Looking at the recent early footage of the Dead Space remake, the most surprising thing is how similar it looks to the 13-year-old original. Sure, it’s shinier and shinier, and your Plasma Cutter now sends the flesh of your Necromorphs flying like porridge in the wind, but overall it’s pretty mindful of what the first game was.
As players begin removing their Ripper blades and lubricating Line Guns with WD-40 in preparation for the remake, I looked back with the developers of the original Dead Space on how they combined a timeless and unique classic. When Dead Space creator and General Manager Visceral Games Glen Schofield proposed a sci-fi horror game to EA, he said, “EA was a little scary, because it was something they hadn’t done since System Shock.”
Schofield tweaked his idea of a potential System Shock 3, with the desire to impress EA more than create a true successor to the immersive sim. This popularized the idea with the publisher, although the hack came when Resident Evil 4 launched in 2005. Suddenly, survival horror seemed to be commercially viable again, and in the end it was the now popular “Resident Evil in space” ad that took place Deal .
Several of the game’s developers, including producer Chuck Beaver and production designer Ben Wanat, have been brought to Dead Space fresh from licensed titles in the Lord of the Rings and Bond franchises. “We were all coming from the limitations of working with licensed IP addresses where you have to comply with all the rules carefully,” Chuck says. “So when this opportunity for a new IP business came, everyone was ready to fly creatively.”
One of the hallmarks of Dead Space (kept for re-production) was the entire user interface of the world; Video communications and inventory are 3D projections broadcast from Isaac’s suit, upgrades were purchased in devices with appropriate in-game screens, ammo counts were shown on Isaac’s weapons and – not to forget – a health bar was elegantly displayed along the fork ridges of Isaac’s suit. The immersion was unparalleled.
One of the concerns when designing this user interface was that it would be very bright — “lit up like a Christmas tree,” Ben Wannat said. But very quickly, Ben himself put these fears to bed, according to Chuck Beaver. “He went away for the weekend and came back with a mockup of the UI that was so good that it lasted the whole series,” says Chuck. “He did it all using a visual effects system.”
Ben’s VFX mockup was so good that it was used until late in development. “Each of these little sanitary tapes had an impact, and eventually someone in engineering changed the color and we swapped it out for a suitable tube and drew a width,” Ben told me.
The ghostly gray and blue color of these items, especially in video communications, helped evoke that ingrained feeling that you’ve been chasing ghosts around the planet’s crashing abandoned ship, USJ Ishimura.
While 1080p wasn’t the norm on most screens, Ishimura’s beautiful architecture got a bit lost amidst the jagged and dark resolution. But when played on PC today, those unappealing edges of the ship’s exterior look like they could skew a meteor, and your eyes are drawn to the eerie shadows that linger in the far corners of large spaces. There is a rough texture to this ship, which seems to groan and breathe from mechanical danger.
Artistic Director Ian Milham fills me with the associations and inspirations of Ichimura. “It was a combination of a Gothic cathedral and an offshore oil platform—both huge in size and disjointed, their bravery clearly visible,” he told me. “The light fixtures were based on dentist’s lights, which have a lot of annoying and scary connotations. The signs are inspired by Japanese subway signs, as they also help people in a maze environment.”
But Ishimura wasn’t always a wonderfully bleak place. “When making the original Xbox prototype, we built some lanes and areas in Ishimura, and the walls seemed to be made of saws and claws and stuff,” Ben recalls. “I was like, ‘It’s a little bit on the nose, you know?'” “So the ship wants to kill you? Don’t see, there are bleeding fangs coming out of the walls!”
Shortly thereafter, Ben played a leading role in crafting the details for Ishimura. “I would go into negative space to create a lot of horrible 90-degree bends, silhouettes and basically anything I could do to have sex with your head as you moved through space,” he says. “The main thing is to get parallax everywhere we can. Parallax always gives you constantly changing shadows and perspectives in the room.”
At the start of the game, the engine room displays this sensory intensity; Space is shrouded in fog, with strange shapes and shades cast by gut-like tubes and the aggressive geometry of space. You feel like you are in the depths of the device, and it always threatens to swallow you.
