Dead Space 3 has been the subject of extensive criticism since its release, for everything from its homogenised gameplay, to the addition of tension-killing co-op, to EA's decision to include micro-transactions in a £40 game. It's not a bad game, by any means, but it certainly isn't scary. It's easy to blame the co-op, the brighter environments, or the option to order an airstrike via credit card for this lack of genuine horror, but for me, the problem is a little closer to home. The problem is that Isaac Clarke is still alive.
Dead Space has had the same protagonist for three games now, and every single time he emerges unscathed; mentally a little worse for wear, yes, but very much alive and intact. After so many successful Necromorph encounters, it's getting harder and harder to take them seriously as a genuine threat. In this case, I'm referring specifically to plot-related deaths, not those found in regular gameplay, as I'm sure every fan of the series has seen Isaac 'die' in a huge variety of ways. Why not leave your favourite Dead Space death in the comments?
Dead Space isn't the only series with such problems. Resident Evil, whose sixth instalment received a well-deserved critical mauling, suffers from the same issues. Leon and Chris have each starred in at least two previous Resident Evil games, facing all manner of horrific creatures and walking away alive and well, and I have to say that it's getting quite implausible at this point. It often feels as if they've been granted what I call 'plot invulnerability,' in that that they'll survive not because of any narratively justified skill or training, but simply because they are main characters, and knowing that your main characters cannot die is fundamentally crippling to any sense of fear and threat a game designer may wish to create. I mean, if Leon and Chris can take on a global bioterrorist attack and emerge victorious then what can possibly hurt them in any potential and inevitable sequel?
In this particular case, the business side of the videogame industry is negatively affecting the artistic side. I can certainly understand why developers may be a little hesitant to kill off their main characters. It's for the same reason that there are so many Resident Evil games; people generally enjoy what they're familiar with. They've gotten to know Leon and Chris and Isaac in previous titles and it feels comfortable, for a certain type of fan, to continue playing as them. It's risk-free; frightened writers don't have to gamble on creating new and unknown characters that may be rejected by fans simply because they're new. My point is that you can't have it both ways; you can't employ characters with implausibly superhuman survival skills and still expect us to feel even remotely scared while playing the game. It just doesn't work.
The sad thing is, when looking at games that do use the deaths of significant characters to create tension and fear, earlier Resident Evil games immediately come to mind. One of my absolute favourite videogame moments is the first encounter with Nemesis in Resident Evil 3, in which Brad, a significant character from the first game, is brutally murdered right in front of you. It shows that the Nemesis doesn't care who you are or how important you may be, he will kill you.
The first game and its remake are particularly effective in this area, as well. As you explore the mansion, you find the corpses of your comrades, supposedly elite soldiers, scattered and destroyed by the various monsters. Later on, it's possible for the majority of the main cast to die, with your various actions, or lack thereof as the case may be, causing the permanent death of significant characters at the hands of the mansion's creatures. It proves that these creatures are a force to be reckoned with, essentially acting as a silent warning from the game itself: "We did this to your teammates, and we'll do it to you."
Silent Hill 3 is another prime example, with the death of Harry Mason, protagonist of the first game. After assuming that he'd left Silent Hill and gone on to live a peaceful life at the end of the first game, it's absolutely mortifying to see him dead, soaked in blood in his own living room. This character that we connected with and cared about, gone. Just like that. It's a fantastic way to not only make the player despise whoever killed him; it fills our hearts with hatred, as it were, but also sets up the enemy as a serious threat, and makes the subsequent boss fight that much more thrilling. "I killed Harry, so what chance have YOU got?"
Any fan of Resident Evil or Dead Space will give you a hundred and one ways to make the series scary again; slower pacing, clunkier controls, the complete removal of any and all Michael Bay influences. I think, however, that the most effective way to bring back a sense of real terror to these games would be to open Dead Space 4 and Resident Evil 7 with the horrific murders of Isaac and Leon by the new deformed monstrosity du-jour, in full view of our new protagonists.
We tend to fear what we know can cause us harm. Right now, we know that nothing can cause us harm, and that needs to change if Dead Space and Resident Evil ever hope to scare us again.