Looking at the recent first images of the Dead Space remake, the most striking thing is how much it resembles the 13-year-old original. Sure it’s brighter and shinier and your plasma cutter now sends flesh flying off necromorphs like mush in the wind, but overall it puts into perspective how great the first game was a masterpiece.
As players start rusting their Ripper Blades and lubricating their Line Guns with WD-40 in preparation for the remake, I looked back with the developers of the original Dead Space on how they put together a classic unique and timeless. When Dead Space creator and Visceral Games GM Glen Schofield pitched a sci-fi horror game to EA, he said “EA was a bit freaked out because it was something they haven’t done since System Shock”.
Schofield tweaked his idea into a potential System Shock 3, more out of a desire to win over EA than to create a proper successor to the immersive sim. It seeded the idea with the publisher, though the breakthrough came when Resident Evil 4 launched in 2005. Suddenly, survival horror seemed commercially viable again, and in the end, it’s the now famous “Resident Evil in space” pitch that sealed the deal. .
Many of the game’s developers, including producer Chuck Beaver and production designer Ben Wanat, were brought to Dead Space from licensed titles in the Lord of the Rings and Bond franchises. “We had all just worked with licensed IPs, where you have to follow all the rules very carefully,” says Chuck. “So when this opportunity came up to do the new IP, everyone was ready to go wild creatively.”
User interface No?
One of the hallmarks of Dead Space (which is being kept for the remake) was the completely world-integrated UI; video communication and inventory were hologram projections broadcast from Isaac’s suit, upgrades were purchased on machines with appropriate game screens, ammo counts were displayed on Isaac’s weapons, and , let’s not forget, the health bar has been elegantly displayed along Isaac’s spinal ridges. combination. The immersion was unprecedented.
One of the concerns when designing this UI was that it would be too bright – “lit like a Christmas tree”, as Ben Wanat puts it. But very quickly, Ben himself put those worries to bed, according to Chuck Beaver. “He went away for a weekend and came back with a UI mockup that was so good it went through the whole series,” says Chuck. “He did everything using the VFX system.”
Ben’s VFX mockup was so good that it was used until the end of development. “Each of those little health bars was an effect, and eventually someone in engineering changed the color and we replaced it with a proper tube and projected graphic,” Ben tells me.
The ghostly gray-blue coloring of these elements, especially in video comms, helped evoke that well-founded feeling that you were ghost-hunting around the derelict Planet-Cracker ship, the USG Ishimura.
At a time when 1080p wasn’t yet the norm on most displays, the Ishimura’s slender architecture got a bit lost amidst spotty anti-aliasing and blurry resolutions. But playing it on PC today, those unattractive ridges from outside the ship look like they could skewer a meteor, and your eyes are drawn to the eerie shadows that linger in the far corners of wide-open spaces. There’s a hard texture to this ship, which seems to groan and breathe with mechanical menace.
Artistic director Ian Milham talks to me about the associations and inspirations for the Ishimura. “It was a mix of gothic cathedral and offshore oil rig – both are huge and deconstructed, with their guts clearly visible,” he tells me. “The fixtures were based on dentist’s lamps, which have a lot of uncomfortable and scary connotations. The signage was inspired by Japanese subway signs, as they also help people through a maze-like environment.”
But the Ishimura hasn’t always been such a gracefully dark space. “When making the original Xbox prototype, we built hallways and areas of the Ishimura, and it looked like the walls were made of chainsaws and claws and stuff,” Ben recalls. . “I was like, ‘It’s kind of on the nose, you know?’ So the ship wants to kill you? No shit, there’s bleeding fangs sticking out of the walls!”
Soon after, Ben took a leading role in working out the details of the Ishimura. “I was digging into negative space to create lots of claustrophobic 90 degree turns, silhouettes and basically anything I could do to fuck with your head as you moved through the space,” he says. “The main thing was to get parallax everywhere we could. Parallax always gives you shadows and ever-changing viewpoints on the room.”
At the start of the game, the machine room highlights this sensory intensity; the space is shrouded in fog, with odd shapes and shadows cast by the gut-like pipes and aggressive geometry of the space. You feel like you’re plunged into the bowels of a machine that always threatens to engulf you.
