Imagine a stadium concert, with you as the only audience. Pink Floyd’s lightshow from the Pulse tour is flickering and flashing in perfect harmony with a heavy metal interpretation of Beethovens 5th. 60 Steve Vai clones have their amps turned up to 11, and God is doing a drum battle with Chuck Norris.
Now replace the music with gore. That should give you a sense of what Dead Space 2 is like.
To some, it might be distasteful or offensive that the game focuses so much on highly explicit gore and violence. Seriously, this game could turn a butcher vegetarian. I do however feel that I can excuse DS2 because it goes about it’s business with enough focus and thought that it can actually be deemed a work of vulgar art. Political correctness aside, I’ll try to lay out what I mean.
The visual content of the game is an obvious place to start. Limbs and blood fly everywhere, and Isaac, the game’s protagonist has a high number of different death sequences, depending on which enemy or situation kills you. You might have your arms ripped off in an automated door, have your head impaled on a spike or get eaten (almost) whole by a terrifying space monster. In any case – very gory, very explicit.
Within the first 10 minutes of play, you will have seen several people get killed only a few feet away from you, and probably also have seen Isaac go down in the rather hectic first scene of the game.
The enemy design is another example. The enemies are extremely grotesque, vaguely humanoid shapes, with gaping holes in their skin, deformed bodies, body fluids leaking from various orifices, plus they have a habit of dying in incredibly messy ways.
Finally, the surroundings are frequently bloody, or even decidedly meaty, with alien flesh-mounds dangling from roofs and covering floors.
The surroundings are constantly setting you up to feel that gore, blood, violence and death are the norm in this game… with a few exceptions, which I won’t spoil for the unwitting reader.
Where it really gets interesting is in the mechanics of the game. The most ”famous” of these mechanics is probably that enemies must not only be shot but actually dismembered to properly incapacitate them. This means that the game actively encourages you to dismember enemies, letting limbs fly in all directions. You can even rip off pointy limbs from downed enemies, and launch them back at fresh enemies, doubling the gore. Fantastic!
Furthermore, you get items out of enemies by stomping on them. This means that after killing an enemy messily, you will often walk over to their disfigured corpse and give it a good stomp, limbs and cascades of bloody entrails flying freely to all sides. The game is almost forcing you to raise the gore level, by rewarding this kind of behaviour, even after the enemies are dead.
There is even a scene (alá the finger-cutting scene in Heavy Rain) where Isaac must guide a long needle into his own eye… not so much a gameplay challenge as a challenge to the players' fear of needles and the will to protect their avatar. It works great.
Where is the art in that?
So gore, gore, gore. Where is the meaning in this? See, the place where I think this goes from vulgar to artistic, is in the inclusion of game mechanics in the aesthetic vision of the game. The player HAS to confront their fear or repulsion of extreme violence, in order to play the game. You are rewarded for stomping on bodies, cutting off limbs and generally spreading gory mayhem. The game is an open invitation to a corpsegrinding party – only the strong of stomach need apply.
To top this off, the game has absolutely stunning art direction (not to mention the glorious audio, which deserves a whole article on it’s own), which manages to go beyond just ”blood” and into creepy Silent-Hill-esque grotesque nightmares. Once you’ve fought off a horde of monsters on the roof of a 300 ton mining machine, drilling it’s way through literally a tunnel of MEAT, you realize that this game is not just out to be gory – it’s out to redefine the term. And that to me is, if not noble, then at least ambitious enough to be deemed "art".