Few horror games play on the tension between the fantasy of strength and powerlessness quite like this. Isaac may be an engineer, but his main abilities allowed him to slow time and lift heavy metal equipment by pointing his hand at it – probably the two most powerful video game superpowers of the 2000s. He’s a medieval metal knight with a sci-fi makeover, slashing enemies whose delicate limbs are begging to be slashed by his powerful gadgets.
But despite your massive arsenal, Dead Space always feels like a struggle, thanks in large part to Isaac moving just like the metal-clad man he is. He’s a slow runner, turning around as a charge ferry circulates, and inexplicably stopping for a second when changing weapons (which prompted many shouting “Hurry up, Isaac!”).
This grueling action was of course inspired by Resident Evil 4, but in a new console generation shaped by fast, fluid shooter games like Halo, Call of Duty, and even Gears of War, Visceral has had to adapt to changing times.
“We installed the Resident Evil 4 tank controls in Dead Space,” Chuck told me. “They were really slow, and you couldn’t move while shooting.” “We were very fascinated with this system at the time we were making Dead Space. The team was like, ‘This is a survival horror game, it’s supposed to be vintage.'”
But these idealistic visions of survival horror had to be compromised. “It took three concentration tests to show that the audience had moved on from the old controls of horror,” he says wistfully. Shooting and movement have been redone, and very late in development Glenn altered the animations of Isaacs 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 that slower, panicky pace with games like Alien: Isolation, Resident Evil 2: REmake, and the upcoming remake of Dead Space.
Necromorphs were a unique type of threat – fragile but menacing. You can blast your Necromorph’s running legs from under them, with momentum pushing his upper body toward you. He looks dead, but then supports himself with his claws and starts crawling towards you. Although the creature is paralyzed and at the mercy of your heavy metal boots, it is unrelenting in its pursuit of you.
Necromorphs took a lot of tweaking and stretching to get them to feel readable and fun. “We started to lengthen the ends and make things thinner, creating a kind of exposed core area where there is a more obvious connection to where the split point is,” says Ben. “We used a vulnerability in some areas, but glowing vulnerability is such a horrific cliché that we have tried to refrain from it wherever possible.”
Dead Space has had its share of written in-your-face thrills, but there have been some neat methodical tricks too, like slots Necromorphs may or may not ambush you depending on how close you are to them. “It was a complex system of holes that we built throughout the game,” Glenn told me. “If you listen, you will actually hear enemies crawling through the hatches, the more we can try to have a real enemy out there.”
Visceral Dead Space imbued it with its own powerful identity, while borrowing from the great works of the genre. Glen Schofield happily admits that the sirens you hear in the atmosphere of the game are a tribute to Akira Yamaoka and the nightmare sequences on Silent Hill. The hallucination and dementia angle came relatively late in development, propelled by Ben and Wannat’s love for Solaris, while its nearly archaic evolution of Resident Evil 4’s control style progressed surprisingly well, making the game seem more timeless than many of its contemporaries.
When I ask the developers what Dead Space needs to keep from the original, the unifying theme is immersion, with Ben Wanat focusing particularly on sound. “As long as they understand the gist of what’s going on with this audio mix and why almost every psyche of that game’s horror comes from the audio, I think they’re on a really good path,” he says.
The essence of Dead Space will also be evident in another upcoming game. Currently working with his new studio Sledgehammer Games on Callisto Protocol, Glen Schofield is the spiritual successor to Dead Space set in a prison colony on the titular Jovian moon. One of the main lessons he conveys from Dead Space is the unpredictability of horror delivery.
Glenn recounts how at one point during the development of Dead Space a CEO suggested a “horror scale” that creates a panic over a 20-minute timer. “This is the exact opposite of what I want,” Glenn says. “The thing I touch on about Callisto is that the intent to scare is almost like a gut feeling when you do it. There’s no ‘right’ timing, it’s really a matter of how you feel as you play the game.”
One thing is for sure, Dead Space developer Motion Studios is working with a well-crafted masterpiece, whose sequels have shown just how difficult it can be to build on. Perhaps the best advice for the team behind the new version is to make like Isaac: tread carefully, target weaknesses, and leave the rest of the body intact.