It's hard to make a scary video game. There are a lot of reasons for this, starting with the fact that most modern games don't punish death — just respawn! — and the idea that a truly scary game requires messing with many of the features that make modern games feel modern, like smooth controls and smart cameras. You can't really be afraid when you're in total control and you can see everything easily.
So there are only a handful of mainstream horror titles that most gamers agree are truly frightening — the first two Silent Hill games, and the early Resident Evil games; the latter series has now become so alarmingly bad that no less a maestro than Gears of War creator Cliffy B has offered to rescue it. (I would argue that the scariest games of this generation are the punitive and slow Souls games, which are not really horror games at all.)
Then there's Visceral Games' Dead Space series. The first one arrived in 2008 to the joy of horror fans, who received the game as a kind of holy text. The game, about a bunch of spindly and persistent space zombies called Necromorphs, was slow and disgusting and unsettling. By putting you in control of a weak and silent non-hero, the game captured perfectly the mood of dreary powerlessness of the first Alien film, which is the series' obvious touchstone. It was awful. It was wonderful.
The second game, also excellent, made fans of the genre (which Tom Bissell calls "the Eastern Europe of video-game genres, defined by oppressiveness and difficulty") a little uncomfortable by giving the protagonist a voice and the ability to do more than just stumble around bloody hallways and shoot while trembling. By the end of Dead Space 2 you were something of an action hero and probably a little less afraid.
Dead Space 3, the final game in the series (although you should take any claims of "finality" about a profitable gaming series about as seriously as a Jay-Z retirement) came out last week. It is by far the fastest-paced and least frightening game in the series, and by far the most ambitious. It has split opinions wildly. Some major outlets adore the game. Polygon called it "the best action game in years" (though the reviewer concedes that the monsters are "less gooey"). Game Informer deemed it "one of the best games of the generation". Other reviewers hated it. Strategy Informer moaned that "Dead Space 3 has abandoned any sense of atmospheric horror, forgoing it all for action"; referring to the game's much-dreaded cooperative mode, Eurogamer called the game "a poster child for the kitchen-sink development mentality of a console generation in its twilight months". Uniting the negative reviews is a general sense that Visceral Games has somehow compromised its integrity and the authenticity of the first game in an attempt to boost sales. A writer on Dead Space, Antony Johnston, called the game a necessary evil in order to broaden the fan base."
The impulse to lambast the game is understandable, and the first few hours of Dead Space 3 are sort of asking for it. Instead of leaving you alone with the everyman hero Isaac Clarke, the game saddles you from the get-go with two gruff sidekicks that look like the Gears of War dudes after a month-long juice cleanse (also, one of them is boinking Isaac's ex-girlfriend, because, plot). And the hour-long Gears-ish gun battle through bombed-out city streets that starts the game is exactly one hour too long. I'll admit this is all a little dispiriting and uncomfortable, like catching your witty and subtle vintage-store-champion girlfriend shopping at J. Crew while yammering on a cell phone and smacking bubble gum.
But problems with execution are not the same as problems with intention. And to suggest that Dead Space 3 represents some kind of panicked capitulation to the mainstream is an exaggeration at best. Visceral is well-known for their commitment to backstory and careful plotting. Before any coding on the first game began, the series' story producer, Chuck Beaver, wrote a so-called "story bible" that stretches from 200 years before the first game to 500 years after the last. The related text document, according to John Calhoun, a producer on DS3, contains nothing richer than some JPEGs and is still 200 megabytes. Given this context, the idea that Visceral improvised a massive course correction seems implausible.
Carping about Dead Space 3's change in tone also ignores a truth of gothic narrative: the more time you spend around the things that go bump in the dark, the less scary they get. Horror sequels are generally terrible. Ever wonder why Bram Stoker didn't write Dracula 2? Remember the Alien series, after which Dead Space is so clearly patterned?
And let's credit the developers at Visceral, who made two truly excellent horror games, with knowing just that. "If we were just to deliver the same experience from Dead Space, there wouldn't have been a Dead Space 2 or a Dead Space 3," Calhoun said. "We have to evolve. As much as players want more of what they love they also want something new."
So even if the new Dead Space is a disappointment, it's a disappointment on its own terms, not because it failed to recreate an experience that already exists. You can criticize a banana for being too ripe, but you can't criticize it for not being an orange. The good news for people who want more horror games is that there is crop of truly frightening, atmospheric, and original ones coming out of the independent games scene. Some of these games are genuinely innovative, using biofeedback or only audio to terrify the player. And some of them are on the same level as the original Dead Space. John Calhoun called 2010's Amnesia: The Dark Descent one of the scariest games he has played in years. It's twenty bucks. Play it late one night, and I guarantee the last thing you'll be thinking about is Dead Space 3.