Staring Into The Void: The Lore of Dead Space

by Ben Reeves on Dec 08, 2009 at 09:51 AM

The Dead Space franchise is only a year old, but the universe has already amassed a sizable backstory encompassing ancient alien artifacts, covert government experiments, and underground religious operations. With two games, a comic spin-off, and an animated prequel, several sources feed into and expand the lore of Dead Space. Dead Space 2 incorporates all of this material and moves it forward. “Everything that happens in Dead Space 1 is relevant to what happens in Dead Space 2,” Visceral Game’s senior production designer Ben Wanat told us. With that in mind, we combed through the game logs and grilled the franchise's creative team to unearth a few clues that hint to where the franchise is headed next.

The Basics
The core premise of Dead Space is simple. In the 26th century, humanity has exhausted most of the Earth’s natural resources, bringing its population precariously close to extinction. In order to feed the beasts of commerce and industry, humanity turns to the stars, searching for new raw materials on other planets. Giant vessels called “planetcrackers” travel the galaxy, mining the universe’s nearly inexhaustible resources.

The USG Ishimura was the first planetcracker, and it performed its function admirably for over 60 years. Then, during a routine missions to the planet Aegis VII, the Ishimura uncovered the Red Marker – a giant curved obelisk covered in alien script. As the Dead Space comics revealed, strange organic matter found near the Marker was brought aboard the ship. Once the crew was exposed to this unusual substance, a zombie-like outbreak ensued. Nearly the entire ship’s complement of 1,300 crew members were either killed or transformed into monstrous creatures called Necromorphs.

The original Dead Space chronicles protagonist Isaac Clarke’s attempt to answer the Ishimura’s distress call, as well as his own confrontation with the Necromorphs and the Marker. But the larger story is far more detailed than the game lets on. To gain clues about where the series is headed, it’s important to focus more closely on some of the bigger factions within the Dead Space universe.

Mysteries Of The Marker

The Marker is a central entity in the Dead Space universe, and possibly the series’ primary antagonist. “At the heart of all of it is the Marker,” says Dead Space 2 senior designer John Calhoun. “If people missed that in Dead Space, we definitely want them to be aware of that now.” The Marker is the origin of the Necromorph outbreak, and those who have come in contact with it experience hallucinations and become burdened by extreme mental distress.

The Marker is potentially even more dangerous than the Necromorphs it spawns. Throughout Dead Space, protagonist Isaac Clark has multiple hallucinations where he interacts with his ex-girlfriend Nicole. In the prequel comic, the Marker’s presence drives a whole group of Unitologists (a major religious group) to commit mass suicide in the public square of Aegis VII mining prep colony. In the opening level of the Wii shooter Dead Space Extraction, one of the Marker excavation team members, Sam Caldwell, goes on a murdering spree after he mistakes his fellow miners for Necromorphs.

Some argue that the Marker has a consciousness of its own. As a result of contact with the Marker, the Ishimura’s resident doctor Terrence Kyne held hallucinatory conversations with his dead wife. These conversations convinced him that the Marker needed to stay on Aegis VII. At the same time, Clark’s hallucinations involving his ex-girlfriend drove him to return the Marker to the surface of Aegis VII. Since the Marker was the source of their visions, it’s reasonable to assume that the Marker was somehow pulling the strings to further a larger agenda. The Marker’s true motive – and why it would have wanted to stay on Aegis VII – is still a mystery.

We do know that the Marker is not one-of-a-kind. In one of Dead Space’s in-game logs – a report addressed to the Commander of the USM Valor, the ship featured in Chapter 9: Dead on Arrival – the Red marker is referred to as "Marker 3A." Its reasonable to assume that there are at least three markers at this point, but how many there are in total, where any of the other Markers are located, or where they came from are questions that could be addressed in Dead Space 2.

Religious Recourse

The only other Marker mentioned in Dead Space lore up to this point is the Black Marker, a large obelisk similar to the Red Marker. Discovered by the government on Earth nearly 200 years prior to the events of Dead Space, the Black Marker’s discovery was quickly covered up by the government. Not everyone was willing to stay silent, however. Michael Altman, one of the chief scientists who helped uncover the black rock, was very vocal about its mysterious alien markings. Believing that the inscriptions on the Black Marker were a message revealing the true origin and meaning of human life, Altman founded a movement called Unitology. When Altman’s beliefs began to gain a following, he was murdered, making him a martyr and driving up the popularity of the new religion.

