Looking at early footage of the recent remake of Dead Space, what’s most striking is how similar it looks to the 13-year-old original. Sure, it’s brighter and brighter, and your plasma cutters now send the flesh of the Necromorphs flying like porridge in the wind, but overall it’s a look at the masterpiece of the first game.
As gamers start derusting their Ripper blades and lubricating their Line Guns with WD-40 in preparation for the remake, I’m with the developers of the original Dead Space to review how they’ve brought together a one-of-a-kind timeless classic. When Dead Space creator and general manager of Visceral Games Glen Schofield proposed a sci-fi horror game to EA, he said, “EA was kind of freaked out because it’s something they haven’t done since System Shock. “
Schofield tweaked his idea for a potential System Shock 3, more hoping to convince EA than to create a successor to a truly immersive sim. This spawned the idea for publishers, albeit with a breakthrough when Resident Evil 4 launched in 2005. Suddenly, survival horror looked commercially viable again, and it was finally the now-famous “Resident Evil in Space” hype that sealed the deal.
Many game developers, including producer Chuck Beaver and production designer Ben Varnat, have just brought Dead Space from licensed titles in the Lord of the Rings and Bond series. “We all come from the shackles of working with licensed IP, and you have to be very careful to follow all the rules,” Chuck said. “So when the opportunity came to do new IP, everyone was ready to fly like crazy creatively.”
One of Dead Space’s hallmarks (reserved for the remake) is a completely in-world user interface. Video communications and inventory are holographic projections fired from Isaac’s suit, upgrades are purchased on machines with proper in-game screens, ammo counts are displayed on Isaac’s weapons, and – lest we forget – health The strips are elegantly displayed on Isaac’s Spine Spine suit. The immersion is unparalleled.
One concern when designing this UI was that it would be too bright – as Ben Wanat put it, “as bright as a Christmas tree”. But according to Chuck Beaver, Ben himself quickly put those concerns behind him. “He went for a weekend and came back with a UI mockup, and it was so good that it ran through the series,” Chuck said. “He did it all with a VFX system.”
Ben’s VFX model was so good that it wasn’t used until late in development. “Each of these little health bars was an effect, and eventually the engineers changed the color and we swapped it out for the proper tube and projected graphics,” Ben told me.
The ghostly gray-blue color of these elements, especially in video communications, helps to evoke an informed sense that you’re chasing ghosts around the abandoned Planet-Cracker ship USG Ishimura.
Assembly Stone Village
At a time when 1080p wasn’t the norm on most monitors, Ishimura’s fine architecture got a little lost in jagged anti-aliasing and blurry resolutions. But playing on PC today, those unattractive ridges outside the boat look like they could string shooting stars, and your eyes are drawn to the eerie shadows lingering in the far corners of the larger space. The ship has a rough texture and appears to be moaning and breathing mechanical threats.
Art Director Ian Milham told me about Shimura’s associations and inspirations. “It’s a mash-up of a Gothic cathedral and an offshore oil rig — both massive and deconstructed, with the guts clearly visible,” he told me. “The light fixture is based on a dentist’s lamp and has a lot of uncomfortable and scary connotations. The logo was inspired by Japanese subway signs, as they are also helping people navigate through maze environments.”
But Stone Village wasn’t always such an elegantly shady space. “When prototyping the original Xbox, we built some corridors and areas in Stone Village, and it looked like the walls were made of chainsaws and claws and things like that,” recalls Ben. “I was like, ‘It’s kind of on the nose, you know?’ So this ship wants to kill you? Damn it, there are bloody fangs on the wall!”
Shortly thereafter, Ben took a leading role in the detailing of Stone Village. “I would carve into negative space, create a lot of claustrophobic 90-degree bends, silhouettes and basically anything I can do when you move through space, all I can do is fuck your head,” he said . “The basic thing is to get as much parallax as possible. Parallax always gives you changing shadows and views of the room.”
The engine room showcases this sensory intensity early in the game. The space is shrouded in mist, strange shapes and shadows cast by gut-like ducts and the aggressive geometry of the space. You feel as if you are in the depths of a machine that is always threatening to devour you.
