How Dead Space Defined Visceral Games

By Rich Stanton on at

Visceral Games, once known as EA Redwood Shores, was closed by EA around a fortnight ago. But some of the studio's key players are still making the most popular games on the planet. This week sees one of the biggest releases of the year, Call of Duty: WW2. It's developed by Sledgehammer Games, a subsidiary of Activision, which was co-founded by Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey. The pair met at EA Redwood Shores, and worked together most notably on Dead Space. The director of which, Bret Robbins, is co-director of COD: WW2.

I’m not making light of Yet Another EA Studio Closure so much as giving an example of how, in the games industry, stories can be messier than they seem on the surface.

This won’t be a potted history of Visceral Games, because I’d be lying about playing half of their many games. As EA Redwood Shores it was a workhorse: moving across various publisher IP, producing the odd dodgy title as well as underrated gems and genuine hits. This was mostly within the constraints of film and TV licences. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was a jolly (and beautifully animated) hack-and-slash brawler; James Bond 007: From Russia With Love tried something different by bringing back Sean Connery (the first game on which Schofield and Condrey worked together); The Godfather, faced with the impossible task of doing justice to a classic movie, showed respect by settling for a well-made and themed open world.

My favourite of all these, and in some ways the most unusual game the studio ever made, was The Simpsons Game. It’s an experience that, for all its flaws, for me has a real wow factor — the first Simpsons game that, I felt, had captured anything of the show’s visual character and humour. Not that this can be credited entirely to Redwood Shores; the game was directed by Ralph Sosa — not a videogame industry lifer, but an animator (and later animation director) on the show, while much of the visual design was down to production company Film Roman.

It was this kind of collaboration that made The Simpsons Game unique, because it was a brilliant parody that unfortunately exemplified much of what was being parodied. It’s a game about the Simpson family having to make yet another corporate videogame and being zapped around in fourth-walling situations where the answer is always a bit of slightly-too-fiddly platforming — but while that’s happening, it all looks amazing and the lines are killer. The Simpsons Game was one of those special 7/10s. You can easily find fault with it, and the faults are real, but there’s nothing else like it — the best videogame involving the show by a million miles, and the only one that really feels like a part of it.

In concurrent development was the game that would turn EA Redwood Shores into Visceral Games: Dead Space. This was the studio's finest moment. The project had originally begun development, typically, as a sequel to another EA IP — System Shock 3. But the release of Resident Evil 4 changed everything. As designer Ben Wanat told PC Gamer:

"It's pretty obvious when you play Dead Space, to look at it and go, 'Yeah, it's almost like they decided to make Resident Evil 4 in space,' which is exactly what we were doing."

The game’s development is its own story (some of which is in that above link), not least Glen Schofield’s role in getting EA to back the game as an original project with no connections to existing IP. But what came out of it was a game that used the key part of Wanat’s quote — “in space” — to amazing effect in crafting a new kind of horror experience.

Dead Space opens with a text crawl before static coalesces into a talking holographic image of Nicole, the partner of engineer Isaac Clarke. The brief message finishes and he looks up to a view from the back of a spaceship cockpit, as the crew team chatter about their mission. They’ve been sent to make contact with the USG Ishimura, a ‘planet cracker’ starship of enormous size, which has gone dark. The first big visual event comes as the ship exits hyper-speed travel — cloudy circles shoot past your view at faster and faster speeds before a great woomp and deceleration as a new galaxy appears.

That first glimpse of the Ishimura was, and still is, a jaw-dropper for me; an effect of only a few seconds that’s nevertheless impossible to communicate with a still image. And already we can see, from the chunky terminals and coloured holographic interfaces, we’re in a particular kind of science fiction universe: the kind where fantastical high technology and corporate control combine, but everything’s still kept running by people in grease-stained uniforms.

If you're thinking of Alien and the Nostromo, you'd be bang-on. Dead Space is not a game that wears its influences lightly. The player character Isaac Clarke, after all, has a name combining Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. But the biggest influence of all may be the horror cinema of John Carpenter, specifically The Thing.

For those who haven’t seen it — spoiler alert! The Thing is set in an Antarctic research base where some kind of alien parasite is present, which infects humans before metamorphosing and controlling them to seek out new hosts. The distorted, fleshy creatures thus created have razor-sharp protrusions, exactly like Dead Space’s xenomorphs, and it’s partly this and partly the cramped, isolated setting that makes the film so terrifying. Dead Space is all about recreating this kind of threat within the atmosphere of the Nostromo. The game even goes so far as to lift certain jump scares lock, stock and barrel.

