Why Dead Space’s First Level Is A Masterpiece

A perfect tutorial for horror game design.

Dead Space
Dead Space

The Callisto Protocol was recently announced at the VGAs for a projected 2022 release, and I couldn’t be more excited. A new sci-fi survival horror game developed by Striking Distance Studios, The Callisto Protocol is set in the PUBG universe in the year 2320 and follows an escape from a prison, where untold horrors reside. Their website claims that the game will “set a new bar for horror,” which is a bold statement as there isn’t too much else to go off of quite yet. We do know, though, that Dead Space series creator Glen Schofield and other Dead Space veterans will be returning to lead the project.

Schofield and his team are some of the most accomplished survival horror developers working in the industry, so hearing of their return to the genre is massive news and I look forward to seeing what they can pull off with The Callisto Protocol. In honor of Schofield’s return, I want to go back to one of his greatest works, Dead Space, to show just how well-crafted the game was, and the best part is we don’t even need to venture past the first level to see why.

The opening level of any video game has to accomplish a lot to be successful. An opening sequence needs to persuade its audience into believing the base premise of its narrative and explain how the gameplay fits into the larger world. It’s a challenge to create a game that does one of those things well, but to do both of them is a serious achievement.

Dead Space’s first chapter, New Arrivals, can be split into 3 parts of player control, each focusing on a core piece of the Dead Space formula. The narrative introduction where the player can’t move at all, but instead is subject to the plot unfolding in front of them. Then, the Necromorph horror show where the player can’t fight back but must instead learn to run away. Finally, the introduction to combat, where the player is given a weapon, melee abilities and can finally defend themselves against the horrific enemies. Each portion of the level restricts player control in order to focus on certain aspects of the game. The best part of each of these sections is that, even when you are a first-time player, you are not frustrated with the restricted controls. You are instead completely immersed in this world that the team at Visceral Games created.


Sit back and enjoy the show

Dead Space First Level
Dead Space First Level

The first challenge that Dead Space tackles is the narrative hook of the game. Its starting chapter, New Arrivals, is a tightly controlled experience. During this intro sequence, the player has no control of the game and instead is forced to sit, listen, and watch the introduction of characters and their dynamics with one another. The scene that follows is total exposition while establishing some of the only other characters you will meet during Dead Space’s playtime.

This opening scene focuses on Kendra and Hammond, who explain that they are all there to help fix the Ishimura and that they don’t know why the ship went completely dark. Obviously, something sinister is happening but we aren’t given that information quite yet. Instead, Dead Space wants the player to begin to form ideas that push the fear a little bit forward in their mind, all while Hammond and Kendra bicker about who is stepping on whose toes. Their bickering becomes front and center literally as you are strapped to your chair. The backdrop of their infighting becomes the Ishimura as it slowly comes into full view of the cockpit’s window–great foreshadowing of the chapters to come.

Finally, right before the game relinquishes some control to the player, Kendra walks up to Isaac and says that she is “syncing your rig with the ship…clean bill of health for everyone” while a green bar crawls up Isaac’s spine. The player can see Hammond’s green bar go up at the same time, effectively showing that the rig health system is not just a gimmick for the player to have a cool UI, but instead is a part of the Dead Space lore. Without explicitly saying anything, Dead Space communicates to the player that health is tracked on their character. It’s the little details like this that make the world of Dead Space feel more like a living coherent place.


Time to get to work

Dead Space 3
Dead Space

After crash landing in the USG Ishimura, Dead Space’s next introduction to its gameplay formula is to get the player familiar with the basic controls of the game. Isaac has the opportunity to stretch his legs after the long flight and walk around the flight lounge, but not before an advertisement for the Ishimura’s mission and service record is broadcast on a giant screen as the player walks towards the flight lounge. The ad explains the history of the ship further and adds to the general continuity of the lore.

The player is shown various basic controls for movement through the holographic heads up display that makes up much of Dead Space’s UI design. You rarely stop being a pair of eyes over Isaac’s shoulder and there are very few menu screens to hide behind when things are at their bleakest. While you are learning the UI, the flight lounge is shown covered in luggage and trash. The place looks like a mob had run through the flight lounge weeks ago and no one had ever come to clean up the mess. There are credits and health here, further showcasing the holographic display of the UI and some green boxes that can’t be interacted with just yet.

