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The fine balance of Survival Horror design and Dead Space 2

Dead Space was a survival horror that while being challenging still managed to walk the line, ultimately delivering a frustration-free experience. The sequel falls short in this regard by continually breaking its own logic.

There has been two years since Dead Space saw release, so the design conventions of that title might be rendered quite a bit rosy of hue in remembrance. However there is precedence for a proper dissection of some points of contention in the design of the sequel. The issue comes down to the founding core of survival horror design, which has not changed with two decades and dozens of takes on the formula.

You start with an all encompassing oppressive atmosphere, most effectively achieved by dimming the lights. Next you have a number of options available, but the most cheaply achieved effect comes by way of startles and scares. It is a well known phenomena in cinema that it is easier to get a quick thrill out of your audience by using the tired trick of building up tension and then suddenly having people jump out of their seats by an sudden unexpected explosive delivery. Get the hearts racing by giving people a startle, such as having something jump out accompanied by a loud sound.

The less frequently employed manner of creating a  scare is the one that takes considerable more effort to execute, but when done so successfully will produce a much longer standing effect. The creation of an unsettling feeling achieved by ambient atmosphere alone which you never really cheapen by delivering on, but rather just seek to maintain. This is most often achieved by subtle visual cues, symbolism, psychological play and carefully crafted music and sound design.

The first 3 Silent Hill games stand as a fine examples of this alternate method with their bizarre looking, yet largely unimposing, enemies that can often be run past, or if inclined to, defeated effortlessly. Silent Hill’s lack of jump out moments or fierce enemies that swarm you does not make it less scary, in fact it is somehow more so, because the player is not given the repeated catharsis allowing them to breathe in relief after having pacified another scripted horde attack, knowing that it will be a while before the predictable design of the game will assault them with another.

Dead Space 2, on the other hand, while having the prerequisite dark atmosphere of horror games, opts for the cycle of scare and relief approach to unsettling gamers. This it does so with no less scripted predictability than in the first game, where players can easily smell an ambush coming. But while this design was executed with great success in the original some changes to it have tipped the balance in favour of frustration in the sequel.

To see why we need to take a look at another tradition of the survival horror genre games, that being the combination of formidable enemies with the scarcity of resources available to combat them. In games that rely overwhelmingly on the assault of their enemies to get their scare across it is important to make the enemy out to be imposing by using the aforementioned two artifices.

The fight against a foe is made that much more compelling when you are not at leisure, when they are assaulting you, to combat them free of restraint. This mechanic is used in Dead Space where ammo is a constantly scarce commodity. Thus while one’s first instinct is to throw everything one has at any  approaching enemy before it gets to close, the scarcity of resources forces one to reconsider this spendthrift policy. Instead one is forced into the strategy of felling the enemy by way of economic delivery of well placed shots. This is then taken to the next level by having enemies have clearly defined weak spots that are necessary to target in order to be economical, while at the same time being forced to be quick for there is always another attacker behind the one currently in view.

It is here that the design decisions of the modern Resident Evil games find redemption, for the enemy swarm approach to horror design presents designers with more than a few hurdles in order to be executed well. The fact that Resident Evil 4 does not allow for player movement mid combat has often been lambasted by players who are frustrated by the removal of freedom. This outcry is however the result of a knee jerk reaction to what is considered a departure from the control norm of other games and often does not contain much deep going analysis of how it syncs in harmony with the overall design of the game.

Upon close inspection the disallowance of movement during shooting is a carefully constructed marriage of level design and programmed enemy behavior. Just like in Dead Space the enemies in RE4 pursue the player relentlessly, but unlike Dead Space the enemies in RE4 are slower, and rather than assaulting you head on, will upon closing in enter a phase of indecision, walking in a circle while biding their time to strike.

This enemy lethargy allows the player to run around in the purposefully circular environments of the game to herd enemies in a long line, then stop, turn around, shoot a few, or disable many with a grenade, and before the enemies begin to strike repeat this tense cycle. The constant need to time one’s attack phases, combined with careful navigation of the environment add up to the fun of the tension filled combat in Resident Evil 4. It is a well balanced and fun approach to combat that sadly only falls apart when the game breaks its own logic by rendering the player helplessly immobile during lengthy and uninterruptable reload animations.

