Dead Space And The Magic Trick That Is The Ishimura

It's a magic trick. Some might say it's a cheap magic trick but I'm just about stupid enough to fall for it every time.

It's the reason why the original Dead Space is one of the best horror games ever made, it's the reason why Dead Space 2 feels like a pale imitation. It isn't the scares. It isn't the controls and it sure as hell isn't the shock of the new.

It's the Ishimura.

———— The Ishimura: a clever illusion, but sufficient enough to fool most players. It certainly fooled me. It's the first thing you see as you float through space in the game's opening; a sprawling, broken husk of metal, suspended in space. You see it in its entirety, this space you will explore and live in for the next 16 hours. You land, convinced the space you are now inhabiting is connected to the massive shuttle you saw in the beginning. It feels real. The illusion is maintained and it has weight.

Dead Space is divided into levels. It's linear. It's divided into cohesive chunks you play through one at a time. In that regard it's no different from any other shooter you've played in the last decade. It's a set piece driven peek-a-boo ghost story with smoke and mirrors. But Dead Space never feels like Call of Duty. It never feels like a game that drags you down corridor after corridor despite the fact that's all it does. It's an illusion.

Open world games, for example, don't necessarily have to worry about this illusion, neither do games with tightly designed spaces like Zelda or Metroid — they've already done the hard work by genuinely being cohesive spaces you inhabit and explore. They're environments with proper connections that you can physically make within the game world. Dead Space has to fake it. The Ishimura is a magic trick, but it's one of the best magic tricks in gaming, and it makes Dead Space worth playing.


Dead Space does simple things, but it also does the difficult things.

Simple things like highlighting the section of the Ishimura you will be exploring next between levels; placing that space in context relative . Simple things like using voiceovers to emphasize where you're heading next and why. Filtration systems are broken, you have to fix them. The computer core helps the ship run. Even the cannon sections — typically the most loathed part of Dead Space — makes sense in terms of the ship's design. At all times, throughout every chapter of the game, the Ishimura and its integrity as a real, cohesive space is prioritised — this gives Dead Space weight. As you lumber from one insignificant errand to the next, just like you might in any other game of this type — you always feel as though what you're doing matters in the grand narrative of the space you're interacting with.

But Dead Space is only able to pull off the simple things because it's already gone through the difficult grind of building the space in fiction. At all times the Ishimura feels like a place that could genuinely exist. It feels that way because it was prioritised. It was written about, drawn, discussed, thought about, argued over — that's clear. In every corner of the Ishimura you can feel the effort, yet are only barely conscious of it. And the reward comes from how seriously we take that space, and how we react when we're placed within it. The reward is atmosphere, initially, then tension, then — ultimately — terror. It's a tension that's incredibly well managed through scares, well managed encounters and a story that (mostly) makes sense.

But it all starts with a magic trick. It all starts with the Ishimura.


It's something that was lost in the sequel, replaced with larger scale combat and driven pacing, but it's a lesson worth learning.

If you're going to tell a scary story, it helps to have a haunted house. All of the best horror games do. Resident Evil has its mansion, Silent Hill has the town. Dead Space has the Ishimura.

Or, at least, it had the Ishimura. Dead Space 2 didn't. Here's hoping the third one does.


    This is definitely correct. The Ishimura was as much a character in DS as anyone else was, it's definitely what 2, as action packed as it was, was lacking.

      the ishimura IS in deadspace 2.
      Albeit briefly.

        And that was probably the most eery part about the sequel; briefly scavanging through the remains of an old, haunted ship.

          the drop boxes and stuff are in the same locations. You go into decontamination and know they are going to come, then they don't, then they do. When you find out you have to restore power you have such dread because you know what it looks like down there and what it's going to take to get the task done I feel sorry for anyone that played DS 2 without playing 1, it ruins the best part of 2.

        Indeed it was but only extremely briefly, it was like that sequel character who survived the first movie that returns only to be killed off in the opening credits or the first half hour (Jamie Kennedy SCREAM 2, Liev Schrieber SCREAM 3).

          No, not really. It's in the last third, it's a fairly extensive area, and it's one of the most intensive segments of the game. And it's freakin' awesome if you've played DS1 and can appreciate the homage.

    and if the following Dead Space games were set on the Ishimura, it would feel like repetitive BS that shows the developers have no idea where to take the franchise and force the game around what's familiar with nothing new.

    I actually hated the Ishimura in Dead Space 2 because it felt like they were simply trying to scare me with memories of a past game rather then letting me follow the idea of new scares in new areas.

      Yeah, they need to build something new with the same level of care that went into the original setting. That's what I'm getting at.

