‘Dead Space’ Only Gets Better With Age

EA/Ringer illustration

Dead Space opens with a descent cribbed straight from the annals of Hollywood sci-fi history. The skeletal silhouette of the USG Ishimura—a gigantic mining spacecraft referred to colloquially as a “planet cracker”—looms in the distance as your colleagues, a security officer and a technology specialist, prepare to dock the ship. All of the Ishimura’s lights are out, and the only sound that emanates across the galactic airwaves is garbled static. Within a few moments, you find yourself inside its sleek, retrofuturist lobby, unintentionally quarantined from your team behind reinforced glass. Suddenly, you hear the metallic clanging of something in the vents. Then the lights cut out. You know how this goes; indeed, you have seen this all before. You look on as your colleagues are slaughtered by the abomination that has crawled out from the dark.

This is the paradox that lies at the bloodied heart of Dead Space. How can such an unashamedly derivative game—not only of sci-fi-horror movies Alien and Event Horizon, but also the action-horror video game Resident Evil 4—produce such a gnarly, unforgettable experience? The corridors of its abandoned spaceship are home to many terrors, riddled with groaning monsters called Necromorphs and the reanimated remains of hackneyed horror tropes, but such generic DNA did not hinder Dead Space. At the time of its 2008 release, the game scooped numerous industry prizes, including Action Game of the Year at the prestigious D.I.C.E. Awards. Fourteen years on, the game feels even fresher: a singular slice of sci-fi horror with tunnel vision to match that of its protagonist, the engineer Isaac Clarke. If he is utterly focused on survival, then Dead Space is committed to enveloping you within its dank interiors before unleashing a cavalcade of shocks.

Spend any time perusing the game’s marketing materials or reading interviews with its creative leads, and one word crops up over and over again: “immersion.” Applied to video games, this frequently invoked yet wooly term boils down to the extent to which the player remains engrossed in an experience and the various techniques employed by game makers to do so. Dead Space didn’t exactly innovate in this regard; it used a lot of existing tricks, including—most famously—a diegetic heads-up display, or HUD, that relays key information, such as Clarke’s health, via in-game markers (a health bar is visible on the back of his creepily arched spine, for example). However, Dead Space went the extra mile. The genuinely heart-pounding gameplay is never broken by cut scenes; it is instead presented as a single, continuous take, like 2018’s God of War. Its setting, the Ishimura, carries an unshakeable sense of weight, compounded by the relentless clomping of Isaac’s metal boots, while the sound design is perhaps some of the best ever, with the game’s aural horrors swirling deep inside your ear canals. The overall effect is striking, as if you are being sucked through the television screen, your backside firmly planted on the couch but head positioned inside the virtual world, constantly scanning for threats amid the oil rig–like depths of the Ishimura.

Playing the game as a teenager in 2008, all this felt like the most exhilarating, miraculous thing ever—a grind house–indebted horror game with an almost transcendent sense of place. In the following years, few games adhered to the principle of immersion quite so committedly. Not even 2013’s The Last of Us, the zombie thriller that arguably built on Dead Space’s lessons in both tense combat and a minimal, unobtrusive HUD, went so far. Indeed, after 14 years of so-called “map” games and online multiplayer behemoths—experiences filled with a deluge of non-diegetic information that often points you toward menial busywork—the strengths of Dead Space’s immersion are all the clearer to see. Now, many people play sporadically engaging games alongside second screens and chattering podcasts. This attention-splitting approach is simply not an option in Dead Space, a game that players have sought to make more, not less, immersive.

Electronic Arts

James Tinsdale, creative director of the upcoming sci-fi thriller Fort Solis, who was 18 when the game came out, recalls his time with the game at his parents’ house in Preston, a small city in the north of England. “I just remember playing it in my room with the lights off,” he explains over a video call. “I think it’s one of the only games I’ve ever played where I had to say to myself, ‘I can last an hour before it’s too intense.’ I had to just come off it for a bit.”

For Roman Campos-Oriola, creative director of the Dead Space remake, which released on Friday, Dead Space was a cut above its survival-horror forebears because of how it made him feel. “Prior to Dead Space, the way I was perceiving survival horror, it was more like a movie. You’re watching horrible events unfold on that character, and cinematics are showing you different perspectives,” he says over a video call. “For me, Dead Space is one of the first games in survival horror, even if it was still in third person, that gave me a sense of, ‘No, it’s not your character. It’s actually happening to me while I’m playing the game.’”

