STOP. If you have yet to finish Dead Space 3, and don’t want to be spoiled, just go head on over yonder. What I’m talking about today is going to strip it all bare. And because Dead Space is such a visceral series (no pun intended to developer Visceral Games), expect this one to be generously image-heavy. We’re ready? We’re ready.
The Dead Space games have been among my favourites for a while now. To speak of them in terms of world-building, they’ve made a derelict deep-space mining ship, a moon colony and other locales seem perfectly ‘livable’. To me, that’s the perfect test of whether a fictional world succeeds or not: whether you can take it as-is, and the idea that real people could live there doesn’t shatter your suspension of disbelief. In Dead Space 2, the Sprawl is populated by adverts for media within the universe, like music, candy…
While the success and respect that the Alien franchise (one of Dead Space’s core inspirations) commands, and deservingly so, show that you don’t need to pepper a series with these effect-traits in order to make it believable, it certainly helps in ways that work on so many levels.
This next bit is ripped straight from the Dead Space wiki. Even if you haven’t played the games (and you should, unless you have a heart condition or something), I’ll try to make this accessible for you. And if you’re already a Dead Space maven, just keep a-scrollin’ and I’ll tell you when you can stop.
Dead Space is set in 2507. Earth has been through an extinction-level event, caused by rapacious and unsustainable use of resources. The remaining humans realized that the only way to get new resources was from the stars: with Earth’s resources used up, the only way to gain the resources to survive would be to search new planets for resources. That’s where the Concordance Extraction Corporation comes in. At a time of near-desperation, CEC invented the ship that would eventually save all of humanity: The USG Ishimura.
The USG Ishimura was a ship designed for the new resource-gathering practice: Planetcracking. The Ishimura’s job was to mine other planets for their most rare and most valuable resources to take back to Earth. Even though there have been subsequent Planetcrackers (a small fleet now exists), the Ishimura remains the iconic symbol of mankind’s will to survive, even after all these decades. Thanks to Planetcracking, mankind is now thriving again, and resources are plentiful. By the time of the game, the Ishimura has performed 34 successful planetcracks, and is now in the process of beginning its 35th. However, the events that take place during this planet crack are events that threaten the very survival of mankind.
You also need to know this: a few hundred years before the events of Dead Space, a Black Marker – a genuine alien artifact – was found buried in the Earth from long before humanity was here. As it seemed to serve as a near-limitless power source, it was dug up and studied, and Earthgov went about trying to create replicas of it, known as Red Markers.
This is also from the Wikia: When activated, the artifact emits a highly-tuned frequency to its surroundings that, when coming into contact with dead organic tissue, reanimates the cells, thus creating Necromorphs. Should the carrier wave be stopped, however, as seen in Dead Space: Aftermath, all Necromorphs created would be destroyed.
Hey there – if you’re already familiar with the Dead Space universe, you can resume reading here.
Up to Dead Space 3, the only language we’ve been dealing with is English, and whatever weird crap the Markers are planting in people’s minds. But just ask any serious world-builder about one of the most important aspects of a fictional culture, and they’re sure to tell you that it’s language. Language both projects and defines identity. Just ask Tolkien, who was a linguist first and novelist second: Middle-Earth was essentially created as a playing field for his fictional languages. It has been said that the death of language is, essentially, a cultural execution.
Historically, we see the forced Anglicization of indigenous American peoples under Manifest Destiny, but with globalization in the modern day, we’re seeing a lot more languages simply dying out. Here we see the Ayapaneco (known by its speakers as Nuumte Oote, or True Voice) tongue, which has survived in the land that is now Mexico since before there was a Mexico, now only spoken by two living people who are old enough to claim retirement discounts at the very same multinational corporations partially responsible for globalizing the world to this extent.
It’s sad, it truly is, because each and every language brings something to its culture that is unique and important. That’s why those silly Babelfish translations hardly work: because not only do different languages have different ways to say things, but they approach speech with different contexts and meanings that just can’t be picked up by a free computer program. The death of language, then, is the death of meaning.
