The Overwhelming Loss of Dead Space

Dead Space demands a lot of you. It is a franchise spanning six video games, four novels, three comic books, and a couple animated films. The lore is so rich and interconnected that I guarantee you’ll either have knowledge gaps or go broke tracking everything down. Still, it is worth tracking down. I know this because I did, to the eye-rolls of my wife.

Dead Space has become something of a meme in our relationship. When she and I were first dating seven years ago there were mornings I’d wake her by screaming at the TV because I couldn’t climb the ice walls in Dead Space 3. Over those early months together she watched as I cleared all three mainline games, their DLCs, the Wii rail-shooter, and a mobile spin-off I was playing on a goddamn BlackBerry Playbook. It’s a testament to her patience that we’re about to celebrate an anniversary. 

I revisited the Dead Space franchise with the aim of filling my gaps. Inevitably, this led to more teasing. I was put on blast for highlighting Dead Space novels while visiting family like some crazy person. But I am that crazy person. Driven mad by the loss of something with so much incredible promise. You won’t understand the depths of that loss without a bit of a primer.

The Elevator Pitch

It’s the distant-ish future. The only supposedly safe foods are the patented foods grown in controlled environments by mega-corporations, foods that few can afford. Humanity grips with an intergalactic energy crisis. Spaceships like the setting of the first Dead Space, the S.S. Ishimura, are used to crack entire planets for resources. Illegally, I might add. 

Humanity inevitably stumbles upon a “Marker” and that creates a social panic because it is a weird alien-looking thing. This Marker may hold the secret to limitless energy, so a lot of important people want it. Oh, did I mention that this was a horror franchise? Those in proximity to the Marker experience regular headaches and disturbing nightmares. They see the dead giving them warnings. Meanwhile, a cult claims this is transcendence. It isn’t, the dead become space zombies. 

Dead Space #4 (2009); W. Antony Johnston, A. Ben Templesmith

Only people in engineering suits can combat the undead, usually maiming limbs rather than aiming for the head or heart. Dead Space protagonists often have to lean on their professional knowledge, skills, and abilities to survive the undead. Engineers, for instance, are able to use cool sci-fi things like kinetic fields and time manipulation for stuff other than deep space ship repair. Though there still is ship repair.

The antagonistic Necromorphs are reanimated corpses, reshaped into terrifying shit by a recombinant extraterrestrial infection signal sent by the Marker. Say that three times fast. The resulting creatures are extremely aggressive and will attack any uninfected organism on sight. Necromorphs also have a hive-mind thing going on, so you could be forgiven for assuming that’s what the cultists mean by “CONVERGENCE.” That ain’t it though.

Tail of the Devil

You can’t understand what CONVERGENCE means to Dead Space‘s universe without understanding a bit more about the Markers and how they work. I think the best breakdown of this can be found in a novel by BK Evenson called Dead Space: Martyr. This prequel follows Unitology founder Michael Altman as he works to uncover the mysterious Marker.

Altman originally travelled to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, where an asteroid might have killed the dinosaurs, to follow his anthropologist girlfriend, Ada. Ada had been in the area studying the contemporary role of Yucatec Mayan folk-tales and myths. She tells Altman the locals have been fearful of an “Ix Tab” of late. 

This is authentic Mayan mythology, or at least it is since the Spanish invaded the Yucatan in the 16th century. Ix Tab is the female form of “Ah Tab,” who is the hangman. She’s seen as something of a benevolent hang-woman, luring human quarry into the hanging rope. Modern folklore has her deceiving her male human prey so as to madden and destroy them.

W. BK Evenson

In Martyr, an old Bruja (or witch) discusses Ix Tab with a young boy after he encounters a Necromorph near town. “Ah Ixtab,” said the bruja of the undead creature. “She is the rope woman. She hangs in the tree, a rope around her neck, and her eyes are closed in death, and her body has begun to rot. But she is still a goddess.” (page 23).

All Necromorph outbreaks start with first contact. Then repeated headaches, nightmares, and visions which can’t be real. “Have you begun to dream awake?” the Bruja asked. “Ah, yes,” she said.” “I can hear in your voice that you have. You must be careful. It found you first. It means to take you. Chicxulub: you know what this word means?” (page 24). I didn’t, so I looked it up.

