Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The challenges of reviewing Dead Space, and why I had to call it good

One time when I was doing some interviewing at Disney Avalanche, a game developer drily told me that for them "an 8 is a 10". It prompted a brief discussion on reviewing game for what they are and what they're trying to accomplish rather than using a universal standard.

We wouldn't rate juvenile literature as poor because it has a lower level of vocabulary and doesn't have new and super-complex themes; we rate it as art (and sometimes morality) for the kids, tweens, and teenagers. It has a different purpose, and is reviewed and judged by different standards than what exists for adults.

This has led me to judge a game by whether or not it accomplishes what the designers intend it to. At best are games in which every single element, design choice, and design execution supports the game's overall intentions. At worst are games that have no intention but to simply exist and be purchased, such as 10-minute DS games that are worse than browser-based Flash games. Some games don't even seem to have figured out what they are trying to do.

Almost all games fall in between these two extremes; the phrase "tacked on" is applied when a part of a game does not mesh with the whole. A game is more than the sum of its parts, but some of those parts have no business mixing with the others. Many a game has a pointless multiplayer that just seems included to extend replay value and sales. Sometimes there are minigames that serve as diversions from everything else enjoyable about the game. Even if they're good, in actuality they're often a hindrance, like an unnecessary poem, letter, journal entry, or story within a story that has nothing to do with the real story.

This led me to some huge problems when reviewing Dead Space, dubbed as both a shooter and a survival horror game. First, it doesn't do either of those well. Second, shooters are my specialty, the genre I have reviewed the most and easily spent the most time playing. Dead Space is not much of a shooter. The only challenges for me were instant deaths, ammo issues, and cheap surprise attacks that take one third of your health. Any time I knew they were coming, they were slow and either poor shots or easy to dodge; I just had to line them up and shoot. This made Dead Space feel like work. And the survival horror stuff wasn't there that much; it's space, everything is in the open, it hardly even got dark, and it was more or less predictable; and you can upgrade your weapons and armor! To add to that, at the outset almost every single freaking part of it I could attribute to other games. Far Cry 2. Half Life 2. Bioshock. Doom 3 and Quake 4, even, which were mostly generic and looked to be a last hurrah for terrible, icky monsters in space that you shoot at close range with powerful guns. Bad + bad + derivative = bad, right?

I started to get excited. I, Michael Walbridge, would convincingly break down for the masses why Dead Space is overrated; and even if no one would read it, I'd have a good sample for a heavily-hyped game; I want a well-rounded selection to draw from when I start pitching for reviews. I must be getting somewhere if I didn't like what everyone else did, and can make a convincing and persuasive case as to why.

I got farther into Dead Space and my review thoughts and worried I was being unfair to the game. How many people are so aware of every single other freaking game, even all the shooters? What would a typical reader think of the game? That's something I want to respect. They don't give a damn about all those games combined or about narration or whatever, they just want a game that's "cool."

I played with headphones and I often played in the dark. I thought of what Dead Space was really aiming to be, a standard I promised I'd live by and had temporarily forgotten. Did EA say it was supposed to be a shooter and survival horror? No, those were attributions others had given it to summarize it. Dead Space was supposed to be Dead Space. But what was Dead Space supposed to be?

On the horror front, it still disappointed, and that is criticism I didn't change. It is predictable and it is really more gory and gross than it is scary. A lot of average guys would still want to play it because of the production values. And it did have some challenges that were not related to shooters or horror; the instances with zero gravity or zero air, or both were crisply presented, unique, tense, and they didn't seem "tacked on", or simply there just to be cool. They blended well with the whole package.

In fact, as I got into it very few of the elements seemed to be pointless, even the ones I didn't like. So what did I do in my review? I mentioned why some people (me, really) might not like it, and tried to say why everyone else would.

