Bringing "Dead Space" to Life: Chuck Beaver

Electronic Arts is planning on making a big splash in the horror genre this Halloween when "Dead Space" arrives on the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC gaming platforms. Players will take on the role of Isaac Clarke, an engineer who is sent to repair a communications array on the stranded mining ship, USG Ishimura. When he arrives, Isaac finds he's got much bigger things to worry about, as the ship has been completely overrun by an alien race called the Necromorphs.

Previously, CBR News spoke with writer Antony Johnston about the "Dead Space" comic book from Image Comics, and we speak now with EA's Chuck Beaver, Senior Producer on the video game, about creating the unique look and feel of "Dead Space."

Horror is a difficult genre to make a game in, as it's difficult to maintain the sense of tension over an experience that lasts several hours.  How are you approaching that problem in "Dead Space?"

We realized from the start that we'd have to produce "negative space" around our horror moments [whereby] nothing is happening, but it might, in order to keep people scared.  We knew what we wanted, but we had to iterate and experiment like mad to get it right.  The bullseye here is quite small, and if you miss it, you get a weird comical version of whatever you were trying to do.   Timing of even the smallest element can throw off a whole setup.  The animations can end up oddly laughable.  Funny is easier than scary, because there is "sort of funny."  There is not "sort of scary," because that's kind of funny.  This took us quite a long time to get right. 

Then we had to stay very conscious of not letting any element become a reliable predictor of events, such as music cues, enemy tells, lighting, visual effects.   But even once things were pretty unpredictable, we couldn't rely solely on boo moments.   In the end, we discovered a direct and very strong correlation between enemy lethality and fear.  If the enemies are hard to kill, and do tons of damage when they attack, you become very wary of every encounter, and the effectiveness of the misdirection goes through the roof.  Every clank and creak and flickering light is now scary. 

There must be some die-hard horror fans on the development team.  Just in watching the trailers, images of "Event Horizon," "Aliens" and "The Thing" immediately come to mind.  What other horror influences can we expect to see nods to in "Dead Space?"

You cannot believe the number of horror films [Executive Producer] Glen Schofield has watched.   At this point, I don't think even the smallest budget flick from Saskatoon has escaped him.  Our Creative Director, Bret Robbins, is also a die-hard horror fan, and together they effortlessly discuss in clipped nerd short-hand reference scenes from "Pitch Black," "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," the "Saw" series, "Hostel," "Daywatch," and on and on.  There is a very vibrant language of horror, and they are the happy channelers.

A lot of discussion in games revolves around graphics, but one could argue that when it comes to horror, the audio aspect is just as important.  Can you talk about what you're doing with score and sound effects in "Dead Space?

We produced an original orchestral score, Aleatoric in style, which is mixed at run-time based on the gameplay situation.  To throw some tech jargon at you, we used quadraphonic streamed ambience as well as a dynamic pseudo-random positional ambience system, all in 5.1 surround.  The music and ambience were designed to create mood over anything else, and to make the player feel as if they are actually in the scene.  We're not trying to play memorable music themes, but to create a tense mood and creepy atmosphere. Creature vocalizations are of course a big part of the horror as well.  Layered on top of the horror components are very futuristic sound effects.  We use a very broad dynamic range; contrast is a key element of horror.

In terms of a main character, you guys went more "MacGyver" than "Master Chief."  What makes an engineer a better lead than a space marine for this story?

Well first of all, "space marine" is exceptionally well-traveled territory, so we wanted some new character complexities to explore.   Space marines are larger-than-life testosterone heroes, who are in charge of their world and probably yours.  They are strategically successful.  Everything they plan happens the way they plan it.  They kick butt and it stays kicked.  That is fantasy fulfillment about 100% control over an uncontrollable world.  

Horror is about no control in an uncontrollable world -- usually filled with paralyzing terrors -- where you still manage to survive, but as a person exactly like yourself.  A much different fantasy fulfillment.  And so our universe reflects this.  We are the world of unintended consequences, where the pavement is marked "good intentions" every few meters.  Man plays God, and with fire, neither of which works out very well in the end. 

Our main character Isaac Clarke is very relatable, with no exaggerations or caricature.  He's just here to fix things and go home.  He's got a girlfriend on board and he's worried about her.  That plays a major role in the story.  Space marines don't worry about their girlfriends.  At least on camera.

The non-traditional nature of the main character extends to his equipment as well.  What can we expect in terms of the weapons Isaac will be using in the game?

We wanted to immerse literally everything inside the world, so the weapons became mining tools, but "of the future."  There are small plasma cutters, with blades that rotate vertically or horizontally, depending on how you need to blast a chunk off a boulder to get it to fit into a smelter.  There are large ore cutters that shear off whole sides of rocks, flamethrowers for melting ice off rocky comets, charge-up explosive blasters that pulverize walls of solid granite, and so on.  Of course, these are all especially handy in our world of "strategic dismemberment", where you need to cut all the limbs off of the re-animated flesh of the dead crew in order to re-kill them.   So, it's a happy coincidence that all the tools tend to slice, dice and julienne. 

One of the standout features we've seen for the game so far is the head-up display (or HUD), or rather, the lack of one.  What led to that design choice, and what can players expect in terms of visual cues for health, weapons, etc?

It mostly began as an inspiration Glen had to put his health bar on his neck or back somewhere.   When that worked out, we decided to see if it could all fit without him becoming a Christmas tree (although we're sci-fi, we didn't want to be too unrelatable).  We put his ammo counter and stasis meter on him, and made his air-timer a conditional hologram.  Those all worked out well, and were a great encouragement to pursue complete immersion of all the HUD in the game, or "behind the fourth wall."   This all dovetailed nicely with our immersion aspirations as well.  The more the player stayed in the game, the more we could scare them.   We put the traditional inventory, map and objectives screens in a holographic projection off to Isaac's right, in real space in real time in his world.   He even looks at it as you highlight different items.   At this point, Isaac's RIG (Resource Integration Gear), or the thing on his back, had become his connection to all things, so we embraced it and made pickups and doors and switches all emit holograms, which interacted with Isaac's RIG to pickup, open, activate, etc.  It was all very clean in the end, and worked well in the fiction to boot.

In addition to looking pretty gruesome, the Necromorphs that Isaac will be facing require some unorthodox methods to be put down.  Tell us a little about "strategic dismemberment."

It pretty much requires you to chop off every limb before they stop coming at you.  This is fine if just one is around, but becomes quickly panicky in a crowd.  Plus, there's restricted ammo, so if you waste shots in the body, you'll be standing there with an empty clip being torn into pieces really fast.  And of course, we mess with your head as the game progresses, and just as you get dismemberment down, new enemies appear that put a twist on it, and burst open with other enemies if you get it slightly wrong, or flat out surprise you even if you get it right.  It's a very addictive mechanic, and you'll find yourself settling on a particular weapon and playstyle, we've found.

What about multiplayer capabilities in "Dead Space?"

We're trying to stay as true as we can to the horror genre, and for us that means an uninterrupted single player experience.  It's not very scary if your buddy comes blazing through a carefully-tuned horror setup.  So, no multiplayer for us on this game.

EA's "Dead Space" is currently scheduled for an October 21, 2008 release. To see the latest trailer for Dead Space, activate the player below.

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