So it’s been a bit quiet here for a while. A lull, you might say.
I guess it’s time to wake up.
I’m making progress on my reading plans for the year, covered here. (I also seem to have added “Norse epics” to the list, somehow.) I’ve hit a bit of a bump, though – after powering through Infinite Jest, I’ve found I’m reading Dracula veeeeeeeery slowly. I’m not sure why, as I’ve read it before, and there’s nothing particularly difficult about the work. Hm.
I did, though get through Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence. I didn’t post the reviews at the time as they were pretty short, so I’ll run a version of them now. It’s worth noting that the run of the series was spread over three volumes, and that the series tells a story based in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Here we go, in order:
Providence: Act 1 (four stars)
An incredibly short review because I feel the run hasn’t really gotten started at this point.
I’m four issues in (of 12) and there seems to be a lot of preamble. This shouldn’t be surprising, because ALAN MOORE, but still, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.
What it is, thus far, is beautiful. It’s a love-letter to the world created in Lovecraft’s works, viewed from the incredibly stoned and meticulously well-researched eye of Moore. Jacen Burrows’ art is crisp, almost delightfully sober. There’s horrors within, obviously – townsfolk with a fairly cod-faced look – but it’s so normal thus far that it’s hard to think ill of them.
There’s a lot of end-of-issue documents – letters, diaries and the like – which can read as a bit of an infodump, but gawd bless Kurt Hathaway for lettering them all: it’s a task to read, let alone write out.
In short, I’m enjoying the vibe, but waiting for the story to change gear. Let’s see if it happens. (And whether I should’ve read their other Lovecraftian work beforehand.)
Providence: Act 2 (three stars)
So, remember how I said (at the end of the first volume) that I was waiting for the other shoe to drop?
Providence: Act 3 (three stars)
Look. I really wanted to like this. I dig Moore, and I (reservedly) dig Lovecraft, so I thought it’d be a perfect match!
Unfortunately, Providence has taken on board Lovecraft’s habit of hand-waving and letting the narrative kind of ooze to a close. Madness? Destruction? Whatever. *waves tentacle*
Part of the the problem is that Providence carries on from two earlier Burrows/Moore collaborations set in a Lovecraftian universe. While this volume does pull a lot of threads together – most remarkably in a very cinematic death-shadowed sequence, set to Al Jolson – a lot of those threads are from the previous collaborations.
Which I haven’t read.
So yeah, there was a whole lot of “eh, whatever” when a bunch of characters I’d never seen before showed up for the final minutes. This is, obviously, my failing as I haven’t read the earlier works, but still: with no foreshadowing? Come on, man.
The detail in the work, both in terms of art and writing are remarkable. It’s a dense work, but to the point of gnomic inscrutability sometimes: I found my reading was improved immensely by this collection of notes. I’m not unaware of the histories of HPL and his circle, and I’m easily able to see where characters in the run have come from the source material, muddying the water between the real and the imagined – but even so, I felt myself wondering what the fuck was going on a lot of the time.
Don’t get me wrong: I am strongly in favour of the writing-a-universe-into-life thread that’s pursued here, and I love that the run is essentially a love-letter to HPL and his circle – but it’s so self-centred, so inward-looking that it seems more a passion project for personal meditation than something designed to be read by people who aren’t Alan Moore.
Let’s see if reading the previous two projects helps any, I guess.
That disappointment probably fuelled my choice of next entertainment enthusiasm: the Dead Space series, a collection of games where you play a space-tradie, Isaac Clarke (GEDDIT, SF NERDS?) who’s basically called out on the worst repair gig ever. Because, you see, the planet-cracking ship USG Ishimura, floating above a broken world, is infested with Cronenberg-styled infection nightmares. And you’re armed with a laser cutter. And so, when a zombie-insect rushes towards you, what else are you gonna do?
Bingo. Cue hours of that. (I’ve read that the game devs were big fans of Resident Evil 4 and it shows.)
I wasn’t bored by it, though, as the game manages to keep the tension level pretty high. It’s a survival horror wrapped in rusty SF, and ten years on from release it works pretty well, still. The game is excellently claustrophobic, and the third-person view works pretty well – there’s no constant on-screen HUD so it’s a particularly cinematic experience. The camera handles pretty well, but there is a fairly constant problem when you’re attacked from behind – you’ll lose some health by the time you can spin the thing into a position where you can see the unholy terror you need to spifflicate.
Mechanically, the game still feels fresh. There’s some zero-gravity sections that seem a bit odd – you launch from place to place, held on with magnetic boots, in a distinctly unnatural-feeling way – but the fighting still seems pretty vital, particularly when you’re able to upgrade to other weapons. (The Ripper is basically super overpowered when you upgrade it a bit. And really, nothing’s more satisfying than using a turbocharged circular saw on some rampaging vomit-beast.)
I did have problems with some parts, though. Some battles require particular approaches, and these aren’t flagged as readily as they could be. Once you’ve figured the way to proceed (or been told) these things provide very little in the way of challenge, so it feels weird to flip from continual restarts to breezing through. Those moments are rare, but they’re frustrating. Not as frustrating as the damp squib of a final boss fight, but still.
The story – other than slice and stomp fuck out of things attempting to snack on you – is reasonable, though we don’t get much of a sense of Space Tradie Isaac’s personality throughout the thirteen-ish hours of bug-stomping and sawing. There’s the definite feeling of being at the mercy of something bigger, though: in this case, a hive mind pissed off that you’re trying to hijack its special toy, The Marker. Which, of course, is the focus of a whole religious group that becomes more important in the following games.