And by being patient with it, I found it is a little deeper than many others have given it credit for. Dead Space is a subtle horror story and manages to do something new for silent protagonists and game narration. Gordon Freeman, Jack, and Chell are you, and that forces you to feel as if you are part of their world. In Dead Space, Isaac is a silent protagonist just like them--or so you'd think. He actually has his own opinions. All his objectives have texts with his own opinions, and you see him on the outside. He rarely shows his reactions, but there is one time where he does which is rather poignant. And some of his decisions look obviously stupid. They often do not feel like decisions that I, the player, made.

Most subtly of all, on the last two levels, you, the player, gain a big distance from him. There are plenty of plot bombshells that surprise Isaac, but a couple of them are revealed to the player and not to Isaac. This is the game accomplishing something new: it draws you in as close as possible without making you the actual character. You don't feel like you are Isaac, you just become convinced you know how he feels. Then the game jerks you away from him; you now know how he feels but you also know something he doesn't. This is a blending, to me; you have your Bioshock/Portal element combined with something classical and effective, dramatic irony. You know that Romeo isn't really dead, and that Juliet doesn't know what's going on, and it gets to you. Isaac becomes a Juliet. And in the end, there are a couple parts people call plot holes that are in fact not holes but simply missing information. There are a couple of parts that, after you beat it, don't make sense (biggest bombshell, without spoiling it: if a certain person at the end of the game knew a certain thing, what did that mean for the beginning of the game?); but there are plenty of possible, rational explanations, none of them which aren't freaky or shocking.

This is Dead Space's saving grace as a horror story: it masterfully tells you plenty without telling you everything, and it isn't until you sit back and think about it that the lightbulb hits you and you have an "OMG! Why?" moment. You, like Isaac, don't have the answers you want, and you are left chilled.


Blogger Braden said...

That was really interesting. Thanks. Pity they did decide to go with gore over horror, but yeah, it makes sense.

3:13 PM  
Blogger Etelmik said...

Yeah--they had whispering voices and the occasional screwed civilian, but other than that it was really more like Aliens (as many critics pointed out).

Regrettable as it is, I don't know how deep space and yucky aliens could be otherwise. At least they attempted to be creative in how they originated.

3:15 PM  
Blogger Korey said...

I really liked what Disney said about when to be satisfied with their review scores. Children's/Teen books aren't reviewed according to the standards of great classical literature or Nobel Prize winning works. Similarly, games for younger audiences should be judged (partly) based on that audience. Of course, then there's things like Harry Potter, which is apparently loved by the entire world.

4:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But surely Dead Space is, at least in part, an attempt to cash in on the success of similar titles? If this was the impetus which caused the game to be made, then doesn't that also make it its design brief? I still feel that it is legitimate to attack Dead Space for being neither a high-flying shooter, nor a terrifying survival horror game.

The distance from the avatar, Isaac, interests me, though. I have yet to play Dead Space, but, when I do, it'll be that feature that I focus on.

11:21 AM  
Blogger The Shed said...

Good piece. I felt irritated when a lot of serious critics bashed Dead Space for not doing anything new or particularly innovative (even if I felt the HUD, Zero-G sections and weapons innovated just enough), but as you said, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Dead Space is a great experience as a whole; a well-rounded and balanced package, that almost runs seamlessly from start to finish (the only part that didn't gel with me was the sudden skip of location in the last chapter- DS's style would have been to show the change of setting in a cinematic way, but instead we just jump there instantaneously.) But it seems some folk can't get past the fact that the game is just a lot of fairly unoriginal concepts patched together exceptionally well.

And yes, I didn't find it very scary either, which was disappointing. I found it extremely tense (playing on hard mode, lord), and occasionally frightening, but at only one or two points truly disturbing. However, people that I know who aren't accustomed to the horror find the aggressive enemies and claustrophobic environments horrific. Fun listening to them over XBL Chat while they play =D

3:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish all reviews were based more heavily on developers intentions instead of consumer expectations.

1:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice post. I would love to follow you on twitter.

12:32 PM  

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