Interview / Dead Space creative director Bret Robbins

In the past two days I can almost guarantee that my life was significantly better than yours. Why? Because I was at EA’s offices outside of San Francisco eating, drinking and, most importantly, playing their upcoming science fiction survival horror game Dead Space. All this was part of the game’s Community Day that a few web sites and Dead Space community members had the privilege of attending. I’ll be bringing you plenty of news (and some random other stuff) from the day but I figured we should kick it off with a 1-on-1 interview with the game’s creative director, Bret Robbins.

After getting some hands-on time with the game, some of which I can’t even talk about for a while, and also learning more about the universe than I could ever have hoped, I sat down with Robbins to dig through some questions about Dead Space and how it came to be. One of the more interesting aspects of Dead Space is the fact that its world is being developed beyond just the game into a comic book and an animated film, which are both acting as prequels to the game. More interesting than that though is that the entire game is based around dismembering the enemies. Read on to find out how that idea even came to be and a bit about a possible Dead Space movie.

Matthew Razak (TVGB): One of the things that I’m most intrigued by is the ventilation system in the game and the fact that the bad guys can use that to get around. I was playing one level and saw a bad guy a distance off, turned to kill another one, then went to look for that one and he was gone. Then suddenly, BAM, he appears out of a vent next to me. Talk about where that idea came from and was it tricky planning an entire ventilation system for the ship?

Bret Robins (BR): It came about because we wanted to make a game where there wasn’t really any time where you necessarily felt safe, and we wanted to make sure the enemies could get to you one way or another. So if you had closed a door behind you, if you had gone up a lift to a higher floor or something like that, we wanted them to be able to follow you. But to have them animated to do all that – like climbing ladders and crashing open doors – was one way to do things but we came up with this vent system instead, where they could always pop out. We realized that creatures popping out of nowhere is of course scary, so to have an emergent system where it could do that at anytime, it is a kind of emergent scare where they can pop in and attack you at any time. It’s a really cool idea. So we were talking about it and we prototyped a white box room where we just put a bunch of vents and the engineers worked at it and we saw it happening and thought, “Oh my god, that’s totally cool we gotta do that.”

Now what was funny about it was that we had already finished one of the levels of the game at that point that didn’t have the system so we had to do a whole retro fit. You know, punch vents into walls and make it work and then extend it across all the levels. One of the rules for making the game was that we had to make sure there were vents or a ledge or something an enemy can follow you on. Then once we did that we had to do some tech stuff like how fast they scurry and add sounds so you can actually hear them in the walls. It’s a really cool system that you might not notice at first but as you get into the game you realize they’re using it everywhere.

TVGB: You talk about making it constantly scary. If you play something like RE and you play through it once then you know the cues and it loses its scare factor. Has it been challenging coming up with ways, like the vents, where the scares aren’t cued?

BR: It is hard actually. The thing about doing horror, it’s kind of like doing comedy. You can’t tell a joke twice; you can’t do a scare twice, really. Now in a horror movie you’ve got an hour and a half or two hours to kind of do that, but with a game you’ve got 15 hours of gameplay so we have to keep it scary for a longer time. Part of that is trying to keep the scares going by being really immersive in the world, but then there’s a lot of moments put into making particular moments in areas really, really scary. We had to work on different types of horror and couldn’t just have them jump out at you every time, it couldn’t just be things popping out of a closet.

We tried to come up with situations where we increased the foreshadowing of something scary. We’ll shut the lights down or you’ll hear things scurrying around and it’s to make you anxious about it and wonder what is going to happen, and sometimes maybe nothing happens and then other times something horrible happens. Also, doing things where you’ll, say, see something horrible up ahead and you know you have to walk into it so you get this feeling of, “Shit, I gotta walk into this.” So it’s not just doing shock for scares, we really had to learn how to do tension and foreshadowing, kind of slower more drawn out horror moments. It was a real learning experience but I think we got some fantastic moments.

TVGB: You talked about it earlier in the event, about taking the game third-person but keeping cut scenes out and keeping everything in-game. You showed that Isaac will sort of react to scary things, but is he going to react in a conversation or if something terrible happens in front of him and what are the problems when you do stuff like that in third-person?

BR: There is stuff like that in the game but there was also a strong desire, definitely on my part, to have the player kind of become Isaac, to have him be the avatar for what they’re experiencing. Like I said in my presentation, first-person games don’t have this problem because you are the camera. So it gets more challenging because it’s third-person.

That said, I didn’t want to be playing the game and then suddenly he does something out of character from what you’re feeling. So I’d rather have the player sitting on the couch playing the game react to something he feels, and he doesn’t need Isaac to do something totally different and kind of spoil the mood. It’s kind of like when you’re playing a game and the character’s voice just sounds totally wrong to you, and I didn’t want to do that so we kind of took the more Half-Life approach of him not talking. He does react to situations and things that happen and he’s definitely a full fledged character, but I didn’t want to interrupt that immersion. I wanted the player to embody him so it was hard and it was a fine line, but I think it turned out really well. You’re not ever interrupted from the experience.

TVGB: Now is that one of the reasons you decided to put the helmet on him or was that character design before that?

BR: [Full answer shortened because of aspects we’re not allowed to talk about. Embargos suck.] The helmet came in at a couple different points. One, we knew we were going to do airless environments because we had a science fiction space game and we couldn’t just give him a little face mask or something. We needed to have the full helmet so he could survive in a vacuum. That was kind of the primary reason, but, yes it was a bit of that too.