I bonded fiercely over our shared disgust of the Necromorphs that stomped the corridors of that abandoned spaceship, although I screamed out loud more than he ever did – but my god, what a ride it was.
I always preferred the original to its two bombastic successors. I’ve spoken before of my respect for the mute protagonist, and Clarke is up there with the best of ’em; he took all the Ishimura had to throw at him and more, stoic and steadfast, never wavering in his efforts to locate his missing girlfriend. Whereas gaming had traditionally taught us to always go for the headshot, Clarke learned – the hard way, naturally – that sometimes it was better to strategically dismember his undead foes and slow them down before taking them out completely. He didn’t have rippling biceps or flamethrowers or close-quarter-combat skills to incapacitate an enemy at ten paces, either; all he had was his quiet determination to locate Nicole and his trusty plasma cutter, plucked directly out of his work toolbox.
I first played Dead Space on Xbox 360. That’s where I last played it, too. Moving from Xbox 360 to Xbox One wasn’t as seamless as moving from the One to the Series X is today; backwards compatibility was nowt but a twinkle in Phil Spencer’s (not that one) eye, and there was seemingly no appetite at the time to make games compatible with newer systems. And while there’s no doubt that next-gen upgrades and streaming services like PS Now and Xbox Game Pass prolong the life of last-gen – and even last-last-gen – titles, I’m less convinced of the industry’s current obsession of endlessly remaking fan-favourite games… and I’m utterly torn about current rumours that Dead Space might be the latest franchise to be getting the “remake” treatment.
It’s very fashionable now to remake games, of course. Resident Evil. MediEvil. Halo: The Master Chief Collection. While some studios dance the fine line between remake and remaster and fall on the latter side, there’s an industry-wide fascination in taking the big games of yesterday and remaking them from scratch – from new voice work to revised gameplay elements, and even controller schemes – for a new generation. And I really don’t like it much.
I know it’s churlish to resent that, by the way. I understand the motivations are varied, and not always about money. I know it’s kinda cool that a whole generation of gamers – gamers who might have missed the Xbox 360 years entirely – can experience the wonder of the games that captivated me so decades ago. But in truth, rarely do any of those remakes make me feel the magic their old-school counterparts did. After all, it’s one thing to tart a game up with some tidy graphics – it’s quite enough to rebuild it entirely.
This is why I feel so conflicted about Dead Space. While it lost its way a little after the sequel, yes, it was a seminal instalment in the annals of horror gaming. It was one of the first games I ever played that offered procedurally-generated enemies, which meant you never really knew when a fucking Necromorph was going to drop onto your head. It was one of the first games that didn’t let me take a sneaky reprieve by a well-timed push of the pause button. Sure, that’s hardly something to bang on about now – pretty much every live-service game we have won’t let you pause the action these days – but at the time, it was incredibly innovative. An intentional design choice to keep the players firmly anchored in the tense action.
But what was considered gameplay innovation in 2008 might be old-fashioned – hell, even boring – now. Most of Dead Space’s secrets are well-known, and carefully documented (I organically worked out what the first letter of every Dead Space level spelled out as I was playing it and holy shit: what a revelation!). Will some people think its focus on atmosphere and world-building is too slow and laborious today? Will the control scheme feel clunky and dated? Can a decade-old game ever be reframed for a contemporary audience without losing a little of what made it so special at the time?
I’m undoubtedly looking forward to the reveal next month, when EA may – or may not – confirm the rumours. And though it’ll be interesting to see if the series will be revived, remastered, or remade entirely, I really hope the focus is on the former two rather than the latter.
Dead Space (and the sequels) are currently playing on the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.