Modern computer gaming has served up no shortage of entries in the increasingly well-populated ‘run and gun’ genre, and among the more inventive experiments to arrive in the field in recent years has been Visceral Games’ atmospheric Dead Space trilogy (2008-13), a popular series of survival horror adventures situated in futuristic science fiction locales.
The trilogy’s protagonist Isaac Clarke may well have been named in recognition of two pioneering giants from the annals of literary sci-fi, but the cerebral work of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke never reached the uncompromisingly dark or gruesome depths of Dead Space. Yet although the cycle’s claustrophobic environment and copious macabre gore (a highly effective melange of the Lovecraftian uncanny and Cronenbergian body horror) have won it many admirers amongst the critical community, perhaps the most remarkable innovation of the Dead Space games has been its ground-breaking depiction of dementia.
Dementia in Dead Space is not the result of particular psychiatric conditions; rather, the disorder occurs due to the influence of alien artefacts called Markers. When excavated in the 25th century, these Markers have various unpredictable effects on the different characters of the game, including the player-controlled protagonist. Symptoms may include delusions and vivid hallucinations, abrupt changes in personality (including acute paranoia), hysteria, and unanticipated impediments to reasoning - all of which can have potentially lethal consequences in an inhospitable environment filled with deadly mutated alien beings.
The games’ engagement with dementia is far from superficial; rather, the condition drives the plot in interesting and unexpected ways. Characters who do not exist, or who have been dead for some time, appear to communicate with members of the trilogy’s cast even though they are not actually present - a direct result of the Markers’ potent qualities of delusion. Because the player’s character and the supporting dramatis personae are all affected in different ways by dementia, distrust regarding their various motivations (that is, the extent to which their perceptions may be considered reliable) runs rampant throughout the games in the cycle. The unfamiliarity of the series’ far-flung locales, which include abandoned mining vessels, expansive space stations and desolate ice worlds, only increases the sense of apprehension and general unease, not least when traversing dimly-lit areas in zero gravity or racing to conserve rapidly-diminishing oxygen supplies in the cold vacuum of space.
Dead Space is a series which has succeeded admirably in the evocation of peril, ratcheting up one hazardous situation after another as it skilfully shreds the nerves of the player. In these games, dementia may be a condition which makes the protagonist - and the person controlling him - doubt their responses and distrust their own impulses, but it is also an adversary which is every bit as dangerous as the deadly Necromorphs which are implacably hunting their prey throughout the cycle. But somehow, Visceral Games manage to avoid sensationalising either the disorder or its place in the game. It acknowledges the many practical difficulties that the disorder can present, then views them through the lens of an extreme environment which would be risk-laden even at the best of times. And while many clinical psychiatrists would no doubt be quick to observe that many of the symptoms in the game are presented in a particular manner that would likely prove rare in a majority of real-life dementias, if the Dead Space cycle succeeds (even inadvertently) in raising awareness of the complications and anxieties inherent in the disorder then it has achieved much more than providing a hyper-realistic and intricately-plotted slice of sci-fi horror for home gaming consoles.