On The Level

Dead Space: Extraction

Dead Space: Extraction (2009)—“Worlds Apart”

The first stage of the Dead Space prequel sets an ominous tone by borrowing a trick from TV.

By Samantha Nelson • April 9, 2013

During the height of my obsession with The X-Files, I came across a fellow fan’s guide to surviving in the show’s universe. It was filled with useful tips like “Don’t go to the bathroom” and “Don’t date Scully.” But no matter what precautions they might take, the most dangerous situation for the show’s guest stars was to find themselves appearing before the credits. Whether they seemed to deserve it or not, any characters who viewers met before the theme song kicked in were extremely likely to suffer some horrible fate that was going to give Mulder and Scully the assignment for the episode. It’s a formula still followed by procedurals today, quickly setting the tone and revealing the plot without needing the show’s stars.

Plenty of games start off by showing players the ugly situation they’re getting into, but it’s usually done through cutscenes. Dead Space: Extraction actually puts you in the driver’s seat as things go to hell, combining prelude and tutorial.

Sam Caldwell seems like a good guy. He’s got an exciting job excavating a relic on a distant planet that a new religious movement back on Earth thinks is going to mean huge changes for humanity. He gets along well with the rest of his crew, and he’s got a girl that loves him. She’s even planning a surprise for him tonight.

Dead Space: Extraction

As soon as his team makes contact with the strange Marker, the equipment goes haywire. You’re immediately forced to use the skills you’ve already learned, and to pick up new ones, as you deal with power failures throughout the planet’s settlement. Still, the crisis seems like just a bumpy day at the office until another crew member attacks you. When you’re forced to put him down, the toll it takes on you and your buddies is striking, considering how incredibly common killing is in the Dead Space series.

The situation worsens as the survivors around you act more strangely. More people turn aggressive, and Caldwell himself hears voices and sees strange runes on the panels you need to open to proceed. It’s a particularly clever portrayal of descent into madness—the game toys with the player’s own perceptions. You overhear whispers that are nearly indecipherable; these are easily as disturbing as the paranoid and nihilistic ramblings coming from Caldwell’s crewmembers—both living and dead. Sometimes, images flash across the screens so fast that it’s easy to question if they were there at all.

These manifestations of paranoia not only do a wonderful job of setting the atmosphere—I recommend playing this level alone in the dark for added effect—but they also serve as a tutorial of sorts. “Worlds Apart” teaches you vital skills like how to open doors and change weapons, and Caldwell’s encroaching madness teaches you about the progression of the Necromorph disease that will plague you for the rest of the game. There’s nothing you can do about it when the hallucinations come to afflict Detective Nathan McNeil, the actual hero of Dead Space: Extraction, and this first level gives players a glimpse of how bad things can get. It makes the early symptoms all the more ominous when they return later in the game.

You do finally see McNeil in the final scene of the level when he puts a decisive end to your time with Caldwell by shooting him. McNeil asks the dying miner why he killed all those people. Were they actually crazy? Were they actually attacking Caldwell? Or was he the one who cracked first? The game doesn’t answer those questions.

This isn’t Caldwell’s story. He was just there to show the protagonists and the audience that the situation is serious. Unlike an episode of The X-Files, where the rules of pre-credits doom are well known, it’s not obvious that Caldwell won’t be our hero. He has all the trappings of an action video game star. He wears a spacesuit! He uses a rivet gun! He can use telekinesis to kill things and move stuff! It’s an impressive résumé, and it resembles the skill set that series hero Isaac Clarke had at the beginning of the first game. Caldwell even has a very Clarke-like moment when he has to restore oxygen to a room, an echo of Clarke’s past exploits. If you know how Dead Space starts—with Clarke trapped in a mining ship that’s infested with reanimated corpses—it’s pretty clear that the miners you’re meeting are not going to get a happy ending. But Sam’s abrupt finish is still startling.

Dead Space: Extraction

It’s surprising that more games don’t use this formula. Playing through the onset of a crisis makes it feel far more significant than a cutscene or scrolling text roll informing you that the situation is bad. And since you’re playing as an ultimately disposable character, the game can teach players advanced moves or weapons that the true hero won’t possess until later.

Since it is a tutorial in part, “Worlds Apart” doesn’t provide any great challenge. The fights and puzzles are simple, and the game eases you into the on-the-rails movement that can be jarring for anyone who hasn’t spent much time recently shooting aliens or robots in an arcade. The big boss fights and desperate scrambling for ammo for your big guns comes later.

