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Embedded Narrative within Dead Space

on Sat Oct 07, 2017 10:54 am
This is a re-post of a blog article I wrote on my Personal Development Blog a while ago. Embedded Narrative elements are a key part of the way a lot of games provide information to the player - both in terms of Fictional information about the game world itself; as well as ludic information that teaches the player things about how to play the game itself. The case presented here is Dead Space, more specifically the first chapter of the game itself. Needless to say - spoilers will be shown - so if you haven't played the game yet and are planning to, you have been warned.

Embedded narrative is a technique which I feel digital games in particular has a lot of benefits, and next to no negatives. It allows you, the developer, to provide information about what happened in the past, about happenings else-where in the game's world, and also provide game-play relevant information in a fictionally coherent manner. A benefit I highlighted in a work later on during another case study I made on Deus Ex - is that it also highlights to the player what information they as players know, and what information characters in the fictional world know. This allows the player to make better guesses on what's the situation in the fictional world, and if they're doing detective trying to piece together past events - a better idea of who knew what. 



Embedded Narrative Within the First Chapter of Dead Space

This week I decided to bring forward a small analysis I did for the first 10 to 30 minutes of Dead Space (Visceral Games, 2008) - approximately the first chapter. The analysis was in regards to Embedded Narrative - for those of you who are unaware of what this implies - think of it as methods through which a develop can tell a story through the environment and objects within the environment. A few examples of these include codex entries, notes, environment objects, audio logs and markings. 
When conducting my analysis I tried to take on the role of a new player who has yet to play the game itself. Using the environment - I attempted to interpret and imagine what possible could have taken place. We will be interpreting what we see based on the environment - assuming that we have next to no knowledge on what the state of the story is within Dead Space. The analysis will be done sequentially - from when the game gives us control of the avatar to around the end of Chapter 1.
The Analysis 

Docking Area 


From the start - as we depart from our crashed maintenance ship - we walk onto the docking bay area bridge which seems to be filled with luggage bags. Whatever happened - we can possibly assume that it was sudden - and people seemed to be just arriving or just departing from the ship just before or during what was happening. 
Lounge / Waiting Area


As we make our way into the ship - the amount of luggage left around the waiting area, coupled with coffee cups and what appear to be stains (stains of what exactly is debatable - is it just coffee or blood?). This seems to reinforce what we already assume - that whatever happened - it was sudden.
Security Desk

As we walk around the security desk in the lounge we are presented with a large quantity of blood stains. Arguably the first signs that whatever happened - people got hurt. However - what was it? Were people rioting because they were kept out of the ship? Were they being forcibly kicked out? Were they being quarantined? Also if conflict did occur - where are the bodies? Was it settled without casualties and people were taken to an infirmary? 
At this stage we are introduced to the 'Aliens' who answer the question we have on what might have happened - but raise so much more... 


Some initial thoughts would be how did they get on the ship? Who or what are they? What lead to this? Where are the crew and where are the bodies if they are not alive? Do these aliens take the bodies of the crew members?
Maintenance Room


As we escape one of the aliens chasing us through the back areas from the security desk - we arise to this. Perhaps the most significant feature in this room aside is the dead crew member and the writings in blood. This tells us two key elements - the crew did survive the initial attack by the aliens - and they are fighting back. As we collect the plasma cutter from the desk we can assume what that the instructions written in blood are instructions towards killing the aliens. Presumably - the crew member was dying - injured by one of the aliens - and wanted to leave a message for any other person to find so they do not suffer the same fate. 
Audio Logs 


As we move forward from the maintenance room we locate an audio log - which follows a crew member named Bensen and a group of survivors. From the audio logs we can't be sure how long ago they left these here - but it is a possibility that the crew member found dead - was part of Bensen's group. Leading us to believe that Bensen and his group could be alive. 
Tram Tunnels 


As we continue moving forward we find this scene. At this point - we have no idea how ago this had taken place - and who these individuals were. However as we make our way forward it becomes more clear. An audio log within the Tram Maintenance room tells us that Bensen and his group were attempting to repair the Trams to try to reach a different area of the ship - but they needed a stasis module. Presumably - these individuals might have been the ones bringing the stasis  module to Bensen and his group - however we can only speculate on this point.
End of Chapter 1

By the end of chapter 1 - we know that aliens were clearly what caused the USG Ishimura to require assistance. We know that there was a group of survival alive - but we have no clue as to what happened to them. We also know that the alien attack was sudden and unexpected - and that the body count seemed low relative to the size of the ship up to this point. Whether this means the ship had a small crew - or the aliens are taking the bodies somewhere - is unclear. 
Concluding Remarks

This analysis highlights the potential use that a number of techniques using simply the environment could have for relaying information and story. Embedded Narrative is often used to tell a story of past events - encouraging players to piece together an idea of what took place before they arrived. However it can also be used to teach the player in a diegetic [Diegetic meaning that it lies within the story world - think of it as the player character is aware and can see/manipulate/hear it etc...] manner. 
Through simply embedded narrative elements - we were able to piece together a large amount of information with regards to Dead Space. [Spoiler Alert] Those of you who have played Dead Space would know that the 'Aliens' were Necromorphs as they are known within the game world - brought onto the ship - which answers two of our questions as to where the bodies were - and how the attack happened and how sudden it likely was. 
Hopefully this has been a useful analysis that might have given you ideas on how to use Embedded Narrative elements within your projects - or simply as an entertaining read if that is what you're looking for!

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Personal Game Development Blog: https://www.moonlitdevelopment.com/
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