• Sun. Oct 1st, 2023

The New Theory Of Horror: Dead Space 2’s Creative Director Speaks


Jun 23, 2021


[Dead Space 2 creative director Wright Bagwell delves deep into the creative process that the team followed in devising a compelling horror experience and discusses how Visceral Games hopes to push the medium forward.]

2008’s Dead Space from Electronic Arts reenergized the horror genre for the current generation, clearing the cobwebs of design conventions that had built up over the years while retaining the ideas that made the genre so beloved to gamers. Now, Dead Space 2 is about to ship and is even more evolved than its predecessor.

The sequel aims to build upon a genuine franchise at EA. Dead Space saw a Wii-exclusive spin-off in Dead Space: Extraction as well as animated videos and comics that further explored the rich universe. A live action feature film is also reportedly in the works.

In this detailed interview, creative director Wright Bagwell with Dead Space 2 developer Visceral Games delves deep into the creative process that the team followed in devising a compelling horror experience.

Bagwell also recounts the influences, from both game and film, that informed the team, and discusses how Visceral Games hopes to push the medium forward with its work on the game.

You were senior gameplay designer on Dead Space. How did you end up becoming creative director on this game?

Wright Bagwell: Well, the previous creative director [Bret Robbins] left, and I was the creative director on Dead Space Extraction for Wii after Dead Space 1, so I was pretty knowledgeable about the franchise and pretty passionate about it.

When he left, that created an opportunity for me. After we started working on Dead Space Extraction, I was working together on Dead Space Extraction and Dead Space 2, trying to get it up off the ground.

Just based on marketing materials that I’ve seen for Dead Space 2 — I saw the whole “Your Mom Hates Dead Space 2” campaign, by the way — it sounds like the sequel will have a heavier focus on action. Would that be accurate to say?

WB: You know, I think so. It’s kind of a tricky thing to say until you play the game. I think a lot of people are worried that we’re sort of taking this game in a direction that makes it less scary, less atmospheric, less tense — all those sorts of things. Our intention is not to turn the game into an all-out action game. Our intention really is to just give you better pacing throughout the game. What I told the team when we started was that we wanted to make it feel a little more like a roller coaster ride.

So, in Dead Space 1, it’s tense throughout the game. It never really lets up. And what we found is that there were a lot of people who told us first-hand — I can tell you that I probably have at least five friends who played the game and came back to me and said — “Aw, man, Dead Space 1 was really good. I loved it. I was playing it last night. It’s totally cool, but I can’t play anymore because it felt like I was going to have a heart attack.”

They’re like, “You know, when I come home, I really want to be able to relax a little bit. I don’t want to feel like I’m playing a game that’s going to give me a heart attack.” So, we talked about it quite a bit, and what we said was that we obviously can’t give up what made Dead Space 1 great. It still had to be scary and atmospheric and tense and all those sorts of things, but we had to make players feel like it wasn’t just up to ten the whole time.

On Dead Space 2, what we said was that there are moments where we’ll kind of change things up a little bit. There are moments that you feel like you have a little bit of empowerment, or there are times when you feel like the action in the game sort of takes a turn from being slower, more strategic, more sort of action-horror-style to a little bit faster paced. It’ll show you something a little crazy for a little bit so that it feels like a little bit of break from the claustrophobia and darkness and tension. And after we put you in those moments, it kind of rams you back into the Dead Space 1-style gameplay.

In the end, I don’t think that people are going to say that the game really became this action game. What I think they’re going to say — what I hope they’re going to say — is that it feels like there’s just a lot more variety, that it has everything that Dead Space 1 has but a lot more as well.

For me, and I think for a lot of other horror game or survival horror game fans, that’s a selling point, though — the claustrophobia that you get throughout the game; the tension. Do you think easing up on that would kind of take away from what the game is trying to do?

WB: Well, what I think is going to happen, or at least what we strive to do, is make it feel significant every time you go into an area that is dark or claustrophobic or scary looking. What I found and what we found from talking to people after Dead Space 1 is that for some players — not all players, some players were scared from the first moment to the very end — felt like once you’ve seen one hallway with a strobe light, you’ve seen all you need to see and the effect sort of wears off on people.

They become desensitized.

WB: So, what I wanted to do this time is actually give you variety in the different kind of spaces that you’re going to be in so that when you did come across a darker or more claustrophobic space, it would be more likely that it has a significant impact on you.

What I wanted people to do was when they get to places that are especially claustrophobic, say, “Oh no, I really don’t want to go in there.” What I described to the team is sort of like, in a vampire film, as the time of day changes, you get this feeling of, “Oh no. The sun is going down. It’s going to get really, really bad now”.

Or in a film when you’re outside the house. Now you need to go into the spooky, haunted house and go down into the dark basement. And when you open that door and look down into the dark basement, you have that moment of like, “God, I really don’t want to go down in there.”

And what I told the team was that it sometimes felt like Dead Space 1 was just a series of dark basements, and so after a while, you don’t look at a hallway and think, “Oh, I don’t want to go down there.” It’s just another dark, creepy hallway.

So, I guess the jury is still out. We’re waiting to hear back and see how well things worked out for Dead Space 2. But everything that I’ve heard so far is that people really appreciate the variety. It’s another way to keep people on their toes when you keep throwing spaces that look and feel a bit different at them. [Initial reviews for Dead Space 2 are currently averaging over 90 percent. — Ed.]

You mentioned references to movies. I definitely noticed a lot of Alien movie franchise stuff going on there, even the inclusion of a mining ship. Do you look at film quite a bit to find ways to frighten your audience?

WB: Yeah, definitely. Alien and Aliens were things that we reference a lot on Dead Space 1 and Dead Space 2, and I think almost everyone we talked to, the first thing they say is kind of like, “Ah, it sounds like you guys are going from Alien to Aliens.” I think that’s pretty fair to say.

We definitely take a lot of influence from films. Everybody on the team is a film junkie. I think everyone in the game industry is. We all love entertainment. I think, though, that we’ve tried to do some things this time, there are a few moments in the game that I’m really proud of because I think that we’re doing things that I think only games can do. We’re trying to pioneer, in terms of ways to terrify or horrify the player.

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