Characters of Color in Dead Space
(Dead Space: Extraction):
Archie Panjabi » Catherine Howell (Dead Space: Extraction) - AI Character; Playable character; Secondary Character
Ramon Tikaram » Gabe Weller (Dead Space: Extraction » Dead Space 2: Severed) - AI Character; Playable Character;
Iyari Limon » Nicole Brennan (Dead Space: Extraction » Dead Space); AI Character; Secondary Character
Iyari Limon » Nicole Brennan (Dead Space: Extraction » Dead Space); AI Character; Woman in Refrigerator
Tonantzin Carmelo » Kendra Daniels (Dead Space) - AI Character; Protagonist-Antagonist
Peter Mensah » Zach Hammond (Dead Space) - AI Character; Protagonist
Navid Negahban » Challus Mercer (Dead Space) - AI Character; Antagonist
(Dead Space 2)
Rich Briggs (DS2 Producer) » Franco Delille (Dead Space: Ignition » Dead Space 2); Playable Character; AI Character; Protagonist-Antagonist
Lester Purry » Hans Tiedemann (Dead Space 2) - AI Character; Antagonist
Ramon Tikaram » Gabe Weller (Dead Space: Extraction » Dead Space 2: Severed) - Playable Character; Protagonist
Sonita Henry » Ellie Langford (Dead Space 2 » Dead Space 3); AI Character; Protagonist
(Dead Space 3):
Ricardo Chavira » John Carver (Dead Space 3); AI Character; Playable Character; Protagonist
Sonita Henry » Ellie Langford (Dead Space 2 » Dead Space 3); AI Character; Secondary Character (Love Interest)
Michelle Anne Johnson » Jennifer Santos (Dead Space 3); AI Character; Secondary Character
From mere observation alone, I’ve noticed that when it’s not attempting to make a subtle or overt commentary on the state of our world and how we treat people, science fiction or horror is not going to go out of its way to make a statement of any kind. And when it does, in the place of People of Color and women, humanoid and non-humanoid aliens are often placeholders with fictionalized struggles that stand in as allegories to problems most are either unwilling to address head-on or are comfortable to ignore because it doesn’t affect them in reality.
The subject of race and representation is largely absent within the narrative (or lack thereof) in Visceral Games’ Dead Space series. It’s never mentioned at all and it more or less is never an overt driving factor in the motivations of any Characters of Color. While not impossible to address or necessarily incumbent to validate their existence, Dead Space is first and foremost a third-person action sci-fi horror game and seeks only to see how high it can get its audience to jump with the atypical jump scares and its otherwise fantastic sound design. And while the Walking Dead, as a Horror-Adventure game, managed to do what this game does not in regards to subtle commentary on race and how it relates to the character of Lee Everett, I get that and I can gel with that without argument.
However, as a Black woman who is hyper aware of the fact that the video game industry and community on a whole does little to expand its gaze beyond the white, straight and male crowd, the fact that about half of Dead Space’s major, secondary and minor characters (excluding the one of the protagonists, Isaac Clarke, our initial introduction into the world of Dead Space) are or were in fact portrayed and depicted as People of Color by proxy of their actors, went largely unnoticed by myself until I started really paying attention to the characters by way of their likeness to the actors.
At first I was (and still am rather) elated by the number of POC characters that inadvertently dominated Dead Space’s cast; I couldn’t believe it. You were lucky enough to get a single Black or Asian character in a game that didn’t literally exsist to support the white playable character that wasn’t a walking stereotype. You were even luckier that you were allowed to control them. Dead Space, within its core game universe, allows you to do the latter at least four times (once with Gabe Weller, Catherine Howell, Franco Delille and John Carver).
Science fiction and horror are very white and male dominated genres as far as mainstream fiction goes. The physical presence of POC, let alone women, is minimal to the point of non-existence. So to end up playing a game that was either unconscious or mindful on the part of inclusion of POC characters in the roles that are neither stereotyped or lynch-pinned on the negative imagery is still largely appreciated. What’s more, Dead Space allows its minority characters to be both protagonist and antagonist.
The difference between the two isn’t unequal as there is at least a fair representation of both “good” and “bad” POC characters. Only downside is that, most, with the exception of three so far (Ellie Langford, John Carver and Gabe Weller*), still end up dead as doornails as per horror movie formula. The only reason I can’t be completely upset about this is because they contribute to the game’s plot on a level that doesn’t dictate that their universe revolves around Isaac Clarke. They’ve their own stake in the tale and for the post part are proactive in getting the games they’re featured in from point A to point B.
