Self-pity is an ugly and often quite useless emotion, and as part of an infinite, recursive circle of neuroticism I find myself first self-pitying, then angry at myself for self-pitying, then self-pitying again about being someone who gets so easily angry at himself. “Ugly? Useless? Endlessly recursive?” I say, looking into the camera and winking to the folks back home, “sounds like the Dead Space remake!” As for the self-pity, much as I’d prefer to resist it, this game feels like a colossal kind of personal defeat. Everyone has those moments—maybe videogames are all garbage, and they’re never going to grow up or change, and in fact they’re just getting worse—but playing the Dead Space remake I can’t help but take it basically directly to heart. If Dead Space gets to celebrate its own history and progeny and time on this Earth with a remake, let me do the same, in parallel and the inverse direction. What I’m saying is, after more than a decade writing about videogames, playing the Dead Space remake it feels like—well, Jesus Christ—everything I and people like me wanted from big-budget games is gone forever, and everything we criticised and castigated and wanted less of, it’s all still here, more than ever in fact. If a certain type of videogame, embodied in the Dead Space remake, was on one side, and a general push from some critics, players, and especially visionary game-makers was on the other, this article’s a concession speech from the side of the critics.
And the worst part is, it’s not like the Dead Space remake is even that bad. What’s winning—or, more accurately, has already won—in mainstream games is a flattening of the entire culture. The games all look good now. The games all work on a technical level. The games all deliver what we’re told they’ll deliver. But this is the nature of the threat, right? It looks like progress. It looks like some kind of general industry-and-culture-wide uptick in quality. But it’s like there’s just the one thing, or the one repetitive collection of things—production value, customisation options, branching narrative, sidequests, “a story,” shooting, exploration—that mainstream games do and Are and provide unfailingly, and that’s it. I used to want more plausible, relatable human drama in games. I used to want violence that meant something. I used to want genre subversions, shorter experiences, action that still looked and felt great but made me feel something beyond the silent, bureaucratic acknowledgement that yes it looks and sounds good. At one time, these felt like humble, imminent expectations—like big-budget games might actually be onto something. Now all these things feel a million miles away.
And yet, somehow, the Dead Space remake has more of “a story” than the original. The violence is gorier and more stark and therefore, on paper, might be argued to “mean something” more than in the original. There’s even “relatable human drama,” you might argue, in the fact that now Isaac Clarke has a dead mother, and his girlfriend, Nicole, is responsible, passively, for the mother being dead. The simile I’m about to use is crude and inexact, and it risks diminishing the feelings of people who have experienced this in real life—in defence of using the metaphor, I can only say that I number among them—but it feels like big videogames have, deliberately or otherwise, adopted a tactic of, what we call in unhealthy and dangerous relationships, weaponised incompetence. The remake’s writers know there are people who expect more out of mainstream games, so they’re going to give them what they want, but in a way that’s so drab and meaningless and empty that either we stop wanting it, feel stupid for wanting it in the first place, or we, the people who wanted it, now look like the stupid ones. The Dead Space remake has more of “a story” and I think it’s boring and turgid and I want Isaac Clarke to shut up. The necromorph limbs peel away more vividly than in the original, and there’s your—potentially—more stark and meaningful violence, and it just makes the necromorphs also more absorbent and take longer to kill, and turns the Dead Space remake into more of a drag to play. And yeah, there’s a whisper of “relatable human drama” in the whole mother thing, but again, while I’m playing and listening to it, for myriad reasons I think, man, this game would be better without it.
In 2008, I would have wanted all this stuff, and written some preachy, pseudo-philosophical jeremiad about how games will never be good until they try and do it all. Now, I play the Dead Space remake and think things were better fifteen years ago. Goddamn, maybe that’s the idea. Make the new games with the new ideas we wanted once really terrible so we’ll long for the old games, and then they can just remake the old games. It’s like telling someone they never do the housework so they do the housework deliberately badly so you never ask them again. Videogames as a person could point to a checklist of what I used to say was missing and say “done that, done that, and done that.” But they’ve done it in a way that makes me wish they hadn’t. And it doesn’t feel like we’re undergoing and part of some kind of process. It feels like these new standards have set in and we’ve plateaued, and because it looks and sounds like better writing and better violence and everything have all arrived at last, well, that’s it. I got what I wanted. We got what we wanted. And if we want any more that’s our fault.
Ed Smith is one of the co-founders of Bullet Points Monthly. His Twitter handle is @esmithwriter.