Postmortem: Dead Space
Dead Space was among the most underrated titles of '08. Many writers -- including yours truly -- dismissed it as a little more than a well-made Resident Evil 4 clone in space. But I confess: After I filed my review, I found myself compulsively playing the game. I replayed it a second time on the harder difficulty level. And, as I near the end of my second play-through, I'm feeling like I might even have a third run in me.
"The name is Beaver. Chuck Beaver."
Despite the fact that Dead Space blatantly cribs from every other title in the survival horror genre, the game eventually transcends those tropes and clich?s. It eventually finds its own voice -- that is, if you're willing to listen long enough -- and it blossoms, not unlike the Necromorphs themselves, into something pleasantly -- or rather, unpleasantly -- unexpected.
I gave Chuck Beaver a call. He's the game's senior producer. What follows is a transcription of an audio tape that was found inside the darkest, loneliest, coldest recesses of EA Redwood Shores. Here are Chuck's final words ... before his lunch.
Crispy Gamer: What's with the zombies wearing pants?
Chuck Beaver: [Laughs] Yes, some of them wear pants. That's true.
Crispy Gamer: They have no tops. Yet they have pants.
Beaver: Necromorphs are all dead crew members. So at one point they all had full uniforms on. But when they were transformed, their rib cages split open, and extra limbs grew out of their bodies. The shirts get ripped up and fall off. And whatever isn't torn off of your body tends to stay with you. Thus, the pants.
Crispy Gamer: It's the same explanation they always give for the Hulk. "He suddenly grew, and his shirt went flying off."
Beaver: The Hulk has pants, too, yes.
Crispy Gamer: But then there are some zombies, like the fat ones, that are completely naked.
Beaver: It depends on the transformation. When the fat ones become the fat ones, all of their clothes come off. This is a fascinating conversation so far.
Crispy Gamer: I'm a lot of fun at dinner parties. I have to confess, Dead Space made a terrible first impression on me. I hated all the "Boo!" moments at the beginning. I didn't like "Boo!" moments 12 years ago in Resident Evil; and I really didn't like them in Dead Space. They're so cheap. But then, as the game progresses, there are fewer of them. Something changed for me. That barrier that stands between me playing a game, and me being in the game, it slowly went away. I feel like Dead Space is one of these slow-burn games. It takes awhile to warm up, but once it gets cooking, it really cooks. I wound up liking it a lot.
Beaver: At what point did you start enjoying it?
Crispy Gamer: Probably around the midpoint. I'd leveled up a few of my weapons. I didn't run every time I heard a noise anymore. I felt more confident in the well-being of my avatar. Talk a little bit about why Dead Space might have had this slow-burn effect on me.
Beaver: Making the game difficult to get into definitely wasn't part of the design. But what might cause [the slow-burn effect], at least in some part, is the controller. We have a very full controller. By the game's second level, basically every button on the controller serves an integral purpose. It takes a while to master all that.
The slow-burn, as you call it, might also have something to do with our brand of survival horror mechanics. Because it's a new world, a totally new place, it doesn't easily map onto other experiences you've had. Yes, it's similar to Resident Evil 4. But in our game, enemies constantly surround you; they're coming from 360 degrees. In Resident Evil 4, they're predominantly in front of you. I think that adds another level of helplessness to the proceedings, and makes you feel more underpowered and more vulnerable.
Crispy Gamer: The game opens with an extensive, very filmic cut scene. But then it pretty much ditches cut scenes for the remainder of its duration. And yet the whole production somehow still manages to feel, at least to my mind, very cinematic, very filmic.
Beaver: We made a conscious decision to take out cut scenes. We wanted players to be completely immersed in the game, and to feel connected to the game. Cut scenes, in our opinion, disconnect players from the story; they disconnect you from your belief system. We've created this scary world for you to explore, and we wanted to keep you in that world. So all cinematic staging needed to happen in that world. Messages from other characters are delivered while you're still in the world. The same goes for the heads-up display. We did away with a traditional HUD, and tried to give players all the information they needed on the screen, in a more organic, believable way. Everything is fictionalized and justified within the world.
Another big piece of the storytelling that most gamers aren't aware of is conveyed via set design and set dressing. Every room you walk into is a story. It's been crafted as a story. You see a corpse over there. You think, "OK, they tried to escape through that door. They didn't make it. And they were dragged this way..." We always say that first we had to create a vision of the future; then we had to make it into one big crime scene. [Laughs]
Crispy Gamer: You removed the cut scenes, but you left in other old-school tropes like distinct chapters and traditional load screens.
Beaver: We actually have the technology to do the entire game without any load screens. We could have done it as one continuous, streaming experience. But we made the decision to do it as a series of chapters. Dead Space is a very intense game. We thought that people would want to get to the end of a chapter and feel a sense of accomplishment. Chapters are the player's chance to feel this sense of accomplishment. They go, "Whew, I made it through Chapter One. I survived." People need psychological breaks in this kind of game.
Crispy Gamer: One more old-school trope that the development team saw fit to include: level-ending boss battles. The fact that the game ends with a very traditional final boss fight was kind of a letdown to me. Even though EA probably would have fired all of you, wouldn't it have been more interesting to have the game end on a more non-traditional, ambiguous note?
