Dead Space 2. It's a extremely disturbing, near-pants-wetting, exhilarating ride through a space station on a moon of Saturn that is full of space zombies that shrug off bullets. Anyone I know who's played it has loved it (including myself), but earlier today, as I watched a compilation of all of Isaac's hallucinatory scenes, I realized something astounding.
Now, for newcomers, or those who just haven't played it in a really long time, I'll provide a little context:
In the first Dead Space, Isaac was part of repair team sent to the USG Ishimura, a mining vessel that Isaac's girlfriend Nicole also happened to be serving on. As it turned out, the mining team had dug up an ancient artifact known as the Marker that induced crazyness and was the only thing holding back the Necromorphs buried deep under the surface of the planet Aegis 7. Isaac(silently) trudged through hell, eventually coming in contact with Nicole who helped him get the Marker back to the planet.
Then, a twist was revealed, in the form of a double-government-agent member of the team Isaac came with.
Not only was the Marker a man-made copy of an actual alien device, it had also been manipulating Isaac well before he even arrived on the Ishimura. Nicole had already killed herself in the initial Necromorph infestation, and Isaac had been following a Marker-induced phantasm for the entire game.
Now that we have the context of Dead Space 1 out of the way, some is needed for Dead Space 2.
Within it, we learn that Isaac is not only still suffering severely from the Marker hallucinations, but he has also been helping build new ones, and (this is the kicker) was the person who convinced Nicole to accept a position on the Ishimura in the first place.
All of this ultimately culminates in a series of shaky, jagged hallucinations induced by the Marker Isaac built, in which the Marker-susceptible parts of his mind essentially troll him with his feelings of guilt and terror about everything that happened in Dead Space 1. These hallucinations, from when Isaac finds out he was trying to shove a syringe into his own eye, to the ever-present bloody corpse of Nicole, make for some great moments of reserved fright. But they also serve a much deeper purpose.
In one of the final scare-hallucinations, Nicole's body grabs Isaac by the throat, throws him around a small room, then pins him to a wall and demands to know exactly what her memory means to him, and why he can't let her go. He explains that Nicole, even the memory of her, is the only thing that really matters to him whatsoever, and he can't let her go, or he has nothing left in life.
This scene, while touching, helps convey the main message of the hallucinations:
Isaac is essentially fighting his own experiences and emotions for a good portion of the game.
And this is why the hallucinations make Isaac one of the greatest video game characters ever.
They show the one part of games that is never really touched on much: the psychological effects that going through everything in any game must have, especially when dealing with horror titles. There are virtually no other titles I can think of that actually take the time to discuss the psychological effects and scars the experiences the player characters goes through leave on them. The only real example I can think of is the alluded psychosis/war crimes of Dark Sector protagonist Hayden Teno, and given that Dark Sector had about six or seven other sub-plots of past actions and motivations running rampant beneath the immediate story events, none of which were ever really resolved or even explained, and that Hayden doesn't seem to mind the in-the-now viral superpowers or triple-figure endgame body count, it almost doesn't count as an example.
Isaac Clarke fought through a broken-down spaceship full of space-zombies, followed around a hallucination of his dead girlfriend, then found out that she was actually dead, and potentially (the jury is still out as to whether or not this actually happened) fought off her necromorphed corpse after escaping Aegis 7.
If we were dealing with any other game protagonist, in the sequel, they'd shrug it off, and get on with the job of killing space-zombies. Maybe they'd be a bit quiet at the start, but that would be the extent of them showing they were bothered by what happened to them in the lat game.
But with Isaac, he doesn't shrug it off. He doesn't just get over it and do the job. The game starts in an sanitarium. That alone should give a bit of a clue as to how much the events of Dead Space 1 affected him. He's fighting these feelings of terror and trauma, but also of guilt. He pushed Nicole to accept the position on the Ishimura. He essentially is the reason she was on that ship when Necromorphs overran it. He is the person most responsible for her death, and we are told that through the hallucinations and Isaac's reactions to them. We are actually able to see and play through the manifestations of Isaac's fear, trauma, and guilt over the events of the previous game.
It is this that makes Isaac Clarke possibly the most realistic game character ever, in emotional terms. As I said, the number of games that give any indication of psychological problems on the part of protagonists due to the events of the actual game are slim to none. Isaac is the exception that proves the rule. We know for a fact in Dead Space 2 that everything he saw on the Ishimura haunts him, and we know he feels guilt over the fact that Nicole is dead because of him. We know exactly how damaged he is after the events of Dead Space, thanks to the hallucinations. These bring his underlying trauma and guilt to the surface through the Nicole-apparation's monologues, especially during the section where Isaac re-visits the Ishimura.
Now, not only do these clearly shown feelings make Isaac realistic, they also do the one thing that is the most important for any fictional character in any medium of entertainment: they humanize him. Sure, he speaks in Dead Space 2, he swears, cracks jokes, gets angry, but it is the underlying psychological damage that the hallucinations show us that really drive the humanization home. Here is a man suffering from the unimaginable things he's seen and done, from the space-zombies to having to live with the knowledge that he put the woman he loved on the ship where she died. The way the information that he has these emotional scars and feels that guilt is conveyed through the hallucinations, and such things are humanizing. We can understand them, rationalize them in the context of Isaac's character, even relate to them. Losing someone you loved or being put in nightmarish situations are things anyone can sympathize with, some of us even relate to.
Honestly, no-one will probably realize the characteral/humanizing implications of the emotions implied by Isaac's Marker-induced hallucinations the first time they play Dead Space 2. I played form start to finish four times, and only figured out all of this after seeing a video of the hallucinations, with no intervening gameplay, and recognizing what they meant about him mentally in the context of game characters, and even that was after multiple viewings of the video. But the fact remains that the hallucinations show us beyond a shadow of doubt that Isaac Clarke truly bears emotional scars and baggage from his past experiences, and this is something that virtually no other game series has ever shown as a part of their protagonist's development.