And heck, thousands of years from now, don’t you want future-anthropologists to be able to look back on us and be able to understand our culture through the language we’ve left behind?
After all, there are subsets of ancient Greek society that we know nothing about, simply because we don’t have any on-record translations for that particular community’s speech or writing. For those of you interested in the Hellenic period, you may be familiar with the Linear B script that allows us to translate ancient Greek, but what about those Mediterranean peoples for whom we have no point of reference? If culture is communicated through language, all their people, all their struggles, simply vanished into the black vortex of lost history.
And that’s just one planet: ours. Let’s look at the Dead Space series.
In Dead Space 3, we finally learn what they really mean by the term Dead Space. As it turns out, it’s not just because “hey, cool space zombies!” (but that too). All throughout the series, there’s been this rhetoric in the background that humans are really the only thing out there in the universe, simply because we as a species have searched so far and nothing has showed its face. Nothing sentient, at any rate: the end-boss of the first game is a gigantic worm-type thing, but it doesn’t seem to possess a lot of sentience beyond what’s for dinner now, and what’s for dinner later.
But in the third game, we come to Tau Volantis, an icy world that Earthgov had put up research stations on two hundred years ago. The deeper we get into this desolate world, the more we find out the horrible truth of the Dead Space universe: humanity may be alone in the galaxy, but we shouldn’t be. There were other sentient species out there. Keyword: were. But it seems that they each befell the same fate that is now falling on humanity: with their resources stretched thin on their home worlds, they discovered Black Markers of their own, and proceeded to try and harness them as a source of limitless power…only for the Markers to exert their will, spreading insanity, death and rebirth, until the species was nothing.
Dead Space, because it’s all dead…literally.
And on Tau Volantis, we come upon the frozen, desiccated or skeletal remains of an alien species (given that they’re officially unnamed, it’s safe to call them Tau Volantians) that was not only sentient, but faced the Marker threat in the past.
Now, all throughout the series, the mantras ‘make us whole’ and ‘convergence’ have been repeated by those corrupted by the Markers. Here, we finally learn what they really mean: convergence is the final phase of the Necromorph, where all the Necromorphs of a given species are basically formed up as one to create a massive, moon-sized Necromorph, called the Blood Moon or the Brethren Moon.
This was happening to the Tau Volantians, but they created a machine that flash-froze the world, halting convergence. The moon still hangs there in the sky, waiting for the machine to either be shut down (causing convergence to complete) or for the machine’s process to be completed.
You see, flash-freezing the world was only a stop-gap solution. The Tau Volantians intended for the machine to destroy the Brethren Moon entirely, but weren’t able to get around to it. So what they did was leave clues for the next alien race (that means us) who would come along, so that we would be able to activate the machine in their stead.
That’s all background to what I really want to talk about here. When Isaac and co. descend into the depths of the alien city, we periodically listen to audio logs by a scientist from the last expedition 200 years ago, who is remarking on the breadcrumbs that the Tau Volantians have left for us. There’s this one text log entry where he lays out how the aliens have given them all they need to understand the Tau Volantian language. He delves into how each small word has multiple different meanings depending on the slightest alterations, and we’re even given full translations of numerous words based on their written script. The indigenous aliens (what a strange word pairing that is) even set up devices that replicate their speech, so that humans would be able to activate their voice-controlled doorways. To take it back to the example of the ancient Greeks, the Tau Volantians intentionally laid out something analogous to the Linear B script, as a way to preserve their language.
In doing this, the Tau Volantians are not only providing their successors with a means to finish their work and destroy the Brethren Moon, but they are also preserving an integral part of their culture. I believe that it’s mentioned their language was not actually written down, instead taking on an oral tradition, until it came time to build the machine. Here we see a race that refused to let its struggles and accomplishments simply fade away into the darkness.
