The Dead Space Diaries: Playing Well With Others

I don’t do multi-player computer games. Or rather I try to but every single time I have in the past, it’s ended badly. Paying five pounds for the privilege of being fragged over and over by an apathetic 15 year old playing Quake in one of the last net cafes in the UK wasn’t particularly fun. Happily trundling around Galactica Online until I ran out of scripted missions, leaving it a couple of weeks and coming back to find literally everyone else had earned, or bought, a capital ship was no fun either. Likewise, stepping into the very pretty, beautifully put together airship battle game Guns of Icarus and hearing another player whispering about raping my childen pretty much finished me off.

A lot of people don’t do multi-player games. I’ve just sat and watched Marguerite live through the full 150 hour-long Mass Effect trilogy and it’s been a remarkable experience for both of us. She got to play through one of the most consistent, well-crafted and deep science fiction stories of recent years (And yes we both even liked the ending) and I got to watch this amazing story unfold in front of me. She’s played all the DLC, aside from Omega thanks to some software quirk no one could figure out, she’s read the novels, read the comics taken down any and everything she can lay her hands on, aside from the multi-player component of Mass Effect 3 for similar reasons to me. Too much of a time sink, not enough filter, not enough control over environment and companions.

A lot of other people do play multi-player games. A multi-player option is the rule rather than the exception these days and it’s met with cheers at least as much as it’s met with howls. E-Sports, competitive game playing, fits multiplayer games like hands fit gloves as do students and twenty and thirtysomethings with disposable income and time. You want to kill an evening? You’re just as likely to log onto Call of Duty: Black Ops II or Halo: Spartan Ops as watch a TV show, read or exercise. Gaming is a medium in its own right, it has been for a while now, and different people take different things from it. Me, I tend to enjoy taking solitary connection with the plot away from it, until I’m not given a choice.

I was sent Dead Space 3 to review a couple of weeks ago. I finished playing the single player campaign a couple of days ago and I really, really enjoyed it. For those of you who don’t know, the Dead Space games follow Isaac Clarke, an engineer on a ‘planet cracker’ called the Ishimura. The Ishimura literally rips chunks out of worlds to mine them for resources and during this it discovers an alien Marker, the twin of other devices found scattered through space and the basis of a religion called Unitology. The belief is that the Markers are the final monuments to an alien race and humanity can only achieve enlightenment when we listening to their teachings. ‘Make us whole’ as the slogan goes.

There is of course a problem; the Markers change people the longer they’re exposed to them. Minds warp, hallucinations start and finally, in a tidal wave of horrific violence, people exposed to the Markers for too long are ripped apart and mutate into Necromorphs, ghastly biological predators that exist to kill people and make more Necromorphs from the dead and the living. Off ship when the outbreak starts, Isaac has to work out how to protect his colleagues, carry out running repairs on the Ishimura and fight off wave after wave of Necromorphs clad only in his engineer’s spacesuit and, initially, armed with a plasma welder.

Isaac Clarke is, in short, Dave Lister in hell.

He’s a fascinating figure and I’ll be talking about the single player campaign and the changes made to it in a later piece. However, the biggest change is the co-op campaign. This isn’t the same as the usual multiplayer ‘Everybody fiiiiiight!’ approach. A co-op campaign means you work with the other player to achieve the same goals, and it’s a smart move, especially in a franchise like this. The second player take the role of John Carver, a human military officer dispatched on the same mission as Isaac. Carver’s scarred, angry and relentlessly to the point. He’s also, brilliantly, a presence in the single player campaign. Whilst you’re off fixing things, running tests and fighting centuries-old dead miners, Carver is helping the other survivors and you meet up with him at multiple points during the game. This is the first smart thing about Dead Space 3’s co-op mode, it’s contextual. There’s no troop of cybernetically enhanced death machines stomping through the rooms you’ve been creeping through, just one more warm body, one more gun.  And the beauty of it is it actually focuses the tension. You make your way down through one of Tau Valentis’ ruined military prefabs, turn around and there, at the other end of the room, is your partner. Just as human, just as fragile. Your responsibility just like you are to them.

The second really smart thing about the co-op mode is how it’s laid out. You have several options as to what sort of game you want to play, starting with whether you want to start one yourself. If you do you can customize level, difficulty and whether or not it’s a private or public game. In other words, you can stage dive or dance with the person you came in with. It’s a nice idea and it helps you (And by you I mean me) get past the low level social anxiety that comes from playing a game with a complete stranger.

The only problem, in my case, being the only other person I know who would be interested in playing co-op Dead Space 3 with me shares the house with me, meaning that we can’t actually play together because the co-op play sits online and whilst I can invite Marguerite, she can’t accept without me logging out and quitting the game which, of course, renders the whole thing moot.

