Great Storytelling in Video Games: Dead Space

I’m sure a lot of people who have played it will disagree; after all, Dead Space is a game when initially released, that revelled in its B-movie plot and simplistic storytelling. It lacks the high concept and depth of Bioshock, and it lacks the intricate mythology-building of Assassin’s Creed. Yet this simplicity is precisely why we should enjoy it.


Dead Space

The first game starts on board a transport vessel as it flies out to meet the huge “planet cracker” ship USG Ishimura which has sent out a distress signal. Planet crackers do exactly what it sounds like, they use giant lasers to break up planets in order to mine the natural resources. As the game starts, our protagonist – an engineer named in a rather homage fashion, Isaac Clarke – is watching one of the last video transmissions from his girlfriend Nicole who was aboard the Ishimura as a medical researcher. This is important for later.

As Clarke and team of officers and soldiers board the ship, a defence mechanism triggers. Something horrible breaks out of the ceiling and kills all of the soldiers (fairly typically) leaving alive only Clarke, computer techie Kendra and one of the officers named Hammond.

Something has attacked the ship, something they dug up from a previous planet cracking mission (and an illegal mission as far as the authorities were concerned). Most of the game is a simple “go here, fix this” and on the way, you are attacked by equally grotesque and weird creatures. Audio and text logs tell us what happened during the mission and the crew dug up something called a Marker. This means very little to the player, but we learn this is a very bad thing for most of us, but great for the world’s fastest growing religion at this point – something called Unitology.

The reason Ishimura was carrying out an illegal mission was because the Captain was a Unitologist and using company property on the authority of his religious leaders. At this point, the story shifts from a mere shooter to something slightly more intriguing as we learn about this bizarre religion. It is also at this point that the separated Kendra and Hammond raise suspicions about the other and you’re not sure whom to trust (it’s Kendra. She’s not a Unitologist, but she does want the Marker for weapons division and ends up screwing Clarke over after getting Hammond killed). It is revealed that all hell broke loose at the colony when a virus stored in the Marker found its way into the general population, sending everyone psychotic so they killed each other; the virus then resurrected the bodies of the dead into the grotesque creatures we see on the ship and at the colony.


This is what happened several centuries before when the first Marker was found and this latest marker was simply a reverse engineered version of the original. At the end of the game, Clarke faces a giant creature which he calls a “Hive Mind” which he has tried to pacify using the Marker. It is believed that this creature controls the necromorphs, but in Dead Space 2, that belief takes a very strange and compelling twist.

Throughout the game, Clarke keeps seeing Nicole – though it is later revealed that she killed herself during the troubles aboard the Ishimura, we’re not sure whether his visions of her are due to his trauma – trauma at losing her and trauma about what happened on the ship, or whether there is something else going on, but that too takes an intriguing twist in Dead Space 2.

Dead Space 2

For me, this is where the story really takes off. It starts with Isaac Clarke in a psychiatric hospital on Titan. Nobody believed his story about what happened on the Ishimura, nor on Aegis VII and he still keeps seeing Nicole, only rather than passively helping him, she’s scaring the bejesus out of him and trying to stop him as he gets closer to the end. He is freed from the asylum by a character I am informed appeared in a spin-off online game, and fights his way through several levels, including breaking into a Unitology temple.

Clarke discovers, after meeting a host of new characters (some trustworthy and others not – the great thing is you don’t know which is which because of how the stories play out), that the governor of the Titan colony is (you’ve guessed it) a Unitologist and is building another Marker from Clarke’s memories and those of another NPC with which Clarke interacts. That’s when things went terribly wrong, leading to another outbreak. What’s more, the Ishimura is in space dock on Titan and Clarke simply has to go to have a snoop for old time’s sake.

His mission is to destroy the marker located on Titan before Convergence happens – and this is where it gets really interesting. The Hive Mind was not a proverbial kraken awakened, it was actually the sum of the body parts made up of the necromorphs. The virus killed people, turning them into necromorphs and once enough infected material had accumulated, the marker would draw it in to create a Hive Mind creature. The Unitologists knew this and thought it was the next stage of human evolution – Clarke disagrees and sets about destroying the Marker with which it seems he now has a psychic link.

And this is where Nicole comes back in. Malevolent Nicole seems to be a product of his psychosis manifesting itself as a psychic link with the Marker. Once he comes to terms with the personal guilt he felt at her death, she becomes Benevolent Nicole again – but only momentarily. The only way he can render the Marker inert, is by going into his own mind and fighting it and it uses Nicole against him.

Dead Space 3

In the interim, Clarke has had a relationship with Ellie – an NPC he met in Dead Space 2 and who helped him destroy the marker there. But they have split up and Clarke lives in a crummy one bedroom flat on the Moon with his life going nowhere. That was until the Church of Unitology decided to stage a coup simultaneously in all of the EarthGov colonies and set off markers – it’s curtains for humanity.

Some soldiers break into Clarke’s apartment and offer him a job – to find Ellie (who is missing somewhere near a planet called Tau Volantis) and destroy what they find there, hopefully leading the way in the fightback against the Unitologists. 200 years before, a military colony on Tau Volantis suffered tragedy when the team committed mass suicide in order to prevent information about the “Codex” from getting out. The SCAF team had found out Tau Volantis’ had a dirty little secret…

Clarke and the soldiers find Ellie and it turns out that Ellie is now in a relationship with one of the soldiers – and he’s not happy to have her ex-squeeze along for the ride, even though he knows he has to be there. Tau Volantis is now a desolate and icy world and Ellie believes that it may be the Marker homeworld, they may be able to shed light on who  built them and why. There’s an enormous machine beneath the surface and generations of people have tried to figure out what it was for. This game really touches the archaeologist in me and for that I feel it has the best story (whereas Dead Space 2 was the best for gameplay) because of the sense of awe and discovery and the big twist that gets thrown in.

Tau Volantis is not the Marker homeworld, it was, in fact, the homeworld of an extinct sentient species that had had a similar problem with the Markers. Realising they were on the verge of extinction, they used their resources to build a machine that would freeze the entire planet and the peculiar moon to prevent the spread of the Hive Mind creatures – the weird moon that has been a presence since the beginning of the game, is actually a giant Necromorph that was frozen during Convergence. Once again, it is down to Isaac Clarke to destroy a moon-sized creature.

So there we have it, B-Movie and a little silly, but in some ways the world of Dead Space is quite rich. Big bad religion is the villain here but perhaps an unwitting villain. The Markers are semi-sentient and can perhaps “infect” peoples minds long before they infect their bodies.

Outside the Main Games

The world of Dead Space did not stick with just three games. Though Dead Space 4 seems a long way off at best or permanently shelved at worst, the mythology has built up with spin-off games and even some animated films.

  • The fate of the Aegis colony and the Ishimura plays out in the Wii rail shooter Dead Space: Extraction. It doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know after playing Dead Space
  • Dead Space Ignition is a puzzle game prequel to Dead Space 2
  • Dead Space Downfall sees the first screen adaptation. This animated film follows the arrival of the Marker aboard the Ishimura
  • Dead Space Aftermath is the second screen adaptation that acts as a bridge between the events of the first two games
  • Several comics and novelisations that flesh out the world and add a little depth to the mythology – some of which are set at the time of the discovery of the first Marker, some run during the series and others run in the future – after the downfall of humanity

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