Booting up Electronic Art’s 2023 Dead Space remake, I’m struck with an, I’m sure quite relatable, sense of deja vu. I’ve surely been here before. I’ve been on the deck of the rescue vessel Kellion, watching stars hurtle past the bridge’s main windows as we approach the derelict USG Ishimura. I’ve hovered behind a squared jawed protagonist, dorkily named after two famous science-fiction writers, Isaac Clarke, who was once a silent figure, I’m pretty sure. Now he opines on practically everything he sees. I’ve watched him don his bucket helmet, originally a crude bundle of rust-brown polygons, now a glistening symphony of vertices and bump mapped crenelations—still, oddly, rust-brown though.
I look around and see new crewmates. I listen to old ones speaking in different voices. Isaac’s erstwhile girlfriend Nicole, meanwhile, comes through on the big screen, in clear high-definition. Wasn’t the transmission fuzzy before, awash with noise to hide the crudeness of her render? I search my memory; I try to recall how the game played back then. When “then” even was. What’s it been four, five years since I played the original last? Six? Did the game feel anything like this when I played it before? Has something impalpable changed about its core essence? Is it still, now in the hands of new developers, what it was originally intended to be?
It’s natural that the Dead Space remake would attack my sense of memory. Remakes are an act of remembering. In a literal sense they are the recalling of aged code, geometry data, texture maps dredged from the network backups of now-defunct developers. But they are also largely brought back from the realm of pure memory, and fantasy. They are relegated to what we remember about them, and what their publishers anticipate we might prefer to remember about them.
On EA’s promotional website for Dead Space, the company promises us “A deeper and more immersive experience” that will bring “ … jaw-dropping visual fidelity, suspenseful atmospheric audio, and improvements to gameplay.” It wants to give us, as most remakes do, the same experience, just more. It will look much better, but it will still remain, essentially, itself. Deeper, richer; unchanged, yet somehow still more immersive, “ … refined for today’s generation of platforms.”
We seem to be situated firmly within the age of the remake. The masters of cultural production are resolute on dipping greedily (and to profitable effect) into the pool of collective memory in order to resurface nostalgic totems to the past. The past encompasses thirty year old Playstation mainstays like Final Fantasy 7 and Resident Evil 2 (and 3, and 4). It also includes games from very recent memory like The Last of Us. All are up for grabs, all are material to be hoovered up and plastered back onto the present-day zeitgeist, over and over again. The power lies not in the totem itself but in the past it points to. It’s a marker, just like the one that sits buried within the Ishimura. It’s a signpost to different times, better times, times we can now call up and broadcast in higher fidelity, on powerful machines, in an empty future.
I’ve recently been playing Signalis, a survival horror game made by the two-person Rose-Engine studio. Signalis is an interesting game to play in light of our remake-crazed industry. It tells a new story that is still mostly built from past influences. In its maze-like corridors and limited inventory space we can glimpse the Resident Evil games. In its shambling enemies and shifting realities lie the clear outlines of Silent Hill. In its cutscenes and in the designs of its characters we can see evidence of anime mainstays like Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell. The game is boldly pastiche. One of the first things our character does is pick up a copy of Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow. Lovecraft quotes scatter across the game’s interstitials. Decontextualized German and Chinese text fills the screen like abstract, unsettling architecture. But for all these references, the game is not merely some hollow cipher. It doesn’t draw its power from the references themselves. Rather it uses them to form new shapes, new ideas, which it successfully weaves into nearly every layer of its themes and narrative.
In Signalis you play as the Replica unit Elster, a kind of cyborg built from the memories of a long dead human originator. You search through ruined colonies and subterranean mines in search of your missing Gestalt, the human to which you were originally assigned. In Signalis’ universe, Replicas are far more prevalent than humans. They teach classes, police humanity’s colonies and fight in their wars. A corrupt and totalitarian authority uses their endless numbers in order to replicate and spread its mass ever further. They have value only as tools of power, but in spite of their inherent unoriginality, they crave meaning, and connection.
In an interview with Waypoint, one of the game’s developers, Yuri Stern, says: “A central question of Signalis is, what is the worth of a replica, a copy of a copy? What does it mean to exist primarily in reference to something else?” The viewpoint of Signalis is the viewpoint of the Replica. Can Elster, despite her status as a copy, with her identity and purpose distorted nearly beyond comprehension, possibly hope to achieve something actually real? Can Signalis itself move us, show us something significant, despite owing so much of its substance to the cultural memories of its developers? When those memories are inevitably twisted and confused, as they must be for any of us who grew up in the ages of magnetic tape and jewel cases only to become subsumed by the deluge of the internet?
Our memories do not exist in a vacuum. They are compounded by information, centuries of it, all of it now instantly accessible and scannable. If I wanted to confirm my own half-remembered memories of the original Dead Space, I could search online and find a dozen full-length video walkthroughs. I could watch people play in 4K, in HD, on period-appropriate CRT flat screens. I could pull up side by side texture and raycast comparisons, check out detailed level design breakdowns. I could look even deeper beyond these sources, pull out the inspiring guts of the thing: stream Event Horizon, watch Aliens, download all of Lovecraft’s bibliography to my e-reader in under a second.
It’s all really too much memory. And it overloads my poor, over-exposed brain with too many perspectives and unrelated contexts. A million dots of light pricking holes in the otherwise serene fabric of my consciousness. To sit down with the Dead Space remake is to hold all these competing data points in my head, all fighting for my attention. I can barely make out the game for all the noise surrounding it. Like Signalis’ Elster, consumed by the conflicting memories of her past copies, I stagger forward, trying to find the truth buried within it all, trying to push through the static veil.
But once beyond that veil all I can ever make out is “ … jaw-dropping visual fidelity, suspenseful atmospheric audio, and improvements to gameplay.” There is nothing else here. Only an object pointing recursively at itself. It wants me to play it and treat it as something new, and at the same time: something that also holds all the memories that came before it, filtered, naturally, through the polished, nuance-effacing lens of the continuously evolving present. Adler, a character Elster comes across often in Signalis, describes it well: “It’s like everything was taken apart and put back together by someone who doesn’t understand how it works.”
For this reason the game feels utterly hollow, with wind knocking around its cavernous metal insides. And Signalis, which goes out of its way to point to its own recycled status, doesn’t. They are both copies of copies, memories of memories. But Signalis creates something new with its mismatched deck of cultural touchstones. It creates, in fact, a compelling account of living in the shadow of the ruins left by these once-great touchstones.
While Dead Space is happy to simply present its fractured status as part memory, part reinvention, asking us to call it our reality. In spite of everything else.
Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer. His writing on games stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.