John Calhoun, Senior Designer at Visceral Games and producer of Dead Space 3

John Calhoun, Senior Designer at Visceral Games and producer of Dead Space 3

Fans have a lot of concerns about the direction Dead Space 3 seems to have gone in. With co-op, more action based controls and microtransactions, it seems like there is a strong concern that this game just won’t be scary enough. But John Calhoun, the producer of the game, begs to differ. I got to chat with him about it last week at a Dead Space 3 event.

First things first. The big question that a lot of fans have about Dead Space 3 is with the implementation of co-op, how will that affect the ‘scares’?

John: Ah okay, so a lot of people were worried that by putting co-op in our game, we were somehow going to be ‘less’ scary, right? But we asked ourselves ‘Why does that have to be the case?’. So there’s a couple of things that we’ve done to make sure Dead Space 3 is just as thrilling and atmospheric as our previous games. One thing we did was go to our audio team and say “Look, one of the things that our game is really well-known for is the sound design and sound design is one of the scariest thing that we can do in our game”, so we said “You guys really need to step it up in Dead Space 3( not that they were slacking off in previous games) and come up with the craziest stuff that you can think of to scare the player.

Another thing that we did in co-op was develop this ‘asymmetrical dementia’ feature whereby player 1 and player 2 will actually see different things. It’s really subtle and it takes a long time to realise that you’re seeing reality in a slightly different way and as soon as you do what happens is you’re on your headset, online with your friend, comparing notes and you realise that the entire time you’ve been playing, you’ve been seeing slightly different things and it gets bigger and more grotesque the later you get in the game. In fact the closer you get to the Marker the more hallucinations you experience, the Marker being the ultimate goal in Dead Space 3 (you want to destroy it.) So for example, John Carver who is the military style character in the game, he may say something like “I hear voices behind that door, we should go check it out”. Isaac Clarke, who’s the engineering character in our game, would say “First of all, there’s no door there. Secondly, I don’t hear any voices”. When you and your friend are having this conversation online, suddenly you start to question ‘What is real?’. You start to not trust your friend and when you don’t trust your friend it creates this sense of tension that’s really exciting and something that’s unique to Dead Space 3.

With that ‘asymmetrical dementia’, that’s something that hasn’t really been done in co-op games before and it definitely makes sense for a horror game because a large part of any team work involved in a horror setting is “Who can you trust?” and those intense feelings of paranoia. As a new technique to create horror, how far did you want to push that and is it something you think could be pushed further in future games?

John: Actually, it’s one of those things where less is more. So we ended up pulling some of the dementia elements out of the game late in the development cycle. Why did we do this? The reason is, when you start to expect these things, they’re no longer shocking, they’re no longer surprising and it’s that shock and surprise that actually creates the tension. So we had to make sure that it was subtle enough and just infrequent enough where you might miss it the first couple of times before you actually comment on it. If you see it every second of the game  it’s going to be nothing new, it’s going to be nothing shocking. So the real secret was actually finding the right balance and how little we could unsettle before really dropping the bomb on the player late in the game.

The setting of the original Dead Space game was on a large spaceship and then the second one was in a large space station, what made you decide to go to a planet for Dead Space 3, particularly the icy planet that is Tau Volantes?

John: Well a couple of things. It’s been in the story lore of Dead Space internally, in our dev studio, that the source of the Markers is on an icy planet, way out in the reaches of space. But another reason is we wanted to try something new like, our engine and our artists have done tight spaceship-style corridors for the last couple of games, they were chomping at the bit to come up with a new look for Dead Space. And our designers were really excited about the opportunity of using wide open, frozen spaces for new gameplay, new enemies and new ways to scare the player. Now, for the people who are listening to your show, I want them to know that while we’re really promoting and proud of Tau Volantes, a large part of the game is actually taking place in a more familiar environment, so we have an entire flotilla of derelict ships that are creaking, they’re groaning, they’re slowly rotating in space as they tumble into orbit. You’re going to have to go to some of these ships in order to advance through the game and so if you really kind of like that classic Dead Space style environment, we’ve got lots of that, THEN then you go planetside and this is just the beginning. There’s a lot of secrets that I can’t reveal that go kinda above and below the planet to still keep you on  your toes throughout the game.

Isaac Clarke and the crew he has to work with... But who can he really trust?

Isaac Clarke and the crew he has to work with… But who can he really trust?

Dead Space to me and I’m sure a lot of other people, has always reminded me a lot of John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ and having this game set in an ice station it feels very much like the series is going to it’s spiritual home. How much of The Thing and other horror movies influenced Dead Space as a series?