Rob Zacny, senior producer at Vice Media’s gaming vertical, Waypoint, didn’t play the game until 2015, having recently moved across the country to work in Los Angeles for Red Bull on its esports program. When he eventually sat down with Dead Space, he made sure the conditions were just right. “I was like, ‘I am going to black out the curtains, turn on the surround sound, and crank it up,’” he tells me over Google Meet. Crucially, Zacny, a journalist who cut his teeth in PC gaming, was playing not with a controller, but a keyboard and mouse plugged into the Corsair Lapdog, a portable auxiliary device that comes with a 16-foot cord and enables latency-free PC gaming. Despite Dead Space’s infamously floaty PC controls, Zacny’s enjoyment wasn’t hampered. “It was absurd and also pretty awesome,” he says. “The atmosphere was so overpowering that the oddness of the medium through which I was playing didn’t really detract from it.”

Zacny, though, for whom “sci-fi space horror is a can’t-miss genre,” held off on playing the game for seven years because, as he recalls, the game was warmly received, but not quite hailed as a classic, at the time of its release. It certainly wasn’t spoken of in the same hallowed tones as one of its biggest influences, 1999’s System Shock 2. While it’s the case that the game received breathless reviews from the specialist gaming press, such as GameSpot (“An incredibly atmospheric and disturbingly gruesome deep-space adventure,” wrote Lark Anderson) and Giant Bomb (“An audiovisual tour de force,” opined Brad Shoemaker), the reaction from mainstream publications was notably mixed. Nate Ralph, writing for Wired, noted, “The production values couldn’t make up for the uninspired gameplay,” while Ben Fritz asserted for Variety that Dead Space was ultimately “more gory than frightening, more technically adept than substantive.”

Dead Space might not have been discussed in the same medium-defining terms as BioShock or The Last of Us, but its reputation has steadily risen (“a sci-fi horror masterpiece,” wrote Andy Kelly for TheGamer in 2021). Like Event Horizon, a movie whose regard has also increased in recent years, Dead Space eventually offers a wrinkle in its familiar space-horror setup. The Church of Unitology that’s revealed to lie at the center of the Necromorphic outbreak pushes the game into both more adventurous and uncomfortably relatable territory. It speaks to a dynamic that was playing out in American politics at the time: the way religious fanaticism can use industrial-strength corporate power to wreak unimaginable havoc. In 2009, a year after the game’s release, the Tea Party movement entered the political scene. In 2023, such depressing dynamics are even more widespread.

In spite of its considerable strengths, commercially, Dead Space (and its two sequels) disappointed by blockbuster standards of the day, selling 1.4 million units by May 2009. “Do I wish it sold more?” mused executive producer Glen Schofield during an interview with GameSpot in 2009. “Absolutely. But the critical acclaim and the number of awards—we’re at 75 and counting now—have made [Dead Space] bigger than just the number of sales.” He’s right. In the intervening years, Dead Space became the standard-bearer of the craft and an artifact of study, particularly for designers looking to push players to the very limit of their tolerance for intensity.

The fact that Dead Space exists at all, let alone that it is enjoying the kind of big-budget remake reserved for only a few venerated titles (distinct, it should be stressed, from remasters or reboots), is a wonder in itself. In November 2005, EA Redwood Shores released the James Bond third-person shooter, From Russia With Love. If you can’t remember it, you’re likely not alone. The game scored middling reviews at the time of its release and is perhaps now most notable for being Sean Connery’s final outing as 007. It was precisely the kind of licensed fodder that EA Redwood Shores was founded to make in 1998, a strategy that allowed its parent company to become one of the world’s wealthiest video game publishers. However, with all this cash came growing resentment from the critics. In a somewhat prophetic review of From Russia With Love for Eurogamer, Tom Bramwell lamented the company’s lack of artistic ambition. “EA has so much money at this point that it’s in a prime position to create games that transcend the supposed barrier between arthouse and cultish gaming trends and commerciality,” he wrote. “Where’s our industry’s Star Wars, Ang Lee’s Hulk, or Pulp Fiction?”

In January 2006, a small team at EA Redwood Shores began work on Dead Space, a game that would go some way toward answering Bramwell’s question. Fifteen of the studio’s brightest developers, led by executive producer Schofield and creative director Bret Robbins, holed themselves up in a room on the fourth floor of EA’s Redwood City headquarters, just 100 feet away from the worldwide executive offices. “[This] only added to the pressure,” art director Ian Milham recalls over Google Meet, stressing the business model of licensed products that the studio then operated by. “It was this sort of simultaneous audience and sword of Damocles right over there. And so a defining attitude of our early team was this game needed to be uncancelably good. The quality of it needed to be on the tin. You couldn’t make promises because we were just deeply skeptical that we were ever going to survive and actually finish this thing.”