That forbearance adds to the impact here. Dead Space provides some epic scares, but this is horror writ small. An alien plague that can animate the dead and could destroy the human race is a horror that’s hard to internalize. The idea that a normal day at work could end with your friends turning against you as you lose your mind—that’s really terrifying.

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38 Responses to “Dead Space: Extraction (2009)—“Worlds Apart””

  1. George_Liquor says:

    It was a day like many another and Mr. Caldwell Brainsample was a perfectly ordinary scientist, leading a perfectly ordinary life. The sort of person to whom nothing extraordinary ever happened, and not the kind of person to be the center of one of the most astounding incidents in the history of mankind. 

    So let’s forget about him and follow instead the destiny of this man…

    • The_Helmaroc_King says:

      Enter Franco “Will Die” Delile, engineer for a human colony on Saturn’s moon Titan. An epidemic of unknown origin is spreading quickly as the dead transform into unnatural killing machines and only his faith in a crazy space cult can see him through this crisis. Will he survive his spin-off long enough to free the series’ main character?

      SPOILER: Yes, barely.

      • Knarf Black says:

        Fuck you for reminding me that Dead Space Ignition existed. I deleted that abomination so hard after unlocking my free goodies that I’m pretty sure the developers felt it.

  2. Aurora Boreanaz says:

    Sounds like a fun way to teach the player the ropes.

    The first level of The Force Unleashed is similar, except your character for the tutorial (Darth Vader) doesn’t die during the story.  It is a pretty neat way to show off how strong your abilities can grow later in the game as Sam Witwer…er, “The Apprentice”.

    • Sam_Barsanti says:

      That level was also sort of Metroid-y in the way it gives you all of the powers for a level and then takes them away from you. Very cool opening.

      • Oxperiment says:

         The opening to Super Metroid is what exemplifies this approach in games for me, so I’m glad to see you, er, adjectify it.

        You start out, everything’s kosher, then it all goes to hell and there’s a dragon monster and holy shit you have to run back through this collapsing exploding space station that… you don’t see for the rest of the game. But it sure explains what you’re doing landing back on the planet, and sets tone, gameplay, and the objects you’re looking for foreground and background in the world.

  3. Enkidum says:

    Nice article. Never played any of the Dead Space games, but at least the intro to this one sounds pretty cool. I wonder, as you say, why there aren’t more tutorials/first levels like this – it makes a hell of a lot of sense as a way of cheaply investing people in the backstory. Are there any other games which use this? I can’t think of one off the top of my head, at any rate.

    • Matt Gerardi says:

      I feel like it’s actually starting to happen more often. Call Of Duty 4 was probably the first to do it. The recently released and super terrible Walking Dead shooter also pulls the same trick. 

      • The_Helmaroc_King says:

        Heck, this was also in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

      • George_Liquor says:

        The original X-COM could maybe possibly qualify, inasmuch as when your squad gets killed, they stay dead. 

        • Roswulf says:

           The new X-Com plays this more or less straight. The tutorial mission goes very badly, with 3 out of 4 party members going down.

          Of course the dramatic function in a squad-centric Turn Based Strategy game is significantly different than in a character oriented shooter. In X-Com, the main goal is to train the player that losing squad members is ok; casualties are a part of the game that needs to be taught alongside movement and cover.

      • There was an old X-Man game for the Genesis that began immediately after you turned it on (after one screen with copyright info). You had to play through that level with a randomized character before the opening cutscene/title screen even appeared. (That game is called X-men 2: The Clone Wars).

        It was pretty damn awesome, throwing you so fast into the action, I bet most players weren’t even expecting it.

        Didn’t FF7 also have a whole section of shit to do before the title showed up and the game actually began?

        • Citric says:

          If I remember right, FFVII starts with Aeris, then zoom out to a citywide view of Midgar with the title, then it zooms back in on the train and then the game starts. I may have played that game too many times.

        • PaganPoet says:

          Final Fantasy XII also began with you controlling the protagonist’s brother before the game proper gets going.

    • The_Helmaroc_King says:

      Starting the player off with abilities that can or will be taken away is also a good way to sell someone on the game during the opening, before the “real” game starts. Metroid Prime comes to my mind. It’s a decent trick that sounds more aggravating than it is; I can’t recall any game that did this where I felt cheated.

    • Alkaron says:

      Basically every level in Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem does this. It works like gangbusters.

    • Captain Internet says:

      Half Life 3 is going to revolve entirely around microwaving soup.