All of this might imply that Dead Space is some sort of Frankenstein's monster of influences, rather than having any ideas of its own, but the opposite is true. It remembers first of all that it's a video game, and ties these elements into its very marrow. The key to combating the xenomorphs, for example, is shooting off their limbs — which not only complements the visual design, but works as an inversion of the usual headshots a player has to execute. Isaac's suit has glowing components that show his health and stasis charge, as well as a palm-projected guideline to the next objective. And Dead Space has one particular area where it excels beyond all expectations: sound design.

The secret is that, while the necromorphs are the literal danger, the Ishimura itself is the game’s real monster. Though more high-tech than the Nostromo, the ship is still crisscrossed by maintenance ducts and temporary metal walkways, and as you make your way through the main corridors the necromorphs take these routes. Or that’s what one assumes, anyway – because they’re soon enough coming out of the goddamn walls.

The noise is hard to describe. There’s skittering and bangs; the sound of limbs dragging something heavy through a tight space, and when they’re near you can hear the mucousy gasping that passes for breathing. Dead Space goes all-in on surround sound, and was one of the first games where the magic was not simply knowing that ‘they’ were there — but knowing they were in the roof behind you, in the wall on your right, or somehow crawling beneath your feet. The approach to some sections is almost unbearable, the surrounding clicks and clacks seeming like the inevitable prelude to combat, but you arrive, exhausted, without having fired a shot.

This carries over into the torn yawps and high-pitched wailing of the necromorphs when they attack, which is contrasted against Isaac’s signature sound: heavy metal. Isaac’s clad from head to toe in metal and sounds like it, his thick boots clumping down with every step, his breaths haggard with the sheer exertion of swinging an arm. When Isaac shoots his signature weapon, the plasma cutter, the industrial boom is so loud relative to organic sounds that its splitting, severing impact on flesh is almost queasy.

I once spoke to Resident Evil 6’s sound designer about the effect when human chrysalis shells crack in that game, and he told me it was him snapping lettuce in front of the mic. That feeling when you hear something that’s unidentifiable beyond the fact it’s organic is where Dead Space operates, and the player brings into this the noise of a factory line.

Sound design also sets up one of Dead Space’s great mechanical shifts. Certain parts of the ship are vacuums, which means Isaac can stick to surfaces and ‘jump’ enormous distances across rooms. This switch into 360-degree environments is disorienting in itself, but the golden touch is that you can’t hear anything in a vacuum. The sound design in the remainder is so omnipresent that you come to rely on it, both as early-warning system and combat tool (necromorphs love a flank). Enter a vacuum, and all you can hear is low-level white noise. Having to suddenly rely entirely on sight is one thing, but when you catch your first glimpse of a necromorph in a vacuum – and it takes off and starts flying towards you, limbs and razor appendages stretched out in silence – it is simply jaw-dropping. Then, as you gawp, the unseen one strikes.

Dead Space isn’t about any one of its inspirations, but how they combine with ideas like this. To return to our Resident Evil 4 comparison, it's richly deserved but also slightly undersells how the formula is changed. Isaac can move while shooting, essential for dealing with enemies that are faster than ganados and constantly look to flank, and unlike Leon he’s aiming at limbs rather than heads. These enemies want to rip Isaac apart up-close. He wants to efficiently slice off certain parts of them. Most fights end up with something in the middle, and it’s when you’re panicking at a swarm that the counter-intuitive targeting of an arm – as opposed to the slavering jaw inches from your face – can make you hesitate for just that split-second too long. The creeping terror and swift, violent releases of the USG Ishimura are like nothing else.

I could go on for days about Dead Space. It has a stasis effect, which lets you both manipulate set environments and slow down enemies in combat — creating a pause of weirdly balletic dimensions, where you carefully line up and execute shots on a bunch of suspended horrors then watch them spiral backwards from the impact. It made QTEs good again, by introducing a degree of player control beyond pushing buttons. The enemy types just get more grotesque: membranous flies that ‘impregnate’ corpses; dead babies stuffed with parasitic tentacles. The boss fights are amazing. The plot may hit familiar science fiction notes but its realisation is entirely new, and as the game’s close approaches it moves onto Isaac’s mental collapse. By the game's close, it seems like he's a madman.

Who wouldn't be?

What remains, long after you’ve moved on from Dead Space, is the intensity of the experience. A truth of game development is that players are delicate creatures, and high-tension moments should be buffered by breathing room and more relaxing elements. To an extent this is common sense, but it’s also possible to feel that many titles take this a little far — and end up almost too smooth.

