‘Dead Space 3’: Steve Papoutsis talks ‘low-fantasy’ thrills

Feb. 06, 2013 | 6:00 a.m.
Isaac Clarke is about to be attacked by a Necromorph creature on the surface of Tau Volantis in "Dead Space 3." (Electronic Arts)

Isaac Clarke is about to be attacked by a Necromorph creature on the surface of Tau Volantis in “Dead Space 3.” (Electronic Arts)

When people think of the “Dead Space” franchise, which includes video games, animated films, novels and comic books, they think of shadowy hallways, wrecked ships and all the haunted house trappings that made the first “Alien” film such a classic.

The latest game in the series, “Dead Space 3,” takes a lot of risks — it has ditched the traditional dark and shadowy labyrinths of ships and futuristic space stations for the wide-open and icy terrain of the alien planet Tau Volantis. And rather than forcing the poor space engineer Isaac Clarke to face the hostile alien Necromorph threat all alone once again, the designers have added a new drop-in, drop-out cooperative play mode, that gives Clarke a companion in EarthGov Sgt. John Carver.

“Dead Space 3” executive producer Steve Papoutsis talked to Hero Complex about the work that went into making the latest scarefest that’s now available for PlayStation, Xbox and PCs — the sound design, the expanded Necromorph mythology and the larger themes lurking beneath the surface of the survival horror hit.

HC: Besides films like “Alien” and “The Thing,” what are some of the major influences or sources of inspiration for the “Dead Space” franchise?

SP: One of the things that makes working on the “Dead Space” series so incredibly awesome is that we’re a team with a ton of creative individuals. Everybody on the game has an influence, whether it’s a TV show or a book they’re reading, comics they enjoy. You name it. The fact that there are so many creatives, with so many different influences is what makes our game special. Ultimately, what we’ve done over the years is qualify everything through a lens of what makes a “Dead Space” game, and really talk about what makes a “Dead Space” game, the elements we feel are important and part of our DNA.

HC: Besides big ideas like terror and horror, what are some of the specific elements that are necessary for “Dead Space” game?

SP: One of the things we tried to do with the series was not be high fantasy science fiction. We want to be low fantasy. It’s a believable environment you’re in. Some of the the themes we talk about in the series include planet cracking. Well, fracking is happening today. When you squint, you can look at the game and see where the future might go. And it doesn’t seem out of the question. We really want to have a level of believability, so when people sit down to play the game, they can put themselves in that situation. We don’t want it to be super clean, super hi-tech science fiction. We want it more gritty. So every time we want to add something to the game, we discuss if it’s believable and relatable. Will people understand what this is? Is this something that could exist in 300 years?

HC: Your background in video games is in sound design — what aspect of the sound of “Dead Space 3” was most important to you?

SP: One of the things I focused on most closely with the audio team this time was our score. When you’ve done a game — this is our fourth game if you count “Dead Space: Extraction” on the Wii — you want to keep things fresh. We really wanted to make this game feel more epic and we wanted to introduce more musical themes. On “Dead Space 2” we experimented with more melodies in the game instead of the minor key progressions that we had before. In “Dead Space 3,” we blew that out even more. We wanted to have themes that created a specific mood when you were in a specific location, something much more similar to a film. We decided to infuse that into the game, but at the same time we wanted to keep our signature music, the more aggressive sounding minor key, atonal stuff heard in the previous games. Now we have more epic sounding music that can speak to exploration or fear or tension or excitement or sadness, coupled with more frantic stabbing kinds of sounds heard in previous games. Another thing we paid attention to was the lack of sounds, which I think has also been important to our franchise. When you go into the vacuum of space and we pull out the audio or muffle it and make you feel things through your bones, that’s something the team has done a good job at delivering. There’s also the times when you want to pull all the sound out, you just want a creak somewhere or the sound of something dropping and you pulled out a lot of the audio and the lack of sound really set up a tense moment or scare. Those are a couple of the areas I keyed into on this one.

