Praise for Twisted Tales Events

'In the past few years Twisted Tales has become a major force in the promotion and appreciation of horror fiction. As well as putting on author readings and signings at bookshops it has expanded into organising larger events, bringing authors and critics together for discussions of the field. I've been involved in quite a few of both and have found them hugely enjoyable and stimulating - I believe the audiences did as well. May Twisted Tales continue to grow and prosper! If you love the field, support them! I do.' - Ramsey Campbell

‘Twisted Tales consistently produce well-organised events for writers and readers of horror. What really distinguishes Twisted Tales for me is the intelligent themes and investigations they pursue, and the high quality of the discussions they always stimulate. As an author I've been invited to three of their events and have been pleasantly startled, to near shocked, by the attendance levels - two out of three were even sold out. I salute anyone who contributes so much to the literary and cultural life of horror fiction.’- Adam Nevill

'Twisted Tales events are wonderful... a great way of promoting 21st century horror fiction. Supported by Waterstone's Liverpool One and really well organised, Twisted Tales brings together established names in the genre as well as new voices and of course readers. Looking forward to much more to come...' - Alison J. Littlewood

Monday, 25 April 2011

Dead Space reviewed by Tim Franklin

Developed by EA Redwood Shores
Published by EA
Released in 2008
Available for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Microsoft Windows
Certificate: 18

Dead Space is now a flourishing videogame franchise, with entries on the Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, iPhone, PC, tie-in movies and comic books, but when it was released in 2008 it came out of leftfield. A product of massive publisher EA’s skunkworks EA Redwood Shores (now Visceral Games), it was an original title in a genre that had for years been dominated by the seemingly untouchable Resident Evil franchise. Although Redwood Shores had big aspirations for the game and the fictional universe surrounding it, a sequel was far from certain - in a risk averse industry most series only have one title to prove their financial clout, or face an ignominious burial. The stellar growth of the Dead Space franchise is a tribute to the strength of that first game, an entry which is imaginative, brutal, terrifying, and far greater than the sum of its parts.

First, we must admit that some of those parts are salvage. The plot in particular has had several previous owners: responding to a distress call from the mining spaceship Ishimura, Issac Clarke is part of an engineering team that attempt to save the scuppered vessel. Within seconds Things Go Wrong in a big way and the mainstay of the team are torn apart by the game’s resident nasties, The Necromorphs (a name which sounds as though it has been taken from a 1980s Clive Barker title), leaving Isaac and a few other survivors to keep the floundering ship from crashing into the nearby planet. It is not worth stating how many films, books and games this setup could have been taken from. Isaac meanwhile is personally motivated by a search for his lost wife, a member of the Ishimura’s crew. The Ishimura has more than a hint of the Nostromo (Ridley Scott’s Alien, 1979) about it, all industrial functionality and claustrophobic space-efficiency. A trail of audiologs unravels the grim backstory to the game with reasonable charm, but these could have been re-used from id Software’s Doom 3 (2004) with only the minimum of editing. The series script writer Antony Johnston has provided snappy writing, though, and although the delivery method for the plot is old hat, the payload is explosive. 

If the design of the Ishimura channels Ridley Scott, the Necromorphs come from John Carpenter and Barker.  Reconfigured human corpses, their body parts are repurposed for novel and violent ends. Shoulder-blades become scythes, intestines become tentacles. Personal features are displaced to ugly points about the body, deformed, mutated and very reminiscent of the iconic William Birkin from Capcom’s Resident Evil 2 (1998). In a neat inversion of game and horror tradition, aiming for a Necromorph’s head (or comparable facsimile) is the slow route to a kill. It is better to prune monsters limb by limb, stripping away their offensive and locomotive capabilities until they finally collapse. A couple of larger monster designs have traditional sign-posted weakpoints hidden on their armourless undersides and nether parts, which are not exactly disappointing, but still don’t compare to the horror and pleasure of ripping out a standard ’morph’s legs only to have it drag itself towards you on its foreclaws. 

Given the massive zombie fad in 2008-2010, it is a little surprising that the Necromorphs stand as the benchmark “undead in space” - the Doom series being the notable videogame exception, and Event Horizon (1997) holding the corner for film. And in spite of the game’s hard sci-fi setting, the Dead Space alt-zombies derive from a supernatural source, a religious cult artifact known as The Marker. Uncovering the scrivenings and journals of cult members aboard the Ishimura reveals the tortured events that lead the crew into their zombified state, without indulging in too much mad-scientist scene chewing (perhaps a response to 2007’s excellent Bioshock, which also uses audio logs to develop backstory, and introduced the first mad sociologist into the world of videogames).