Chicxulub, the name of the crater and the town, is Yucatec Maya language. Ch’ik means “flea” or “tick”, and xulub means “devil, demon, or horns.” When the boy asked the bruja what it meant she stopped and with the tip of her stick drew a figure in the sand. It was two lines twisting around each other. “Tail of the devil,” she said. “The devil has started to wake and thrash its tail. If we cannot coax it back to sleep, then this will be the end of us.” (page 25). Put a pin in that thought.

Chicxulub Crater, Yucatan Peninsula

Ada hears about “the devil’s tail” around the time Micheal Altman, our heroic geologist, discovers a gravitational anomaly at the heart of the crater. “They keep speaking of the devil’s tail,” said Ada, “A kind of twisted pronged thing. When they mention it they cross their fingers, like this.” She raised her index fingers, crossed them.’ (page 26). Interesting as a similar hand signal is displayed by Unitologists in the video games and comic books. Unitology, however, doesn’t exist at this point in the timeline.

The only person Ada can get to talk to her about what’s going on is the town drunk. It’s very Halloween III: Season of the Witch — in a good way. He claims there are stories which have been passed down from generation to generation, about the hugged forked object thrust deep into the middle of the ocean. This, he told Ada in a mix of Spanish and Yucatec Maya, is all that remains of a great devil who surrendered his dominion upon the earth to dig down to the depths and rule over hell. His tail got caught and is still there, perhaps still alive. Some townsfolk believe that the devil may still be attached to it.

Necromorph

Was the asteroid responsible for the death of the dinosaurs also hosting a parasitic an alien device capable of starting an undead outbreak? The answer is yes, but the interesting part is how baked into the actual regional culture the phenomenon appears to be. “If you touch the tail, they say, you make yourself known to the devil. If the devil knows you, he will try to claim you. If you destroy more than you create, you make yourself known to the devil.” (page 131). The people of the town understand the effects of the Marker in ways future characters in the franchise will not.

Amidst growing social panic in Chicxulub, Altman secretly investigates a gravitational anomaly at the heart of the Yucatan Impactor crater. It looks to be some kind of intelligently designed object. This “Black Marker” and the Markers we see in other Dead Space entries are the linchpins of the lore.

Two Markers

Trent, why are you spending so much time talking about this shitty novel and its Black Marker when the whole franchise has Markers and they always do the same thing? Well, dear reader, they don’t do the same thing. This black one is special.

Technically, Altman wasn’t the first human to study a Marker. A doctor named Hennessy examined the Black Marker using a submersible as part of an unclassified operation. The closer he and his pilot were to the Black Marker the more aggressive and disoriented they became. Their heads pounded until it was absolutely unbearable.

Hennessy then saw something impossible. It was his half-brother Shane.

The Black Marker

Shane had died in college, a freak accident when he’d been driving down the highway and a restraint broke on the automobile transport vehicle in front of him, sending the car off its top level to crush him. Hennessy was sure he was dead. He’d seen the body.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea?” asked Shane. “I think it’s a mistake.”

Shane seemed very upset that Hennessy was looking for the Marker. “This is not something to be examined. This is not something to be understood. It needs to be left alone and untouched, where it’s been lying undisturbed for millions of years. Do you think they would have buried it this deep if it was meant to be found?” (page 86).

Shane is the good type of vision in Dead Space. A trusted relative who appears to tell you that things are very wrong and to stay away. Altman would later see a similar vision in Ada’s mother, warning him of the Marker. There’s also a bad kind of vision. Isaac Clarke, perhaps due to traumatic stress, sees horrifying visions of his dead girlfriend throughout Dead Space 2. The more exposed to a Marker the subject the more likely the visions will slide towards terrifying and manipulative. The comics also imply that feebleness has an impact on how quickly you can succumb to it.

Due to his direct and immediate exposure to the Black Marker, Hennessy wrestles within himself over what to do next. “Let them know, ” said Shane. “The Marker is the past, and the past must remain undisturbed if we are to continue as we are. You have already awakened it. It calls out for you even now. But you must not obey. You must not listen. Tell them that.” (page 99). So, Hennessy begins to take notes.

