Interactivity is the greatest asset of video games that lets them tower over all other forms of entertainment when it comes to creating compelling experiences. It's a pity then that very few games manage to leverage this gift, because they are too busy aping movies in a quest to create elaborate cinematic sequences. The question is, why take control away from the player and cheapen this rich interactive medium into a half-assed stab at replicating movies?!
However, a few videogames dare to think out of the box and leverage the interactive power of the medium to create truly compelling experiences. This series tries to explore such gems that distil the best elements of gameplay to create some of the most memorable levels. Let's start off with one of the best horror games to release in a long time—Dead Space 2.
The original Dead Space was the saviour of the dying Survival-Horror genre, which has been reeling under an identity crisis after its pioneer Resident Evil degenerated into a soulless Third-Person Shooter. Dead Space brought back what the genre had been missing all these years and more with its fluid and responsive control scheme that let you aim while moving. The horror element, however, wasn't dulled despite providing more freedom of movement. That's because it uses much more sinister means to get the jobe done.
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In fact, Dead Space 2 was so good in tapping into gamers' brains and unsettling them with fear that it invariably forced them to roam the long, eerie corridors with guns drawn at all times, even though it took ten times longer to traverse the hallways that way. The craziest moments in the franchise belong to two standout levels from Dead Space 2. They are special because they don't resort to the clichéd tactic of having a monster jump at you through the shadows. On the contrary, these levels use a more psychological approach to horror in the way they mess with your head.
Bound and Helpless
The first example of brilliant level design can be found at the very beginning of the sequel, which starts off in a mental asylum inside a research lab situated on one of Saturn's moons. Your psychiatric counselling session is abruptly interrupted by a full-on necromorph infestation. Within moments everyone around you is either dead, or has turned into one of those grotesque monstrosities. Until this point, it all appears to be standard Dead Space fare though.
However, as soon as the game gives you control over the beleaguered protagonist Isaac Clarke, you become aware of one fundamental problem. That is, because you were a nut house inmate, you have been restrained in a straitjacket. That means, you can do absolutely nothing but run for dear life, and pray that you don't trip over and fall, which you do anyway. The next five minutes of gameplay are one of the most intense and harrowing experiences, as you watch random asylum inmates and researchers getting torn apart by necromorphs.
Sometimes the anticipation of attack can be worse than the attack itself
The utter chaos and bedlam, the crazy musical score and the several close shaves as you try to kick and shoulder-butt your way out of the mess effectively convey the helplessness and dread experience by Isaac in that level. You are still bound in a straitjacket and without weapons, even when you reach to relative safety. The slow, deliberate corridor crawl as you search for a way to untie and rearm yourself, hoping not to run into a necromorph in that state, is the very epitome of gut-wrenching terror.
Return to Ishimura
This level is scary on its own, but the true extent of its horror can only be experienced if you have played the original game. Midway through the single-player campaign, you reluctantly have to return to the ill-fated planet-cracking vessel dubbed as NSG Ishimura. Why is that such a terrible proposition, you ask? Well, because the ship had hosted the entire first game, as Isaac shot and stomped his way to freedom through an ordeal marked by many genuine moments of terror.
The game is quite clever in the way it doesn't unleash a can of whup-ass on you right at the outset. No, it lets you simply walk through the desolated innards of the doomed titan-class space ship with nothing but a few spooky noises and that unsettling feeling of being watched. You can't help but notice the tell-tale biohazard symbol emblazoned on the tarpaulin sheets hiding what you fear the worst. To someone who's not played Dead Space, the ship appears all nice and tidied up. However, those familiar with the game will know exactly what horrors lay beneath the seemingly sanitised exterior.
Return to NSG Ishimura is nerve wracking for those who have played the original game
It's hard to explain how thoroughly effective an idea it is to obscure the obvious signs of gore and employ Dead Space 2's brand of subtle understatement. The best form of horror is achieved when the obvious is deliberately obscured beneath a thin veil of sanity that threatens to unravel at any moment. Doing so lets your imagination take over, and nothing can rival the human mind when it comes to horror. Every passage and room you encounter on your return to Ishimura brings back disturbing memories of what had transpired the last time you were there.
It doesn't take long before you beg for a necromorph to finally jump you, because you realise that the stomach-churning nervousness of peeking yet another corner in anticipation of a brutal attack is far worse than the object of your fear itself. However, when the game does unload a can of whup-ass, you soon want to reconsider that wish. Very few games come this close to manipulating the deepest fears in the darkest recesses of your mind.