So I had a problem; I’d been sent the game to review and I want to make a good showing of it not only because I’m a fan but because this is my first game review and I’d like to do more. I could either skip co-op altogether or join a public game.

I went for option two. Again it’s customizable, you can specify what difficulty level and chapter of the game you want to join in and it’ll pop you in a holding pattern whilst it searches for someone who fits that criteria. That I can see being a problem, with you potentially having to wait a while, but thankfully I got dropped straight into a co-op run through Artifact Storage, one of the later missions. I was still on Tau Valentis, still armed to the teeth and still in the middle of a bad spot. But this time I had back up. Or rather, this time I was the backup, as if you join a game already in process you play as John Carver rather than Isaac Clarke. Same iconography, just slightly different livery and, as I said above, the comfort of having someone else in the same trouble I was.

Then the hallucinations hit.

Isaac’s distintegrating sanity has been a vital part of the previous two games and is largely side lined here in favour of a standard, but interesting, ‘reluctant hero’ arc for him. Carver on the other hand has no such luck. We were making good progress, had actually got to the equipment stash at the end of the level and-

Flashes of optic nerves and gristle and bright light. A shattered playground, elements of Carver’s home and past life smashed through it, the geology of the past laid bare. The world canted sideways against a hellish, red sky. Giggling, scratchy, out of focus black shapes that look like a child. Screams. A woman’s voice ‘Make us whole.’

I died.

I woke up in the room.

I took a step.

A burning light at the far end of the shattered playground.  A sofa, distorted and warped and children’s games marked in chalk on the ground as the shadow children close in and scream and-

I died.

I woke up in the room. I made it to the equipment locker at the far end, turned and-

A dozen shadow children jumping and screeching and tearing at me.

Dead.

Back in the room.

Three steps and the female voice yelling ‘MAKE US WHOLE!’ as I holed up by the Marker and picked off never ending waves of the children until-

Dead.

Back in the room.

At this point I was getting frustrated and I was also getting…guilty. I was in someone else’s game. He couldn’t progress without me doing this, I couldn’t get past it. I wasn’t just damaging my fun I was damaging someone else’s. That low level social anxiety was back and it had brought friends with it.

I tried again.

Died.

Tried again.

Died straight away.

Searched the internet for a workaround, tried hitting pause and couldn’t because, of course, it wasn’t my game. I was a guest and I was outstaying my welcome. I don’t have a headset for the PS3 and was thankful for it because by this stage, I figured I was being called some pretty imaginative names.

Then I noticed my partner was standing absolutely still, pointing his gun at something. The Dead Space series has this recurrent motif where the laser designators for your weapon are visible and also define the plane of destruction the weapon fires on and he (Who had a fantastic, literally one shot one kill rifle) was standing very still, painting the Marker in the centre of the room with his sight.

The message was simple; get here. I’ll wait.

I took a step. The hallucination triggered. I headed right for the marker and held my ground for five minutes and a dozen waves of the shadow children things. I took a step forward to grab some of the equipment they’d dropped and-you guessed it.

I tried again.

And again.

And again.

In the end, I ran out of time. I had another couple of things I needed to do today and I quit, partially because I needed to go make a start on those jobs and partly, if I’m honest, because I was a little embarrassed. I was missing something fundamental and it wasn’t just getting in my way, but someone else’s too. So, I did the decent thing and I quit (The decentquit by the way may be the British version of the ragequit).

As I was closing down, my PS3 picked up an email. From the player I’d just been on with. Every single one of the lousy multiplayer experiences I’ve had flooded back and I opened it fully expecting to see a string of creatively mis-spelled swear words. It was a message in German and when I translated it I got:

Try again, Carver.

No rant, no bullying, just that. I didn’t reload the game but I did send this message back, translated into German:

I have to go. Thank you though

It was an odd, visceral experience, made all the weirder by not having voice communications. I’d dropped into someone else’s world and we’d communicated for a while and, when I was struggling, they’d reached out to encourage me.  It’s not the first time that’s happened, I had an astonishing experience playing Journey that I’ll be writing about soon, but it was still a surprisingly affecting moment. Two people, trapped in the fictional dark, guarding each other’s backs, helping each other along. No wonder I felt a little guilty about quitting.

I don’t do multi-player games. Or rather I try to but every single time I have in the past, it’s ended badly.  But I’ve been thinking about what happened all day, even going as far as checking what I missed (Which was incredibly basic by the way, as the things we miss so often are). I don’t do multi-player games. But I think I do co-op games. And next time? That Marker is going DOWN.

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