In that way, the Tau Volantians have defeated the notion that the characters only inhabit ‘Dead Space’. Seeing as how they give Isaac the ability to destroy the Brethren Moon, they still live, in a way. This would not be possible without the linguistic elements of their culture that they chose to preserve.
Of course, one of Dead Space’s chief inspirations is the inimitable Lovecraft, whose main theme was that humanity is ill-equipped to even comprehend the vastness of the cosmos, and that there are things out there well beyond our ability to perceive. But Dead Space 3, oddly (and admirably) enough, both honours and subverts this.
We still don’t know what created the Markers, or if they’re in fact some kind of race in and of themselves (certainly they’ve displayed a level of self-awareness). That in itself is very Lovecraftian, but let’s look again at the Tau Volantians.
We’re a long way from Klingons here. This is a type of creature that humans might even perceive as monstrous, and giving in to ethnocentric knee-jerk reactions, might try to kill on sight. I think it’s extremely deliberate on Visceral’s part that the first bona fide sentient alien species we find in the Dead Space universe is of a completely different skeletal structure, genus…just about everything is different from humanity.
The Wars and the Treks and the Mass Effects are ‘friendly’ sci-fi in that their aliens are mostly relatable to humans on some level. One of the Mass Effect art books mentions that the Asari were created specifically so as to appeal to human sensibilities. It makes us feel like we’re not so disparate, despite the vastness of space.
Dead Space is not ‘friendly’ science fiction. It takes us to the final (so far) installment before we even encounter any alien race, and even then, they look hugely different from us.
But Visceral also subverts this by giving them an intelligence that is notable and respectable. Their drive to preserve their people’s culture through language makes them not so different from us. In fact, the Tau Volantians (though extinct for centuries, other than the Necromorph versions) come off as far more sympathetic than any human character depicted as a Unitologist, the series’ resident religicult that happens to riff on a particular real-world cult that enjoys suing or aggressively bullying anyone who spoofs on them. The Unitologists worship the Markers, and see the convergence as some sort of analogue to the concept of nirvana, and in this game they’ve gone full-on terrorist (one of them straight-up suicide-bombs your escape car at the start of the game). It can be said that they’re far more “beastly” than the alien Tau Volantians, who fought to the last in an amazing act of self-sacrifice to see it that convergence did not happen. I hesitate to use this term, as it almost seems ethnocentric in space, but Visceral have successfully ‘humanized’ things that look like this:
Make no mistake, Dead Space is one of the darkest and bleakest sci-fi series I’ve come across. It has the named-character body count of a Jason movie, the gore of Mortal Kombat, the galactic isolation of an Alien film, and the obscenely corrupt governmental and religious institutions of…well, okay, I’ll give ‘em that one.
But I think that Dead Space 3 gives us more optimistic subtext than most people are reading into.
Because it proves that space is not necessarily dead. The Tau Volantians may be lost to history, but their language and culture is not. The Markers failed to obliterate their existence utterly, and much like the Protheans in Mass Effect, they gave our human heroes what they needed to kick the Blood Moon right back to the pit.
To quote Isaac in the final battle as he stares down Lovecraft’s fever dream, “You can’t have us.” I don’t think he’s just talking about their flesh, killing it then reanimating and re-forming it into horrific new shapes. He’s talking about all that we’ve built up, everything human culture is worth.
I could have written a whole separate essay on Isaac’s gradual turn from an everyman to a hero befitting the Singular Superman aesthetic prominent in Western culture, and how it culminates in an altruistic sacrifice characteristic of that archetype (He and Carver know that they’re not coming back from taking on the Brethren Moon, once the crazy Unitologist shuts down the machine and initiates convergence.), but I think that Visceral was trying to say that Dead Space isn’t necessarily Isaac’s story, nor is it merely humanity’s; it’s the story of every race that struggled against the Markers in an attempt to bring the plague to an end.
In between the manic dismemberment and the fact that Isaac Clarke’s life is one big demonstration of Murphy’s Law, it’s helpful to take a step back and realize that they were actually saying something pretty interesting with this series. Solid stuff.