Beaver: The question for us was, "How do we end an epic game? Will this or that be satisfying to gamers?" I understand what you're saying. But you can't have an arty, film-noir ending. We wanted to have a traditional big boss at the end. It's hard to know where [the medium] is trying to go these days. There are a lot of big bosses, and these big, epic action scenes. More powerful technology obviously supports more epic scenes of this nature. So there's a temptation to go big. But what we wanted to do in the game's final moments was find our own unique crescendo.
Crispy Gamer: All we ever really see of Isaac (the main character) is the back of his head, and a little wedge of his hairless neck. Why so?
Beaver: We wanted to keep him as a proxy, an avatar, for the player to map himself onto. If [Isaac] decided to speak, it might disturb the fantasy you have going on in your head. He was intended to be a nice, blank canvas for gamers to paint on.
Early design art shows a trio of enemies that eventually got cut from the final game: the three women from Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" video.
Crispy Gamer: Were there any monsters that didn't make it into the game? Anything where you guys thought, "OK, now we've crossed a line. That's too gross."
Beaver: [Laughs] Well, that's interesting. To paraphrase Glen Schofield [the game's executive producer], enemies weren't gross enough, in his opinion. He had a few other ones that he'd cooked up in his mind. He had all kinds of disturbing ideas that didn't make it into the game. He wanted blood to come out of candy bars, and things like that.
Crispy Gamer: Remind me to never go camping with Glen.
Beaver: [Laughs] Exactly.
Crispy Gamer: I had issues with the Locator. Press the right analog stick in and voil?, a magical blue line appears on the floor, telling me exactly where to go next. Here you've created this incredible environment -- this haunted spaceship -- and then you decide that instead of encouraging me to explore it, you are simply going to lead me by the nose through it.
Beaver: We wrestled with this a lot. We tried a more traditional floating arrow to keep players on track. But we wound up settling on the Locator. Considering that we live in the age of GPS systems and Google Maps, it felt like a nice futurism to us.
But I agree; we created this great world. Why are we pulling people through it? In its defense, you'll notice that the Locator can only be activated if you're standing still. And as soon as you let off on the right analog stick, it immediately goes off. That way, you can click it, you get your hint, and then you move on.
Crispy Gamer: That's true; it's ephemeral. And, I guess, if there's one thing I like less than being led by the nose through a game, it's being completely lost in a game.
Survival horror is a strange genre. Survival horror games are never pleasant; at least, not in a traditional this-is-so-fun kind of way. They're basically one long miserable plight that you hope to get through. Yet the net result afterward, the takeaway feeling, should be, "I had fun." As first-time developers of a survival horror game, how do you reconcile those disparate pieces?
Beaver: Most videogames are straight-up fantasy fulfillment. Look at Gears of War. It's male fantasy fulfillment. It's a high-testosterone, kick-ass world where you're supposed to be super-successful, and enjoy this great power ride.
But you're right; survival horror is strange. There are no big guns. You're not a Marine. The fantasy fulfillment in survival horror, I think, comes from being a normal person surviving. You survive as you. That's the takeaway. That's why we play them.
Crispy Gamer: The soundtrack is arguably the very best part of the game. Even when I didn't see any monsters for 10 minutes, I still had this palpable feeling that something was in the walls all around me, plotting my demise. The tension is always there; it doesn't let up thanks to the soundtrack. But the real achievement, of course, is the use of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."
Beaver: ["Twinkle"] was a total lightning-in-a-bottle moment. Glen said, "Hey, we should do a lullaby song, something really creepy." And someone immediately says, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," and it just went from there. Everyone was so excited by that song. And there are a whole bunch of lesser-known verses that are awesome, and bizarrely applicable to what we were doing.
Crispy Gamer: Were other songs considered? "Frère Jacques?" "She'll Be Coming Around The Mountain?" "Puff the Magic Dragon?"
Beaver: [Laughs] No. We pretty much settled on "Twinkle," and that was the end of it. [Minor spoiler alert] And then the song actually made it into the game.
Crispy Gamer: I know! I'm wandering around the ship, and suddenly it starts coming from ... somewhere. It's like those cruise ships, where no matter where you are on board, the same song is always playing from hidden speakers.
Beaver: It's so twisted.
Crispy Gamer: Review scores for the game were decent, but not exactly stellar. And sales figures for Dead Space have been on the low end of the spectrum. As a development team, how do you guys process this news?
Beaver: We do read every review that was published. We absorb that data. We wanted to hear what people had to say. You know, honestly, we were pleasantly surprised. Most of the reviews were pretty good. We got a lot of high 80s, and some 90s. We included in some top-five and top-10 lists. We were generally happy with the critical reception the game got.
As for sales, honestly, could we have a picked a worse time to release the game? The economy is tanking. And the competition this fall was bizarrely strong. We were up against Fallout 3, Gears of War 2 and Resistance 2. Those are games that gamers have to buy. So, after buying those games, I'm guessing not a lot of people had much money left over.
Crispy Gamer: All the games you mentioned are sequels. Dead Space is an original IP. It deserves credit, to my mind, for offering something new and different. And I think a lot of critics -- and consumers -- might have felt the way I did, that the game doesn't make the greatest first-impression, but gets better the deeper you dig into the game.
Beaver: Let's hope it's a late-bloomer.
Crispy Gamer: And the sequel?
Beaver: We'll see. I hope so.
Crispy Gamer: One last question: Is "Chuck Beaver" your real name?
Beaver: [Laughs] Everyone always asks that. Whenever I read anything about me, or anyone quotes me, they always have to have the words "real name" in parentheses after it.