Dead Space 3 producer John Calhoun interview
In Visceral Games’ Dead Space 3, franchise hero Isaac Clarke and partner John Carver journey across space to discover the source of the Necromorph outbreak.
The game is primarily set on the frozen planet of Tau Volantis, a hostile natural environment that holds the key to ending the Necromorph plague forever.
EA has been heavily promoting the game since unveiling it at last year’s E3, but some fans have expressed distaste at a perceived change of direction in the series.
Recently I had a chat with Dead Space 3 producer John Calhoun about the game’s new monsters, new weapons, new environments and what he thinks of the negative feedback.
The first two Dead Space games earned a lot of fans, partly because they were so terrifying. Dead Space 3 looks like the focus has moved somewhat from horror to action, but is it still a scary game?
Yeah. There's still going to be periods of long tension, there will be dread and psychological terror. People think we're leaning a lot more into the action genre with it because that's what we've been showing off publically. In the demo we're trying to show all the things that are new. If we had a demo that was just walking through a claustrophobic corridor for thirty minutes with no enemies but just great sound design and atmosphere, it wouldn't be a very successful demo. When you play the full game, you'll see the original Dead Space DNA is still very much there. The team that made it is the same team that made the first two games and we're the biggest Dead Space fans around. We'd never allow anything to change the core aspects of the game.
Dead Space 3 screenshot
How do you keep things scary in co-op mode?
We're adding a new element of horror which we're calling A-symmetrical dementia. In co-op, players will experience reality differently. For example, Carver might hear a voice behind a doorway, and say 'we have to go rescue that person'. But Isaac will say 'I don't hear anybody - are you feeling OK?' When these moments occur, you realise you're experiencing the world in two different ways. You're working toward a goal which is The Marker, a large, obelisk-like artefact where the Necromorphs are created in the first place. It also induces dementia and hallucinations and the closer you get to it, the crazier Isaac or Carver will become. So you can't really trust your friend online and it's a great way to create suspense and terror. You can't see what your partner is seeing, you can only rely on what they're telling you. The terror is taking place in your imagination as much as it is on-screen.
How big is the game compared to the first two?
Roughly it's about twice as long as Dead Space 2. That's partly because we've gotten better at making Dead Space games, we know how to build our environments and enemies now. We've also gone much deeper into optional content. There's a lot more places to explore, like Tau Volantis the icy planet. We also have a flotilla of derelict ships and a couple of surprises that people aren't expecting and we hope they really like. No matter where you are in the game, be it an abandoned barracks or an entire spaceship or a cave off the beaten path, you'll be rewarded both fictionally and with upgrades. You can still rush through the game as quickly as possible, but if you're an explorer the game can be really long.
Dead Space 3 producer John Calhoun
What can you tell me about some of the new monsters in Dead Space 3?
There’s the snow beast that is in our downloadable demo. I can’t reveal if he’s a Necromorph or just indigenous to the planet, but he’s a massive creature that Isaac will face a couple of times throughout the game. Another creature we’ve added that is one of my favourites is the Feeder. They’re these small, humanoid like Necromorphs who are attracted to light and sound. We put them in really dark places and if you aim your gun at them, the flashlight on your gun is going to make them attack you. If you attack them head on, you’ll face a pack of them. So you can try and sneak past them, not making any sound or flashing any lights.
Dead Space 3 screenshot
There’s a new weapon crafting system in Dead Space 3. Do all the new weapons stick to the dismemberment focus of the weapons in the previous two games?
Many of the weapons do, but not all of them. We wanted to create more ways to play, so we added area-of-effect weapons, concussive weapons, explosive weapons and things that can be laid as traps. That’s maybe about 30 percent of the weapons, most of them are still focussed on strategic dismemberment.
Do you have a personal favourite weapon in Dead Space 3?
It’s something we discovered quite late in the weapon-crafting process because nobody actually bothered to make it, but it’s a suspended ripper with an electrical after-touch. So you have this buzz-saw blade hovering in front of you that can cut down the Necromorphs, but with the touch of a button it can rain down electrical sparks about 3m in all directions. So anything that has been knocked down or cut down, but is still coming at you – this is Dead Space after all – they get electrified and fried. It’s a crazy weapon and I love playing with it.
We've seen some big open spaces in early looks at the game. How have they affected the gameplay?
