Space horror fans are feasting right now, between the recent release of The Callisto Protocol and the upcoming Dead Space remake. If you like blowing bloody chunks off weird alien creatures in the far off corners of the universe, the past few months have been a delight.
The difference between those two games is that while one of them very much feels like an homage to Dead Space, and even features developers who worked on those original games, it’s coming out within months of a literal re-interpretation of the very game it’s inspired by.
Some video game updates are little more than a coat of paint, but in this case, EA Motive has gone far beyond frame rate and aesthetic. In their words, this take on Dead Space isn’t meant to contradict what’s come before—it’s still the bones of the original Dead Space. But it also hasn’t stopped them from, say, giving Isaac Clarke a voice (a feature that came later in the series), attempting to add depth to its characters with new dialogue and voice acting, or a horrifying-sounding “peeling” system that allows players to rip apart the game’s enemies.
Horror in 2023 is a lot different from horror than 2008, when Dead Space was released. Twitch, where the genre would later thrive through live streaming, didn’t launch until 2011.
To learn more about how the team approached this, I had a chance to speak with Motive Studio realization director Joel MacMillan and senior writer Jo Berry, who worked at BioWare for many years before making the jump to Star Wars and horror at EA Motive, about their approach to the horror classic, and what level of violence is even too much for Dead Space.
What follows is an edited, condensed transcript of our longer conversation about horror and Dead Space. The full exchange can be heard on this Friday’s episode of Waypoint Radio.
Waypoint: You both have spent a lot of time working at BioWare, and specifically working on RPGs. Horror is something completely different. What is it like to go from such a massive shift to a different type of game like Dead Space?
Joe: It’s a good question. I started off in Mass Effect working on the Mass Effect franchise and then making that transition to Motive. We got our hands on a couple of Star Wars titles and now we’re going into Dead Space. We were reflecting on this recently. Those are all considered sci-fi pieces. Those are all sci-fi franchises. But they couldn’t be more different in terms of the flavor of sci-fi between all of them. You have Mass Effect, which is all about the clean, sleek, sophisticated kind of sci-fi. Star Wars, that’s more of the cowboy fantasy sci-fi. And now you have Dead Space, which is suspense thriller, survival horror—that kind of thing. It’s been fun getting to taste each of those flavors over the course of those franchises. For me, probably next to sci fi, horror is my next favorite genre. I think horror is a very healthy genre, and we’re starting to see quite a renaissance in that genre now with streaming services and indie games and films.
But the one thing I do like about horror is that when done effectively, you get a good release from it—a better release than, say, sci fi or drama and that kind of thing. There’s a really cathartic release you get when horror is executed properly. That’s a great feeling, and it’s a healthy thing for us to experience. Having gone through a world pandemic recently, it’s a good time for horror, where people can go through and have that cathartic experience and not be afraid to be scared safely now. It’s a safe scare for folks at home in the comfort of their own couches and rooms and that kind of thing. And so for all those reasons, I really do appreciate the genre.
Jo: And just thinking about what you were saying about going from RPGs to horror. Especially BioWare RPGs, they’re so character driven. They’re really about people and hard decisions and choices and things like that. So one of the advantages of having worked on that is when you go to horror, you have to care about the people involved or you have to have investment in them in their situation. So obviously, it’s not 1 to 1, but you can certainly bring some of those elements over, and then you’re able to really put people in the shoes of someone who’s having the worst day of their life.
Waypoint: Horror, at its best, has characters that you’re invested in and it elevates everything else that’s going around it. That is, frankly, as someone that’s watched too much of the genre, what happens. A lot of times it’s the creativeness of a kill or an ingenious premise, and the characters are more or less about how far can we get along until that premise plays out.
Jo: Well, I mean, one of my favorite horror films is The Thing. And that film does not work without characters. You know what I mean? The paranoia and the suspense and everything. You get to know the characters very quickly, and they’re not cliches. They all feel grounded. Even the quick time you spend with them at the beginning, you get to know everybody. You understand who McCready is, who Copper is, who Palmer is, this sort of thing. And then it’s this slow burn, but it’s all leading out from those characters. When Garry says, “I’ve known Bennings for 10 years, this can’t be happening,” you really feel for him.” That investment really pays off throughout the whole film, because so much of that film is about paranoia and interacting with other characters.
Joe: It’s a good point. The characters are really the window that you experience the horror through, so it’s important that you can relate to them. It’s the same thing. Jo, you mentioned The Thing and one of our other source materials was Alien. Alien’s the same thing, it’s an extremely exotic environment. You’re in space. It couldn’t be more exotic. You’re trapped in a spaceship in space with an alien creature chasing you. It was incredibly important for us to connect and relate to the characters in order for us to project ourselves into that world. Otherwise, it would have just been too exotic and too distant, too hard to put ourselves into.
Waypoint: As a hardcore Prometheus fan, I have to know—and maybe this is going to ruin the conversation—what do you make of Prometheus?