Few horror games play like this in the tension between power fantasy and powerlessness. Isaac may be an engineer, but two of his key abilities allow him to slow down time and lift heavy metal equipment by pointing his finger at it—possibly the hippest video game superpower of the 2000s. He’s a medieval knight in metal armor with a sci-fi makeover, beheading enemies whose slender appendages are begging to be cut off by his power tools.
But despite your mighty arsenal, Dead Space always feels like a struggle, thanks in no small part to Isaac walking around like he’s a metal-coated guy . He’s a jogger, turns around like a freight ferry, and inexplicably pauses for a second when you change weapons (causing so many screams “Fuck it, Isaac!”).
The tedious action was certainly inspired by Resident Evil 4, but in a new generation of consoles, shaped by fast and fluid shooters like Halo, Call of Duty, and even Gears of War, Visceral had to adapt to changing times.
“We had Resident Evil 4 tank controls in Dead Space. It was really slow, and you couldn’t move while firing,” Chuck told me. “When we were making Dead Space, we were pretty obsessed with that system. The team was like, ‘This is a survival horror game, you’re supposed to be clunky.'”
But these idealistic visions of survival horror must be compromised. “It took three focus tests to make it clear that the audience was out of the old-fashioned horror controls,” he lamented. Shooting and movement were restored, and very late in development Glenn altered Isaac’s animation 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, more sluggish genre with games like Alien: Isolation, Resident Evil 2: Remastered, and the upcoming Dead Space remake. The rhythm of people panic.
Necromorphs are a unique threat – vulnerable but threatening. You can blow the deformed legs of a running Necromancer out from under them, its upper body charging towards your momentum. It looks dead, but then props itself on its claws and starts crawling towards you. Even though the creature is crippled and at the mercy of your heavy metal boots, it still pursues you relentlessly.
Necromorphs has been tweaked and stretched quite a bit to make it readable and interesting. “We started to elongate the limbs and thin things out, creating a sort of exposed pulpy area that was more clearly connected to the location of the dismemberment point,” Ben said. “We used weakness in certain areas, but glowing weakness is such a horrible cliché that we try to avoid it as much as possible.”
Dead Space has its share of scripted thrills in your face, but also some neat system tricks, like necromorphs that may or may not ambush your vents, depending on how close you are to them. “It’s a very complex system of vents that we’ve built throughout the game,” Glenn told me. “If you listen, you’ll actually hear the enemy crawling in through the vents, and whenever possible, we’ll try to find the real enemy there.”
Visceral infuses Dead Space with its own strong identity, while drawing on the great works of its genre. Glen Schofield happily admits that the air raid sirens you hear in the game’s atmosphere are a nod to Akira Yamaoka and the Silent Hill nightmare sequence. The hallucinations and dementia angle was relatively late in the development process and was driven by Ben Wanat’s love of Solaris, while its almost anachronistic twist on Resident Evil 4’s control style is outdated, which surprisingly makes The game feels more timeless than many of its contemporaries.
When I asked the developers what the Dead Space remake needed to keep from the original, the unifying theme was immersion, with Ben Wanat focusing on audio in particular. “As long as they understand the nature of what’s going on with the audio mix, and why almost all the horror of the game comes from the audio, then I think they’re on a very good path,” he said.
The essence of Dead Space will also be apparent 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 prison colony on the titular moon of Jupiter. One of the key lessons he learned from Dead Space was unpredictability when creating panic.
Glenn recounted that during the development of Dead Space, an executive came up with a “terror plan” that would create panic on the 20-minute timer. “It was the exact opposite of what I wanted,” Glenn said. “My take on Callisto is that when you make it, the scary intent is almost like a gut feeling. There’s no ‘right’ timing, it really depends on how you feel in the game.
To be sure, Dead Space remake developer Motion Studios is working on a well-crafted masterpiece, and its sequel shows just how hard it is to build. Probably the best advice for the team behind the remake is to do what Isaac did: tread carefully, target weak spots, and keep the rest of the body intact.