It’s allowed us to build different types of Necromorphs that we’ve never built before. The Necromorphs in the previous two games popped out of vents, allowing us to give a lot of jump-scares. But in an organic environment like Tau Volantis there are no vents, so we had to think of new ways to introduce Necromorphs and new ways to scare the player. So we’re using things like blizzards and darkness with a day/night cycle. Sometimes you’ll be walking around with the sun really high in the sky, reflecting off the snow and blinding you. Or you may be able to see for miles in one direction, then a blizzard will come and that will almost blind you. The conditions are really hostile. You’ll be able to hear Necromorphs in the distance, they can see you but you can’t see them. That feeling of being alone in the wilderness with no place to hide, it’s a great new way to create tension for the player.
Dead Space 3 art
There's been some negative feedback following the demo and promotional material for Dead Space 3. What would you say to fans who don’t like the look of it?
Here’s what I’d like to say to people chattering on the internet: The team that made Dead Space 3 is the same team that made the first two games. No matter how big a fan you think you are of the franchise, the truth is that we as a development team are the game’s biggest fans. No-one loves the franchise more than we do. We will not do anything to change what it means to be a Dead Space game. The DNA of Dead Space and Dead Space 2 is alive and well in this game. Dead Space 3 is just such a big game, we can afford to have 30 – 45 minutes of high action, but believe me, we follow it up with just as much dread and creeping suspense. You can’t summarise a game this big in a ten minute downloadable demo or a 90 second trailer on YouTube. My advice to everyone out there is play the game for yourself, drive Isaac and Carver through this adventure and you will see that Dead Space 3 is just as strong as either of the past games.
When you mention a snowy environment in the context of the horror genre, most fans will immediately think of The Thing. Was that film an inspiration?
As a team we watched John Carpenter’s The Thing. What was cool is team members from different disciplines took different things from that movie. Our designers viewed it as a monster movie, they talked about how grotesque and quick the creature in it was. But our story producer, he saw The Thing as being about inter-personal drama – not being able to trust people, not knowing who your enemy is and so on. Our writers saw The Thing as an example of how day and night contrast so strongly in a snowy environment. Our team got so much out of that film and yeah, we tried to put all those influences into the game.
Dead Space 3 screenshot
The reboot of The Thing was not so great and horror movie sequels rarely are by the time they get to part three. Were you worried that Dead Space 3 might suffer in the same way The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 did?
Unlike movies, it’s a lot easier to innovate in videogames. We invent new technology every time we release a game, but they don’t reinvent cameras every time a movie sequel is made. We’re trying new things to try and make sure we’re not just becoming more gratuitously violent or silly with our sequels.
Co-op games tend to be really good in co-op mode and not so good in single-player mode, or vice versa. How have you tried to make sure the game works well in both modes?
The main thing for us was to not build a separate co-op mode. Some games in the past have tripped up by making a great single-player campaign with a separate co-op mode that can feel disconnected or divorced from the main game. In Dead Space 3 we decided we had such a good, long story, we want players to experience it however they choose to play. We developed a technology that allows the game’s story to adjust dynamically to whether or not there’s a second player. In single-player, Isaac won’t talk much, the gameplay is suited more for solo play. Then if another player joins in, Isaac has someone to bounce ideas off and will talk a lot more. The cut-scenes adjust as well to include the second character. And the gameplay becomes harder, so that you’re not overpowering the Necromorphs. Then if the second player leaves, the game adjusts back to single-player without resetting itself.
It’s been reported that EA wants to boost sales of the franchise dramatically with Dead Space 3. How do you strike a balance between making a great first Dead Space game for all the newbies who jump into this as their first taste of the franchise, as well as pleasing fans who have supported it since the first game?
It was a big challenge. One way we’re welcoming new-comers is by having a ‘previously on Dead Space’ video that’ll play when you hit new game, whether it be single-player or co-op. The video recounts all the major story points and lore of the Dead Space universe. Then the stand-alone story of Dead Space 3 is compelling on its own. It’s an adventure following a small group of people that have to band together, sometimes against their own wishes, to unite against a common threat. It’s the sort of story that resonates with everybody. But then for Dead Space fans, we’re also answering a lot of questions they’ve had about our mythology and Necromorph lore from the last few years. A lot of secrets will be revealed. We’re answering once and for all where the Markers come from, who created them and how they are related to the Necromorphs. If you’re a big Dead Space fan, you’re going to dig just how deeply we’ve gone into the lore and answer the questions you’ve had.
Dead Space 3 is released in New Zealand on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on February 8.