That said, Milham tells me the team employed one tactic of smoke and mirrors in order to elevate Dead Space in the minds of EA’s executives during the early stages of development. “It needed to give the impression that it had more momentum and buy-in than it actually did. We started in January, and I think we had posters, promotional material, and calendars to give away by March, when we had no software basically,” he says. “But if you were an executive walking from your office to the elevators and you looked over the top of the cubicles, it looked like a game that had already been approved. That was our goal, that there was signage and posters and all kinds of stuff, because it looked like, ‘Well, you can’t cancel that. It’s already going.’”

Milham’s art direction, a grotty, decidedly low-tech vision of an interstellar future, is central to Dead Space’s success. He drew on medieval gothic architecture such as the Notre Dame to invoke a crushing sense of gravitational weight. As you pan the camera from left to right, pillars and architectural ribbing catch the eye, the game’s stylish (and technologically groundbreaking) lighting nestling within the ship’s many negative spaces. Isaac himself adheres to this visual style, his suit (referred to as Resource Integration Gear, or a RIG) held together with metal ribbing and a patchwork of leather. In an important way, the RIG’s arched spine, which causes the character to hunch forward, became the defining characteristic of the silent part-man, part-machine protagonist. He is simultaneously trapped within the Ishimura’s capitalist labyrinth and his own cramped exoskeleton, brutally disfigured by both the Necromorphs and the very corporation he works for.

Electronic Arts

And yet, Milham explains, this curving motif wasn’t planned. The health bar, a luminescent turquoise, is distinct in color from anything else in the game. In order to allow the player to see it properly, the team made Isaac stand up straight. The problem was he took up too much of the screen. “We had our lead animator make [Isaac] stand up straight but then also get out of the way,” Milham says, arching his own back uncomfortably to illustrate the point. “Everybody was like, ‘Man, he looks like he’s in pain; that doesn’t look natural.’ I don’t know if we just got used to it, or if it kind of fit emotionally, or just became a sort of visual signature, but we never got around to changing it.”

As development rolled on, with Dead Space eventually getting the final green light from EA’s executives in May 2007, the team gradually expanded, growing from its core of 15 to approximately 80. At its peak, the team numbered over 100. Creative director Robbins remembers feeling an acute sense of anxiety during the latter stages of production. He balanced the game primarily on his own, doing so not by using data, but his own intuition, tweaking the health and ammo drops, in-game economy, suit and weapon upgrade systems, enemy health, and weapon damage. Recounting this process over a video call, Robbins describes it as one in which he was “flying by the seat of my pants.” This required him to play the campaign endlessly; no one knew the game better than him.

“I got really worried we had a very short game on our hands. I thought we had a four- or five-, maybe a six-hour game. The reason I thought that was because we all played it knowing exactly what to do, where to go, and none of us played scared,” Robbins says. “When we started focus testing towards the end, I watched people play, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, everyone’s walking. They’re creeping around every corner because they’re scared. Holy shit—we’ve got a nice long game on our hands just by virtue of the way people played.’”

On June 9, 2022, Geoff Keighley hosted Summer Game Fest in Los Angeles. Like the canceled E3 show it replaced, for all intents and purposes, it was a glitzy affair, filled with trailers for a host of big-budget titles. As the dust began to settle on the show, a wave of chatter began to spread across the internet about its contents. The presentation had yielded an in-depth look at not only Schofield’s new game, The Callisto Protocol, but a debut trailer for Tinsdale’s Fort Solis and a new trailer for the long-in-development Routine. Each game seemingly offered its own take on the space-horror formula that Dead Space had arguably mastered all those years before, leading Zacny’s former Waypoint colleague, Austin Walker, to tweet: “Alright what’s going on. What’s in the cultural water right now, pushing us to saturation on abandoned space station horror games?” Kotaku posed a similar question the following month: “Is this upcoming glut of space horror a mere coincidence?” To these titles, one can of course add the actual remake of Dead Space, a game whose marketing perhaps offers a partial answer to such questions: The game is described as “by fans, for fans.”

