In George Bernard Shaw’s satirical play Pygmalion, flower girl Eliza Doolittle is coercively instructed by Mr. Henry Higgins to pose as a genteel duchess not only in manners and dress, but in lingo as well—a role which espouses far refined a speech for Eliza to emulate. Conversely, in Tom Hooper’s biopic The King Speech, Prince Albert (later known as King George VI), while possessing all the posh to converse in a cultivated discourse, mercilessly lacks the ennobled tongue to speak it, thus compelling him to receive the necessary phonetic lessons to mellow out his stammers. Eliza and Prince Albert then are antipodal—indeed, each one has what the other one severely lacks. Therefore, both characters are distinguished by their voices, and both have a different story to tell and a personal adversity to surmount. The same is precisely true for the voiceless character that could come from a silent film or from a modern videogame; he or she still has an anecdote to share regardless of their verbal shortcomings.
So when Visceral Games decided to give the mechanical engineer Isaac Clarke a voice in Dead Space 2, who has remained practically mute in the original Dead Space, they also had to give him a new personality to go along with it. Because, as it turns out, it is inevitably difficult to tell a story like the one in Dead Space 2—a story that refocuses its tension on the monsters occupying the human psyche rather than those on the outside—without having its leading character utters a grievance or a closer examination on what is truly going on. In other words (and pun is desperately intended here) what has resulted from this voice transplant is two Isaac Clarkes: one whose psychology is the same as the player, and one who is diagnostically different.
I didn’t notice such resounding imparity until I revisited the original, and shortly after I had finished Dead Space 2. My initial experience upon comparing the inception of the two games can be summed up as follow: both are equally intense, but the way they emphasize Isaac’s exposition is narratively uneven, or at least individually different.
First: Dead Space. Here, the game beings with Isaac literally seated in the same manner the player is presumably seated, and entitled with the same limited viewpoint and knowledge the player is presumably entitled. With only the back of his torso is visible to us, Isaac powerlessly witnesses the scene that is unfolding in front of him beyond the glass of his starship, a scene that shortly turns into a monstrous crisis that will perpetually change his life and mystify his sanity. But Isaac isn’t alone in this crisis. The voices and images that accompany him in his journey, albeit querulously, belong to two of his comrades, Kendra Daniels, a technologist that was originally assigned to board the Ishimura and repair its communication systems, and Zach Hammond, the senior security office who frequently travels with Isaac and Kendra aboard the Kellion, the USG starship that clumsily careens into the Ishimura and thrusts the clique into a hellish repair mission.
What is seemingly clear from the beginning is that the stars of Dead Space aren’t meant to share the same screen and the same screen time, not merely due to their forceful separation by the Necromorphs, the game’s horrific rendition of what extraterrestrial zombies would look like, but more so to their wireless interactivity through holograms and voice messages. This leads to an imbalanced configuration that soon results in an imbalanced authority over Isaac’s agency. Shortly into the opening chapter of Dead Space, Kendra and Zach begin to torn Isaac apart, figuratively, not only by their slavish demands of his engineering skills but also by their mistrusts of each other. Their camaraderie in other words is doomed from the start.
Conceptually speaking though, this isosceles companionship does make sense, for Isaac’s lack of voice haplessly complements his neutral angle as an errand boy among his teammates, whom are equally helpful to Isaac as much as they are troublesome. Indeed, Dead Space is one of the few survival horror games that the existence of survivors doesn’t always translate into a reassuring comfort. Almost all the living characters that Isaac meets aboard the Ishimura are psychologically insane or unyieldingly zealot, or are illusions of Isaac’s incipient spiral into psychosis, and the few honest ones who are willingly helpful die in the most brutal way imaginable. This compounds very well with the banal truism, silence is golden, because Dead Space feels at its safest when it is swathed in silence, and when only the discernible sounds it emanates are Isaac’s raspy grunts and the metallic screams of the Ishimura.
Then again, the key word here is feel, because to be incessantly entrapped in silence is unnerving in Dead Space, even when we are running the airless gamut of zero gravity where we might think it is uninhabited of Necromorphs (well, it is not). In fact, there is something tragically sadistic that the only instance for Isaac’s vocal cords to work is when he is writhing in pain or being anatomically severed: when a bodiless tentacle is hauling him by the leg to its bottomless den; when a petulant Lurker is mischievously assaulting his face and decapitating it from its body; when an indomitable Hunter is skewering his torso in midair and savagely splitting him in pieces; when a lanky Divider is squeezing his throat from a distance and plucking off his head by one of its appendages. But all of this seems to be strangely merciful, because the ruthlessness of Dead Space is not by the multitude of methods it kills off its hero, but by the way it depraves him from crying for help and rather incarnating him in a dead space. By making him wordless, expressionless.