It started with him just trying to understand it. To figure out what kind of letters adorned the Obsidian monolith. The more he looked at it the more confusing things became until he lost his mind.

He killed the pilot of the submersible and used his blood to paint the walls. Hieroglyphics adorned every surface until he turned the attention to himself, ripping and tearing. Fully covering himself with a swarm of symbols and twisting his body into an unruly shape. He had become a Marker.

The Black Marker is special because it makes more Markers.

Isaac Clarke’s Marker, created before the events of Dead Space 2

Each of the “Red Markers” we later see in Dead Space were at one point constructed under the influence of these signals. These reverse engineered Markers do the same thing as the Black, but are red because Bismuth was used to replace certain elements that were unique to the Black Marker. It’s an idea we’ve seen in practice elsewhere, as Dead Space 2 reveals Isaac Clarke constructed his own Marker after surviving the events of the first game.

Why make more Markers? What does that have to do with CONVERGENCE? These questions might night have been answered if not for Martyr‘s Black Marker fiasco.

Altman is told by the ghost of Ada’s mother that the only way to stop the madness is to cut off the signal of the Black Marker. Altman decides he, like Hennessy before him, needs to give himself wholly to the Marker. He thinks he can bluff the Marker into thinking he’s there to help until he has fully understands it and turns the knife back. “Altman’s Wager,” he cals it. It would have been a smart play if it wasn’t for that pesky cult.

Space Death Cults

Dead Space #1 (2009); W. Antony Johnston, A. Ben Templesmith

Unitology, like Michael Altman, has its origins fleshed out in Martyr. The cult first comes together as six or seven people gathered in a hallway, consisting of both scientists and guards. They had been in proximity to the Marker and one of them declared, “You must free your flesh, and unify with the divine nature of its construction…” (page 265). Altman stumbled upon them holding a religious and was caught off guard.

“We must lose ourselves to find ourselves,” said one scientist. “Convergence is the only salvation. For I hear this in its whispers, unless you can understand what it means to become one with the Marker, you shall not have eternal life.” (page 265). It seemed like madness to Altman. Soon everyone in the station would be split between believers and non-believers, including he and Ada.

The cult, now officially calling themselves Unitologists, approaches Altman, an atheist, to become their leader. “The Marker,” said a scientist named Field. “You’ve spent more time around it than anyone else. We know what happened on the bathyscaphe. When it killed others, it left you alive. We know that it converses with you. You have been chosen.” (Page 268). The logical leaps of these cultists are just astounding.

“I don’t believe the shit you do.” - Michael Altman (page 269)

Altman would eventually pretend to have become a Unitologist in order to manipulate the high ranking members of the cult into letting him near the Marker. With the help of his followers he’s later able to escape the station holding the Black Marker to get to the media. Altman declared evidence of alien life and said the military were trying to keep it from the people. Meanwhile, shit had hit the fan while he was gone.

It wasn’t just believers vs non-believers anymore. A scientist had been studying the effects of the Marker’s signal on the DNA of organisms around it. Thrown by the visions he was experiencing, he inadvertently injected himself with this experiment. This was the start of a Necromorph outbreak. Ultimately, with the unknowing help of surviving cultists, Altman was able to move past the hordes of zombies to sink the station and the Black Marker.

All cult members were dead. Altman was captured. Unitology should have ended there, but it didn’t. The leaders of the research station who survived the outbreak saw this as a temporary set-back. They would find the Black Marker and make more Markers. In the meantime, they’d use Altman’s name to spread a new formal religion.

The Church of Unitology

“Once you’re dead, we can let the truth — our truth — build up around you and you can’t do anything about it. You’ll be larger than life. We’ll write histories of you, holy books. We’ll erase what we don’t like about you and make you fit what we want. Your name will be forever associated with the Church of Unitology. You’ll come to be known as our founder.” (page 410). Altman would die at the hands of a Necromorph while these moustache twirling villains laughed. Posthumously, the church would use the fact Altman went to the media before disappearing as the basis for his religious martyrdom.