Whether or not you’re aware of the ploy, Dead Space plays on the commonly accepted tropes of horror/sci-fi when it comes to POC characters or archetypes in general. Gabe Weller, a hardass soldier, is clearly expected by most to die in Dead Space: Extraction because he is not a kind character, while his friend, Nathan McNeill (a white man), “Mr. Nice Guy” personified, is expected to live and ride off into the sunset with Lexine (the female protagonist) at the end of the game. Instead, Gabe survives the ordeal with Lexine as one of the few people get off the USG Ishimura before Isaac’s arrival and becomes a major/playable character in Dead Space 2’s DLC (Severed). Zach Hammond, a hardnosed captain by way of Laurence Fishburne in Event Horizon, determined to get to the bottom of the Ishimura’s bloody fate, is the suspected human antagonist of Dead Space, while Kendra and Isaac are the unsuspecting victims of his ulterior motives. Yet, near the end of the game, Hammond is killed as he is on the cusp of discovering that Kendra is a government agent sent out to retrieve the Marker (the Monolith of the game that sends everyone within range into murderous fits of rage and suicide, allowing the alien life form to take over and twist their bodies into new forms like something from John Carpenter’s The Thing).
As a POC villain and a woman, Kendra is methodical, sympathetic and fools the audience and Isaac up until the end where she reveals her true intentions. Even then she is never portrayed as a fool, but as someone in complete control of the situation, someone we can trust until the end states otherwise. Then the Boss Battle occurs and all characters that have done wrong by Isaac/the player must perish because there is the expectance that those who are depicted as bad must absolutely be punished instead of being allowed to escape. At the very least, the game doesn’t fall on sexiest mentalities and has Isaac declare her a “Bitch” or a “Whore” for her actions (the advantages of a silent protagonist). Are we meant to hate her? I suppose so, yes; she leaves you to die on a planet full of bloodthirsty aliens after all. Have I seen people take this hatred to misogynistic levels of vitriol? Absolutely. Yet, for all that, I don’t believe it diminishes her strength as both a protagonist and antagonist within the game at all. If anything, I think she’s one of DS1’s strongest characters after Hammond.
In a similar vein, Franco Delille, is a protagonist and antagonist; the latter by his association to Unitology (the second human villain element of the game). In the motion comic puzzle game, Dead Space: Ignition, Franco is at the forefront of the Necromorph outbreak that consumes Titan Station (DS2’s setting) and as an engineer, is sent on various missions to fix systems or seal of areas of the space station that have been compromised. Depending on which order you played the games and what paths are chosen within Ignition, we’re never truly allowed to know his motivations or intentions as far as Unitology is concerned. Thus without the information we’re later privy to near the end of Ignition and Dead Space 2’s audio logs we’re allowed and choose to sympathize and regard Franco as a “good guy”. His affiliation to Unitology poses the question of who is truly “bad” and who is “good” as far as choices and beliefs go.
In Dead Space 2, Ellie Langford is initially spared the grim fate she receives as the Male Gaze inflated Love Interest-Damsel-in-Distress in Dead Space 3, and is a simple woman attempting to survive a space station full of hostile aliens alongside Isaac Clarke. She is personified by her position as a tech savvy pilot with her own gruesome tale of survival instead of being an object of male-rivalry and objectification.
In contrast, Iyari Limon (the original model/actress for Nicole Brennan in both Dead Space and Dead Space: Extraction, before she was replaced Tanya Clarke in DS2) as Nicole Brennan is the personification of a woman stuffed in a refrigerator for the sake of Isaac’s Manpain. In Dead Space and Dead Space 2 she is as only as important as she relates to Isaac as the emotional anchor for a character who is without personality in the first game and a personality detached from the weak narrative of the second game, as a man tormented by a woman who is only there to remind US, the audience, that Isaac is still heartbroken over her despite never exhibiting these traits within the gameplay itself outside a few cinematics that are incredibly on-the-nose about his “heartache”. Yet, in Dead Space: Extraction (the game and the comic-tie in), she is allowed be a character completely divorced from Isaac’s narrative, personified in her position as a career doctor who tries to stop the Necromorphs, save as many lives as possible and as helpful companion for a short time in the game.
Whether or not Nicole was intended to be read as a Woman of Color by proxy of her original actress is anyone’s guess (blonde hair is, after all, not a definitive trait of someone who happens to be white). I can actually see a lot of people getting real, real pressed over the idea of seeing either Kendra (portrayed by a Native American actress) Ellie (who’s actress is identified as biracial) or Nicole as Women of Color because of the assumed “white unless stated otherwise” default. Regardless I’d like to believe so (which makes replacing Limon with Tanya Clarke quite problematic for me) and it only furthers my appreciation for Dead Space for at least being inclusive to the point of giving these characters purpose, motive and personality within their respective games.