Joe: I think… [pause, laughs]
Waypoint: Oh no! I already know the answer!
Joe: [laughs] We need a whole other interview for this one. But I think there were elements of Prometheus [I liked]. I liked what Ridley Scott was trying to do.
Waypoint: There is a lot of death in Dead Space and those deaths don’t just appear out of nowhere, someone has to come up with them. When you’re prompted with, “hey, like we need some death scene here,” what are those creative meetings like?
Jo: There were one or two death scenes that we wanted to take to a different place. I’m trying to think of a way to talk about them without spoiling. That’s the tricky one. I can talk about one obliquely. This is new. It’s a new death scene, a very revised one.
Originally you saw [it] standing on a gantry looking down. We had a conversation about it, about how this is actually going to be staged and all this. I was talking to Roman [Campos-Oriola, creative director] about it, and he’s like, “this isn’t really gory enough for Dead Space.” I was like, “cool, I will help you with that, because I’m always excited to get really twisted about it.” So we were like, “okay, well, if we want it to be gory, first of all, we have to be closer,” so then it started adjusting the level design. We’re going to have to get the character right up close, [so] we’re going to have it staged this way and do it this way. And then it was looking at the tools that were involved in the scene, and in that death, we actually took a bit of inspiration from other horror games, as well.
There was a particular piece of imagery that was used and that actually worked really well with the setup and the characters and…the mechanism of death. [laughs] It developed from there. It starts in an image and then, because it’s games, you have to be like, “okay, how practically can we do this? Can we do it with VFX? Is the level design going to support it? What if a player just tries to shoot the other person in the head?” That’s always a problem! The “player is armed and can constantly shoot someone in the head” is always an issue.
Joe: I think all of the death scenes that we’ve revisited are all pretty messy. We’ve added a little bit more gore to them, but I think, going back to what Jo was saying, I think we’ve enhanced the emotional connection through those death scenes. Whomever is dying there, their character character’s been built up a little bit more so that when the death happens, it resonates a little bit longer or stronger. But we’ve also physically positioned them and staged them so that you’re a front row seat to a lot of them. Not all of them. I think that allows you to connect a little bit better with what they’re going through.
“If you watch someone getting their legs pulverized and ripped off, at a certain point you can’t visualize that. But if you’re looking at somebody getting a toothpick under their fingernails, it will make you wince.”
Waypoint: What is the line on Dead Space where the violence is too far?
Jo: Well, this is a game that we specifically developed a peeling system for our enemies. The line’s pretty good. [laughs] Yeah. I think there’s a level of gratuity past which a death starts being funny. You disconnect, right? If you watch someone getting their legs pulverized and ripped off, at a certain point you can’t visualize that. But if you’re looking at somebody getting a toothpick under their fingernails, it will make you wince.
Waypoint: Don’t like it.
Jo: No. [laughs] I think it’s definitely keeping that level of almost relatability. “God, that would really hurt.” But if you go too far, like I said, it becomes cartoony. I think it’s just leaning into the groundedness of Dead Space. We joke that the weapons that you use, you’re basically committing industrial accidents. You can understand how much damage an industrial accident would do and can do as opposed to really going overboard and something you could do in animation. It’s making sure that it always feels relatable in a way.
Joe: Yeah. It’s also a matter of being judicious with where we put it. On our human character deaths, we pull back a little bit from the gore–again, like Jo was saying, to make it a little bit more relatable, less cartoony. But on creatures and monsters and necromorphs and that kind of thing, we had a little bit more freedom to to embellish the gore. We have the peeling system where you could blow chunks off of the enemies all the way down to the bone, and that’s fun and that’s part of the gameplay experience. But that level of gore is a little bit more appropriate for those monsters. It doesn’t become cheesy or it doesn’t it doesn’t pull you out of the experience when it’s on the enemy monsters.
We found early on in the project that a lot of our meetings where we’d be sharing visual material and references and that kind of thing included a lot of very disturbing images and pictures. I remember at the start of the project, we were putting together the whole visual brief for what that dismemberment and peeling feature would be. As I was putting that together, I was looking at images from car accidents and certain injuries and that kind of thing, and at the end of the day, your mind’s in a very dark place because that’s real. I made a very concerted effort to only draw imagery from films and TV and series and that kind of thing, because there’s plenty of reference [material] from those. But it’s a little bit easier to not get overly connected and feel subjected to some of the imagery.
But as a result, when we would go into meetings and have to share that kind of visual reference, we would always have to put a bit of a disclaimer at the front saying, “look, graphic imagery in this in this presentation, for those of you that are sensitive to that, we’ll give you advance warning not to look at the slide or blank out the slide [or] close your eyes.”
Jo: Yeah, we do that on Slack, as well. If it’s like, “here’s an asset that we’re going to show” and it’s particularly graphic, just put a note on it being like “hey, if you’re not cool with this, maybe you don’t need to click on this.”
The post Yes, There’s a Level of Violence That’s Too Far Even For ‘Dead Space’ appeared first on VICE.