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The New Theory Of Horror: Dead Space 2's Creative Director Speaks
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The New Theory Of Horror: Dead Space 2's Creative Director Speaks

January 24, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 5 Next

Can you describe at Visceral -- is there a method in which the team tries to engineer fright in a video game?

WB: There is a couple of things that we do. What we try to do first at the start is write a story that puts you into some pretty terrifying situations. That's the first step. And I think it's just a start. It's pretty hard to get at that level that's really terrifying. But then what we do is we usually go -- and after we've thought about the story and how do we break the chapters down -- we actually have a guy on the team we called a horror producer. So, that was Rich Briggs.

He's been with the franchise basically from the start. It was his job to basically go through the game, figure out where the moments where the team would really focus on to try to create something really memorable. Throughout the whole game, there's atmosphere and there's blood, and there are guys popping out of vents and things like that and trying to scare you.

There were moments where we really wanted to make feel special and moments that we knew we had to get the whole team involved because it was going to take special effects and music and lighting and all these kinds of things.

It was his job to go in and work with me and a few other guys on the team, the art director, our production designer, and the level designers to coordinate, to make sure everything all came together.

That was really the methodology, going through and finding these spaces that were really good opportunities because the story called for it or because it was going to need a new enemy introduced or because somebody just had a random really good idea like "Oh, hey, what if we had this happen in this room?"

Beyond that, what we also did is we tried to get the whole team involved in the idea. We tried to get the whole team involved so that we can really leverage some simple ideas that we weren't really thinking about.

What we did is we actually had this little horror contest [within Visceral]. People just wrote up ideas and sent them to the leadership of the team. And some of the best ideas that we had in Dead Space 1 and Dead Space 2 came from artists, level designers, sound effects guys, all kinds of different people on the team who had good ideas for little moments, just small little simple things that were interesting horror moments.

When it comes down to how we engineer the horror... after we came up with some ideas that we thought would be good, it's actually really, really hard to get the horror in early, to get the tension in early.

When we first started coming up with these ideas, we put them in the game, and typically, the first pass we take at them is pretty comical. You know, like a level designer will go in and say, "Okay, well, we want to have this thing happen right here." So, you know, the room's not lit yet, and we don't have the sound effects for it yet, and we might not have an animation for some things. You walk in, "Oo", a little guy pops up and jumps out at you or something.

Or you come in, and [the designer says,] "Okay, when you come into this room, you're going to hear this banging sound, and there's going to be a light flashing in the corner, and we're going to try to lure the player over because his eyes are going to be drawn to the flashing light or the sound of the thing or the spinning thing in the room.

And then right when he's walking over to it and he's looking at this thing that we're baiting him with, we'll hit him from the side, or we'll reveal it to be something else." We built those, and they're really, really crude at the start. Inevitably, every time we look at this, we were just like, "Really? That's how we're going to scare people?" [laughs]

It takes a lot of time because first we sort of have to get the timing right. We have to go through them and make sure they're the right size and shape. Make sure there's nothing else going on. We have to make sure that, for example, it's not likely that you would be engaged in combat while we're trying to do something else.

Or we have to make it so that it's very unlikely that an enemy might chase you [to an atmospheric fright moment], or that [the player] might run past a fight and walk into this setup that's supposed to be atmospheric, while you're firing your guns and enemies are screaming and jumping at you and that kind of thing.

Once we get the sort of space and the timing and that sort of mechanical stuff out of the way, really, it's actually a very long process because we have to start getting the lighting just right. We have to take a lot of care to make sure that there's not a lot of other things that might be happening that could spoil it, like audio logs placed in the room or, for example, oftentimes level designers go in and sometimes forget that they're trying to get some good atmosphere, good tension in a room, and they start placing pick-ups in a room.

You know, you're walking around a room. [Designers] are hoping you're going to be scared, and instead players are running around the room like, "Aw yeah, cool, look at all these pick-ups!" They're smashing boxes and picking stuff up. That spoils it. So we keep trying to remove stuff, and eventually the last thing that happens is the sound effects guys go in and tune the music and get the right sound effects.

And what we've found is that the game is basically almost never scary until the very, very end. This happened on Dead Space 1 and Dead Space 2, where I was playing the game and I was just like, "Ah, man. This is not going to scare anybody. We've got to do better than this." And inevitably, one the sound guys go in, and they're the last guys to touch the game, they're the last guys to touch a level... They go in and they layer in sounds, and it just makes a world of difference.

In fact, I can tell you on Dead Space 2, when we went beta, I was playing through the game, and I was really, really impressed with it. I was super happy with what the team accomplished. But as I said, the sound guys are usually the last guys to go through a game. And about two weeks after we hit beta, they had done their final pass on audio through the game, and I played it again after they did that, and it was like a whole new game. It was twice as good.

We found that so much of it requires getting the designers especially to coordinate to make sure that there aren't other things going on. Typically, we find that after we design a level on paper and we build it, it's usually a process of pulling things out rather than putting things in to make them better.

We found that in Dead Space, less is more. We always overestimate how much combat to put in. We always overestimate how many pick-ups you need to put in a world and that kind of thing. Every time we build a level, we have to keep learning the same lessons. We put all the stuff in, and then as the sound effects go in and we get all those moments with a fine tune, we keep pulling more and more stuff out.

Getting silence in a game is what we find sort of the best thing in terms of getting the Dead Space experience. We're constantly finding that long periods of silence work really well for us, which is great, because that's relatively easy to do.

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