It’s not until Isaac miraculously sets his path to freedom, out from Aegis VII —the mining colony where the ostensibly divine and mescaline Red Marker resides— that he finally takes off his helmet for the first time, revealing expressions of exhaustion and mortification distressing his face. It is such a pivotal moment, almost rewarding really. It doesn’t matter we don’t get to see Isaac’s face at the beginning of the game (well, we can, but that opportunity is fiendishly small and easily missable, so constituently it doesn’t count), because we can effortlessly testify that the Isaac who was obscurely introduced in the first opening scene of Dead Space is not quite the same at its end. Not merely because of the madness and the betrayal he has experienced for the last hours. Rather it is the horrifying and lifelike hallucination he has of Nicole Brennan; Isaac’s girlfriend who presumably had killed herself aboard the Ishimura, and also the first face that we see in Dead Space, and Dead Space 2.
Dead Space 2, in its own morbid way, feels instantaneously sacrilegious; at least to the way it throws out that what has been trimly established in its precursor, for the heroic stoicism that Isaac Clarke inadvertently wore (or used to wear) has literally been taken away. What we get in the opening cinematic is this: Nicole speaking to us, speaking to Isaac, through a hologramic transmission ala Dead Space, and Isaac, alarmingly unfaithful to the original set-up, appears in a small video screen in a one-on-one fashion. The face that he gives us however is unexpectedly familiar as much as it is conspicuously rapt, for Isaac doesn’t merely give us a face, but a smiling face. And that voice—the voice that Visceral Games have found it apt to titivate its silent hero—is not of the husky groan that we got used to in the original; instead, it is irresistibly dreamy.
What remains the same however is Isaac’s pitiless nescience of what has happened to him and what is intangibly happening around him. Indeed, the opening sequence that Dead Space 2 plunges its panic-stricken technician is tumultuously short, instilled with enough terror and dismemberment to regress him (and us) back to that particular incident three years ago. So, straitjacketed and disoriented, Isaac is rudely awakened in a psychiatric ward aboard the space station the Sprawl, where midway through his second exodus he changes path to travel back to the source that had etherized him upon the patient table: back to the Ishimura, back to the Red Marker.
But this is not an invitation to nostalgia. Nor it is a dark retrospection of the past. Dead Space 2 is a different game because it feels different. It is startlingly populated and talky despite starring the same number of characters as its original. The inventively constructed partitions that used to separate Isaac from other survivors in the past, whom were (and still are) always driven by their guilt, dementia, or a mix of both, no longer exist. Now it is close and personal. And for reasons that are obscure to me, the confrontations that ensue mechanically remove Isaac’s trademark helmet, which exposes his vulnerable expression to his assaulters and his eye to be punctured with their weapon of choice—a needle (as one of its many metaphors, Dead Space 2 has an odd fetish about eyeballs and eyeballs being yanked out). But there is one person Isaac persistently meets who is neither guilt-ridden nor psychotic: Nicole Brennan, Isaac’s dead girlfriend.
This brings me to the next subtopic: Dead Space 2 isn’t just the story of Isaac. It is the story of Isaac and Nicole, or what seems to be Nicole. It is also a story of redemption, even though, at least to my knowledge, the former didn’t commit anything terribly worthy of redemption. While Nicole is more like an afterthought in Dead Space —her presence in the story is mostly referential and ephemeral— now she is a jarring entity, a major character, a nuisance. But more importantly, she’s a formidable enemy that no plasma cutter would ever penetrate. She is, to be philosophically pretentious, a walking allegory of Isaac’s guilt; an abstract representation of what made him gains a conscious and a voice in Dead Space 2. Thus, it is thematically appropriate that the game finishes its didactic narrative in the way it does: Isaac dueling with Nicole, with his contemptuous self, aswarm with an infinite number of damage-dealing Necromorphs in what it seems to be the Martian landscape from Total Recall.
And yet, it is so disappointing that Dead Space 2 ends up saying so little, about its leading characters and its morally stirring story. Its sermonic exposition against (and about) Unitology for example —the far-reaching, truth seeking, suicide-inflicting religion in the Dead Space universe— miserably falls into deaf ears, because none of its seeming lectures are captivating or warranting enough. (I wished to see pragmatic and thought-provoking issues that felt contemporarily pertinent, not the 26th century version of Jesus Camp). What Dead Space 2 has managed to do is intentionally denuding Isaac from the mystique that he used to bear three years ago, and unintentionally laundering its limb-dismembering cult from the moral ambiguity it used to preach, if there is any. The outcome is a principle mix of good conception and bad execution, a riptide that results in a sequel that awkwardly clashes with its original, making us wonder if their mutual stories and Isaac Clarkes were ever brought up from the same draft.