What it is, though, is scary. I spent a lot of the time playing on the edge of my seat, and found a bunch of the kills to be gruesome, in the best terrible horror movie kind of way. I like that sort of feeling in a game, and I think it’s definitely contributed to how well I was able to overlook other bits that might’ve irked me otherwise. (This article goes into some of why the game is scary – it’s worth a look.)
Dead Space 2 takes the horrors of the first game and puts them in an urban setting: a space station orbiting Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Our heroic Space Tradie has no memory of the past three years, and has regained consciousness at a point where Shit’s Getting Real Fucked Up Here.
From then on, it’s basically more of the same. You’re stuck in the station and really need to get the fuck away from a) the zombie-bug-things and b)
Space Scientologists Unitologists who want what’s inside your tasty, tasty brain: the knowledge of how to construct more Markers. Hell, you even have to return to the Ishimura at one point, which allows for some excellent fake-outs. I’ll avoid plot details too much because these are still games worth playing – but suffice to say the devs decided to try and give Space Tradie some personality, so we get to see him without his helmet more, and with an extra dose of Intergalactic Angst.
(And some really fucked ophthalmology.)
I really enjoyed the fact Dead Space 2 – while it does have creepy, small-tunnel bits – was mostly experienced in larger, more open areas. Some of the design reminded me, weirdly, of Rapture from Bioshock, particularly in the Unitologists’ inner sanctum. There were frustrations, as ever – the game seems to be on Doom 3‘s spawn-a-fuckwit-behind-you bandwagon, much to my chagrin – but it moves along at a reasonable clip, so much so that I was surprised when it ended, even though I’d been stomping along for 15 hours or so.
(My favourite addition? If you stomp something multiple times, Isaac starts swearing at it. It’s the little things.)
The final game in the series (Dead Space 3, a dazzling piece of nomenclature) is a bit of an odd fish. It received a bit of a caning from users, even though it was well regarded by professional reviewers. It aims to complete the story – to destroy the Marker menace once and for all – but also moved away from the core elements of the series in the process.
Partially, I guess, this was to try and increase the game’s reach. By making it more a game of action than one of tension – there’s multiple climbing/falling/flying sequences in the game – it seems to be trying to pull in people who wouldn’t usually play a Dead Space game. But I wonder: what the fuck are those people going to think of the story? Especially given its focus on religion, and a ponytailed bad guy who sounds like Nigel Farage.
One thing the final instalment does well, however, is pivot from bug-hunt to Lovecraftian nightmare. It’d been hinted at before, but there’s some real halls-of-Cthulhu design work in the later stages of the game, and the unspeakable madness angle is really ratcheted up. This was enough to see me though the game, to be honest, even though you know that whenever Lovecraft-style gods are involved, there’s be some narrative handwaving going on.
The game does lock some content behind the wall of co-op play – frustrating for someone like me who abhors multiplayer for the most part – but it also suffers from having microtransactions bolted on at a late stage in its development. Crafting is A Thing in this game, and though it’s never explained particularly well, eventually it gives you the opportunity to create god-killing weaponry – or to buy it, if you’re impatient. It’s certainly not an elegant way of getting cash out of punters, but as far as monetisation methods in gaming go, it’s relatively innocuous.
Look, I didn’t think Dead Space 3 was terrible or anything, but it is the weakest game in the series. It lacks the focus of its predecessors, and is a bit of an exercise in experimentation that would probably be better remembered had a fourth instalment ever eventuated. (I suspect it’s a bit like Assassin’s Creed III – testbed for the elements that would make that game’s sequel a smash.) I’m certainly glad I played it, and I did find that it provided a great ending to the trilogy, particularly if you play the wonderfully dark DLC episode, Awakened, afterwards.
The games’ soundtracks are all suitably creepy: shades of Ligeti as per 2001: A Space Odyssey, as you’d expect, but with the bonus of extra clanks and drones. Jason Graves’ work on the series is exceptionally good – I’d buy the soundtracks, to be honest – and there’s a great article about his home studio here. It’s nice that the chosen accompaniment is something that fits with the overall feeling of the series, rather than a clunky insert-theme-here approach.
I’ve had the games for years on PC, but never got around to playing them. For the sake of ease (and because let’s face it: they were cheap) I played them on the Xbox One as part of the Backwards Compatibility program, and they still looked great. Even though the developer’s been shut down, I’d be keen on a remaster of the games, as they are a lot of fun, even with their frustrations and occasional broke-arsedness.
I’d like to see more games with this level of dedication to grotty SF, frankly. I also like the fact that while there’s some level of selectivity over missions (you can choose whether to do inessential side-missions in the third game), the games are games that tell you what to do. Like Call of Duty (at their best), it’s nice to play something that’s aimed to move the player towards certain set-pieces, rather than dumping them in an open-world with an overwhelming to-do list.
(Of course, you can fuck this up by having the camera pointed in the wrong direction when Something Important Happens, but them’s the breaks.)
Oh! I also rented the two Dead Space animated features from iTunes and gave them a watch after I’d played all the games and DLC, because I wanted to see if they added anything to the story. And I guess my only thoughts on those are don’t. Because they’re terrible.
The first film, Dead Space: Downfall, tells the story of the Ishimura‘s decline, even though you figure that out by paying attention to logs and such when you play the game. So it’s kind of cheesy and unnecessary, but then there’s Dead Space: Aftermath, which claims to fill in the gaps between the first two games.
A couple of points.
- It doesn’t.
- Half the film is made in terrible 3D.
Yeah, it turns out the horror of this series doesn’t work as a shitty anime. But were it to be parleyed into a shitty action flick? I’d be all over it!
(Yes, I know that Event Horizon is a thing, thanks.)
Well, that should hold you. I’m back off to Dracula and its associated interpretations. And more games, most likely. Hopefully there’ll be more updates soon, assuming this infernal piping has not sated your thirst for typographical horrors beyond humans’ ken.