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Dead Space represents a lot of things to the "new Electronic Arts" forged by CEO John Riccitello and the legions of developers at the company. It's an original IP, an M-rated horror game, and one of the more original and promising games to come out of its Redwood Shores studio, since the company announced its renewed focus on core creativity and risk-taking in development.
But there's more to it than that. In this interview, Chuck Beaver, the game's senior producer, discusses the team's impetus to push boundaries with this project from the get-go, and not just in terms of the goriness of the game's content.
Beaver, who previously worked on more than one of the company's James Bond 007 licensed games, discusses how the team's newfound freedom from restraint allowed it to pursue a singular creative vision.
Beaver also speaks passionately about the need to develop a meaningful vocabulary for discussing game mechanics, so production can match up to the general standards of Hollywood -- though, by his reckoning, games surpass movies in complexity.
He, too, explains how the decisions -- such as having no cutscenes -- made at the start of the project drove the direction of the game, and how capturing the "lightning in a bottle" in a creative environment is vastly superior to the highly codified design of yesterday.
How did this project start?
CB: Well, our executive producer, Glen Schofield, had a vision for a really gory science-fiction-horror genre game, that he was dying to make, and what you're seeing is almost what we laid out, three years ago. The whole idea, the skeleton of the idea, is exactly what we wanted to do, so...
There are some games I look at, and it's like, "This is a game that's trying to be a specific genre," and I look at some games, and go, "This is a game that's trying to fulfill certain principles," and your game seems like one of those. You've got this full-on, no cutscenes, in-game storytelling, with no intrusive UI. Were those all conscious decisions on your part?
CB: Yeah. For survival horror, in that genre we're trying to keep you scared, and apprehensive, and all those things. The market has changed a lot, to where you can't really have people too sluggish, and the controls can't be molasses controls.
So when our character became more responsive, and a little more quick, we had to do everything else to keep him underpowered; which is to make there be no cutscenes -- so that you're immersed all the time.
And we had to make the pause not be in the inventory system -- though of course you can pause the game. But you can't have the inventory system where the game magically stops and you go into the inventory system and do all this magic with combining herbs and changing your weapons and getting your ammo fixed up, and then the next frame of the game you're magically back, all powered up and ready to go.
So that's actually a huge strategic change from what we're used to, and so the game is very real all the time. That lethal pressure keeps you very apprehensive throughout the game.
It's funny, because Valve did the no cutscene thing in 1998, but since then, honestly, almost no one has, except for Valve. There are very few examples. What are your thoughts on that whole philosophy?
CB: Yeah. That's a good point, because we consider that, really, a superior design ethos to tackle, and they do a really great job about it. When we started out designing our game, it was like, "You know... Let's do that. It's really, really hard, but let's do it." So we tried it, and we stuck with it -- and the reason people don't do it is, it's really hard! (laughs)
Ken Levine said that anyone can write a 20-minute cutscene.
CB: Yeah, it's true! It's really true, because it's so much easier when you have control of the camera, you have control of the characters, there's no one running around with a controller in their hand, mucking up all of your ideas and what you're trying to point at. You'd be amazed at how much it impacts the storytelling, when you don't have control over everything.
So the craft that it takes to get the story to happen in someone's unpredictable interactive space is through the roof, right? We knew it was going to be hard, and it was even harder than we thought -- so now we get why people aren't doing that. But we tackled it, and we tried to make it happen, and so far we've been successful, so...
And you've got the whole audio/video log thing, too?
CB: Yeah, absolutely. So, the story is told, like I said, through the scripted events -- things you see in the game. The rest of the story is told through the characters whom you came with, and you're separated from, and they're talking to you through video logs, and audio logs. You pick up video logs and audio logs from the crew, so that you get a sense of what's been happening before you got here; there are also text logs in the game.
The environment art is a huge way that we found to communicate what's been happening, because you'll walk into a room and go, "How did it -- ?!" because it's like a macabre crime scene, right? Everything that's there tells you what happened: the scrawling of graffiti on the walls, the bodies were placed in certain ways. So the whole story is told through these different channels.
Again, going back to Valve, one of the things they've talked about before is trying to draw your attention, almost the way that a movie director draws your eye within a frame. Taking that philosophy ends up affecting your level design, because you have to construct things in such a way that the player is drawn to certain things.
CB: I'd say that it more than affects level design, it actually drives the level design; the line-of-sight considerations, and the misdirection. In our case, where Valve maybe was trying to direct you to look at something and pay attention -- "Here! I'm telling you stuff!" -- for survival horror, it's all about the unpredictability and misdirection.
And so we have the same tool, but it's applied to elicit different meanings. So we're always trying to say, "Look over here... HAH! Got you from the side!" You can only do that so many times, so you have to keep it fresh, over however many hours the gameplay is going to be; you've got to find ways to stay unpredictable.
Not just monster closets.
CB: You can't just have a guy all, "Rahr! Rahr!" all the time, coming up out of the side: you've got to have unpredictability that is a function of this pattern you set up, and then break, and then another pattern you set up, and then break. So...