Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Redwood Shores
Submitted by: Retro Gamer
The studio formerly known as EA Redwood Shores, now Visceral Games, built a new property that came with a mythology that lived beyond just one game. Dead Space was fostered as a multimedia franchise, with a massive story that would end up spanning an animated film, a comic book and a flash game spin-off. Creating an engine from scratch to facilitate industry-best lighting effects, which would become a key atmospheric device within the game, Dead Space was deliberately evocative of a variety of horror and sci-fi movies, which the team were self-confessed fans of.
It came at a key time for EA, when the publisher was trumpeting the merits of new IP – Dead Space was given a massive three years to come to fruition, longer than any comparative titles at EA Redwood Shores like The Simpsons Game and The Godfather. The team prototyped and focus-tested everything to an exhaustive degree, from UI to the extent of the player’s powers, honing in on the idea of lead character Isaac’s relentless struggle in navigating abandoned spacecraft the USG Ishimura.
The game was EA’s biggest critical hit in years, and despite a slow start, Dead Space sold well enough to become a franchise for EA – as a symbol of its creative triumphs, the studio was christened Visceral Games to underline its goal of developing high-level hardcore titles in Dead Space’s image. Executive producer Glen Schofield left Visceral in the Summer of 2009 to join Activision, and seemingly conflicted with EA ahead of his departure, later saying this on his Twitter feed: “They really treated me like shit, even after creating Dead Space for them.”
Dead Space is derivative of many sci-fi movies, especially Alien; you play an engineer who has the smarts to survive on a spaceship infected with extraterrestrial life. This part, everyone had seen before. The backdrop is pretty straightforward for a horror game, but the execution of the gameplay blends a massive range of innovative mechanics, most notably realistic limb decapitation and antigravity puzzles where you have to consider every dimension of each environment.
There’s so much to factor in when contemplating Dead Space’s creative achievements, particularly when it comes to the way audiovisual design is used to generate fear in the player; no other game released in the past five years is quite as good at making you identify with the minute-to-minute psychology of your character. It illustrates what only games can achieve as a medium in putting you in that role. The developers achieved this feat of storytelling through minute detail, considering aspects like sound design and event scripting in ways that kept the game from relying on cheap jumpy scares.
Isaac Clarke is a silent character, and by keeping things pretty quiet overall with only an intermittent score, the impact of any sound is therefore elevated. This is a core part of Dead Space’s atmosphere. Isaac’s breathing patterns are the one sound you always hear, and they escalate as soon as enemy necromorphs swarm upon him, or become panicked when you’re low on oxygen – what could’ve been a gimmicky effect subtly dictates your relationship with everything that’s going on around Isaac. No other horror game in history is as good at creating that connection.
But there are many other touches that demonstrate how ahead of its time Dead Space was. The simplicity with which Isaac’s many different abilities are mapped to the controls made dozens of Dead Space’s contemporaries seem suddenly outdated – especially when juggernaut Resident Evil 5 arrived the next year with clunky controls and a confused HUD. Isaac’s health meter is mapped to the spine of his armour. His inventory is accessed by a hologram emanating from the suit. There are no distractions; it’s pure forward-thinking design that feels like it’s revelling in the HD age, and the advantages that can bring to players.
Visceral created Dead Space’s universe from so many sci-fi sources, but the dynamics of its gameplay, the feedback it gives the player and the way the environment is manipulated to trigger a response is entirely refreshing. This is a game that plays with your psychology on subtle levels, but gets the fundamentals right, too, with Gears Of War-style twin-stick shooting, smart puzzles that encourage your range of abilities and a narrative structure with all the correct twists built in. Dead Space is evolution, not revolution – it’s a carefully-considered experience, one fashioned by people who knew how to subvert the genre.
Why It’s A Future Classic
Survival horror was a Japanese-dominated genre throughout the previous two generations, and Dead Space brought that to an end by marrying several genres and many existing ideas together, while forging a distinctive aesthetic that set it apart from the space marine shooters on the market. It’s a groundbreaking horror title because, as you’re reminded every time a limb floats by in zero gravity, or when you’re confronted with a black vista of the galaxy while treading the hull of the Ishimura to the soundtrack of Isaac exhaling, this is one of the few times a game has convincingly channelled a high-quality cinematic experience.
Dead Space doesn’t try to emulate a movie like so many other cutscene-laden games, but it does use elements of cinema to enhance this fictional universe. There’s an interesting contrast here between a story that’s relatively derivative and a method of interactive storytelling that’s extremely progressive; a great mixture of the old and the new, which encapsulates the mentality behind Dead Space very well.