The true founders of the Church of Unitology sought the Marker for the potential of unlocking a limitless energy source. Some might have been actual believers. Either way, these were shady people who were good at subterfuge and would go on to create a religious organization known for planting members elsewhere to achieve the church’s goals.

“Altman be praised,” is the most common Unitologist phrase. Ironic, given how much he would have detested their service to the Markers. And the gaudy statues. Dead Space 3 ups their ante by featuring a radical fringe of the Church of Unitology called “the Circle” and an impromptu blood-cult that formed naturally after the events of the game. All flavours of cultist that form around the Marker are a bit different and a bit alike. All preach about being “made whole” through CONVERGENCE.

CONVERGENCE

The problem with Dead Space’s ending isn’t CONVERGENCE. The fact that I’ve used ALL CAPS should tip you off to the sheer gravity of the event. It had been the big question of the franchise. What did it mean? Was it giving yourself up to the marker and becoming a Necromorph? As it turns out, kinda-sorta, but on a much bigger scale.

Convergence is actually a process triggered by a Marker when there’s a critical mass of organic matter infected with the Necromorph pathogen. The Marker pulls all of the infected tissue into the stratosphere where a “Brethren Moon” forms and absorbs the Marker that created it along with the organic tissue of the Necromorphs.

CONVERGENCE is the birth of a GODDAMN SENTIENT MOON.

A “Brethren Moon,” the ultimate form of necromorph and final phase of CONVERGENCE

That’s pretty fucking badass.

The chunks of nearby planets and asteroids are caught and collected in their gravitational pull as these Necromorphs grow larger and larger. Once a Brethren Moon is fully formed, the creators of the Marker (humanity in this case) must be killed and “absorbed” into the moon, possibly to give it a different sentience from its brethren.

The only way to stop CONVERGENCE is to destroy the initiating Marker that triggered the event or the Brethren Moon itself, which is believed to be impossible in its final form. In Dead Space 3, we learn that an ancient alien race chose to use a machine to freeze dry their world and stop the formation of one of these moons. They annihilated their entire race supposedly to give the humans more time.

Why the humans? Well, that’s the joke. Everything beyond our solar system is dead space. Humanity is all that is left.

The Ending

Have you ever heard of the shaggy dog? It’s a trope, and it refers to a densely packed plot with a lot of build and an ending that reveals it all to be meaningless. The trope’s name comes from the classic tale of a man who finds a shaggy dog similar to one in a lost dog poster from a rich family. He bankrupts himself trying to return it to them for the reward money. When he finally reaches their estate he’s told the dog “wasn’t that shaggy” before the door’s slammed in his face. The end. 

Dead Space, the franchise, is what you might call an inadvertent shaggy dog. There’s a lot of really well crafted lore and narrative intention behind the franchise. You can tell was leading to something. Sadly, the franchise conclusion we’ve had since 2013 is that of Dead Space 3: Awakened:

The ending of Dead Space 3: Awakened DCL

In Awakened we see Dead Space 3 protagonists Isaac Clarke and John Carver return to Earth following the destruction of a partially-formed Brethren Moon. When they finally hail the planet they are met with transmissions of people getting slaughtered by Necromorphs. Looking through a window at the blue planet, Isaac sees a half-dozen Brethren Moons attacking Earth.

We couldn’t stop it. Humanity lost. Roll credits.

This shaggy dog makes you feel some kind of way. Empty. Frustrated even, with your total time spend. Cynical. I don’t wanna be any of those things, yet the promise of what might have been in Dead Space 4? Ugh. What a loss.

“The notion [for Dead Space 4] was you were trying to survive day to day against infested ships, searching for a glimmer of life, scavenging supplies to keep your own little ship going, trying to find survivors,” said Dead Space writer Ben Wanat to Eurogamer in 2018. “I don’t want to give away the lore, but I will say that we spent a bit of time working out the origin of the Necromorphs and what purpose humans held in this dark universe. Would players find a way out of the Necromorph apocalypse? I’d say yes, but they might be sorry they did. Sometimes you’re better off with the devil you know…”

Sigh. What could have been.

Dead Space isn’t coming back. The studio that produced it is gone. The franchise is on ice. The only hope now is that whatever cabal controlling EA publishing hears my prayers for an HD remaster. Altman be praised.

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