Dead Space’s structure keeps ‘downtime’ to an absolute minimum. The Ishimura has rooms containing save points and upgrade stations, but outside of these the atmosphere is always one of encroaching dread. The sound design can make the barest of corridors terrifying, as the dull thumps of limbs grow louder, and the designers took especial care to replace enemies in sections you revisit. Every creak of the Ishimura puts you on high alert. It never feels safe. And when they burst out of the walls, or the roof, or from somewhere behind me, the nervousness scales into outright fear.

It’s the kind of game that should have been the start of an amazing series, and its sheer quality and commercial success saw EA Redwood Shores renamed as Visceral Games. But the studio would never enjoy such creative freedom again. Dead Space 2 was pretty great, with many memorable environments (the thought of the nursery still makes me shiver), and among other things had the brilliant idea of ambushing the player in one of its save rooms. The other save rooms were completely safe but, after this, never felt like it.

But that is an outlier in Dead Space 2, because the sequel showed a marked turn towards being a more mainstream horror experience (even though the original sold well). The ever-present atmosphere of dread is here isolated to its own sections, with more narrative focus in the downtime. Isaac was a silent protagonist in the original game, and the ending suggests he’s lost hold on reality. In Dead Space 2 Isaac has a speaking role and seems mentally fine at the start, which to me always felt wrong, and the first game’s bleak suggestion of mental breakdown here becomes more like the occasional hallucination.

Isaac's Power Ranger-esque redesign in Dead Space 2

All of that aside, however, Dead Space 2 was the sequel to something that arrived fully formed – and couldn’t help but add things to it. It was more gory, but less grim. It's not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, many would call it a great one, but with hindsight it feels like an echo of something exceptional.

I never played Dead Space 3. I realise this is unfair to the developers, but I couldn’t face seeing Isaac in what I could only imagine would be an above-average game. Dead Space 3 may well be fantastic. But it was also the end of the series as we know it, and a return seems frankly unlikely.

While Visceral developed both Dead Space 2 and 3 (as well as co-developing the superb Wii lightgun spinoff, Dead Space: Extraction) I never saw the studio as especially responsible for the direction the series took — things like the addition of microtransactions for suit upgrades were clearly publisher-mandated. But it is something of a sad epilogue to the game that took on Resident Evil 4 and, against all the odds, raised the bar a little further. I’m not saying Dead Space is better than Shinji Mikami’s masterpiece, simply that it’s one of the few games inspired by Resident Evil 4 that can stand alongside it.

Though Visceral may have earned the name change, it was always still EA Redwood Shores too – despite having battled so long for the chance to show what it could do with fresh IP, and delivering, Visceral was still spreading itself across EA’s properties. It worked on MySimsKingdom on Wii, helped on The Sims 3, and shipped Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel (which was not good, and seemed an augur.)

Which it was. A few days ago we published Jason Schreier's investigation into Visceral's final years and the studio's last projects. Visceral’s final shipped title was Battlefield: Hardline, a misconceived spin on DICE’s major FPS series. Despite development troubles the game was fun, especially in multiplayer. But it was also basically cops and robbers, and tone deaf with it: Hardline is all about heroic American police indiscriminately blowing away criminals, at a time when real-world police violence against black people was being exposed like never before on social media. Sales quickly dropped off.

Battlefield: Hardline had been one of two projects assigned to Visceral in 2013. The other was a singleplayer-focused Star Wars game, to be written by Amy Hennig, and now cancelled in that form. Jason Schreier's article tells the full story, so I won’t go over it here, but it's notable that the blame for Visceral's closure was aimed at games-as-a-service and EA being some kind of evil empire. It looks like, in reality, the studio had been struggling for some time.

“Honestly, it was a mercy killing,” said one former Visceral employee. “It had nothing to do with whether it was gonna be single player. I don’t think it had anything to do with that. That game never could’ve been good and come out.”

Visceral Games is not the first or last casualty of this brutally competitive industry. Sometimes it seems like the best any studio can hope for is that, when all's said and done, it created some great games. In Visceral's case it certainly managed that, but Dead Space went further: it raised the bar.

Much of the talent that made Visceral special was long gone by the time of the closure — but others remained, and are now among the games industry's latest employment casualties. Glib assertions about the studio's spirit living on wouldn't be true. Visceral Games is dead. But at least while it was here, it made one hell of an impact.

"It was difficult to imagine what answer Earth could possibly send, except a tactfully sympathetic, “Good-bye.” — Arthur C. Clarke