    • Zack Handlen says:

      Doesn’t Final Fantasy XII start this way? It’s been a while, but I remember playing as a soldier in the beginning, and then being mildly surprised when the soldier died.

      • PaganPoet says:

        Eep, you beat me to this. Yeah, you start off the game controlling the protagonist’s brother.

    • SamPlays says:

      Does Metal Gear Solid 2 count? The tanker level is the only time you get to play as Snake, which lasts for maybe 45 minutes. The plant section of the game, which is like 95% of the game, introduces Raiden as the main protagonist. Granted, Snake doesn’t die but the tanker level is more like a prologue to the actual game.

      • Other Chris says:

        I’ll never forget how Kojima played with my head in that game. It’s a classic.

  4. The Guilty Party says:

    Man, nothing engenders a slowly rising sense of dread and terror that sinks into your bloodstream like adrenaline gone long sour and makes you fear the dark quite like being instructed to Shake the Wii Remote!


  5. Naked Man Holding A Fudgesicle says:

    It’s Naked Man Holding A Fudgesicle origins time:

    A few years back when I started playing this Dead Space Extraction game, it was late and I was pretty tired. After this level I figured I should probably get some sleep, so I got out of my chair, felt a bit light-headed, and next thing I know I was waking up on the floor. 

    This was the second and hopefully last time I have fainted in my life. The other time was at a Pavement gig. I had not been drinking, but had had a long day and was travelling a lot around that time so was pretty worn out. After a dizzy spell I blacked out, soon after I woke up with blood oozing from my face, I had fainted and sliced my nose open and still have a small scar to show for it. Pavement were playing Give It A Day when I regained consciousness, in retrospect I think it would have been far more apt if they had been playing Black Out.

    Anyway, every time Dead Space Extraction is mentioned this is what pops into my mind. I did end up playing a few more chapters after the one detailed in this article but this game wasn’t really intended for a PS3 controller and I found it a bit tedious. The game was a ‘bonus’ with the Dead Space 2 disc, so I didn’t feel too bad about not finishing it. This level was kind of okay though, I guess.

  6. EmperorNortonI says:

    I think this strategy would be just about perfect for any sort of Aliens game, particularly one that wasn’t space marine based, but more of an adventure puzzler, or nearly weapon-free survival horror.  Learn to move around, investigate stuff, manipulate machinery, and then run and hide as the Aliens hatch and take over, leading to eventual death.  

  7. His_Space_Holiness says:

    I’ve never played a Dead Space game, but I’ve watched two Dead Space animated movies and read a comic book prequel. It sounds weird, but I’m just more interested in the premise than I am in the game mechanics. Plus, they were on Netflix, so what the hell. Anyway, the interesting thing about most ancillary Dead Space stories is that they’re exactly the same: They start with a framing device of one character leaving a recorded message. In flashback, a group of people get involved with a Marker. Some of them are Unitarians. They start going crazy and seeing runes everywhere, and then some Necromorphs show up and start tearing shit up. One by one the characters die while trying to fight their way out, and in the end the last character alive finds a way to kill all the Necromorphs, sacrificing him- or herself in the process and leaving behind the opening message. The end.

    Actually, one of the two movies was more of a Rashomon kind of thing, so points for creativity there. Still ended with everyone dying, though.

  8. Citric says:

    What about survival tips for other TV shows? For instance, if you’re having an inane conversation in Law and Order, you’ll live, but definitely find a body.

  9. Morgan Filbert says:

    Crazy, misplaced J-Pop themed Dragon’s Dogma does something similar with you playing a prior Arisen with full gear and powers before you create your own character and start off with nothing.

    Also, Be sure to drink your iodine!

  10. OhHaiMark says:

    This game is severely underrated for how well-made it is. I love it.

  11. The_Juggernaut_Bitch says:

    I kinda found this similar sort of setup in RE6’s first campaign, Leon/Helena, to be pretty cool.  The game starts with the two of you having just barely survived being blown the hell up and having to pick your crippled asses up off the pavement amidst a bunch of zombies trying to eat you.  Meanwhile, someone in a helicopter might be trying to kill you, or might just be a bad shot at killing zombies.

    That this scene is the “tutorial” mission, and will actually show up again, much later in the game, is kind of cool, but does a great job putting you in the action, with too many zombies and too few bullets.

  12. beema says:

    This game sounds pretty great and like a much better representation of Dead Space’s greatness than DS3. What systems is it on these days? I’d give it a shot on PC. Although, did I read this right, it’s on-rails?