Now that we are fully thrust into the 2000s-era nostalgia boom, the remake factory officially began to whir as it happily exploits our collective clinging to a bygone past. A past that feels eerily recent yet all the more distant upon reflection. After spending the last month reveling in a sudden onset of '08 nostalgia with GTA IV, I felt the urge to jump into E.A.'s refurbished DEAD SPACE to ogle Isaac's suit once more in higher fidelity. The remake is by all accounts a triumph, and it has been a joy to revisit the atmospheric corridors of the USG Ishimura.
Something about that turn of the decade era in game design feels particularly ripe to explore at the moment. It was a time when the seventh generation came into its own, just a couple years after the new consoles launched. A time when shiny new releases began popping up with added regularity and often felt genuinely "next-gen," as in truly charting a variety of new design territories.
It was an era that feels so far removed from our current one where the big releases are few and far between, spending in some cases 5+ years in development, frequently getting hit with delays or shipping outright unfinished, and typically feeling perhaps a bit too much like all the games we've been playing "last" gen.
In some sense, one could argue it's all the same gen. That is, with added Quality of Life standards such as faster loading, higher resolution, and more consistent framerates. At its core though, there is something about AAA games of the moment that feel undeniably stagnant. Frozen in stasis like a greasy limbed goon just waiting to be hacked off at the limb by a hot sticky shot of plasma goo. I play the role of the crazed loner left behind on that ship from 2008, scrawling the walls with blood and faeces -- Cut off their limbs!!
I believe the AAA release cycle tends to exist in a perpetual state of stagnation, slowly mutating around the few pivotal releases that the rest of the industry promptly copies notes from. It is only those releases that truly shift the direction of the industry as others race to gleam off a shred of their success, and RE4 is undoubtedly one of those games. Its influence can be traced up through a multitude of cover shooters and third person games more broadly, responsible for how a wide swath of games would be designed in the succeeding generation.
RE4's release was so momentous that it for a time transformed the entire genre of survival horror into a "new" kind of scary game that forgoes vulnerability to empower the shit out of the player. This sounds like shaky territory for horror, but the balance that RE4 struck splendidly was in how it instilled tension on the player during every encounter. Sure you could mow down these zombie Spaniards all the live long day, but the crowds of enemies will quickly suffocate you if you aren't maneuvering well and holding the right position to fend them off at every turn.
In the fallout of RE4's resounding success, none of the games under its influence borrowed from it quite as heavily as Dead Space. Essentially functioning as RE4's successor, not only did this game come out a year preceding RE5, it also put its own unique spin on the formula and left a mark on our minds with its nifty limb severing combat and immersive diagetic HUD.
Dead Space inched even further into action territory without sacrificing too much to the altar of cheap thrills. The design ethos essentially boiling down to "Resident Evil 4 is great, but what if you could move & shoot?" In theory this could potentially taint the formula's trademark tension, but Dead Space stuck the landing and managed to iterate on RE4 without poisoning the well.
In 2011, Dead Space 2 released to resounding praise for its streamlined level design and optimized controls that made Isaac even more swift on his feet. It serves as a subtle example of how past successes and the incentive to chase increasingly broader audiences can morph key elements out of franchises, or in severe cases stomp out entire genres. At the time Dead Space 2 was considered an improvement on the original formula, stripping the gunk that supposedly slowed down the first game to present something of a haunted house attraction.
The result in hindsight is a more flimsy and disposable affair with less sense of place to the in-game surroundings and a reduced sense of player agency. Truly embodying the haunted house attraction it aspired to be, the game impressed players and reviewers alike during its day - myself included, along with Destructoid's own Stephanie Sterling in their glowing 9.5/10 review. In 2011 Dead Space 2 was by many accounts a flashy, ghoulish thrillride that presented a welcomed step forward for the increasingly diluted genre of survival horror.
IGN and similar outlets welcomed this change in direction as well, praising Dead Space 2 as an evolution of the franchise. Its success signaled to other developers that this finely distilled gruel, absent the gristly chunks that might potentially turn off a fraction of its audience, was an exemplar of where this sort of game declaratively should continue heading. It didn't matter whether those juicy bits of cartilage could be savored more intensely by a smaller yet more discerning audience. The consensus at this point had shifted in the name of chasing fleeting thrills.
An emphasis was placed on appealing to the widest audience possible, something of a recurring theme and natural function of inertia that can be observed in cycles across all genres in the game industry. And sure enough, the well ran dry by the release of Dead Space 3 as the re4-clone era of horror drew to a humiliating close. During this time, horror games found new ways to de-emphasize combat on the indie scene. After the release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent went on to influence the next wave of horror, a sort of intermingling of the two styles has commenced from there.
With the 2023 remakes of Dead Space and RE4, that 2000s-era dumbdumb horror shooter is entering something of a resurgence. I look at RE2 remake as the pivot point here, setting a new standard for lovingly crafted remakes and more closely marrying the survival horror ethos with the satisfying over-the-shoulder combat we know and love. From here, my hope is that horror games avoid the same restrictive traps they fell into the last time they went down this road.
The Ghost Train Ride is a label coined by Yahtzee Croshaw, himself a relic from the days of those samey cover shooters he sharply critiqued. These days, he uses this term to put his finger on a broad strain of game design DNA that had been mutating genres for more than a decade, mostly evading critical classification in any sort of consensus fashion. While RE4 served as precursor to this design philosphy, the game that I believe firmly established the blueprint was Uncharted 2. That game's massive success went on to silently subsume much of AAA game design, spawning from its lineage a cycle of cinematic set piece driven action games that get routinely declared masterpieces by gamers and press alike. A cycle that I feel has thoroughly run its course, yet shows little sign of slowing down.
The problem I have with the ghost train ride is that it projects a lack of confidence in the player down to the very core of the experience, robbing them of any true agency in gameplay. It is the walled garden approach to crafting an interactive world, where the player is funneled exactly where they need to go with no potential for backtracking, exploring, or getting lost along the way. All the innovation of RE4's streamlined linear progression cranked up to 11, with a growing number of guard rails at every turn.
It's not a problem that this type of game simply exists. In my estimation too many AAA games have gotten stuck iterating on these techniques, to the point where they have lost all luster and only serve to sand down the more interesting parts of an interactive experience. It's no longer impressive to enter a scripted cinematic right in the middle of gameplay, not to mention how they tend to always occur at the exact same pace as if determined by an algorithm that was trained to recognize the exact moment at which human attention span begins to lapse. All it does is serve a reminder of your robbed agency with every routine occurrence, that you are in fact captive to an omnipresent designer who is busy scripting out your fate at every turn.
The situation is comparative to the stagnation of bloated open world map design, in a genre that saw its own cycle of lazily patterned success reach a much needed reset with the release of Breath of the Wild, further solidified with Elden Ring. Two behemoths that spit in the face of established design conventions through the elegant application of artful restraint. The difference is that the ghost train ride school of action game design seems to trudge on endlessly, never really reaching the necessary audience exhaustion point as a signal for developers to remix the formula. This need for a collective reckoning of tired game design tropes is exactly what I wish to highlight as we enter the era of seventh-gen nostalgia.
Do you remember playing Uncharted 2 for the first time? It was an absolute edge of your seat thrill ride. Mere seconds into the game and players were sitting on the couch with their hair blown back like their name was Thrillhouse, lazily holding the forward input to make Drake climb that train along the narrow constraints so graciously afforded to them.
In that moment of fleeting bliss that can never be fully recaptured, we unknowlingly witnessed the birth of the Ghost Train Ride. We never truly left that train, and a small part of what makes this hobby precious died in there. Its spectre haunts us to this day.