Dead Space and how to play a scary game when you’re a big chicken

I am a scared little man with a scared little plan

Dead Space and how to play a scary game when you’re a big chicken

[Editor’s note: Quick thank you to Jeff Lee, Backlog Champion, for his generous support of Backlog. Dead Space was Jeff’s choice for the game that I’d play and review. If you want to request a game for me to play, consider upgrading to a Backlog Champion subscription to support this newsletter. Now, onto the comedy.]

How to play Dead Space when you are a big chicken:

  1. Whenever something scares you, which it will, and often, say to yourself: “This is not scary. This is funny.” This will be difficult at first, because there’s not a lot funny, initially, about space zombies whose limbs are blades and whose shrill voices are en-chorused by even shriller violins. Soon, though, you will learn to view a gross living corpse exploding out of an air vent as cause for a knowing chuckle. “Ah, you got me again, didn’t you, you rotting rascal?” Keep this up, even as you begin to encounter enemies who will not die, as well as the inescapably bad feelings that come with seeing the little baby space zombies who look a lot like Cabbage Patch Kids, but with tentacles.
    1. Careful not to push the Comedy Dial so far that the laughter becomes, itself, scary. Laughter is funny like that. It can turn the corner. It can disperse the dark, or become it.
  2. Try to remember the general beats of the original version, which you not only played and beat in 2008, but played multiple times. (What has happened to you since then? What became of your 18-year-old fortitude? What else have you lost?) Try harder, because besides remembering that the Plasma Cutter is OP and deserving of the lion’s share of your upgrade doodads, and that there is a space cult behind the space zombies, you really don’t recall much. Time is funny like that. (See Step 1 for notes on comedy.)
    1. Speaking of comedy, there’s a funny thing that happens when you try to remember how the game has changed, because as soon as you start playing this version, it begins to override how you remember the other, in that it feels precisely like how you remember it. Everything is exactly as you remember. Only, that can’t be right. Certainly, they’ve streamlined things. Added others. But without looking it up, besides the complete graphical overhaul, you’d be hard pressed to say with certainty. Regardless, you feel at home, in space, with the zombies, who have changed but not changed.
      1. Harness this critical uncertainty—alongside forcing comedy onto this experience, belaboring things such as this (i.e., imagining what you will write on the matter) will shield you from the bodily terrors that assail you.
  3. Don’t wear headphones. Wearing headphones was a rookie mistake. They just make everything feel closer, and wetter, and worse. Bad idea.
  4. Don’t use your speakers at high volume. This was also a rookie mistake. Your subwoofer is not your friend in this specific context. Your subwoofer is an emissary of the devil.
  5. Go back to using headphones, because your dog has never hated the sound design in a game more than this.
    1. Review Step 1 to get around not following Step 3. Repeat to yourself: “It’s very funny to have so many violins this close to my ears! Ha ha!”
  6. Play for, at most, 30 minutes at a time. This will help to manage cortisol levels, keeping them at a reasonably anxious hum, never crossing over into outright dread. Side effects may include:
    1. Feeling less immersed in the game’s story (sorry, Space Cult)
    2. Hearing the PS5’s little beep when it wakes up from sleep more than you want (also annoying to dog, who likes to sleep on the TV couch)
    3. The sorrowful image of yourself reflected in the blackened TV screen—monstrously hunched, shoulders up to your ears, which are covered in black and white PlayStation-branded headphones (see Step 5)—revealing to you, every 20 to 30 minutes, the depths of your own cowardice
  7. Due to your methodical, step-based approach, begin to enjoy the game. Its rhythms, its resource management, its brutal audiovisual orchestration—they’re really good, actually! You used to play games like this more often. You used to enjoy this kind of thing, but over the years, have drifted from such dark fare. Now, however, besides a tense playthrough of The Last of Us Part II, you can’t remember the last scary game you played.
    1. But is it scary, though? Is a game like this, which is so schlocky and over-the-top, actually scary, or is it just gory? Furthermore, could you actually call your reaction to it “scared,” or is it more accurate to say “jumpy?” What constitutes fear versus surprise?
      1. Regardless, it’s undeniable that you’re having fun. You begin to remember what you knew at 18: there’s a kind of immunity that accumulates as you play a scary game, where your body acclimates to the sensations the game is creating in you. You become inoculated to jump scares. Learn to see them coming. (If you have previously passed through a hallway in which there were no enemies, and you are forced to pass through that same hallway again, you should expect enemies the second time. It’s just common sense.) With all this in mind, you begin to focus less on the fear and more on the action: the limb tearing, especially, which, as in the original, feels really good.
        1. Perhaps this is why you stopped playing these supposedly “dark” games: you don’t want to admit that something like “limb tearing” is fun. That’s so brutish. That’s so below you.
          1. But is it? You can’t really make that claim, can you?
            1. And why would you? You’re having fun. Yes, you.
              1. The same you that played the same game at 18.
                1. The different you that played the different game at 33.
                  1. Are you actually scared of the game, or are you scared of its joys?
                    1. Tight hallways and dim corridors are a lot like writing. Their constraints make the whole thing sing.
                      1. The walls are closing in, now.
                        1. The walls are closing in.
  8. Write about Dead Space for your newsletter and forget any of this ever happened.

  • I reviewed Balatro for Polygon! It’s worth all the hype, folks. If you’ve ever liked a deck-builder, you owe it to yourself to pick this one up now. I’m not a poker guy, but I’m all in on Balatro.
  • Did you all see the Elden Ring DLC trailer? Looking forward to losing all sense of time and responsibility again this June, as I’m sure many of you are, too.
  • The New York Times ran a really substantial piece on Final Fantasy VII and, specifically, that one character death that I’m not sure why, in the year of our lord 2024, we’re all still trying not to talk about plainly. Anyway, I’ve found the Gray Lady’s increasing coverage of the gaming space interesting, if only because it still clearly has to adhere to the house style and a presumed non-gaming enthusiast audience. Worth a read, if only to see how the paper of record is exploring writing about a medium it’s belatedly getting around to recognizing as a full art form.