John: Well, we in our development team come from a lot of different backgrounds but one of the things we all love is movies and we did watch ‘The Thing’ as a group very early in the production cycle but what’s cool about that is the way different disciplines take different things out of that movie. So, I’ll give you some examples. When you watch John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ some people see that and are like “That’s a monster movie!” right? There’s a really grotesque, disgusting looking alien who’s bloody and you want to shoot a flamethrower at him. There were some of our team members who kind of saw that  in the movie. Well, some of those influences can be seen in Dead Space. Then, there’s a group of people who are maybe more interested in the storytelling and they see ‘The Thing’ as a story of people who don’t know who to trust. They know that there’s a stranger in their midst but they don’t know who it is but it’s really about the inter-personal drama. Well guess what, we got that out of ‘The Thing’ as well and you can kind of see that the crew that Isaac assembles doesn’t trust each other, they’re all at odds with one another even though they have the same goal. And then our artists and especially our lighters saw ‘The Thing’ and they said “There’s a lot of different ways you can present and portray an icy planet” especially if you have a daytime and a nighttime. During the daytime, the light reflects off the frozen plane and it’s blinding but if you turn around you can see for miles. At night, it’s so pitch black that all you can see is blues and blacks and sometimes you can’t see more than 3 feet in front of you. So again, that’s something we got out of that movie. So you can probably name any movie, book or novel out there, if we’ve seen it as a group we’ve all taken different influences out of it.

Speaking of horror movies in general, Isaac Clarke is very much the Ripley of Dead Space-

John: (laughing) We hear that a lot!

Do you ever see the franchise expanding outside of Isaac Clarke as a character?

John: We tend to only think about our games one game at a time. So at the time of this interview, Dead Space 3 still hasn’t come out and believe it or not, even though it’s gone to manufacturing, our developer’s back in San Francisco are still busy making sure that the game launches as smoothly as possible, like we want to make sure that as soon as you put the disc in the tray or download it on your PC, to the point where you finish the game and you’re telling your friends about it, we want to make sure you’ve had a kick ass, killer experience that you can be proud of and feel like you got a lot of value out of. So we’re still ‘making’ the game, in a way and so it’s not until we can say that the game is completely behind us that we can actually think about the future.

This is the first time we get to meet John Carver as a character [Isaac’s co-op partner]. What kind of a man is he?

John: He’s a soldier. He has a back story that’s told through the graphic novel that’s releasing alongside the video game. He has a wife and child who were killed due to a group meddling with the Markers and for your audience the Markers are these obelisk type structures, these alien artefacts that are mysterious in origin but have great power and have also had a religion built up around them. But they’re also responsible for creating the Necromorphs, the zombie like creatures of the Dead Space world. So John Carver is a soldier, his wife and child are dead and he has a personal reason for wanting to stop the Markers. He meets up with Isaac Clarke very early in the game because he knows that the only man in the world who’s ever killed a Marker is Isaac. So he basically recruits Isaac at gunpoint and says “I need you, you have to do this” even though Isaac Clarke, our engineer who wants nothing more than to kind of escape the world and be left alone, would like to have no part of it. The story, in a large part, is about how the two of them resolve their differences and learn to rely on each other to survive.

Every Dead Space game so far has added new enemy types or variations and a lot of them require different ways to take them down and kill them, how do you balance that variety of action to the scares and tension?

John: Our C & C team, that’s the Combat and Controls team, has a checklist of things that they have to do every time they propose a new enemy. They need to come up with a cool concept like, what does it look like? They need to describe it’s attacks, is it projectile, is it melee? Is it so large that you’d only see one on-screen or is it so small we could have ten on-screen at a time? But another thing is, how is it going to be scary? So they have to describe that to us before the enemy actually makes it into the production cycle. One example that I’ll give is ‘The Feeder’. The Feeder is found on Tau Volantes so he’s kind of a mid-game character. He’s really tiny, you see him in groups of three and four and what’s cool about them is they react to light and sound. So you’ll hear them and they usually appear in dark places and they can actually be avoided if you’re very careful. But they hate the light so much that when they congregate in dark spaces you will be tempted to aim your weapon so you can see where they are and your weapon has a flashlight on it and as soon as you shine the flashlight on them, they’ll see you and you have to turn your flashlight off almost immediately. You’re kind of forced to play this light and dark game. They also react to sound so if you kick things over in Dead Space and we have real world physics so lots of things will tumble over, they will be attracted to the sound and come check you out. You can use that to your advantage by for example throwing tin cans against a wall and distracting them. The gameplay of light and dark is something that can create tension and scare the player and The Feeder is a great example of how that can be successful.

One of the many, many gruesome enemies you'll have to 'strategically dismember'.

One of the many, many gruesome enemies you’ll have to ‘strategically dismember’.

What is it about Dead Space 3’s weapon crafting system that you find is unique or different compared to other games crafting systems?