Kendra and Hammond express concerns that no one from the Ishimura’s crew seems to be around. Hammond orders Isaac to check the security logs to get a better understanding of what’s going on. Standing outside the security office, a bloody trail appears to be leading into the office–the only sign that something is wrong in the entire lounge and Hammond and Kendra completely miss it. Upon entering the security office, Isaac is greeted by pools of blood and a bloody trail leading towards the elevator door. A little unsettling, but Isaac needs to check the logs.

When the player finally initiates the log checking sequence, they’re able to see into the flight lounge through the security office window, where Hammond and the crew are examining the same diagnostic report as Isaac. Isaac learns that the tram system and other parts of the ship are offline. Hammond remarks that “the air is flowing, again,” and then a security alert starts. The player is abruptly thrown into near darkness with the only light sources available being the red security log terminal and the quarantine light that slowly rotates around the flight lounge. A crash, a short glimpse of long sharp limbs, and then blood curdling screams telling Isaac to run away. Hamond’s remark about the air acts as a great hint to the player as to how the Necromorphs are able to get around the ship.

The player has only one exit available to them; the elevator hallway that had the blood trail outside of it. Stumbling down the hall, Isaac races for some sort of cover as malformed corpses start popping out from the grates in the walls and ceiling. Isaac sees an open elevator door, rushes in, and tries to close it behind them, only for the door to be yanked open for a moment as you finally come face to face with a Necromorph, the main enemy species in Dead Space before it is crushed by the elevator doors. In the crushing silence, the lesson is clear; you can run to fight another day.

In just the past few moments, you’re introduced to the main threat of the game and shown how the Necromorphs travel throughout the ship using the ventilation. The game at this point has given the player the details of how the Necromorphs travel without actually saying it explicitly. It may not be obvious if the player was not paying attention, but Hammond and audio diaries later will make sure that the player understands this fact. Finally, as the elevator lowers, the player can begin to surmise that elevators are a safe zone in Dead Space since this one saved their life.


Shoot for the limbs

Dead Space Cut Off Their Limbs
Dead Space Cut Off Their Limbs

After a comparatively delightful elevator ride, the player finds themselves in a back-maintenance room. The sounds of crying and then a struggle can be heard behind the only other door in the room. As long as the player is in the room, their headset will be filled with the screams of a man fighting for his life. On a worktable nearby, there is a Plasma Cutter with the words “cut off the limbs” written in blood above it. Dead Space provides the weapon and explains through the environment what the player needs to do in the upcoming fight. The game will repeat itself two more times in the level explaining the limb mechanic, but this won’t be until after this first Necromorph encounter. In order to conserve health and ammo, the player needs to be open to reading the environment (literally, in this case).

The rest of the time in this space is spent becoming familiarized with the Plasma Cutter and the two forms of melee, which include stomping and swinging. Those green boxes from earlier? There are more here, and Isaac can finally smash them open to collect supplies.

To initiate the next section of the game, players must understand one of the combat abilities Isaac has been introduced to so far, since the door requires them to break the fuse. The game will not let you advance without knowing how to either shoot the Plasma Cutter or swing a fist. Once the door’s fuse is broken, Isaac watches the final moments of the man that had been yelling for help. The Necromorph who pounced on the man then quickly jumps back up to confront the player and starts the first fight of the game, if the player had been minding the message in blood, shooting the limbs off the deranged mutant should be the most obvious course of action. Depending on the difficulty, the player might fail here and have to start in the room again until they learn to “shoot for the limbs.” After shooting the limbs off the Necromorph, the player is reconnected with Hammond and Kendra. They are on the other side of the tram tracks, who explain to Isaac that he needs to get the tram back up and running again.

The rest of the level introduces stasis as a gameplay mechanic, and various text and audio logs flesh out the world even further. Some of these messages repeat the lessons that the game has been teaching thus far. The full scale of the audio design opens up here, too. The sound of metal falling from catwalks or the gurgling howls of the Necromorphs are enough to make anyone pause the game for a quick walk into a well-lit kitchen for a drink. Chapter 1 ends with Isaac boarding the tram that was just fixed and heading to the medical wing.

Every moment of the first chapter is set to teach the player something about the world, narrative, or gameplay, while, at the same time, Visceral Games make sure to keep the player on the edge of their seat. If you want to learn more about the mysteries of the Necromorphs, you need to settle in and prepare for a scare.

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