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OnlySP 50 Favorite Games

OnlySP’s Favorite Games #27—Dead Space

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Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week’s game is the first straight-up survival horror name on the list and a remarkable achievement, unfairly buried by executive meddling in the years hence.

Dead Space promo 2

#27. DEAD SPACE, by Michael Cripe

Horror has never quite been able to break out of the awkward phase when it comes to its place in video games. Sections meant to terrify lose tension due to the fact that respawning is almost always an option, and mini-maps or health bars alike always manage to obscure true immersion.

However, Visceral Games’s sci-fi masterpiece Dead Space stands true as a title so far ahead of its time that it managed to rectify nearly everything that has been holding the genre back for decades. Dead Space is a masterclass in immersive world building and no game has ever come close to even touching the bar it set in October of 2008.

Purely based on fundamentals, Visceral cracked the horror code in a way that felt as if the now shutdown developer peered into the future. Booting up Dead Space finds players in the worn shoes of interstellar engineer, Isaac Clarke. Clarke has been sent on a recon trip to the USG Ishimura after communication with the mining ship ceased.

To make matters worse, Clarke’s girlfriend was last seen onboard the same mining ship he is travelling to. Equipped with nothing but a standard RIG suit and an engineering tool called the Plasma Cutter, players are made perfectly aware that they are practically useless in terms of combat.

After the stage is set, boarding the Ishimura reveals the HUD—or lack thereof—that players will become familiar with over the next 10 or so hours of the game. From beginning to end, players will almost never see a traditional health bar, inventory select screen, or special meter. Everything that needs to be seen can be found on or around Clarke and the RIG.

The health bar is aptly located right on Clarke’s spine while stasis has a dedicated semi-circle nearby as well. Inventory is displayed via hologram in-game and if players get lost, Isaac has a navigator that can spawn from his hand in order to help guide the way. The different ways Visceral kept minds from leaving the game world range all the way from naturally intuitive to remarkably genius.

Of course, the glue that gels all of Dead Space’s moving parts into one whole is the world that has been so carefully laid out before the players. Necromorphs are the enemy encountered nearly at every turn and they manage to both terrify and intrigue. The only way to kill necromorphs is by cutting off their limbs. Not only does the specific idea of dismemberment add lots of gameplay potential, it makes these creatures completely unique to science fiction.

Mangled space zombies that come in all different shapes and sizes that are easier to kill through dismemberment are a piece to the massive lore puzzle that is Dead Space, and the piece fits flawlessly—it is all believably horrifying in every way that has not been seen since the original Resident Evil. Even more remarkable is the fact that Dead Space is somehow still a joy to look at, even an entire decade later.

Whether the art style or sheer technological power is to credit for graphics that still mostly hold up is hard to tell. Regardless, one would have little reason to not go back and give Dead Space a shot.

To add on to the world building is the narrative presented throughout. The twists and turns in a game that absolutely does not need a convincing narrative are ever present. Suddenly Clarke discovers that the necromorph invasion did not happen by chance and is actually the result of a religious cult known as Unitology.

Cultish undertones and Resident Evil visuals paint a grotesque canvas teaming with tension. Suddenly, Dead Space becomes less of a romp through a haunted house and more of an investigation that tests a willingness to survive. Even in its worst moments, Dead Space will keep players on their toes.

Dead Space is less a stepping stone for the genre and more of a landmark. The industry is still failing to keep up with Visceral’s success in immersion and world building, but that does not mean that Dead Space was anything but a triumph.

Rarely is the title brought up in discussion when looking back at the greatest games of all time, so hopefully our piece has helped shine a light as to why the horror-thriller is one of the standouts. If you have never played an entry in the franchise, we at OnlySP implore you to rush to your PC, plug in your Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, or download it on your Xbox One, to give it a shot.

To help keep the tension alive until you are boarding your first trip on the Ishimura, check out the game’s reveal trailer from E3 2008 down below.

THE AGE OF “MAINSTREAM”

Only two and a half years after the first Dead Space made waves in the survival horror genre, Dead Space 2 came along and was less an evolution of the form and more like ‘Uncharted in space’, complete with a now-voiced protagonist and explosive set-pieces. Luckily, as one of the most expensive games ever made, the sequel retained polish and excitement to spare, making it successful with critics and fans—but the damage had been done to what was once a promising horror franchise.

