I don’t have to tell you we are currently living in a really bad and weird time. The world is heavy right now, to say the least. As a person who suffers from a pretty nasty anxiety disorder, I have not been doing all that well. (I’ll be fine, though. There are people out there who are way more deserving of attention than me at this particular moment.)
The thing about my anxiety, though, is it’s fucking distracting. So distracting that I can’t seem to successfully take my mind off it for more than a few minutes at a time. It’s like there’s a cloud looming constantly over my head, primed and ready to piss down rain on me at a moment’s notice. The COVID-19 lockdown has only made that cloud more dense.
There’s a reason I’ve never seen the end credits of Dead Space. The moment I encountered my first shambling Necromorph, I was instilled with a genuine terror I will never forget.
As a result, I’ve been spending most of my quarantine time actively searching for something that gives me even the slightest serotonin boost. I’ve tried puzzles, watching unhealthy amounts of Netflix, and taking more naps than I probably should. If I were a better baker I might’ve tried hopping on the sourdough trend.
The only thing I’ve discovered that has somewhat worked is good old-fashioned nostalgia, baby. There’s something soothing about transporting myself to a happier time in my life, even if for just a small amount of time. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism, but it makes me feel like I’m not here; like I’ve exited this rough patch and hit smooth ground. This self-care method has taken the shape of classic cartoons, lost songs from my childhood, and lots and lots of video game replays.
I blazed through a few of my favorite games from the past quickly. (I won’t specify how quickly. The sheer amount of content I’ve binged may be cause for concern in and of itself.) There was one video game on my to-do list, however. One that I was consciously avoiding; one that I never actually finished.
It was the terrifying survival horror classic from 2008: Dead Space.
As my replay docket got shorter and shorter, I decided that it was time to give the game another try. I couldn’t let my nostalgia reservoir run dry. It was going to be a challenge — the reason I never finished Dead Space wasn’t because of my busy schedule, it was because I was terrified of it. But, I thought, what better use of my lockdown time than to overcome a fear that was eating away at me? Maybe I’d feel some much-needed semblance of success, relief, growth, or all of the above; I didn’t know.
I was going to try to find out.
In Dead Space, you step into the space boots of engineer Isaac Clarke as you investigate a rogue mining vessel, the USG Ishimura. The ship has sent out a distress call for a repair and rescue operation. When you arrive on the scene, however, it becomes clear that everything has gone wrong. The crew is unresponsive, the ship’s interior is in tatters, and the entire place is overrun with a murderous species, called Necromorphs, which can only be dispatched by strategically shooting off their spear-like limbs with the help of your trusty plasma cutter.
If you don’t repair the Ishimura and get the hell out of dodge, you and your friends are toast. Sounds like a good time, right?
Yeah, no thanks.
Image: Ea / VIsceral Games
Wrong. Like I said, there’s a reason I’ve never seen the end credits of Dead Space. It’s because little 12-year-old Dylan, starry-eyed and new to the horror genre, made his foray into the game’s dark, monster-infested story without preparing for what he would witness. The moment I encountered my first shambling Necromorph, I was instilled with a genuine terror I will never forget. I audibly screamed at just about every turn I took, and my controller was consistently damp with panic sweat. I “nope’d” out of the game about a third of the way into it, put my copy aside, and allowed it to collect dust.
Despite being a total scaredy-cat at that age, I didn’t want to hate horror content. I was jealous of my friends who enjoyed it, and I felt like I was missing out on some of the best entertainment the world has to offer. I was tired of having to recuse myself from fun watercooler conversations with my horror-loving buddies, and when I experienced that FOMO once again following the release of Dead Space, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Thus began my training. Not the organized, well-thought-out kind of training you might expect. There was no Karate Kid montage. This was trial by fire. In the 12 years since I first booted up and quickly abandoned Dead Space, I’ve force-fed myself horror content in a sustained effort to become more comfortable with it.
I developed my own little methods for how to make it from start to finish. I’d jack up the brightness settings in super dark areas so that pesky monsters couldn’t get the drop on me, and turn down the volume to render loud scares ineffective. I’d even sprint down long hallways, running directly at enemies and letting them kill me, just so I could get over the initial dread of wondering what was around the corner. Putting on contrasting music helped, too — zombies aren’t all that scary when Fleetwood Mac is playing in the background. If anything, it’s kind of funny.
Some purists might say I was defeating the purpose of the games outright with these methods. Listen to me when I say — mind your own business, pal.
Fellas, I’m going to need you to take a step back.
Image: EA / Visceral Games
Fast-forward to the present: 25-year-old me loves horror everything. Movie about a terrifying pagan cult that preys on unsuspecting tourists? I’ll take one, please. Game that is quite literally only designed for jump scares and nothing else? Give me that right now. I don’t even utilize my training methods all that much anymore. Scary stuff has officially moved into the “entertaining” section of the Venn diagram for me.
Still, every time I looked at my dusty copy of Dead Space, I conveniently found something else to do. In the back of my head, Dylan at age 12 was saying, “No, dude, no.”
But boredom eventually leaves you desperate to feel something, and quarantine got me to that point real quick. So, I decided to commit and finally attempt to get through the one game that scared me so much I couldn’t face it for more than a decade.
Now that I’m playing through Dead Space again, I’m getting that nostalgia kick that has been life-saving for me during the era of social distancing. From the moment the title card popped up on my screen, I thought of 12-year-old me, pants-shittingly skulking through the corridors of the Ishimura, and smiled.
I didn’t feel that sense of impending doom anymore. The image of me sitting on my bedroom floor in my childhood home — controller in hand, not knowing that one day I wouldn’t be able to leave my apartment for months due to a devastating global pandemic — soothed me. It reminded me of how far I’ve come, not just in my ability to consume horror content, but also of the relationships and fond memories I’ve cultivated since.
My anxieties about hitting “start” fell away knowing that my young self, innocent and naive, would be proud of me. Playing Dead Space today, while still legitimately terrifying, actually feels fun — especially when I think about where I started.
I think I’ll finish the game this time.