Bringing "Dead Space" To Life: Antony Johnston

This Halloween, a new property will be looking to establish itself in the annals of horror when it hits screens all over the world. The fact that the property isn't a movie, and those screens will be televisions and PC monitors, does not take away from the fact the EA's "Dead Space" may be the scariest thing you experience all year.

Announced in Fall 2007, "Dead Space" is a third-person survival horror game that takes place on a stranded mining ship in, you guessed it, the dead of space. Main character Isaac Clarke is a space engineer who is sent to the ship to find out what went wrong. What he finds is that the ship has been overrun by an alien race known as the "Necromorphs." Things go downhill from there.

Coming off great showings at both E3 and Comic-Con International in San Diego, "Dead Space" is generating a lot of positive buzz, both for how good it looks, and for the creepy atmosphere that has been evident in the trailers shown thus far. Over the past several months, it's been clear that EA is looking at "Dead Space" as more than just a game. A six-issue prequel comic launched in March of 2008, written by Antony Johnston (Wasteland), with art by Ben Templesmith (30 Days of Night). The comic serves as the first part of a trilogy telling the "Dead Space" story, which will continue with an animated feature in October, and conclude with the release of the video game for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on October 21, 2008.

CBR caught up with "Dead Space" comic scribe Antony Johnston, who contributed dialogue and backstory for the game as well, to chat about setting the stage for one of this year's most talked about games.

You've had the good fortune to not only work on the game, but to have written the prequel comic series as well. Can you give people a quick summary of the basic storyline of the "Dead Space" comic?

The "Dead Space" comic shows the five weeks immediately preceding the game from the viewpoint of the mining colony on Aegis VII, after they discover a strange artifact, presumed to be alien, buried on the planet. I say "presumed" because the artifact actually bears a striking resemblance to the "Marker", a fabled object which is sacred to a small religious group called Unitologists. And the human race has never encountered an alien species, so theories as to what exactly this Marker is abound with impunity.

The discovery causes trouble on the colony, initially just strange coincidences of insomnia, hallucinations and other stress-induced problems, but it quickly escalates and sets in a motion a terrible chain of events that brings the colony to its knees. We see it all happen from several different characters' viewpoints, with our main focus on Bram Neumann - a Planetside Security officer who thought this would be an easy, trouble-free posting for an ex-cop. Sadly, that's not to be.

With the comic, you're essentially setting the tone for the entire "Dead Space" universe. Was there a lot of back and forth with EA about that aspect of the project?

Yes, but not in the way you might think. Most of the core backstory was already established when I came on board, but hardly any of it centered around the colony. There was just a mention that the colony existed, and a brief overview of its role in the planet cracking operation. So when it became clear that the comic, in order to fit in with the game and movie, would need to be entirely focused on the colony, we had to get into that quite a bit more. But even then, it was mainly for the purposes of the overall backstory and universe.

For the comic story itself, EA gave me a very long leash. There were some key points that I had to hit so that things matched up, of course, but aside from that I was basically given carte blanche, up to and including the organizational structure of the colony itself. All the characters are original, many of the locations and settings are original, and I came up with about ninety percent of the techno-slang. Which, admittedly, is one of my favorite parts.

Anyway, it was great - having that freedom meant I could concentrate on telling a good story, rather than slavishly following an existing pattern or being constrained by too much of the game. EA had the final call, of course, and there were a couple of rather extreme things that were nixed because they would have buggered up the game, but on the whole I was left to my own devices.

How much access did you and Ben Templesmith have to the game assets when you were creating the comic?

Quite a bit, in our respective fields. I was on the phone to Chuck a lot, and being also involved with the game meant that I saw a lot of the development material as it was being worked on, and could track how the game design was progressing. There were quite a few elements from those stages that found their way into the comics, as background or technology.

Ben, meanwhile, had access to concept art, 3D models of the Necromorphs, level design from the game, that sort of thing. There was nothing we couldn't ask for, really. I don't recall requestinganything and being told we couldn't see it. I imagine that's quite rare with this sort of licensed tie-in.

The "Dead Space" universe is being fleshed out with the prequel comic and the upcoming animated movie. How will someone who hasn't seen either of those get introduced to the backstory in the game?

The game is all about piecing together the story of what happened through finding logs, either live or recorded, made by the Ishimura crew. So we have videos to watch, audio recordings to listen to, and documents to read, and they all build up to give you the story.

The thing is - and this is the approach that really attracted me to working on "Dead Space" - you don't need to have read the comic, or seen the movie, to play the game and get into the story. And by the same token, you don't need to play the game in order to enjoy the comic, or the movie. They all stand alone, but they also link up. I think that's pretty awesome. It occasionally made things tricky, but nothing worthwhile is ever easy to do.

And, as I've assured people a few times, the comic and the movie won't spoil the game. Sure, they'll tell you *what* happened before the game starts, and give you a deeper experience of the game world, but they don't tell you *why* it all happened. That's all left for you to find out in the game.

How do you do you as a writer try to make characters in the comic matter to players of the game, when most of those characters will have died long before the game begins?

Well, that's why the comic came out before the game! But assuming you mean for someone who's already played the game, it is a bit of a challenge, but it's a good one. I mean, making readers care about the characters you create is pretty much Writing 101 - it's the lynchpin of any writing, regardless of the medium you're working in, or whether it's a tie-in of some kind.

So I was a bit more aware of it with "Dead Space," because as you say, people already know that these characters' chances of survival are pretty damn slim. But at the same time, it's no different to writing anything else - you just do whatever you can to make the characterssympathetic, so that readers will relate to them. It helps that "Dead Space" doesn't have any "villains" in the normal sense. Even the more, shall we say, morally dubious characters are just doing what they truly believe to be the right thing. Nobody's rubbing their hands and cackling evilly, you know?

Can we expect to see characters from the comic make an appearance in game, either through flashbacks or some other means?

Eh...unlikely. I can't really say any more than that...

We'd like to thank Antony for taking time to chat. "Dead Space" #6, the final issue of the miniseries, is slated to hit stores on September 10th. If you have not been following the series so far, you can catch up by watching the animated comic episodes that have been created for each issue. The newest episode is available at the official "Dead Space" website, while the previous episodes are featured on the "Dead Space" playlist of EA's YouTube channel. As you might imagine, the content is intended for mature audiences.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our "Dead Space" coverage, as we'll be talking to EA's Chuck Beaver about creating an atmosphere of horror for the game, and how the main character, Isaac Clarke, is anything but your average protagonist.

Stranger Things: Greg Pak, Valeria Favoccia to Helm Zombie Boys Graphic Novel

More in Comics