By the time of the events of Dead Space, the Unitologist movement is a powerful force. “They’ve got their hands in pretty much everything,” Wanat explains. “They’ve got lots of money and lots of influence.” This is all in spite of the fact that no one has actually seen the Black Marker. The Black Marker has become something of an urban legend, so the uncovering of the Red Marker was a messianic-level discovery for the Unitologists; it helped validate their beliefs and proved to the world that they weren’t entirely crazy.

The Red Marker wasn’t the only important discovery made on Aegis VII. “According to church doctrine, there are going to be people who exhibit signs of being immune to the Marker’s effects,” Calhoun explains. In Extraction, we were introduced to such a person, Lexine Murdoch, a 20-year old surveyor who was not only immune to the Marker’s effects, but also seemed to blunt the effects it had on those around her. At the end of Extraction we watched Lexine board a shuttle and set a course for the Sprawl, the space station that serves as the setting for Dead Space 2. Does that mean we’ll see Lexine in the sequel? Neither Wanat nor Calhoun is telling.

The Shroud of Government

Another powerful entity in the Dead Space universe stands in stark contrast to the Unitologists – the government. “The Unitologist and the government don’t see eye-to-eye, and they both have their own agendas,” Wanat says. The government cover up all knowledge about the Black Marker’s existence, and it was rumored to have been behind the assassination of Unitologist leader Michael Altman.

We don’t yet know why the government has been so secretive about the Marker, but it likely knows more about the alien construct than the Unitologists. At the end of Dead Space, Kendra Daniels (an undercover operative for the government’s military wing, the Earth Defense Force) revealed that the Red Marker was, in fact, a man-made copy of the Black Marker. It seems the government thought the Black Marker would make a powerful weapon, and in the process of reverse-engineering the Black Marker, created the Red Marker. However, according to Dead Space logs, when this Red Marker was “test fired” on Aegis VII, it created an alien microbial life-form composed of recombinant DNA – a precursor to the Necropmorphs. These experiments also produced the Hive Mind, the giant tentacle boss that Isaac fought at the end of the first Dead Space.

The Red Marker experiments were considered too dangerous to pursue, so the government buried the Red Marker on Aegis VII before designating the entire Aegis Cluster as a prohibited space travel zone. It is unknown if the government understood the full capabilities of the Markers, but whatever it discovered on Aegis VII scared the most powerful people in the universe enough to quarantine a whole solar system. Wanat and Calhoun both say the government has a much bigger role in Dead Space 2.

Big Business

Nothing stays buried forever. Eventually the Concordance Extration Company uncovered the government’s secret. The CEC is big business; it’s only interested in making money. Logs at the end of Dead Space revealed that in its quest for the almighty dollar, the CEC ignored the legal restrictions around the Aegis Sector and begin an illegal mining operation. “The Marker to them is just a rock. It’s in their way,” Calhoun explains. “It’s kind of like discovering an ancient burial ground in the middle of your oil drumming field. It halts progress.”

Even though the CEC disobeyed government laws and was responsible for the death of thousands when it uncovered the Red Marker, the CEC is also viewed as humanity’s savior. When Earth started to run out of natural resources, the CEC was the first company to build ships to travel across the universe and collect new raw materials. By the time of Dead Space, however, the CEC is not an uncorrupted organization. Wanat explains that one of the CEC’s majority stakeholders is the Unitologist church. This was evidenced in Extraction when we discovered that, before the Aegis VII mission, several Ishimura crewmembers were swapped out with Unitologist supporters at the last minute. “The CEC is a puppet in a way,” Calhoun explains. “But it’s also the proxy by which the player gets to find out about the universe. It’s kind of caught in the middle of this power struggle between the church and state.”

Caught in the middle is exactly how we feel. Dead Space established an expansive universe and set up a rich sci-fi framework full of political intrigue, but we are still a long way from discovering all the revelations Visceral Games has planned for this franchise. Even the whereabouts of Isaac Clarke feel somewhat in limbo. At the end of Dead Space, Isaac boards a shuttle taking him away from Aegis VII, but just before the credits roll, the camera pans and, with a scream, we watch as he is attacked by his mutated ex-girlfriend. “I can’t believe how much content was generated online about what actually happened in that little scream,” Wanat teases. “We can’t actually say anything about it, and I won’t tell you if it’s relevant or not, but I will say that you’ll find it interesting how the new game begins.”