header is screenshot from Dead Space (2023)
Your Brain is Made of Meat
Julie Muncy

At some point, in your experience playing Dead Space—whether the original or the remake—you're probably going to start desecrating corpses. The impulse is as understandable as it is, potentially, irrational. Necromorphs, the game's particular riff on space zombies, are born from the dead and dying—they are, literally, the changed dead. Each inert corpse could be a threat, particularly with the introduction in the mid game of a special variety of necromorph that can transform corpses into living monsters in real time. Dismembering a corpse now, by way of Isaac Clarke's tremendously violent stomp, potentially prevents that from happening. Similarly, necromorph corpses are fonts of Dead Space's wide arsenal of stuff—ammunition, money, health packs. Kicking them when they're down becomes a reflex, like looting a supply crate or opening a locker. 

It makes sense that, eventually, these destructive impulses would bleed into the way the player interacts with everything. Why wouldn't they? A corpse is a corpse is a corpse. The relative normalcy of this gesture—empirically violent, unambiguously cruel—is a testament to how deeply Dead Space trains the player in its own brand of paranoia. It's so obvious that it feels almost silly to say, unspeakable for the way it's written in every moment of every stage of every Dead Space game, the original and its 2023 remake most of all. 

Dead Space is terrified of bodies. Which is, for any living human being, a difficult place to be. 


Isaac Clarke is the perfect protagonist for Dead Space, because he is, in his original conception, an antidote to embodiment. Dressed head-to-toe in an armored bodysuit, he is, at first glance, questionably human. His design follows the visual cues of videogame supersoldiers, your Master Chiefs and Doom Guys, given a working-class makeover. He's an engineer, ostensibly, but he is in practice more like a butcher. His equipment is well suited to destruction—he cuts, he throws, he immobilizes. The horrific, no-longer-human bodies of the necromorphs fling themselves at him, and he slices them into pieces. 

Dead Space works as well as it does for the same reason that a butcher shop might be disgusting. Even made inert, rent to pieces by plasma cutters and ripper blades, the bodies of the furious dead are unsettling. No matter how effective you are at your work, you'll still get bloody. Body horror works in part by emphasizing this unease. A finger, attached to your hand, is an extension of the self. Amputated, it's meat. And that makes it horrible. 

In the 2008 original, this logic underpins everything about Isaac as a protagonist. He's silent. His face is only seen, briefly, at the beginning and end of the game, when your identification with him is at its lowest. Other than that, Isaac's flesh is only ever rendered as flesh in the game's many lavish death animations. Isaac Clarke only bleeds when he dies. Embodiment is a fail state. 

The challenge of Dead Space is, in its most basic terms, about keeping Isaac's body away from the bodies that threaten him. If you play well enough, you can forget there's even a person in that armor at all. Later, when hallucinations begin to encroach upon the play experience, when Isaac becomes haunted by visions of his (spoilers: extremely dead) girlfriend, these things feel like they're happening to you, the player. Not to Isaac. Isaac isn't real. His body is fine. It's the necromorphs, hewn of hatred and rotting meat, that you need to worry about. 


Dead Space 2 reinvents the relationship between the player and Isaac Clarke, rendering him a whole person with a voice and an identity. You see his face—you feel his unease. EA Motive's remake of the first game makes the significant change of backporting that remade Isaac into the original story. This motherfucker talks—a lot. He takes off his helmet at the start of the game, and in certain safe areas. When dead girlfriend Nicole shows up and starts talking, he replies. Isaac Clarke is no longer exploring the USG Ishimura mining ship as an untouchable cipher. He's just a dude, an engineer from (probably) Space New Jersey. In between bouts of dismemberment action, he now seems like the type of guy who's thinking about his next beer. 

As Grace Benfell, writing for Paste, points out, this change has costs. She writes:

"Here, Isaac is an agent. He suggests madcap plans, gets into trouble, begs for less death but kills with coldness. He’s an action hero, with an everyman, working class energy. In the original, he is merely a worker—isolated from decision-making, but constantly made to bear the brunt of labor, forced in danger by sometimes thoughtless superiors…This change pushes Dead Space towards prestige drama, at the expense of the original game's expressivity."

As Benfell alludes to, this shift recontextualizes Dead Space's broader concerns regarding labor and capital. The USG Ishimura is a working vessel, and it reduces its inhabitants to nothing more or less than the conditions of their labor. It's a drab, utilitarian ship, even before it starts breaking, designed to disembowel planets—a type of body, in its own right—to feed a post-Earth economy that seems insatiable. Long before the space zombies show up, capitalism has already reduced the crew of the Ishimura to meat. A silent Isaac, an inhuman tool of a man, only furthers the point. 

But there are benefits to what Benfell calls the "prestige drama" approach, with its renewed emphasis on the interiority of its cast, and Isaac in particular. It opens up new valences to the original game's horror. Are these new ideas superior, worthy of overriding the original, the way videogame remakes so often do in the popular consciousness? Unclear. But they are, if nothing else, beautifully unsettling. 


The true horror of Dead Space (2023) begins opening up when you find the Marker, the alien artifact that spurs on the zombification of the Ishimura's crew. In both iterations of Dead Space, the Marker has effects beyond mutating the dead. It also sows madness in those who come into contact with it, feeding them hallucinations of loved ones in order to manipulate them into fulfilling the Marker's purpose. It is the source of the hallucinations of Nicole that haunt Isaac and, by extension, the player. In the remake, we see how it affects everyone—Daniels, Isaac's most consistent guide through the ship, sees her brother. Hammond, the captain of the vessel that brought Isaac to the Ishimura, has delusions about the death of Chen, another repair tech devoured by necromorphs. 

But what's most striking, in the remake, is how profoundly it affects this new Isaac. Isaac is a person now, after all, and so when he begins to hallucinate we get to see how he responds. In the original, Isaac is inscrutable and implacable. Now, we see him start to break under the weight of his own delusions. While the player will likely see Nicole's death coming from the early hours of the game, Isaac believes this illusion of her. He begins to buy into it. His affect shifts in quiet ways, becoming more desperate, more unrealistic. Far from untouchable, this Isaac, his armor now woefully penetrable, is having a mental breakdown. 

Notably, this psychic degradation is not disconnected from the mutation of flesh that characterizes the game's more mundane horrors. They are intimately connected—as in-game explanations make clear, the Marker works by using sound frequencies (stick with me here) to manipulate the matter around it on a cellular level. This isn't magic. Dead Space does not believe in the soul. Isaac and the other workers trapped on the Ishimura are losing it because the Marker is giving them brain damage. 

This is the horror of Dead Space's world, as the remake renders it. Not the threat of a malevolent intelligence, nor the physical threat of hordes of monsters. Instead, it is that you—all of you—are susceptible to the same power that creates those monsters. Minds can decay, as well as bodies, because they're the same thing. Isaac Clarke is not an avenging spirit. He is not an automaton, no matter how much he may look like one. And neither are you. You are a brain. 

And brains are made of meat. 


Julie Muncy is a writer and consultant based in Austin, TX. When not thinking about video games too much, she likes to get yelled at by her cat. You can find her on Twitter @juliemuncy23