Deconstructing Dead Space

Sebastian Williamson


NowGamer sits down with the award-winning writer and original Dead Space scribe, Antony Johnston, to examine the series’ transition from survival horror to action-thriller, and everything in between.

Published on Feb 7, 2013

Dead Space 3 is here and its release has been met with its fair share of controversy - first it was the introduction of co-op, which some say has all but diluted the survival horror DNA of the first two games.

Then came word on the introduction of micro transactions, followed by the news that EA and Visceral would be shipping this third iteration with a whopping 11 chunks of downloadable content.

Reviews have unanimous in a single train of thought, including our Dead Space 3 review: Visceral has ultimately delivered a highly polished, albeit infinitely less frightening affair, than the original and its grandiose 2011 sequel, which itself was met with protest due to the introduction of competitive multiplayer (now shelved for Dead Space 3).

Cast your mind back to last year when EA President Frank Gibeau went on record stating that Dead Space 3 needs to broaden its appeal in a bid to ship somewhere in the region of 5 million copies to warrant a stay of execution. Clearly the pressure is on and the screws have been turning, but expansion appears to have always been the plan for the team at Visceral.

"The developers always wanted to go bigger"

“I know the developers always wanted to go bigger, in terms of scope. And I’ve mentioned before that the universe we created was huge, with lots of elements, which simply didn’t make it into the first game. So to get that story told, to round out the universe, it was inevitable the settings and environments would open out a bit, become a bit more epic in scale. Otherwise you’d just have the same game on a different ship each time, and that’s pretty dull,” says original Dead Space writer, Antony Johnston, of the series’ evolution from deep space terror to gung-ho shooter.

Johnston, a comic scribe, game writer and all-round wordsmith not only developed the narrative for the original game back in 2006, but also played an extremely pivotal role in conjuring the universe that Visceral has created, through numerous comic books and subsequent spin-offs including Dead Space: Extraction, Dead Space: Ignition and Dead Space Mobile.

And yet, despite the broad body of Dead Space work, and having played such an important role in crafting this vast universe we’ve come to know since its inception, Johnston is keen to point out that in game development it’s very much about collaboration unlike, say, the job of a screenwriter (with some exceptions, of course).

“I came up with a lot of the colony stuff myself, and there were some elements on the ship, mostly character stuff, that I was involved in. But there was an equal amount already in place, or stuff the developers came up with; games writing and design are very collaborative and iterative processes,” he says. “The further into development you go, the more difficult it becomes to point to a specific element and say, ‘oh, yes, that was mine.’ And now that we’re several years after the fact, it’s even harder! There was input from all sides, throughout the whole process.”

Original Dead Space vs Dead Space 2

Whilst Dead Space 2 upped the action considerably and its three-quel opted to capitalize on that, the original game will be remembered for its ability to the shred the nerves of gamers as they trawled through the bowels of the USS Ishimura in search of answers, waiting for the flesh hungry Necromorphs to pounce at every turn.

“For that first game, it was always meant to be scary and slow-paced, like what we now think of as a ‘traditional’ survival horror,” says Johnston of the team’s pure intentions to deliver a slew of zero gravity frights with the original game.

From our conversation with Johnston it's clear he is a purest in terms of survival horror, citing Silent Hill 2 as his favourite digital fright fest of all time, but believes what classifies a game as horror has changed with the passing of time and progression of ideas.

“Many people seem to judge whether or not a game is survival horror by mechanics and gameplay; third-person, slow mechanics, weird camera angles, that sort of thing. But I think that’s short sighted. Look at Amnesia, which is an FPS with no weapons; or Home, which is a 2D side-scroller. But both of those games are superb recent examples of survival horror.”

Johnston is right, what makes a survival horror game is changing - sometimes for the worse (Resident Evil 6) and sometimes for the better (any of the above) - and we need to accept that.

Dead Space 3: Sales Over Fear?

Still, as gamers we want to feel the fear, the dread at encountering something devilish at every turn or each time we enter a darkened room. It’s that drip-fed terror that hooks us, drives us through the narrative to see what kind of new monster the developer will hurl at us.

The original Dead Space had that in spades, whilst its follow-up played brilliantly on the psychological damage the Marker had inflicted on series’ hero, Isaac - no one will ever forget that ingenious moment in Dead Space 2 where Visceral tasked you with corkscrewing a syringe deep into the core of Isaac’s jittery eyeball. It’s flashes of brilliance like that that mean the first two chapters in Isaac’s saga will undoubtedly stand the test of time in the hearts of horror hounds or newcomers in search of that one good scare.

Dead Space 3 has eschewed most of this in favour of transitioning the series from survival horror to all-out action thriller; a necessary evil - and very tough balancing act - it would seem in that all-important dash to increase sales and broaden the series’ fan base, just like Frank Gibeau said in 2012.

“I’m personally a big fan of old-school survival horror, and that was one of the main reasons I wanted to work on Dead Space. So the greater emphasis on big action in the sequels means they’re not really for me. But as you say, it’s a necessary evil in order to broaden the fan base, and it’s a very difficult balancing act to pull off. So far, I think Visceral has done an admirable job of maintaining that balance,” says Johnston.

And while Johnston admits that the action route wasn’t really his thing, it wasn’t because of this that he was unable to pick up the pen and paper and map out Isaac’s journey for Dead Space 2 and 3. It was, in fact, a much a more practical choice - that and a little bit of friendly competition.

“With Dead Space 2, I was already busy with Extraction, Ignition, DS Mobile, and the Salvage graphic novel, all of which were in development around the same time. Mainly, though, Jeremy Bernstein just kind of slipped in there before me, approaching EA on spec to work on the sequel! Not that I would have had time anyway, because of doing all the ‘extended universe’ stuff. But Jeremy and I did have a bit of a laugh about that when we first met at GDC a couple of years ago, and we’ve become friends as a result, so it’s all-good. Visceral did approach me about doing more ‘side’ stuff for Dead Space 3, but some I had to turn down, and some just didn’t work out. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”

"This is a good place to finish Dead Space"

With Dead Space 3 finally arriving at stores, it won’t be long before gamers get the chance to voice their opinion on the alterations made to the series they’ve stuck with since 2008, but once that happens attentions will inevitably turn to future instalments and what’s next for the ill-fated Isaac and the Necromorphs. Like us, Johnston agrees that now might be the best time to end our hero’s journey.

“From what I know of Dead Space 3, I think this is probably a good place to finish it. The only way I could see it continue is with an entirely new scenario and characters, and I’m not sure that would appeal much to the fans in any case. All good stories have an ending. There’s nothing wrong with that,” says Johnston.

We can’t help but agree, but somehow we get the feeling that EA might not share the sentiment. And with that, let the guessing games begin.



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