    Interesting, then, why Resident Evil 2 worked so well. At first glance, RE1 to RE2 follow a similar expansion of focus, yet RE2 remains an effective horror game.

      I honestly thought that as I wrote the last paragraph.

      But I'd argue that you spend most of your time in that freaky arse police station.

        That's a good point. It's been a long time so I can't quite remember. But if the police station is simply the mansion of RE2, then this explains it. I'm replaying through RE2 now on vita so ill keep this in mind!

        You might also argue that Racoon City is a pretty well thought out too.

      RE2 expanded on RE1, it stayed in the same area, expanded on what was talkd about and was the logical progression. It didn't take a sudden right turn and go 'full retard'.

    I still think I was scared because I'm such a bad shot. :P

    Dead Space was also scary because you were alone for most, if not, WHOLE game. This new Dead Space (3), makes me worried because as soon as you add other people, the scares become a lot less... scary.

    But you're right, Ishimura had great design behind it.

    Who would win in a fight, the Ishimura or the Von Braun/Rickenbacker combo?

      Well, I loved the Ishimura, but as it seemed like a spiritual sequel that owed a lot to System Shock 2 (like - a LOT lot), the Von Braun/Rickenbacker has to do it.

      I mean, if you think about it, a lot of the plot elements are scarily similar - alien force slowly dementing, mutating and enslaving ship crew after a planetside dig, story revealed through ship-logs, a level spent on the horticultural deck, a military ship assigned to protect the dig ship which is overrun and infected, the only allies being ethically dubious and later treacherous...I mean, you could write a feature article about this. Someone probably already HAS. I'd like to read it!

        If you go to Gamesradar there's an article on the top 7 or so games that started out as something else. One of them is Dead Space where they claim that it was actually supposed to be a sequel but due to naming rights etc they couldn't do so. Not sure if its true. I do know that being a huge system shock fan I railed against this series for being a blatant rip off before playing and thoroughly enjoying in its own right. So pumped for DS3

      I know I'll cop hate for saying this but I liked the Ishimura better, just because it felt like you were actually on a spaceship. In SS2 you start off on earth and then transition to the Von Braun, and I always kept forgetting I was actually supposed to be on a spaceship.

      Ha! I was hoping i wasn't the only person who noticed the similarities.
      Only in SS2 you were allowed to revisit parts of the ship.

      I believe the giant sphincter of the many would... devour the Ishimura. Mmmm.

    Had this exact conversation with friends lately. So true! The Ishimura feels like a real ship with systems that make sense, it feels like you are interacting with an actual object you are trapped on when in fact the tram is the hub and the "decks" are separate levels. But as an environment it feels connected and consistent. The sprawl does not.

    Thank you for helping me pinpoint why I always felt DS2 was inferior to DS1. Not bad by any stretch, just nowhere near as good.

    Not talking about unnecessary multi either, just as a purely single player experience.

    Not particularly interested in DS3 at all.


    Also worth mentioning DS1 always reminded me of Event Horizon, one of my fave sci fi/horror films of all time. That's not a criticism either, more a testament to how well they nailed the sense of horror in DS1. So much atmosphere.

    Last edited 04/02/13 1:59 pm

    Resident Evil 2 was also a product of its time - there were few other genuinally scary games at the time, and Resident Evil 2 blew open the original, made it more sensible, yet kept a tight leash on you - keeping you in corridored gameplay. That Police station was genuinally creepy. It lost it towards the end I think, the factory wasn't scary at all, but it's still my favourite of all the Resident Evils, including 4. Wish they'd remake it.

    One of the reasons I liked DS2 MORE was becuase I got to revisit the Ishimura, making it even more alive than in the first one.

    The Ishimura felt like an update of the the Von Braun from SS2:

      Scroll slightly upward and you'll see that this comparison is well underway.

        Ah yes.. well there was that rumor that Dead Space was meant to be SS3 but they couldn't get the license. Both games also remind me of Project Firestart on the Commodore 64.

    much like event horizon, the space itself is a character with emotions and intents. Agreed.

    I'd kind of liken this to how back in the day you'd tell people how far you are through a game based on what disc you're on (Damn you, DVD/Bluray!). Ishimura serves the same kind of purpose of dividing the game up into meaningful chapters, in that you always know what chapter you're on and when you're going to get to the next chapter since the transitions are very clear (each section = 1 chapter).

    Most games now seem to do this poorly in that you don't know what chapter you're on until the first time you save and you're like "Huh, I'm on Chapter 4? What were chapters 1-3?". Ishimura works with this metaphor even better because the size of the ship is almost a spatial metaphor for a progress bar, and it seems to be a gaming trope now that you're not really supposed to know how far into the game you are.