Nonetheless, Dead Space 2 remains a game about voices, to which, if one desires a chance to survive, one should take heed of its voices. The sequel maliciously introduces two new subspecies that join the evolution rank of the Necromorphs: the Pack and the Stalkers. As the nickname suggests, the Pack is never alone. They attack in a group and they die in a group. They are the least mutated and disfigured species in the game, as they still retain the basic human form of their former selves, which makes killing them morally problematic and messy. But what is messier is that the Pack is created from children. That is, they shriek like children when they attack, and they shriek like children when they die. The end result is usually a pile of massacred youths literally cut down in their prime, and a demoralizing, dispiriting sensation of guilt and shame permeating its way to the brutal thumbs that have killed them.
The Stalkers on the other hand are absolute terror, and they deserve to be brutally killed by every mean possible and then cathartically severed to limbs under the crushing force of Isaac’s leg stomps. Always accompanied with a raging orchestra, they too attack in a group, but they do it with a devilish, concerted strategy while bellowing heart-piercing cries cued from a lively prehistoric exhibition. The braying, squealing, ticking, and wailing that they utter is a part of the said strategy, plunging the entire confrontation into a battle of wit, agony, and shouting curses. But once the skirmish ends in a silent solitude, thus tolling Isaac’s victory over the cunning horde, odds it’s hard for anyone to leave the battlefield undisturbed.
After graduating from Dead Space 2, I went back to Dead Space to reexamine my experience with the silent Isaac, and see whether there is something genuinely different about him. Here is what I wrote in my notebook based on the few hours I spent controlling him:
- Isaac seems to carry out an unusual weight and heaviness about him, which I believe justly convey the bulkiness of his armored suit and his unique lethargy even though they are detriments to the controls.
- Isaac also seems insufficiently trained with the stasis and kinesis modulus, as if he just started to use them for battle—which he is.
- Isaac remains frustrating to maneuver in zero gravity.
- Isaac is ultimately different from Dead Space 2’s Isaac; the latter is more agile, responsive, and experienced, and boasts an amazing vitality despite his malnourishment for the last three years.
But there is one thing that the original Isaac will always prevail in: his voice is always unique, because his voice is my own (or anyone who gets to control him). That said, I am not going to elevate my introspective experience in the same maudlin fashion players often do with their open-ended games (i.e. with moral anecdotes and sublime escapism) simply because Dead Space neither belongs to the same genre of games nor aspires to follow the description of such games. While there is indeed a dimensional boundary between Isaac and I that I will never be able to breach, there is also a universal and irreducible emotion between us, and that is fear. When Isaac is being dragged by one of the infinite arms of the Hive Mind, I rouse; when Isaac is slowly losing his oxygen level in zero gravity, I gasp; when Isaac is being drenched with oozy vomit spewed by a Spitter, I flinch. Sadly in this case, our experience is horrifyingly mutual. But such dramatic severity with Isaac and the game isn’t always the same contextually. Here is Nora Khan from Kill Screen eloquently describing her jointed “I” of personal suffering with Dead Space and its cultish faith:
At this point in the game, though, I can’t be bothered to care whether the Marker has caused my own madness or widespread death, what its unreadable writing means or even why I am even tasked with its transport. All I know is that it speaks to a powerful fanaticism that reminds me of people joined together in faith, an experience I am not part of. The Marker’s origin is in shared, communal belief, and yet I am alone here, hatefully bound to it, strained and delirious.
The Marker feels to me like the very origin of silence: the silence of death, the silence of prayer. If I wanted to pray now, if Isaac were that type of person, which I am not, he—I, could not aloud. If I did choose to, though, I would pray silently: for a return to speech, to companionship, to gravity, to the certain heft of flesh and sense. A return to my body.
Admittedly, I can still appreciate the Isaac Clarke of Dead Space 2 for what he is, but I don’t think I will ever bequeath him the same level of appreciation I do with his silent self; now he seems too familiar, too mundane, as if he’s blindly been pulled out from the same assembly line that has produced the last ten action heroes for the last ten action games: shaved head, unshaven face, slender build, and a wisecracked mouth. He doesn’t impart the stoic voice that I desperately need during the game’s many moments of desperation, for my self-desperation is precisely the lack of voice. And just like Eliza when she agonizes about her fate in the final act of Pygmalion, wailing, “What’s to become of me? What’s to become of me?”, and like Prince Albert when he confides to his wife that he is unfitted to be a King, crying, “I’m just a Navel Officer”, I too, though less dramatically, wonder where my voice has gone, and question my role with my partner that Dead Space 2 has set me off with.