One of the biggest problems with the visual design of the original Dead Space was that everything felt too visually similar, said, Ian Milham, art director at EA Redwood Shores. “We were trying to invent this new world, and invent this new look,” he said, a lot of which came from gothic architecture. “You look at them and you really know how they’re held up.”
“But some of those decisions we made had some unexpected consequences,” said Milham. They did their job too well, and it wound up too cohesive, to the point of looking samey. By the same token, the player Character had five suits, and even though they were all built from scratch, it just looked like they added some extra bits to each new one.
Another problem was the fact that the main character didn’t talk. “That worked, and some people enjoyed the loneliness of the experience,” he said. But when the main character has a guy speaking to him telling him were to go, at a certain point the player would want to talk back, because this guy is just jerking him around. That lead to an emotional disconnect from the character.
“It was trying to be a horror game so much, and we were effective at it,” said Milham, “but we kept hitting people with the same tricks. It was so constantly tense, that it stopped being effective. People said ‘I really want to play the game, but I kind of want to have fun tonight. This is like work!’”
The key words for Dead Space were accessible, believable, relatable, and immersive. For DS 2, they added the words variety, memorability, and character.
To add variety to the environments and emotional tone, they created a level-by-level color guide. But not just on a level-by-level basis, they also moved contrast and saturation up and down moment to moment.
The team also did a lot more with environmental storytelling, introducing and reinforcing ideas via posters and objects in the world. For example when your objective was to get to a transport station, they started showing the player ticketing machines, then advertisements, then at a certain point huge billboards about the transport center.
As an extra trick, “Once you’ve gotten people to care about your world, and then you add some weird shit, people will assume there’s something really big behind it,” he said. They included signs and posters for something called “Peng” that don’t mean anything, they’re just there and weird, but people associate something interesting with it.
In terms of enemy characters, the team decided to make them more readable as former humans, which is much scarier. As Milham says, it gives you a “Holy shit, what happened to that guy?” moment. “One part bit us in the ass, though,” he said. These new enemy characters were recognizable. “Problem is, this philosophy doesn’t go well with large numbers. If you put 10-20 of them in, it ruins the believability.”
You’ve got to add something sticky, he says. Epic moments in games add memorability, they’re trailer fodder, and make great demo punctuation. “Once they have an opinion formed, [people] tend to pay attention to evidence that supports opinions they already have.” To this end, you should set peoples’ opinions. One good area is “how round are the things?” he says. “Round things they really judge. We’re not going to put many round things in the game, but when we do, holy shit are they going to be round.
Milham showed a screenshot from the opening, with some very round objects, which players associate with high fidelity. He then demonstrated a couple scenes in which a human transformed into a monster, and a room decompressed. Both were extra high fidelity. “The idea there is not that different from the round stuff,” he said. “Not only are those moments supposedly high fidelity and cool, they’re both versions of common events of the game. Transformations of humans happen all the time, and decompressions happen all the time.”
In the first instance of each of these, they can make it huge. “You’ll hopefully bring the emotional memory of the first one, along [later when the fidelity is lower]. You’ll hopefully feel it’s more detailed than it was.” Ultimately, Milham feels the art in Dead Space 2 succeeded because, “We doubled down on our strengths instead of addressing our weaknesses,” meaning they improved good things, and cut weaker stuff entirely.