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.