In the same year as Dead Space 2, publisher EA also happened to release Dragon Age II and Crysis 2. For all three games, what started as a relatively niche product for a specific audience was pressured into adopting broader strategies; in the pursuit of greater magnitudes of sales. These games all had their own fans, but at the expense of the hardcore early adopters of the series.

Crysis 2 became more linear. Dragon Age II reduced the complexity of its battle system and breadth of its world. Finally, for Dead Space, whose primary inspirations System Shock 2 and Resident Evil 4 were beloved in their time, the sequel dropped the backtracking, the tough choices around resources, the slow build of dread. By the time Dead Space 3 arrived, the spirit of new ideas that began in Dead Space was replaced with a vaguely horror-tinged shooter, one that even used the cover mechanics that were all the rage in mainstream action games.

Taking cover, co-operative multiplayer, and universal ammo (essentially erasing resource management as a problem) were all features intended to appeal to a broader audience. Not terrible by any means, Dead Space 3 maintains a healthy contingent of defenders, but the series still lost its original followers, without becoming the sort of blockbuster success that EA hoped for.

In this case, other single-player games for fans of Dead Space are not its disappointing sequels but its inspirations and successors. Aside from the aforementioned System Shock and Resident Evil, the more recent The Evil Within games share Dead Space‘s resource-managing, panic-stricken horror, and Bethesda’s reboot of Prey has many terrifying encounters, mixed with deeper role-playing mechanics.

Alien: Isolation comes closest to the thrill of Dead Space, but just missed the mark.

Alien: Isolation comes closest to the visceral thrill of Dead Space‘s horror, though without the inventive rogues’ gallery that the necromorph threat brought. At the far end of the spectrum, complex action-adventures such as Dark Souls and Metroid Prime (whose 3D map presentation and slow-unlocking doors made an appearance in Dead Space) include plenty of back-tracking and snatches of horror, though less of the survival-horror aspects specifically.

Thanks for joining us this week for an important title, well worth checking out and hopefully to inspire the next generation of survival horror games. Do you have a memorable game in the survival horror genre that you wish had gotten a better shake, or at least not devolved into a cooperative action game? Share in the comments if you like, and we will see you again next week on OnlySP’s 50 Favourite Games for a very influential action series.

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OnlySP 50 Favorite Games

OnlySP’s Favorite Games #34—Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us

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OnlySP Favorite Games 34 - The Wolf Among Us

Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. The game this week is another Telltale series (The Walking Dead is at #19) that continued to push the envelope for adventure games.

The Wolf Among Us gameplay screenshot 1

#24. TELLTALE’S THE WOLF AMONG US, by Sep Gohardani

In 2012, a video game adaptation of the popular comic book and television Show The Walking Dead catapulted Telltale Games from niche studio obscurity into the limelight. The company’s model of securing the rights to popular IPs and moulding them to its adventure game format resulted in other acclaimed titles like Guardians of the Galaxy and Batman that sought to twist the common formula and offer something different in those massive franchises.

In amidst the rising tide of their reputation, the company took a chance on something that was not quite as big or as popular, opting to give the Telltale treatment to Bill Willingham’s long-running comic book series Fables. What ensued was a wonderful twist on the tale that quite possibly makes The Wolf Among Us Telltale’s greatest achievement amidst a plethora of other very creative work.

The game is set in a world where fairytales are real, but not in the way one might expect. Instead of a magical far off land, the game is set in Manhattan (though maybe that is Manhattan for some), in a specially created enclave called Fabletown. This small settlement is where a plethora of characters from famous fairy tales and myths have been living after having fled the Homelands, which is now ruled by a mysterious, dark Adversary whose draconian regime became too difficult to bear.

The Wolf Among Us gameplay screenshot 2

Those who escaped have managed to assimilate in to America without much trouble due to cloaking magic, while any non-human ‘fables’ must use an enchantment known as a ‘glamour’ to maintain a human appearance and not arouse suspicion, or be taken off site to The Farm, a refuge that those who cannot change their appearance go to.

