Somewhere in the far reaches of space, the medical team of an EarthGov psychiatric trauma unit are scratching their heads. They’ve just finished fitting manacles to the padded walls of what they’re affectionately calling the ‘Isaac Clarke Suite’, but their patient hasn’t arrived. In fact, the call has come through from reception that Mr. Clarke has discharged himself and is at this very moment striding purposefully across the hospital car park, still in his backless gown, on a third mission to save the universe. The doctors can’t understand it. Isaac Clarke should be as mad as an octopus jacket, and yet everything about him in Dead Space 3 suggests he’s fine.
Isaac Clarke has seen some shit. By the beginning of the series’ third installment, almost everyone he knows or has ever cared about has died – mostly screaming and on the end of a spike. The only significant character still alive is his former girlfriend, who has left him for another man (that’s his second former girlfriend – the first one killed herself). He’s the subject of a galaxy-wide fatwa on the part of the sinister Unitologist space cult and has had his mind garbled by psychic alien artifacts. He’d make the top five best Jeremy Kyle guests, easy.
But despite experiencing horror beyond measure, Isaac in Dead Space 3 has never been more clear-headed. He stomps about, tinkering with weapons and calmly slicing monsters apart, and even becomes the de facto leader of a small band of jittery survivors. And as much as I enjoyed marching round the derelict spaceships and the blustery ice planet of Tau Volantis, Isaac’s miraculous transition from addled survivor to cool-headed cub scout leader is a criminally missed opportunity – a glaring failure to capitalise on a terrifying and uniquely Dead Space flavour of madness that could have given us the most unnerving game of the generation.
There’s a brief, brilliant moment in Dead Space 2 when Isaac returns to the now-sterile Ishimura mining ship, and a tentacle whips out from a hole in the floor and begins dragging him towards death. Isaac blinks, and he’s back where he was standing. It was a hallucination. And it’s more disconcerting than any of the game’s wobbling spike monsters because it reaffirms what we learned from the Nicole hallucinations of the first game: that Isaac can’t ever trust what his senses are telling him.
Sadly, it’s a moment that Dead Space 2 squanders. From then on, Isaac’s insanity is largely represented through QTE sequences spent fighting off a single imagined enemy and a ho-hum final bossfight which follows a comfortingly familiar formula. There’s a main baddie to shoot at, and from time to time lots of little ones spawn to nip at your ankles. Run about, keep shooting, pause to reload and repeat. After that solitary flash of tentacled brilliance, the game goes back to trotting the company line that there is no Dead Space problem – even psychological – that can’t be solved by blasting its limbs off.
But Dead Space 3 could have been one long tentacle moment: a deliciously dark and uncertain story in which a haggard Isaac, broken by the things he’s seen and done, completely loses the ability to trust what his mind is telling him. Imagine the terrible incomprehension of raising your Plasma Cutter against a charging Necromorph, the ammo counter reading full, only to pull the trigger to hear the soft clack of an empty chamber. You reload frantically. The counter reads full. You pull the trigger. Clack.
Later in the game, a support character could crackle over Isaac’s comm unit. The centrifuge that provides the artificial gravity is being blocked by something, and Isaac’s the closest person to take a look. As you wander out into one of Tau Volantis’ blizzards, following the blue map marker, you notice the temperature gauge on your suit is going up rather than down. When you stagger, frostbitten, into the centrifuge facility, you blunder about inside but can’t find the chamber. The map is pointing you straight into a wall. The support character comes on, nervously asking what you’re doing. You tell her you’re at the centrifuge facility, but your map’s bugging out. She goes quiet. She never told you to go to look for a centrifuge – how could she? Planets don’t need artificial gravity.
The headgames would only get worse as Isaac got closer to the Markers. By the final stages of the game, you’re as much of a wreck as Isaac. You’re keeping a mental tally of how much ammunition you’ve collected because the bastard counters keep lying to you. You’ve sellotaped crude, hand-drawn floorplans to the bezel of your TV after the in-game map tried to direct you into a spinning piece of mining equipment. You’re cross-examining every mission objective and every piece of dialogue, feverishly sifting through information like you’re in a remake of A Beautiful Mind about space monsters. Are the rest of the crew even real? Have they ever told you anything Isaac couldn’t have figured out for himself? How did you first meet them, again?
Isaac working at full capacity is a veteran dismemberment machine, more qualified than any other human being alive to fight off a Necromorph onslaught – and therefore literally the worst protagonist in the universe for a survival horror game. But he shouldn’t be at full capacity. By Dead Space 3, he should be a terrified, chattering nutjob; at once desperate to escape the terrible vendetta of the Unitologists and compulsively, powerlessly driven to save his crew in the way he couldn’t save his dead girlfriend. Isaac’s battle shouldn’t be something you fight with cutting tools, but something insidious, creeping and ultimately unwinnable. Just like the game’s Markers, Dead Space should get inside your head, and end with you shaken, confused and unsure of Isaac’s world – not cutting through swathes of giblet monsters with a rocket launcher chain gun.