Influence is of course difficult to quantify, particularly for a game as imitative as Dead Space. It’s not as if there was a string of Dead Space replicas released in the years immediately after 2008. Games that appear to carry some of its influence, such as 2014’s Alien: Isolation and 2017’s Prey, are likely more indebted to space horror’s broader influences, notably the Alien and System Shock franchises (both of which have forthcoming games). Indeed, Zacny suggests that Dead Space wasn’t even that great an influence on its own series, which includes two direct sequels in addition to several spin-offs across consoles, PC, and mobile. “The other games changed quite a bit from the brief of the original,” he says. “I think part of what happens with the series as a whole is EA trying to recalibrate constantly. What makes this formula work? What’s going to make this a bigger series? Because it turns out just making a really good straightforward horror on a spaceship no longer moves the needle as much as it once did.”

In some cases, though, Dead Space did serve as an explicit influence. Alongside Fort Solis’s sci-fi setting, Tinsdale says it employs a single, continuous shot, a nod to the editing techniques pioneered by the 2008 game. He and his team at Fallen Leaf Studio have also spent hours trying to understand the game’s masterful use of sound (“We played it about 20 times,” he says). The developers of 2014’s Alien: Isolation were similarly direct about the influence of Dead Space on this aspect of their game. In an interview with PC Gamer, audio director Jeff van Dyck singled out the way Dead Space’s sound reacts to the player. “They use these things called ‘fear emitters,’” he said. “And they were basically just a point they would put in various parts of the level, and if you walked near that point, the music would cross-fade into tension, and if you moved away, it would be less. Not only were they fixed points in the world, but they would attach that emitter to monsters, especially significant ones. When they got closer to you, the music would amp up.”

Alien: Isolation is the very embodiment of horror’s changing form during the 2010s, a game that fused the blockbuster production values of Dead Space with the tenser, less combat-focused gameplay of the nascent indie-horror scene. The first-person Amnesia: The Dark Descent, released at the start of the decade, features a protagonist that only has the ability to escape monsters rather than fight them. In 2012, Cry of Fear and Slender: The Eight Pages were released, riffing on Dark Descent’s powerlessness, before Outlast arrived in 2013, giving the new style of survival horror a greater degree of graphical polish. Dead Space might conjure an illusion of vulnerability, but Isaac, compared to the characters found in these titles, is a veritable powerhouse. The hide-and-seek encounters of these indie-horror titles fed into Alien: Isolation’s design, which in turn informed the Resident Evil franchise, says Simon Parkin, author of Death by Video Game. It’s such an effective mechanic because it forces a genuine sense of helplessness on the player, Parkin tells me over email. “Dead Space’s more traditional power fantasy design simply couldn’t compete.”

Nathan Hamley, creator of the 2021 indie-horror game Chasing Static and the upcoming Hollowbody, sees the early 2010s as a crucial moment for the shifting horror landscape, a period when low-budget and free indie titles were gaining traction and a new middle ground was on the cusp of forming. “Things have only grown since then,” Hamley says in an email. “Indie horror has carved out its own genre with a huge following thanks in part to the death of AAA horror.” Aside from a few notable blockbuster releases such as The Evil Within and The Evil Within 2, he adds, horror fans for the most part have looked toward indie titles for their fix. YouTubers such as PewDiePie and Markiplier broadcast themselves playing these games to millions of viewers, thus turning horror games into a more communal experience, like that of their cinematic counterparts., The economic rationale of such games, which have comparatively smaller budgets, also resembles horror movies to a great degree, often considered the most financially reliable—though not necessarily the most glamorous or artistically ambitious—genre in Hollywood.

With a reported budget of $161.5 million, The Callisto Protocol, released in December 2022, looked back to the economic model that had brought Dead Space critical, if not roaring, commercial success. However, it was far from the triumphant return that its director, Schofield, might have hoped for. The game was met with a slew of mediocre reviews (its current Metacritic score is 70, representing mixed or average reviews) before it was reported in January 2023 that developer Striking Distance Studios had allegedly omitted some 20 developers from the game’s credits. A few days later, it was reported that Krafton, the holding company that had funded the game, had missed its projected sales target of 5 million copies by over half, causing the company’s share price to tumble by 8.4 percent.