John: I think what’s unique about our weapon crafting system is it’s emphasis on mechanical tools and machinery that you find in the world as opposed to stricly weapons. We use the word ‘weapon crafting’ so often but in the Dead Space world when you go to the bench you’ll actually see that it’s the ‘tool construction bench’ and that’s because, just like Isaac Clarke is an engineer, we wanted weapon crafting to focus more on the kind of crazy mining tools or seismic devices that you might find on an icy planet. You’re following in the footsteps of people who abandoned this planet 200 years ago. They were scientists and archeologists and geologists so the kind of tools they left behind are not military weapons in fact there’s only one military engine in the entire game which you can modify to your heart’s content. But there are seven other primary engines that have nothing to do with guns. There are things like the plasma core, which is used for cutting rock or the tesla core which is used for charging electrical equipment or my favourite which is the telemetry spike which is something that you fire into the ground to detect seismic activity. So what’s unique about Dead Space is our focus on science and engineering and it’s Isaac’s ability to take these crazy pieces of machinery and tools and combine them into something that looks and behaves like a weapon he can use to take down the Necromorphs.

Dead Space 2 featured online multiplayer and then you’ve obviously done the switch to co-op for this game, do you feel like co-op is becoming the new online multiplayer?

John: There’s always going to be room for competitive multiplayer. We learned from Dead Space 2 that, while fun, maybe it wasn’t right for the Dead Space franchise. Dead Space is about story and atmosphere, competitive multiplayer is about kill to death ratios and someday someone’s going to resolve those two things and make a great game but for us we said we have to maintain the DNA of our franchise. You know, it’s all about story, Isaac is an engineer, he’s not a soldier, it’s about having those high highs and those low lows. Competitive multiplayer makes it very difficult to accomplish those goals. On the other hand, co-operative play can absolutely support that which is why we decided to go deep in co-op in Dead Space 3.

Were you worried that implementations like being able to dodge and take cover and things more traditionally associated with action heavy shooters would take away from the tension in previous games?

John: Well we did worry about it but then the way we presented it in the game and ultimately implemented it has taken all those concerns away from us and when players see the game for themselves, they’ll know what I’m talking about. The fact that Isaac can crouch and roll and take cover is a response to the fact that we have human enemies in the game. These are Unitologist mercenaries who are the main villains and they’re up against Isaac in a quest to activate the Markers whereas Isaac wants to destroy them. If you have a paramilitary style character who is very tactical who is doing things like taking cover and throwing grenades and you as a player can’t do the same things then you’re going to feel underpowered, you’re going to feel weak and you’re going to feel that somethings missing and that was a response we got from people who were actually playing the game and we put in crouch and cover as a reaction to that. The way we present it though I think will assuage anyone’s fears that we’re going full action with Dead Space 3. The reason being, the features are very subtle. We don’t even teach them I mean, we teach crouch early on but there a lot of the features we don’t teach particularly cover, it’s something that just happens in our game. If you aim your gun and you just happen to be near something that looks like cover, Isaac will be smart and take cover behind it. But we don’t push it into the forefront of the gameplay. Isaac’s ‘tricks’ and primary ways of defeating enemies are still just like Dead Space 1 and 2, strategic dismemberment. Using the right tools and the right weapons for the job. It’s funny that we’ve put a lot of work into a feature that we then consider ancillary and secondary but the truth is we had to do that because our game is not an action game. We don’t want people rolling out of cover like they’re some kind of paramilitary superhero, that’s not who Isaac is so we kind of buried it a little bit. We made it subtle, put it in the background and the game is better for it.

Now finally, my co-host of the show Tom is currently doing a challenge I set him, which is to play through the original Dead Space on hard difficulty using only the Plasma Cutter. He’s a bit of a pansy when it comes to horror games. Do you have any advice for him on how to get through that?

John: Can I talk to Tom directly?

Yeah, yeah, go for it.

John: Okay Tom, I’ve got one tip for you. Upgrade that Plasma Cutter. You need to upgrade your plasma cutter then upgrade your stasis. Between those two upgrades, if they’re fully maxed out you’ll get that achievement in no time.

He also wanted to know whether you thought it was a cop-out that he only plays the game during the day?

John: No, I mean look, if you’re scared, turn on the lights! I don’t want to tell anyone how to play the game as long as they’re enjoying it!

John Calhoun, thanks for coming on the show.

John: Oh my pleasure, of course.

If you want to know more about Dead Space 3 before it’s impending February 7 Australian release, you can read all about it in my Hands-on preview of the game (http://wolvieboy.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/dead-space-3-hands-on/) and for everyone else you can read something else… I don’t know, I’m not your boss, do what you like.

Ben O’Brien hosts a weekly radio show on 2rrr 88.5fm called ‘Big Head Mode’. You can stream the show every friday, at 9pm on www.2rrr.org.au and you can follow the show on facebook for updates, news and gaming reviews at www.facebook.com/bigheadmode2rrr