How Dead Space 3 builds claustrophobia in open spaces

By Timothy J. Seppala, Jan 29, 2013 12:15pm PST

For a series that's been a risk from the beginning, Dead Space 3 is taking the biggest chances yet. Cooperative play, and adding human enemies as well as an environment that's extremely atypical for the franchise all have many gamers skeptical. Last June, it was reported the game would need to sell around 5 million copies for publisher Electronic Arts to continue investing in games like it. Executive Producer Steve Papoutsis knows this. But if he's worried, he hides it well.

"When you see people making assumptions about what it's going to be like, it can certainly be [what they're afraid of]. It depends on how you tailor your experience."

Papoutis has been asked about co-op a lot. Specifically, how it feels and how it will affect a series known for its near-tangible sense of seclusion. He likens the experience to movie going.

"You're going to have friends who laugh and talk during a movie. Then, you're going to go to films with people who are cinema fans and they're going to be respectful to those around them and they're not going to talk and they're going to get immersed in the film. Those two experiences are vastly different."

He believes this will carry over to who you co-op through Dead Space 3 with.

"If you play with your cinema friends it's going to feel a little more intense, I'd imagine," he said.

Playing with friends who you typically hop online to shoot the shit and shoot bad guys with is going to be "looser, more light-hearted" no matter what game you're playing.

"Be selective with who you play it with and I think you'll have a great experience."

Regardless if you're playing solo or co-op the instant you kill your first Unitologist in Dead Space 3, you've killed 100 percent more humans than in the two previous games and all their tie-ins combined. It makes sense within the narrative, though. Papoutsis said that because protagonist Isaac Clarke has been having run-ins with the religion's acolytes for so long, it "made sense for us to put a face to the nemesis he's [Clarke] been dancing around with the last few games."

"[Dead Space 3] isn't solely focused on human combat, but it's liberally used in places where it makes sense."

Papoutsis and his team at Visceral Games approached combat design with the stance that they were making human-based combat for Dead Space, not another third-person shooter. Previous games have had pre-necromorphs, but they were typically dead before you'd entered a room. Now, you're creating the hosts for the parasitic transformation. Unlike other games where you shoot humans, a headshot isn't the end of the line in Dead Space 3. Fail to dismember a homo sapiens adversary and there's a good chance you'll see them again in combat, albeit with a few more limbs or a set of wings.

Perhaps more than anything though, setting is the biggest change for Dead Space 3. The icy planet of Tau Voltanis isn't the only place players explore, but it's certainly been the most visible. What concerns many players is how this could betray the sense of isolation and horror associated with the strobing klaxons and pitch-black corridors of the USG Ishimura and The Sprawl, where the first two games take place. Papoutsis assured there are plenty of archaeological facilities and installations on the planet to deliver the series' trademark ambiance, but its outdoor environments take advantage of the inclement conditions to create atmosphere.

"You can get claustrophobia and the feeling of not knowing what's around the corner very easily by using the elements afforded to you by a frozen environment," he said. "We wanted to convey a sense of dread and oppressiveness when you're out in sub-zero conditions with low visibility. Having a whiteout, having things pop out of the snow at you--just the fact you're trying to survive in these terrible conditions sets you into this frame of mind where you're focused on surviving.

"That was one of the ways we planned to keep the sense of the unexpected alive."

The first two games wore their influences on their sleeves; nods to Sunshine, Event Horizon and the Alien franchise were everywhere. It's hard to look at Dead Space 3's frozen setting and not immediately think of The Thing, but that's not the main inspiration. Papoutsis said the game is a team effort and everyone has their own influences they bring with them to work whether it's comics, books or TV shows.

"There's not one movie or even a group of movies that really motivated anything in the game," he said. "The Empire Strikes Back has a planet with snow, not that we sat in a room and dissected that, but that's something you'll see things from here and there."

This time out, the bigger influence for the team was the stories and settings of the H.P. Lovecraft mythos. At the Mountains of Madness tells the story of an Antarctic expedition that uncovers an ancient evil and an entire alien civilization hidden in the icy wastes of the South Pole, it doesn't end well for anyone involved. Regarding how far the inspiration went, Papoutsis was coy.

"There's a little bit there. Definitely something that was interesting and I'll leave it at that."

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