Isaac Clarke took me by surprise the first time he cussed in the Dead Space remake. It was after a particularly dicey encounter with the game’s monsters, called necromorphs, as their atrophied bodies lurched towards him in increasingly rabid waves, desperate to tear him asunder. Dismembering their limbs in deliberate, methodical fashion under these circumstances feels particularly stressful. Naturally, Clarke’s frustrated outburst of “Fuck me!” in this cosmic pressure cooker is plausible, but there’s an odd degree of dissonance to it, especially in a game that originally presented its protagonist as the strong, silent labourer, an everyday man who mostly takes orders and solves problems as he’s told without a word. Something just doesn’t sit right; to see Clarke respond to his near-death experience so audibly feels somewhat perplexing, even out of the blue.
There have been plenty of discussions around the remake's decision to give Clarke a voice. For his Eurogamer review, Edwin Evans-Thirlwell pointed out that Clarke’s voicelessness in the original meant that players can pay “more attention to his wonderfully animated and expressive body.” On the other hand, Jared Stewart from GameRant suggested that Clarke’s voice has made the new Dead Space much richer than before—a contrast from Clark’s previous nonchalance, as he was seemingly “uncaring about [his girlfriend] Nicole Brennan’s whereabouts.”
To be honest, I’m largely unbothered by Clarke’s ability to speak in the remake. His voicelessness was never the crux of the original Dead Space; it was about taking a surgical approach to shooting zombies in space, taking them apart limb from limb instead of merely nailing them with headshots. The tension to the methodical slicing of Clarke’s foes, as the background music builds up to a crescendo, is what makes the horror game so invigorating. Especially when paired with its minimal diegetic menu, which adds a layer of horrifying immersion to the experience. That said, it’s also not that Clarke’s silence serves no purpose; some have suggested that his lack of a voice added a sense of ambiguity and isolation to exploring Dead Space's derelict space vessel setting. While this is true, what’s of note is that his quietness never seemed like a deliberate artistic choice in the first place, and more of a derivative effort to follow the trend of videogame protagonists in the late 2000s. That was when silent heroes like Half Life’s Gordan Freeman, Halo’s Master Chief, and Portal’s Chell—stars of the period’s blockbuster games—were commonplace and served as unobtrusive shells for players to embody.
Psychological, cerebral horror isn’t the sort of mood Dead Space is great at eliciting. It’s mostly about springing grotesque monsters out on you from unseen corners, the tumorous growth of flesh and bone digesting the corridors of the USG Ishimura, and grisly scenes of crew members killing themselves from madness and desperation, pieces of their viscera smeared all over the walls. Plus, the original Dead Space is a game that isn’t confident enough in letting its players explore and interpret the game their own way. One example is its hackneyed graffiti, which ranges from the numerous “CUT OFF THEIR LIMBS” scrawled by a dying crew, to an angrily scribbled note about the ship’s “shitty capitalist organisation” on a wall. Is Dead Space supposed to be a sharp rebuke against the capitalist culture of the USG Ishimura’s mining corporation—and by extension, real-life companies too? It wants you to know that yes, yes it really is. Moreover, it mimics the mainstream “run-and-gun” rampage of most shooters closely, complete with upgradeable weapons and armour, and shops for buying and selling knick-knacks. (In one interview with PC Gamer, Dead Space designer Ben Wanat even candidly admitted that the team had “ripped off so much stuff from Resident Evil 4.”)
What’s curious about Clarke’s voice in the remake, then, is that it feels like a nudge towards wrangling Dead Space into a prestige title in the vein of newer, modern games, such as The Last of Us, the God of War reboot, and Uncharted. These titles have a few things in common: a laundry list of violent acts and creative ways to commit them; a big, sprawling narrative that stretches over several hours (or even days); chunky and sometimes repeatable side quests, filled with snackable lore to dig into; and a cast of fully voiced characters. These are some features the original Dead Space lacked, and which Motive, the studio behind the remake, has approached as if they are gaps that need to be plugged. In fact, Roman Campos-Oriola, Motive’s creative director, has mentioned that Clarke’s newfound voice will offer him a degree of “depth” and “more agency” that the first game didn’t have.
To this end, the Dead Space remake now boasts even more of the familiar, gamified features that most of its triple-A peers have. There are locked chests and rooms to circle back to after you’re mostly done with the main quest and possess the prerequisite security privileges. The spectre of Brennan’s past—now in more concrete hologram and audio log form rather than purely as Clarke’s hallucinations like in the original game—can be followed through a series of side quests, turning her into a much more fleshed-out character, rather than a mirage Clarke is simply chasing. And, as part of these additions, there’s Clarke’s newfound voicebox, which not only allows him to exclaim “fuck”, “fuck this ship”, and “fuck Altman, too” at opportune moments (you definitely knows that he hates Unitology, now!), but also transforms him into an active participant in the chaos he has willingly plunged himself into. No longer is he just receiving instructions from his superiors; he’s now making plans, strategising, thinking. Visibly angry, even, if you didn’t know that before.
These additions work well for the new era of Dead Space: The Prestige Game, and the inevitable glut of Dead Space sequel remakes that will follow in its footsteps. But they also forsake the original’s ambiguity—a quietness and desolation that lent this macabre tale a sense of creeping unease—in favour of cohesion and completeness. Narrative loose ends are neatly tied up (a notable exception is one left hanging, better to lead into Dead Space 2: The Prestige Game), so-called agency is returned to its formerly silent hero, and the player can squeeze a few more hours out of their run. It makes the game pretty fun, but not quite as fascinating to ponder. There’s even a secret, alternative ending that explicitly shows Clarke’s descent into madness, but it’s only unlockable after you’ve played through the entire game once, gathered all the easter eggs (the Markers), and displayed them in a specific room, complete with ghost Brennan whispering some creepy nonsense into your ears. It all feels awfully artificial and contrived, with these additions predicated on polishing Dead Space to prestige status, rather than elevating the suffocating isolation of navigating an abandoned ship filled with unimaginable horrors. That’s why Clarke’s initial cussing took me by surprise—it just didn’t seem very genuine at all.
Khee Hoon Chan is a freelance writer who lives on the internet. They can also be seen at Polygon, The Washington Post, and PC Gamer, and aren't that well-versed in hand-to-hand combat.