With Dead Space 3 Confirmed, Let's Talk Mythology

Big news in gaming this week if you're a fan of the survival-horror-meets-FPS series Dead Space; the third game in the series is scheduled to launch within the next 12 months. The original game, Dead Space, centered around deep space repair engineer Isaac Clarke's mission to investigate a mysterious distress call from the USG Ishimura and to reunite with his lover, Nicole Brennan.

In the second game, Clarke, now a prisoner in a government lab, must escape the Saturn moon Titan before the Necromorph infestation that began there destroys the facility and spreads to Earth. The third title will reportedly take gamers to the icy world of Tau Voltantis, feature a series-first co-op mode, and an adaptive storyline that changes depending on whether you're playing with two players or one. Isaac will be able to roll and take cover, a new weapon customization system will augment the game's traditional "Power Nodes", and Isaac will end up facing off against both human and Necromorph opponents.

I criticized several tropes Dead Space relies on in my "Four Gaming Cliches..." article a few weeks back, but that doesn't change the fact that the first two games are great fun. Dead Space 2 is, in my opinion, a rare game that improves upon its predecessor, with better pacing, stronger graphics, and a storyline that doesn't involve quite as much Helper Monkeying from point A to point B.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

What makes Dead Space fascinating as a series is its treatment of alien life. According to remarks made in-game, humanity has never encountered another intelligent spacefaring species despite several hundred years of space flight. The one exception to this is an alien artifact found on Earth inside the Chicxulub crater. Known as the Black Marker, the artifact is covered in mysterious writing that's later found to represent DNA. It also radiates an EM field that drives humans progressively insane, possibly animates dead tissue, and definitely creates an area around itself that repulses the reanimated bodies of its victim -- thus the title "Dead Space."

This last is unevenly addressed in the game and other media; some storylines state that the Marker drives scientists to create the DNA sequences represented in its structure and grow them to see what happens, others imply that the field itself has an effect on deceased organisms. Regardless of the source, the new DNA is a radical recombinant form of life that turns humans into monstrosities known as "Necromorphs." The goal of new Necromorphs is to create more Necromorphs.

What makes the story fascinating is its parallels with real life.

No, really.

When we launched the Voyager probes in 1977, we sent along "Markers" of our own. No one seriously believed the probes would be found by extra-terrestrial life, but as Carl Sagan noted at the time "the launching of this 'bottle' into the cosmic 'ocean' says something very hopeful about life on this planet."

The records contain images and audio recordings of life on Earth, including spoken language and natural sounds, photos and diagrams, and information on human DNA. Information on how to play the record, Earth's location in the galaxy, the waveforms of the information provided, and the first image to appear once data is properly decoded were all given in simple pictograms using binary notation.

On our earliest space flights, we sent a record. It's not at all difficult to see how a far more advanced species might send an artifact containing DNA data -- particularly if it considered the ability to decode and understand such information a minimal level for intelligence. Intelligent life, in the Dead Space universe, is quite rare.

To date, humans have created two additional markers, reverse engineered from the first. The Red Marker is behind the events of Dead Space, the Site 12 Marker is responsible for the Titan infestation in Dead Space 2. Part of what makes the game's plot interesting is the question of whether or not the Markers are having anything like their intended effects. It's absolutely possible -- even probable -- that the infestation and hallucinations that occur in the presence of the Marker are an unintended side effect. As for why humans keep mucking around with the damn things to begin with, the ability to re-write and alter DNA, as the structure does, has profound implications for human lifespan and longevity.

It's more than just a space-horror shoot-em-up with zombies -- it's a game with a survival horror motif that could turn out to have a surprisingly deep story. I'm hopeful that we'll eventually see a Dead Space 3 that lives up to such aspirations, and sheds light on the true purpose of the artifacts over and above facilitating a great deal of slaughter.