Your tools of dismemberment are refreshing. The best among them are literal tools, engineering implements pressed into service as ad hoc weaponry. There are one or two videogame staples in the mix - the welding torch behaves rather like a flame-thrower, and the marine rifle does what it says on the tin. Your staple weapon is a plasma bolt cutter, which pumps out limb-splintering shots with a satisfying bark, and telekinetic buzz-saws, a man-portable mining laser and short-range sonic rock drill are among your other improvised armoury. Rather than grenades, you have limited access to a stasis field and a telekinesis glove. Weapons, widgets and your armour can all be upgraded in exchange for power nodes. These important items are fiercely rationed and usually hidden behind a wall of teeth and pullulating flesh.

Putting your toys into play is great fun. Dead Space is one of the few successful descendants of Resident Evil 4 (2005); a third-person horror game that gives you control of an empowered but vulnerable lead character. Isaac has strong offensive capabilities and considerably better range than the Necromorphs. But he is a glass cannon: it only takes a few hits to reduce him to a bloody stain; Isaac’s clunky pace and poor maneuverability, matched with the very restricted field of view, are vastly outclassed by his sprinting, wall-crawling, leaping antagonists. It is a gameplay formula that turns every conflict into a series of hasty, life-or-death decisions - which of the many targets do you shoot first? Is the gun in hand the right one for the job? Is now the time to use your precious stasis attack? Make your stand here, or blast a path to higher ground?- by which point, if you haven’t acted already, something will be wearing Isaac’s face like a hat. 

Occasionally, particularly in the closing act of the game, the balance between power and threat tips. Too many foes or too little fire-power turn tension into grind as death after death stack up on top of you and you are forced to repeat the same sections over and over. Even these will provide some stomach-turning anxiety as you gird your loins to repeat the onslaught of alien brutality.

The core rhythm of your adventure, familiar to protagonists of horror in all media - explore a bit, something jumps out on you, you beat it into a paste or you die - is not innovative, but it is well-executed. The disintegrating Ishimura supplies a very neat sequence of maguffins to motivate your exploration, as you fix poisoned oxygen supplies, refuel the ship, and (horror of all videogame horrors), recover key cards. Each section of the ship; landing bay, engineering, accommodation, hydroponics and other more esoteric locations, provides a neat parcel of objectives divided into discreet subsections. The levels are characterful, hitting a sweet spot at which exciting combat arenas pass off as credible environments, believable places where people lived, ate, or (more likely) performed nefarious scientific experiments. Occasionally you will need to trek through a previously visited location, but these at least get a makeover from the Ishimura’s continued explosive decay.

Beyond the writhing meat and alien potatoes of the game is a spread of appetising diversions. Artificial gravity has failed in some areas of the damaged Ishimura, unhitching your playing arena from the perceived “floor” and sending threats at you from all directions. Others are open to vacuum, adding a slowly failing oxygen supply to your resource-management worries. These also nod in the direction of realism by muffling aural cues about approaching gribblies; in Dead Space’s vacuum sections, no-one can hear you scream.

Dead Space packs in a lot more than this: high quality voice-acting, set-piece boss-fights, a brief dalliance with zero-gravity basketball, and a string of third act twists that, although not revolutionary, are carried through well. It has panache, polish, and enough individuality that its debts to its forebears: Doom 3, System Shock (1994), the whole Resident Evil series (1996- ), The Thing (1982), Virus (1999), Alien, Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992), Alien Resurrection (1997), are easily overlooked. Most importantly, it is so scary that even hardened horror cases (Twisted Tales co-founder David McWilliam included) have been known to turn off their games consoles rather than press on once the shit hits the fan. With the release of the sequel this year, the series’ first entry is available pre-owned for pennies. If you have not tried a horror video game before, whether you are a gamer or a horror buff, start here.


Timothy Franklin works for Lancashire's literary development agency, Litfest. He's nearing the end of a course in playwriting at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, and a collection of reviews and mad railings at the government can be found at his blog, Unsuitable for Adults. He's a gamer, and that's where his interest in horror is most keenly focused.

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