Isaac Clarke in space in "Dead Space 3." (Electronic Arts)

Isaac Clarke in space in “Dead Space 3.” (Electronic Arts)

HC: In film and TV, the sound is very responsive to what’s been filmed. How do you retain that level of control when the actions on screen are being dictated by the player?

SP: Our audio team has done a fantastic job of working with the limitations you describe. As director of a TV show or film, you know exactly where the camera is going to be and you know exactly what you’re filming and you set everything up around those parameters. With the audio designers on the team, they work with the game designers. The whole team has a cross-structural approach to get all this to work. The game designers had to lead players to a certain area where we could achieve a specific scare or audio cue. It’s really challenging to channel the player in that way because you want to allow the player to have as much freedom as they want. I think that’s one thing the team has done a great job with over the years. We don’t pull you out of control, we allow you to retain control. But through the years we’ve adopted a method for trying to channel players to get them where we want them to be. But you’re right, there are times where they’re in control and they have the camera looking a totally weird way and miss something we’re trying to deliver. So it’s our job as game developers to work up scenarios where we get the players into positions where we want them without being super heavy-handed.

HC: The co-op drop-in, drop out feature is an interesting addition for “Dead Space 3.” How challenging was it to add that option into a story that’s traditionally been a single-player experience?

SP: That was probably the biggest challenge for the whole project: determining how to create a unique and innovative cooperative experience that allowed us to continue to deliver on what “Dead Space” has meant for people, allowing them to retain the single-player experience if they want it but also allowing the player to drop in and drop out and be a different character as an additive experience. Carver is in the story whether it’s single-player or co-op, but if it’s co-op you start to get more details about his personal journey and his challenges. Looking at the canon of what “Dead Space” is about, we decided dementia was the place to go. There’s a lot of different ways to approach that, there’s the jump scare or more terror-induced scare. But the idea of more psychologically induced scare was something we’d always had in the franchise, so we thought, “Hey, we could differentiate and innovate, where the players are seeing two different things.” So not only in the game world are the players seeing two different things and player one is saying “Hey, why aren’t you helping me out?” but now when they’ve got their headsets on and they’re playing together, they’re having the same conversations. “Hey, man, what are you doing?” It’s really fun when we saw people’s experiences. Because now they’re really getting freaked out because their pal is seeing something totally different from what they’re seeing. Is the game broken? What’s going on? It creates a tension and dialogue and cooperative cohesion that was really cool.

HC: The third game really expands on the mythology of the Necromorphs and the Markers. Was this overall mythology put together at the very beginning of the project? Is it still evolving?

SP: It’s a bit of both. When we initially started out, we needed to know what do people do in this universe. What’s their job? What does an engineer do? What does a ship look like? What does a mess hall look out? What is the history of the Marker? What is Unitology? That all needed to be figured out. That kept growing and evolving with the help of the community, who played and then asked us questions. We got energized from that and we feel like it’s our responsibility to know the answers to all those questions. In some cases, we have an answer already planned but we choose not to unveil it. And in other situations, it’s not something we thought was important or wasn’t going to resonate so much in the fan base and we go back to address it. It’s a mix as we go. We start every game with the story first. We build everything out from the story. With “Dead Space 3,” the challenge we had was we needed to answer questions with this game. There have been a lot of people with us for a long while and they want to know what’s going on with these Markers and what’s up with these Necromorphs. What’s the Unitologist’s agenda? We started off from the get-go trying to answer a lot of questions.

HC: You mention Unitology. Are you looking to generate discussion about religion and environmentalist themes with some of the ideas in the game? Or simply trying to create a vehicle for people to shoot aliens?

SP: I think it’s a mix of both. It depends on how invested the players are with the universe and the games. I think there’s definitely people who just want to play the game, and that’s that. And there’s other who want to dig into our other properties. We’ve got comics and novels and an animated feature. There’s a lot of “Dead Space” universe to dig into and the people who dig into those things really will enjoy the allegory of what is going on more than what we do in the game. For me personally, as someone who likes story, the stories I enjoy have another layer. It gives the story more meaning and makes it more personal.

–Patrick Kevin Day

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex


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