Economics aside, The Callisto Protocol threw into sharp relief precisely what made Dead Space so great. Schofield’s latest game offers brutal melee combat that looks great in videos but is, in reality, rote to play. Dodging attacks amounts to little more than pressing left and right on the left analog stick, challenging little more, Zacny says, than your ability to “remember the cadence.” Compare this with the dismemberment combat of Dead Space, a gimmick that asks you to shoot enemies’ limbs off rather than aim for their heads and gives encounters a thrillingly improvisatory dynamic. Elsewhere, The Callisto Protocol features what looks like a diegetic HUD for its inventory but, as Zacny points out, appears to be projected from a light source that simply does not exist. Lastly, where Dead Space’s Ishimura felt like a consistent space, with Isaac’s exploration given vital context by the map that opened and closed each chapter, the penitentiary found in Schofield’s spiritual successor is an illogical sprawl that “somehow offers a more excessive vision of prison than Batman: Arkham Asylum,” Zacny says. How can one characterize these missteps? To speak the language of the original Dead Space team, to greater and lesser degrees, they break the spell of immersion.

In July 2021, EA announced that its Montreal-based studio, Motive, was developing a remake of Dead Space. According to the accompanying press release, it promises to raise the bar of horror and immersion to “unprecedented heights,” all while improving the “story, characters, gameplay mechanics and more.” What’s striking about the statement is not the content (which hits all of the notes you would expect: “We have a passionate team at Motive who are approaching this remake as a love letter to the franchise”), but the context, which feels eerily familiar to that from which the original Dead Space emerged. Motive, founded in 2015 by Assassin’s Creed cocreator Jade Raymond, has released two games prior to the Dead Space remake, 2017’s Star Wars Battlefront II and 2020’s Star Wars: Squadrons—both licensed titles.

Can lightning strike twice for the Dead Space franchise? On a video call alongside creative director Campos-Oriola, senior producer Philippe Ducharme mentions a tweak to the game: the ability to impale Necromorphs using their own dismembered limbs. It remains to be seen whether this feature, incorporated from Dead Space 2, will aid immersion or perhaps push the game into the realm of action silliness. More broadly, the Ishimura now functions as one unbroken space rather than a series of levels, a change Campos-Oriola says was made with immersion in mind. With backtracking an unavoidable element of such a structure, Motive has developed what it’s calling an “intensity director,” described by senior systems designer Dan Kim as a “content organization, spawning, and pacing control system.” In other words, depending on where you’re located during an intensity cycle, more or less scary stuff will happen. “Each room has a pool of events that can be spawned,” Ducharme explains. “They get built together like Lego kits—light flickering, smoke generating, enemies spawning.” It will be fascinating to see the extent to which a procedural system can deliver, or perhaps, more accurately, enhance, the oppressive atmosphere of the tightly scripted Dead Space original.

An image from the 2023 remake of ‘Dead Space’
Electronic Arts

Resuscitating a franchise for a remake, regardless of the passion involved from those making it, will always feel like more of a calculated business decision than the establishment of risky, new IP. If the central question of the original Dead Space was whether it could transcend its influences, a big question for the remake will be whether it can avoid feeling like a cash-in. You have to imagine the anxieties felt by Campos-Oriola and Ducharme during the run-up to the remake’s release were similar to those Milham experienced as the original neared completion. The original art director admits he was “constantly terrified Dead Space would be perceived as derivative,” that it would fail to rise above its well-trodden influences.

And yet here we are all these years later, talking about Dead Space and the mark it has left. The reality may in fact be that the remake and upcoming spate of space-horror titles have made Dead Space’s influence appear greater than it ultimately is. This is how Zacny sees the game. “Sci-fi horror, in particular, has a problem where it returns almost ritualistically to the same beats,” he says. “Dead Space is just not quite one of those.” In a broader sense, the game, part of the new wave of big-budget titles exploring “cinematic” presentation, went further than most, integrating all the visual information needed to make a game legible, and indeed enjoyable, into its world. Playing the game again now, it’s clear how much Dead Space got right. Few games since have matched its intensity—the way it pulls you into its terror-filled world and never lets you go.

This is the game’s great achievement: that a schlocky third-person space shooter could become one of the most evocative, immersive mood pieces of the past 20 years. Dead Space has not diminished with age, but gotten better. “We tried to kill ’em with craft,” Milham says. “Every bit of cohesion and polish and the elements supporting each other we got in there so that this thing, which is largely familiar, still felt great.

“I’m a big believer that people can feel whether the people making something loved it,” he adds. “We all see people making homages to relatively known things. Look at Rian Johnson with Knives Out. He didn’t invent whodunnits; whodunnits have existed forever. But he loves whodunnits. We were in a similar zone where people can tell that we loved these types of games, we loved all the various elements we were bringing together, and we tried really hard to do a good job. I feel like in an age where things can feel cynical or market-driven, people can tell that Dead Space really wasn’t.”

Lewis Gordon is a writer and journalist living in Glasgow who contributes to outlets including The Verge, Wired, and Vulture.

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