Few horror games play on the tension between power fantasy and powerlessness quite like this. Isaac may be an engineer, but his two key abilities allow him to slow down time and lift heavy metal equipment by pointing his hand at them – possibly the two hippest video game superpowers of the 2000s. an armored medieval knight with a sci-fi makeover, slicing through enemies whose spindly appendages beg to be cut by his power tools.
But despite your formidable arsenal, Dead Space still feels like a struggle, thanks in large part to the fact that Isaac moves like the metal-covered man he is. It’s a slow runner, turns with the deliberation of a cargo ferry, and inexplicably stops for a second when you switch weapons (causing so many cries of “Hurry up, Isaac!”).
This cumbersome move was of course inspired by Resident Evil 4, but in a new console generation shaped by fast and fluid shooters like Halo, Call of Duty, even Gears of War, Visceral has had to adapt to changing weather.
“We installed the Resident Evil 4 tank controls in Dead Space. It was really slow and you couldn’t move while firing,” Chuck tells me. “We were so in love with this system back when we were making Dead Space. The team was like, ‘This is a survival horror game, you’re supposed to be goofy.'”
But these idealistic visions of survival horror had to be compromised. “It took three focus tests to make it clear that audiences had abandoned old-school horror controls,” he says ruefully. Shoot-and-move was reinstated and very late in development Glen altered Isaac’s animations to create the illusion that he was moving faster than he actually was.
Little did Visceral know that years later, video game horror would return to this slower, panic-inducing pace with games like Alien: Isolation, Resident Evil 2: REmake, and the upcoming Dead Space remake.
The Necromorphs were a unique type of threat, fragile yet menacing. You could blow off a running Necromorph’s legs, the momentum sending its upper body rushing towards you. It appears dead, but then pulls itself up by its claws and starts crawling towards you. Even though the creature is crippled and at the mercy of your heavy metal boots, it is relentless in pursuing you.
Necromorphs took quite a bit of tweaking and stretching to feel readable and fun. “We started to lengthen the limbs and make things thinner, creating sort of exposed pulpy areas where there’s a little more obvious connection to where the dismemberment point was going to be,” Ben explains. “We’ve used the low point in some areas, but the bright low point is such an awful cliche that we’ve tried to refrain from it where we can.”
Dead Space had its share of scripted chills in your face, but there were also some neat systemic tricks, such as the vents that Necromorphs may or may not ambush you depending on how close you are to them. “It was a really complex vent system that we built up throughout the game,” Glen tells me. “If you listen, you’ll actually hear enemies crawling through the air vents, and whenever we can, we’ll try to get a real enemy in there.”
Visceral imbued Dead Space with a strong identity, while borrowing from the great works of the genre. Glen Schofield happily admits that the air raid siren you hear in the game’s mood is an homage to Akira Yamaoka and the Silent Hill nightmarish sequence. The hallucinations and dementia angle came relatively late in development and was pushed by Ben Wanat’s love of Solaris, while its almost anachronistic take on Resident Evil 4’s control style has aged surprisingly well. making the game more timeless than many of its contemporaries.
When I ask the developers what the Dead Space remake should take away from the original, the unifying theme is immersion, with Ben Wanat focusing on audio in particular. “As long as they understand the essence of what’s going on with this audio mix and why almost all of the terror psychology in this game comes from the audio, then I think they’re on a really good path,” he said.
This essence of Dead Space will also be palpable in another upcoming game. Glen Schofield is currently working with his new studio Sledgehammer Games on Callisto Protocol, a spiritual successor to Dead Space set in a penal colony on the titular Jovian moon. One of the main lessons he takes from Dead Space is to be unpredictable in his scares.
Glen recounts how, at one point in Dead Space’s development, an executive came up with a “horror meter” that creates a scare on a 20-minute timer. “It’s the exact opposite of what I want,” says Glen. “What I take from Callisto is that the scary intent is almost like an instinctive feeling when you do it. There’s no ‘right’ timing, it’s really a matter of how you feel. as you go through the game.”
One thing is certain, and that is that the developer of the Dead Space remake, Motion Studios, is working with a finely crafted masterpiece, whose own sequels have shown how difficult it is to build on. Perhaps the best advice for the team behind the remake is to do like Isaac: be careful, target weak spots, and leave the rest of the body untouched.