Horror has a lot in common with comedy. We can look at things that succeeded and try to tease out reasons why but pinning down exactly what makes something scary or funny isn’t all that easy and when it fails it’s often pretty hard to describe what went wrong. There’s only so many ways to say “It just isn’t funny,” or “I wasn’t scared at all.”
There are no hard and fast rules for what makes something horror. It isn’t suspense: The French Connection is suspenseful and nobody would ever call it horror. It isn’t gore: Army Of Darkness is ridiculously gory but is it really a horror movie? The Shining is one of the best movies ever made and produces a high level of fear, anxiety and horror without much gore at all.
Good horror depends on providing the illusion of real fear in the audience. I’ve been genuinely afraid at times in my life but I am not actually afraid when I watch a good horror movie. Instead, great direction, lighting, acting, sound design, writing; all of these things combine to immerse me in a world enough so that I can suspend my disbelief and allow myself to experience a simulation of real fear.
Horror games need clear an entirely different bar to scare us because the medium is so fundamentally different from film. Because the horror video game genre has been basically defined by the old Resident Evil series there has been a theory floating around that true horror video games require the player to be powerless. The idea is that the ability to kill enemies ruins the experience by removing any actual fear from the player. This has led to a run of big budget horror games that aren’t really my cup of tea. I didn’t finish Outlast or Alien Isolation. I did finish RE7 and enjoyed it but...it’s nothing I’d ever replay. I barely remember anything about it and it’s been...what? A year?
I find this idea that true horror games have to dis-empower the player to be pretty disappointing. I am an extremely curmudgeonly old Italian dude from New York and I simply lack the patience to sit in a fucking locker holding my breath for 30 seconds at a time waiting until I get to play the game again. And frankly, I think this rigid formula is too reductive and doesn’t account for the kind of genre blending that allows for new and interesting takes on a formula. Aliens is less horror than Alien but it certainly horrifies without stripping all power and agency from the protagonists..
All of this is simply setting up this: it’s been ten years since Visceral games released Dead Space, the horror/action/shooter hybrid that remains one of the best horror games ever made despite never once making me spend 45 seconds in a locker holding my breath. It terrifies without making the player a passive viewer. It allows for the player to feel powerful without eliminating the fear and tension that a horror game needs to succeed. It does so much right that I wish this video was about a 4k, 60fps anniversary remake but....I guess EA was so scared off by the sales of Dead Space 3 that they’re uninterested in the license. Let’s take a look back and try to put our finger on some of what made Dead Space so damn good.
Now, normally when I post here I will put the entire essay with photos and captions while also linking to the video for those that prefer that format. It’s a significant invesment of time that I’m normally willing to make when I think a reasonable amount of people will read it. But this piece was 19 double spaced type written pages (which I am aware is, frankly, absurd) and the video it produced is over a full hour long. So this time I’ve only included a brief introduction and then the video. If the one hour video is too daunting what are the odds anyone would have wanted to read 16,000 words? Zero. That’s the odds. I seriously doubt I would have read it and I’m interested enough in the topic to have written it. Hope someone enjoys it.