Dead Space interview: Fleshing out the USG Ishimura and defleshing Necromorphs Dead Space interview: Fleshing out the USG Ishimura and defleshing Necromorphs
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Back when the original Dead Space debuted in 2008, it carved out a new niche for video games in the form of survival horror in the quiet of space. But technology was limited back then, so much so that the USG Ishimura, the massive ship couldn’t even be rendered in full 3D.

So all of the shots of the ship didn’t give that way, and the shooting and hacking took place in much more limited arenas. Fast forward to today, and Electronic Arts’ Motive studio is remaking the game for a January 27, 2023 launch. And the USG Ishimura has been rendered in full 3D.

The ship has an actual shape and the insides have been laid out in a logical way, changing the path that the hero Isaac takes through the thoroughly wrecked ship. As survivor Isaac Clarke walks at a slow pace through the corridors, light stabs your eyes and shadows bounce around, creating a creepy atmosphere where you expect a nasty Necromorph to jump out at you at any second. Oh, and Isaac speaks now.

Dead Space leaders David Robilliard (left) and Philip Duchamp.

“When Isaac was spoken to, we wanted him to answer,” Duchamp said. “We wanted him to be an engineer. If there’s a problem and a barricade to blow up, he should come up with the solution. That’s his job. But we still had to be careful about not breaking the feeling of isolation.”

In short, Isaac is more human than ever. These are some of the upgrades Motive made to the cult classic game for the new consoles and the PC for release on January 27, 2023. I played through a couple of hours of the game in the early levels in a visit to Electronic Arts — my first trip to the sprawling campus since the pandemic began.

Like the USG Ishimura, EA’s headquarters was empty and spooky. People weren’t back at work yet, but the Motive folks showed us the game in an appropriately dark room. It was in this wreck of a building that I started getting excited about the wreck of the space ship and the remake I was playing.

The developers reimagined the game to evoke a new level of immersion. It feels like the ship is your enemy, in addition to those Necromorphs. Clarke is on a mission to take control back from the horrors that have occupied it, and to find his missing girlfriend Nicole, a medical officer.

O captain, my captain.

Most aboard the mining ship have been infected and turned into monsters. But Isaac is an engineer and he can solve problems, get around obstacles, and shoot the limbs off the Necromorphs in a very satisfying way with his mining cutter. Strategic dismemberment, by cutting off limbs so you can’t be attacked so easily, is still the way to play the game.

One design pillar is unbroken immersion. No load screens or camera cuts break the immersion, though you encounter plenty of doors where you have to wait for the mechanism to open before you can proceed.

Part of the goal was to remember what produces fear. It’s just intense action scenes when the Necromorphs are jumping out at you. It’s also when you are in a moment of slow tension. Duchamp said that Isaac had to have moments when he was all alone, and he was scared like a kid worrying about what was in the darkness.

“You talk to yourself and the sound of your voice is reassuring,” Duchamp said.

These quiet moments are essential to the horror, as you go from moments of dramatic intensity to back to the quiet moments.

At the same time, Motive ratcheted up the horror by creating an “intensity director” that dynamically adjusts what shows up in Isaac’s path, from Necromorph spawns and how they choose to attack them, to environmental effects such as light, smoke, particles and sound. You can hear Isaac’s heartbeat and breathing.

But I wouldn’t worry if the game has enough gore or not. The monsters now have a Peeling System, which produces layered flesh, tendons and bones that break, tear and shatter in shocking new ways. The ship’s corridors have so much blood that survivors use it to write messages to each other.

Building the USG Ishimura

The old Dead Space.
The old Dead Space from 2008.

The team had to spatialize the full ship as if it were real.

“We took everything from a geometry standpoint of the ship. It was like a gray box, the original game. But we wanted our pillars to include an interconnected ship that needs to be fully traversable,” Duchamp said. “So we rebuilt the game from the ground up. We put all of these pieces together to get a fully interconnected ship.”

The new Dead Space for 2023.

The original assets weren’t high fidelity enough, and so it was all redone. The team rebuilt those assets and then contemplated how they would take it to Gen 5, or the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S era. They added a lot of corridors, paths, secret rooms, and more. You can get lost in the ship.

Thankfully, you have a way to highlight the path through the ship to get you back on track. A tram takes you back and forth to actual places in the ship. The bridge was at the front, and engineering and engine rooms were in the back. It was like fitting a puzzle together, Duchamp said.

“It’s all about immersion. So for me, one of the key things when I started working on the game, we saw how exceptional it was that you became so immersed in the game,” he said. “That’s why the jump scares worked so well. You’re in the game.”

The whole point of the remake was to use the new technology to produce more immersion for the players. You experience no breaks in the shot because the designers didn’t want to give the player the chance to put the controller down and perhaps never return, said technical director David Robillard, in an interview with GamesBeat.

“One of our pillars during production was to respect legacy,” said Robillard. “The original team did a tremendous job. But games have changed since 2008. We wanted to be careful and respectful.”

If they were going to change something, they had to explain why. Adding a voice for Isaac meant adding a lot of storytelling and navigation. And the team didn’t just want Isaac to be taking orders from someone on what to do next. Rather, he speaks up and he solves problems on his own as an engineer. He has more agency, which means the players have more creativity.

The atmosphere of Dead Space.

The peeling system is a take on dismemberment, and how bodies would fall apart so that the dismemberment would be memorable. And when you shot enemies, they didn’t just turn into mush. You see the internal organs and other parts spilling out.

The remake doesn’t make things easy on the player. Ammo for the cutter gun is scarce. The ship is dark, and so it’s important to bring out your flashlight. Sometimes you get a little ambient light. You have to choose which resources you want to use, like stocking up on oxygen or other things.

“This creates a lot of tense moments,” Duchamp said.

Duchamp, senior producer, was hired back at EA four years ago to work on the game when the pitch was being put together. Duchamp didn’t work on the original game, but he was a player and he really liked the second game. So he approached the job as if he were a fan who became a producer.

The team took a lot of feedback from a committee of gamers who were part of a dedicated Dead Space community. They gave a lot of valuable advice, Duchamp said.

Dead Space’s lighting is pretty awesome.

“With the internet, you obviously can’t please everyone,” he said. “We believe we are still able to deliver something that fans will be passionate about.”

One of the great things the team did was make the movement align with the imagery so that you don’t get seasick while playing the game. I remember that happened to me on the original Dead Space, and it wasn’t fun.

But this remake, which isn’t a remaster, isn’t a bloody mess. It’s going to be a lot of fun for both new and returning players. As for their advice about playing, don’t forget to stomp and you take the enemy down. You get a nice squishy explosion and pick up some loot if you’re lucky.

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