To say Bret Robbins has had an impressive career in the video games industry would probably be an understatement. The dude has worked on some of the biggest, well-known, AAA franchises in gaming history including several entries in the Call of Duty franchise and the Legacy of Kain series. But it may be his work as the Creative Director for the original Dead Space that he’s most well-known. Nowadays, Bret is working on his own games as CEO of Ascendant Studios, but he was kind enough to take a moment to sit down with us here at Shacknews and let us nerd out about the original Dead Space and what he’s been getting into lately. So, we did just that.
Shacknews: The original Dead Space was one of the scariest sci-fi horror experiences to ever grace home consoles. Where did you draw inspiration for the environment and creatures?
Bret Robbins: We knew early on that we wanted to have a single location for the entire game, so that there would be a certain level of consistency and familiarity as you explored. Trapping you on a big spaceship felt like a good horror setting, and making it a mining ship allowed for lots of industrial, dangerous environments. We wanted there to be a lot of negative space in the art (holes and ribbing and panels) so that you felt like there was more to it beyond the path that you could take, and that things could be lurking in the walls or underneath you at any time. Classic horror films like the original Alien or Event Horizon were definitely an influence in developing the look. For the Necromorphs, the idea that they were people that had been sort of turned inside out was interesting and kind of disgusting. Their movements were being controlled by something alien, so that affected the animation style and made them seem creepy but also somewhat relatable.
Shacknews: I was always intrigued by the lore of Dead Space. Altman’s cult is definitely a unique aspect of the game’s plot. Can you speak at all to where Altman came from and how it affected development?
Bret Robbins: The story needed to have some layers to it, otherwise it had the danger of being one note. Adding in the cult angle gave us some more horror elements, and also gave a rationale for how things got so messed up to begin with. We wanted there to be some human error and accountability wrapped up in the whole thing, not just random victims that were being attacked by aliens. The idea that this cult could see the Necromorphs as some kind of savior or revelation was interesting to us.
Shacknews: One of Dead Space’s most iconic mechanics was the ability to dismember the Necromorphs in order to take them down. I’m really curious as to how this feature came to life. Was it always in the game’s core design or did it come down the pipeline later?
Bret Robbins: This was a decision that we made really early on, and stuck with throughout development. And it wasn’t easy! Dismemberment as a “pillar” of the game influenced everything, from weapon design to enemy behavior to the player controls. To be honest, as the Creative Director, I had my doubts at times that it would work out, but it ended up being a memorable hook and gave our combat a unique identity.
Shacknews: While technically undead, the necromorphs put off more of a Cronenberg vibe than a zombie vibe in a time where it felt like every video game was full of zombies. I feel like that was another way that Dead Space stood out from the crowd. Was there ever a point where necromorphs were more like the traditional mindless, shuffling brain-eaters?
Bret Robbins: Making the Necromophs fast and dangerous was an early decision. We didn’t want traditional zombies. We wanted these aliens that took over and reconstituted your body for various purposes. There was never a concept of the zombie that you needed to shoot in the brain, or that would turn you if they bit you, etc. They needed to be something different.
Shacknews: I’ve heard that you sampled the sounds of BART trains. As a Bay Area native I love that little Easter egg. Were there any other ways that the Bay Area influenced development?
Bret Robbins: Our sound designers were amazing. Audio was so important to that game, not only for the horror but to make the ship feel unique. I’m a Bay Area native as well, and I love that they used the trains. I’m not sure if there were other Bay Area influences, other than the fact that a local core group of us worked together for many years on previous projects and really had formed a cohesion that helped make the game better.
Shacknews: What did you think of the recent Dead Space remake/remaster reveal teaser EA put out?
Bret Robbins: Love it! I can’t wait to see what they do with it. I’m a huge survival horror fan, so anything in that genre I play immediately. But the fact that it’s Dead Space really has me excited.
Shacknews: You’re now the founder and CEO of Ascendant Studios, how did your time on AAA titles like Dead Space and Call of Duty prepare you for your current endeavor?
Bret Robbins: I’ve worked in the industry for a couple decades now and was fortunate to make some great games with amazing people. I had always wanted to run my own studio, and I got that opportunity in 2018 when I formed Ascendant Studios. We are in a rare position of operating independently with total creative control and accountability for the games we want to make. We are currently making an original AAA title, and I’m bringing many lessons and experiences from my past projects to bear.
Dead Space in particular comes up a lot because it was one of the new IPs I had helped to create, and that’s exactly what we are doing now in our own company. Designing from a blank page is always exciting and challenging.
Shacknews: Can you talk about some of the projects you’re working on at Ascendant now?
Bret Robbins: I want to talk ALL about it, but it’s a big secret at the moment! We are extremely focused on making something great, and I’m incredibly proud of the work the team has been doing. I can’t wait to share more!
Thanks to Bret and Ascendant Studios for taking the time to chat with us. You can keep up with Ascendant Studios over on their official Twitter feed. And you can find more information on the upcoming Dead Space remaster right here at Shacknews!