Bigby Wolf (formerly known as the Big Bad Wolf) is the Sheriff of Fabletown in the year 1986. He is charged with maintaining order, but Fabletown is not too eventful of a place. Soon, however, trouble is brewing and a simple trip out to help someone get home starts to unravel to reveal something dark and insidious in this last refuge of the great Fables.

This is a game that nails its tone. As soon the opening titles appear, Jared Emerson-Johnson’s brilliant score, and the moody, purple lettering of the title make clear that the game was going to be drenched in noirish atmosphere. The art style welcomes this theme: it is vivid and evocative, but never overstated, providing a rich setting for the characters and embodying both the darkness of their situation and their new gritty reality.

The Wolf Among Us gameplay screenshot 3

The player takes control of Bigby and is tasked with figuring out why things are getting increasingly out of hand when no one can afford them to, meaning lots of detective work. Bigby himself is fascinating. He is the gruff, sardonic, chain-smoking main character one might expect from a game like this, but he has nuance under that exterior. He is moulded by the decisions the player makes. The extent of the choices available mean that the way Bigby interacts with those around him dictates what the most important aspects of his personality will be, whether that is compassion, dedication, or a thirst for blood. Adam Harrington is brilliant in the role, and was well deserving of his BAFTA nomination, his main triumph being the subtlety in his line delivery and the way he makes each version of Bigby feel a bit different.

As everything unravels, Bigby slowly finds himself having more and more dots to put together as each environment contains clues and answers that are pivotal to figuring out how to stop those at the heart of the problem. This example demonstrates how immaculately written the game is that each of these moments feels gripping, from the very beginning of the first episodethrough to the end. The way the mystery is built up, with all the twists and turns along the way, makes for a thrill-ride worthy of any famous detective.

But not just the mechanics of the plot make the game Telltale’s greatest output. The characterisation of each and every one of the prominent characters is fantastic. Each citizen of Fabletown feels unique, with their own issues and opinions and sometimes even skeletons in the closet that Bigby has to deal with, and those character moments indelibly affect the way the game plays out and what sort of person Bigby wants to be. Notably characters like Snow White, who here is pragmatic and adamant that the rules in place keep the Fables safe, do end up having an impact on Bigby and his decision making, while others, like Colin the Pig, can help to show a different side to him, presenting him with many dilemmas along the way.

The Wolf Among Us gameplay screenshot 4

In this way, The Wolf Among Us becomes more than just a simple detective story. The game becomes a rich, intricate world full of complex interpersonal relationships that is barely managing to hold together and is straining even more while the mystery is solved and the threat is increased. These relationships become central to the game’s moral dilemmas, and in true Telltale style these are difficult decisions to make because the characters feel important, their perspectives understandable, their circumstances challenging. Bigby’s journey through these problems shapes him and those around him, ultimately deciding the future fate of Fabletown and potentially bringing him eerily close to the villain of the piece.

In a certain way, one can easily guess the kind of experience Telltale will provide for them in gameplay terms. The gameplay is fairly standard, and quick-time events make up a large part of the gameplay in moments of action or urgency, while exploration and discovery are encouraged in the detective work. The gameplay can at times be frustrating, but it is ultimately a mechanism to further the story and allow the player to shape Bigby in their image, according to how they would try to solve the problem.

Despite some frustration with the aforementioned quick time events, The Wolf Among Us is the adventure genre at its best. The perfect mix of characterisation, intense action, and world building works well in tandem with Telltale’s tried and tested gameplay and art style, the latter of which here is perfect. Emerson-Johnson’s score is always evocative and adds more texture to that innate feeling of immersion that the game provides. That the game will now no longer be getting a sequel due to the studio’s closure is a giant shame, but at least this example of video game storytelling at its best was made to show how it is done.

The Wolf Among Us gameplay screenshot 5

Do you have a favourite adventure game that did great work in story, but perhaps never had a fair shake? Maybe you could recommend the game for other players—why not join in the discussion below? Next week’s game also did great work with game narratives, though it is very much not an adventure game. In the meantime, you can follow OnlySP on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube, and join in with the OnlySP Discord.

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