    So yeah, I'd say this is really about giving ques to the player about where they are in the game, at least thats my $0.02. :)

    Brilliant. I will always remember the Ishimura......but I forgot the name of the Sprawl until I read the article.

    I think it is a lot scary on the ship than the sprawl as well because of the feeling like you are truly trapped or enclosed. On a planet, you always have the feeling of, "well I can just drive/fly away from this infested part of the planet and get away". But on the Ishimura, you truly feel trapped and that there is NO where to run too, as every inch of the thing is crawling with necromorphs. Number 2 also seems to empower Issac. DS1 (much like Bioshock 1) really makes you feel weak and 'just a guy' who is in a bad situation. DS2 (much like Bioshock 2) makes you feel powerful, like you are the BAMF that everyone should fear.....which takes away the games overwhelming feeling.

    I've never actually been genuinely scared by a video game. Sure, I've jumped at the "jump moments", but that's more being startled, not actually scared.

    There's been a few games that have certainly been creepy, such as Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, and the original F.E.A.R. - but I still can't honestly say I've been scared by them.

    In fact, I can't remember the last time I ever got genuinely scared by something fictional, be it in a video game, or movie or whatever. I certainly haven't since I've been an adult, because I know that it's not real. Even if I allow myself to get totally immersed (and I do, I only play these types of games at night with the light off), at the end of the day I know necromorphs on a space ship are not real, so it doesn't affect me in the slightest.

      I mean, the game isn't supposed to destroy your psyche and leave you constantly in fear of Necromorphs coming out of your vents at home, worrying about markers corrupting your thoughts - it's pretty squarely set in science fiction so it's not supposed to be totally relatable (sp?).
      It's supposed to be scary while you play it, not after you're done. The first time I played through it I was scared shitless through the majority of the game. I'd fight with myself to try to work up the courage to go into the next in-game room, and that's what made it such a great game. But when I turned the game off I wasn't afraid of necromorphs, and you shouldn't be either. lol

    bought them as a pack and played one after the other, 2 was by far my favorite

    Had this discussion recently elsewhere myself, and I'll reiterate what I said...

    Dead Space 2 cops a lot of flak because it simply couldn't give people the same feeling that DS1 could, simply because it was impossible as it had already been done. People knew what the overall deal was, they knew largely what to expect. Short of wiping people's memories of the first game, expecting the second game (or the third for that matter) to be that "OMG amazing!" experience again is absolutely absurd.

    People had that feeling already, they couldn't just forget the awe of it and expect it to happen again... And this wouldn't change in the slightest if it was once more set on a stage as good as the Ishimura. The universe and lore remains the same, people know whats up. You can't really surprise them as much due to this.

    I kind of feel sorry for the people who can't get past DS1 to see DS2 for the utterly amazing game it was in its own right. The 'action oriented' claims in regard to DS2 are a bit of a laugh also, DS1 could be called the same if you took out all the backtracking you were made do where virtually nothing happened. Just because you had largely eventless backtracking padding your journey doesn't mean it is a grand example of a non-action focused title.

      I had this convo with ex-Kotaku Editor who said something I thought was quite interesting. He said that in a horror game, backtracking is important and it's not always a negative thing.

      I agree, especially in the case of Dead Space. Back tracking gives you a familiarity with a space. In horror games that helps set up scares. I place you previously thought of as a safe chill out area suddenly becomes a terrifying area. Subverting your expectations in that way is really important in horror games like Dead Space.

        Truly. There's a fine balance between making people backtrack through monotony too much and lulling people into a false sense of security so you can have a zombie drop through the roof the 4th time they've trotted through this hallway without seeing even the smallest sign of an enemy, but if you get that balance right it makes the game.

        Heck, I think the first time I saw the "thing drops out of nowhere when you've been trained not to expect it" trick was in the last palace of Zelda 2. You go an entire 50 hour game without anything dropping out of the roof, and suddenly a gigantic blue blob drops on your head. I'm pretty sure I yelped and actually dropped the controller the first time it happened.

      I don't know that I buy your claim. Ever year or two or three I go back and play DS1 (and sometime DS2 and 3) again and it still scares me, but the sequels never do. DS1 has a more frightening atmosphere than the other two. In the end it's a different game. DS2 is a story about Krauss and the Government and the Church not about Isaac and survival, but it tries to be DS1 instead of something new. DS3 is what DS2 should have been minus the silly story.

    How is it a magic trick? Where's the magic? Unless you mean the magic of good planning/production and the magic of a really well used and well proven convention in horror (and any literature).

    Making the world feel real and weighty is immersion, plain and simple. If they didn't do that, then they failed on many levels - from basic gameplay to intellectual construction of the worldset.

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