Very few games can talk about religion in a serious, respectful, and honest manner. We often see games and the majority of the press skirt around the idea casually or barely dip their toe into the concept, but some games genuinely try to argue a case about it. Most that do are so heavily biased in their argument that there’s no room for sense, reason, faith, or logic to even account for it. Not only is Dead Space an exception to this rule, it may be one of the best universal allegories to having and living a life with beliefs on the spiritual; whether that be in God or even in the belief that there is no deity or spiritual side to the world at all.
As some of you know, I am a professed Protestant Christian. While I subscribe to no particular sect, my religious belief is very important to me. Normally I’ve accepted that most developers retain a secular outlook for their games so as to not offend anyone, but in the process, I feel we’re leaving a really important conversation out of the medium for fear of upsetting people. We live in a world where religion is hotly debated as Atheists proclaim the end of religion as we know it while religious leaders become increasingly fundamentalist and conservative, so removing that conflict from games is a serious disservice to both secular and religious gamers. We want to hear about what’s going on there, and if games are genuinely supposed to become art, they cannot always avoid controversy.
Dead Space manages to touch upon the majority of faith-related issues without even intending to. Visceral Games (formerly EA Redwood) set out to make a game that had no overlay HUD and included dismemberment, stasis, and telekinesis in a horror setting. That’s all they set out to do, with a full description of the universe by the game’s creator for the writers to take from as they would to develop an appropriate title. It became the survival shooter we’ve all come to know, spanning the twilight years of the seventh console generation and even expanding onto mobile phones and the Wii. It was a success, all things considered, but most didn’t really notice the underlying themes, save one. The anti-blind faith argument brought about by the game’s only other major threat besides the alien, zombie-like Necromorphs — The Church of Unitology.
The Church of Unitology is compared by many to the Church of Scientology. The organizations share similar traits, such as a more monetary focus for their organizations, secret society mentalities, suspicious conspiracies about what really goes on behind closed doors with suggestions of political and social manipulation. However, this is the tip of the iceberg with Unitology.
Unitology is one of the greatest examples of blind faith; believing without any understanding what you say you believe. This is a dangerous concept to say the least. In Unitology, we see the cult-like mentality and the herding of sheep-like people that violates the core ideals of free will. Members of the Church willing kill themselves and others, and in the case of Dead Space mobile cause the entire Necromorph outbreak on Titan Station in Dead Space 2. The fanaticism present is displayed through all its variations. In Dead Space, it’s of desperately trying to cling to beliefs in the face of danger. In Dead Space 2, it’s a cool, borderline-psychotic calm and devotion mixed with frustration and rage at your insistence to refuse and never give in. By the finale in Dead Space 3, we’re even presented the “scientific” angle of an arrogant leader in the Church who claims it is not faith but reason and science that drew him to believe in the notorious creators of all the havoc in the series, the Markers.
Unitology also fits for some Atheists as the example of all religion, viewing even the best members of the religious sect to be lemmings heading toward a cliff. No matter the case though, Unitology is the extreme. Unitology is the FOX News for the liberal, and pretty much any other news network for the conservative. It’s the manipulation of church and state to the ends of but a few with the intentions of twisting the masses to their very goals until it’s too late for those poor people to escape. It is the dark side of religion, of any dogma and/or cultural collective. It is the greatest evil that can happen with such a group. It unflinchingly hands you almost every aspect of its belief system with a cheery smile while it runs at you with a sharpened kitchen knife and your bank account in hand. It is terrifying, but if you do so much as breath a negative word about it in front of its believers, you will have a hornet’s nest flying at you.
It makes you bitter, angry, and frustrated — much like it does to protagonist Isaac Clarke. We learn through additional data logs earned by using New Game Plus in the original game that most of his family’s wealth, which had been considerable, was spent by his mother when she became enraptured by the Church of Unitology. With Isaac’s father far off on a EarthGov mission, it caused him years of trouble and forced him to work his way through schools far below what he deserved; he spent years recovering from the destitution his mother had left them in.
Despite this, we never hear of Isaac’s beliefs beyond his understandable opposition to Unitology. Interestingly enough, he is never confirmed an Atheistic or religious man, although he rarely uses God’s name in vain (something other gaming protagonists could take a note from). He’s a blank slate in that respect, which makes him a good religious protagonist. We can apply our beliefs to his actions and for most religious groups, find him to behave honorably.
Isaac especially fits the Christian and secular ideal of a good man. He stands up against a threat no matter how big it is, willing to put his life on the line even if it only saves one other person. He repeatedly tries to negotiate and deal with his opponents in a non-violent manner, resorting to violence only when there is no other option and lives are at stake. He is understanding and considerate of other people’s needs. Even in Dead Space 3, where we find our hero giving into fear, he realizes that he has to accept the responsibility handed to him, even if he detests having to be the “Marker Killer”.
But all this is just some convenient lining up of parallels. How on earth is it an allegory? The core gameplay and necromorphs are where the full allegory exists, even without the context and story. In Dead Space, the Necromorphs are a menace two-fold. They are a threat to the living, and to the dead. With both, they seek to “convert” them (notice that key word there?) into one of their one. Every Necromorph is party of a hive mind directed by the Marker, which is even referred to in Dead Space: Martyr as “The Devil’s Tail”. They seek to drag everyone down to their level, like demons in the Bible (or from a secular perspective, Evangelists pressing pamphlets and agendas down everyone’s throats).
The Necromorphs, and the hazards they create, represent everything that pulls away at your faith and beliefs, whatever they are. They are the devil stirring doubt in your heart, and they are the critic making you second-guess yourself. They are the hardships of this world and the constant pains it gives us. They are a concentrated dose of stress, torture, and frustration all in one. Even when we defeat such challenges in real life, just like Isaac, we are left with a little less certainty and standing until we can restore ourselves to our former state.
Similarly, we have to be strategic and smart if we are to defend our beliefs. Isaac cuts off his opponents before they come near, just as we cut off an opposing person’s arguments at the source to unsettle their position and strengthen our own. It’s a duel of wits and knowing where to hit. Most of the necromorphs even fit descriptions of various sinful behaviors, such as gluttony, impatience, dangerous overparenting, hateful little acts towards others, and insisting on following your ignorance even when you know you’re wrong.
Isaac’s journeys even focus on universal religious themes. The first one deals with the unknown, questioning of faith, and the dangers of denial. The second covers guilt, trust, betrayal, and forgiveness both from others and the forgiveness we give ourselves. The finale deals with duty, past regrets, forgiveness again (for Carver), faith, and most importantly of all — sacrifice. Sacrifice, duty, and past regrets especially stand out in the finale, as every character confronts a situation where they may choose wrong or right in light of the past and what is to come, and that they will very likely die and be forgotten even though they are all that stands in the way of the end of all human life.
So we have a universe that faces the harshest moments and the brightest spots of religious belief (and lack thereof) set around gameplay that is an allegory to the stresses and pains of regular life with a heroic yet flawed human protagonist who stands as an example to the failures and successes of faith-motivated actions.
In an industry where almost any reference to religion is treated like a joke, a punchline to be made fun of; that makes me and other religious gamers feel a little less lonely and under represented. For some secularists, it can feel like a comeuppance upon what they reject and find illogical and/or culturally toxic. We have far too few games that truly let us just be who we are while still feeling some escapism and fun. Speaking on the religious side of things, I think our years of silent patience has earned us at least that that.