In contrast Dead Space allowed players to run while shooting and reloading, leaving them room to do some maneuvering as they constantly adapt to the attacks of the relentless enemies. The enemies in Dead Space in turn charge at the player once they get close, in the sequel they even jump and with great effect because once the enemy is in the player’s face combat is made very cumbersome due to the nature of the camera. Close quarter combat in third person games is often where the combat design falls apart due to obstructed view, and in case of Dead Space, constant relentless attacks by an enemy which is now very hard to put down.

Dead Space often challenges the player to combat a few more enemies at the same time than the player can efficiently manage, and to offset the lopsided odds the player is equipped with a mechanic to slow down an enemy with stasis, freeing them to focus on another.

This well balanced mechanic worked well in the original game, but Dead Space 2 employs overarching design decisions that break the fine balance. Dead Space 2 does what another title before it did similarly to very poor results, the title in question being Doom 3. Just like the aforementioned game Dead Space 2 uses a tired trick where a player enters an empty room, knowing that they are about to be assaulted, then proceeds to spawn one, or more often, two enemies in front of the player, while almost concurrently spawning a few behind the player.

This move to heighten tension by nullifying the direction of safety is also a very obnoxious design decision when used ad nauseum with no room made in gameplay design to accomodate it in a sensical manner. In continually relying on this gimmick Dead Space 2 clearly breaks the logic of needing to place careful shots on the incoming wave of enemies, because the player is left with no safe place to back up towards while engaging the quickly approaching frontal horde of enemies. Just like ammo, and health, Statis is a hard won commodity in Dead Space 2, and one often makes a point of conserving it. Thus when a wave of enemies is approaching from the front one seeks to freeze one, in order to deal with the other ones in the intervening time.

This strategy however, falls apart as soon as enemies are also closing in from behind. Because the player has no way of telling what is going on behind them they will seek to deal with the enemies in front as quickly as possibly. This is however made very difficult when enemies have received such a boost in speed and maneuverability in the sequel. The player is thus often overwhelmed by a stack of unfair factors working against them. While the player is busy trying to put down the frontal wave by way of careful shots they find that the ones behind them have closed the distance and have begun their assault.

In Resident Evil such a situation would usually call for a running away phase in order to group enemies in a more manageable single file, but here once against Dead Space 2’s design gets in the way. The enemies are fast both in pursuit and attack, so running will come at a cost, and since the cramped quarters are riddled with scripted spawn points running around will often trigger more enemies to spawn, upsetting the balance further.

It is clear that Dead Space 2, despite the freedom of movement, was designed with the intention of keeping the player moored to one spot, so they can clear one wave, before they move onwards to trigger a scripted second one. Alas the prevalent decision to assault the player from both front and back with very poor timing tips the scale in favour of frustration.

Other factors upsetting the design balance of the sequel is the tendency for enemies to enter into a wrestle animation upon reaching the player, which only allows all parties to close in while the struggle is taking place. Combine the flanking gimmick with the kamikaze type enemies that spell certain death upon getting too close and the well paced gameplay of the original unravels into uncontrollable chaos in the sequel.

Dead Space 2 is a classic case of a horror game refusing to play nice, which is how it is supposed to behave, but then taking things too far for its own good. Upsetting the player by shattering their sense of security and feeling of control over situations is a staple of Survival Horror design. Dead Space and Resident Evil 4 manage to walk this fine line in a well mannered way while still feeling imposing, but Dead Space 2 errs on the side of careless overindulgence.

On the Normal and Casual difficulties these breaking of game logic only amount to a nuisance since health and ammo management are less of a problem. However these unaddressed issues are fully exposed when the game is played on the higher difficulties, like the Survivalist setting that is recommended to players of the original game. On that difficulty combat suddenly requires skill and precision, enemies take more hits to go down, and health and ammo are very scarce, but the careless design decisions of the sequel also rear their head to spoil an otherwise finely crafted experience.

Nothing defangs a horror experience more than frustrating game design that result in frequent player death, and one's where they felt that they were not at fault. The very most memorable horror experiences instill into the player a sense of apprehension regarding imminent demise, but do not deliver on the feeling too often, for then death becomes routine and trivial, and the horror becomes defanged, morphing into a general sentiment of frustration.

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