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 Dead Space 2 's Bagwell On 'Disempowerment,' Engineering Fear

Dead Space 2's Bagwell On 'Disempowerment,' Engineering Fear

January 24, 2011 | By Staff

January 24, 2011 | By Staff
More: Console/PC, Design

When creating the brand new sci-fi horror game Dead Space for 2008, Electronic Arts' Redwood Shores Studio knew if its game were to be held in high regard among horror fans, it'd have to be frightening.

But engineering fright is a challenge in video games. One common method for instilling fear in players is limiting a player's mobility in the face of gruesome enemies, exemplified in Capcom's seminal survival horror franchise Resident Evil.

That player "disempowerment" could involve limiting the effectiveness of ammunition, or more drastically, creating an overarching control scheme that puts a cap on a player's abilities -- such as not allowing a player walk or run while shooting a gun.

"I sort of disempowered the player in Dead Space, giving him very limited resources," explained Wright Bagwell in a new Gamasutra feature interview. Bagwell is creative director at Visceral Games (formerly EA Redwood Shores) on Dead Space 2, and was senior gameplay designer on the original.

For him, player disempowerment is effective to a certain extent in survival horror action games, but that method becomes a problem when a player feels helpless.

"There's an interesting story from Dead Space and Dead Space 2, which is that when we started building Dead Space, we basically started with a mechanic set that was really similar to Resident Evil 4," Bagwell said. "The [people on the] team were really huge fans of that game."

"We kind of started -- we had never made a survival horror game -- by saying, 'Well, I think in order to scare the player, you really need to sort of cap how much control the player can have.' So in RE4 and a lot of those survival horror games, they all have these pretty clunky control schemes that don't let you do all the things that you can do in most other shooters, for example."

Therefore, the original Dead Space team decided to ape previous survival horror games by limiting player movement, in order to create a sense of fright in players, even as focus groups complained about the gameplay. "We were kind of like, 'Well, but, you know, that's just kind of what we have to do [to make it scary].'"

But the team then decided to listen to its focus testers. "Eventually we got kind of tired of hearing people complain about it, and we said, 'Hey, we should be trying to scare players by doing things that are actually kind of scary rather than making them just feel helpless.'"

Bagwell continued, "We turned up the speed that [the character] rotates. And we turned up the speed that you could run and things like that. ... What we found is that as long as we focused on making the game really atmospheric and putting you in freaky situations and getting the timing of everything right, you didn't really have to disempower the player that much in order to scare him. ... that's the direction we went with Dead Space 2 as well."

For fascinating insight on Visceral Games' pursuit of fear in interactive entertainment, and how big-budget games like Dead Space 2 relate to other survival horror efforts like Amnesia and Fatal Frame, read the full Gamasutra feature, available now.

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