The new survival horror action adventure engineer-in-space thriller Dead Space from Electronic Arts for the Sony PlayStation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360, and Windows PC has turned a lot of heads in the run up to its release. As you may recall, Dead Space centers on space engineer Issac Clarke and his encounters with the Necromorphs, a race of hostile aliens that depend on necrotic flesh. I first saw the game in action back at E3 in July and came away from the brief demo impressed, so I was especially glad to have the chance to ask Dead Space Art Director Ian Milham about topics such as bucking conventional game design stalwarts, launching Dead Space as an instant franchise, exploring the hero's role in the adventure from an engineering perspective, concerns about too much violence in our Helen Lovejoy-centric society, and the inevitable Dead Space tie-in candy.
MattG: Dead Space lacks a traditional in-game heads-up display. It's an interesting stylistic choice that brings an added cinematic flair to the experience. When was the decision made to follow that path? What prompted it?
Ian: The no-HUD decision actually was one of several decisions that serve one of our big ideas: immersion. We wanted to make a scary game, and to do that, we wanted to keep people totally immersed in that feeling. One of the first things we identified that pulled us out of games and reminded us “it’s only a game” was the HUD. So we decided to integrate the information the player needs into the world itself and get rid of the traditional HUD. This way, the player still gets that key info, but isn’t pulled out of the game to get it. We’re really proud of how it turned out.
MattG: Dead Space's hero is an engineer. Will players need to think like an engineer to succeed instead of the more common solider or superhero figure who rushes into a fight with guns blazing? Will there be any repairing of equipment or building new weapons from spare parts?
Ian: Absolutely yes. This was another key decision supporting our plans to make the game scary. If you put Master Chief or a Gears of War dude into Silent Hill, how scary is that game? Isaac Clarke, the hero of Dead Space, has no guns and no help. He has to improvise weapons from mining tools he finds, and if he goes in blazing and shooting up the Necromorphs, he’ll be easily overwhelmed. In Dead Space, the player has to use what we call “strategic dismemberment” to conserve ammo and keep the enemies at bay. Equipment upgrading and hotwiring is definitely part of Isaac’s bag of tricks.
MattG: The game has a very detailed backstory. How many revisions did the core storyline go through? How much of the original concept has made it into the final game? How much was relocated to No Known Survivors, the animated movie, or any other tie-in media? Could anything left on the cutting room floor this time turn up in the future in some form?
Ian: The story of Dead Space is more like a living thing than something that went through revisions. The huge backstory came about because you have to create one for a new world like Dead Space if you want it to have the depth and quality that we’re going for. You need to answer a lot of questions about the culture, history, technology and everything else about a world, so that when you make it, it feels real and believable. That believability is key for a horror story. Once we had all that material, we said “We can never get all this into a game, what about getting some other people to give us their take on it?” So we partnered up with some interesting artists, gave them what we had, and said “Here, run with it, add to it, have fun.”
MattG: It's becoming common for new games to be referred to as a franchise (e.g. "the Heavenly Sword franchise") where once upon a time that label was reserved for games that earned sequels. Now here comes Dead Space, another game that wants to be so much more right away. Can one enjoy/understand Dead Space without seeing the prequel movie, reading the comic book, or experiencing No Known Survivors?
Ian: I know just what you’re talking about. When I see other people try this type of thing, I usually see one of two things I don’t like. Either super-corporate spin off stuff, that just looks like an overblown advertisement. That’s lame. The other thing I see sometimes is something so dense or interdependent that I feel like I’m only getting part of the story if I only check out one part. We wanted to avoid both of those.
So from the beginning, we sought out interesting artists and writers who would do something different with Dead Space, not just do a lame marketing thing. That’s how we got to Ben Templesmith, who has a style you might not expect us to go with. Then we got together, gave them what we had and showed them what we were up to, but largely kept our hands off except to lend assistance when they wanted. The results are cool things that stand on their own. We did work some crossovers in there, but they only add to the experience for the hardcore fans, not leave others in the dark.
MattG: I think back to when The Matrix tried to expand beyond a single form of media. To understand the overall story behind The Matrix it wasn't enough to just see the movies. One also had to play the video game, watch the anime, read the books, eat the breakfast cereal, etc. Is there a concern that the potential audience is about to get hit with too many Dead Space products too quickly? What is to keep someone mildly interested in the game from feeling overwhelmed by all of the story tie-in projects?
Ian: All the various Dead Space projects stand on their own. There are comic book fans who’ll dig the comic series who aren’t big gamers, necessarily. Not everyone who plays the game will see the animated movie, I’m sure. Each has a different feeling and do relate to each other, but we didn’t want to make any of it feel like homework. That’s the beauty of doing more interesting takes on the universe, with different styles, with the various projects, it gives them a little breathing room and makes them interesting by themselves, not just as some cynical corporate tie-in product.
MattG: Dismemberment is a key focus in Dead Space. It's not enough to just kill the alien menace, but foes must be torn apart in key ways to be defeated. Is there a concern that Dead Space could wind up as the next target of underinformed non-gaming politicians? If so, has there been any self-censorship during development because of these concerns? Was there ever a point where the creative team took a step back from a game element and said "Maybe we went a little too far..."? How about "We didn't go far enough..."?
Ian: When people have problems with violence in entertainment, it usually seems to be not just something being explicit, but the attitude about it in the game. Where you get into trouble is when there’s people taking joy in violence, or violence without consequences. We’ve never censored ourselves because we’re using explicit gore and violence to tell a quality story, and not glorifying it. Terrible things happen to people (and the player!) in Dead Space, and it’s horrifying, as it should be! We never said “we’ve gone too far here” because we were confident we weren’t being irresponsible.
As for not going far enough, I don’t think anyone’s going to think that’s true when they get to play it.
MattG: Does Dead Space push the limits of the current consoles? Could we see a Wii or PS2 version of the game in the future? Perhaps a less technically advanced "side story", maybe a Dead Space: Origins?
Ian: Dead Space is one of the most technically advanced games I’ve seen, let alone helped create. We had to create new rendering tech that to my knowledge only a handful of games have even tried. We’ve pushed the consoles incredibly hard. As for future titles, I’ve just been trying to get this one to be the best it can possibly be. Every minute has been spent polishing this one rather than planning any future titles.
Ian: For me? A nap! The first day of work we did on Dead Space was in December 2005. We’ve been working on this close to three years, trying to make it as great as it can be. Time to rest a bit and creatively recharge. Then we’ll have to see. As I said, I’d love to work in the Dead Space universe again, and I think there’s a lot of unexplored territory there, but we’ll have to see.
Necromorph jellybeans sound awesome, though.