Dead Space 3 and the horror of co-op

I recently had the chance to sit down with a final version of Dead Space 3 a bit in advance of our review. It was a largely unsupervised affair — I was given a station to play through the first four chapters of the game once on my own, then I was paired with another member of the press to play through the same content cooperatively.

As someone who tuned out Dead Space 3 around the time it was announced due to what seemed like co-op's arbitrary addition to the series, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this wasn't the case. In fact, playing through the first couple of hours of Dead Space 3, you'd be forgiven for wondering how co-op could be included at all. It was a tense, isolating experience.

Last week I spoke with Visceral Games Steve Papoutsis about what it takes to not screw up the franchise, how to make something scary without making players weak, and how co-op requires a different kind of horror.

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Polygon: This is the third main Dead Space game (eds' note: Papoutsis was the executive producer for Dead Space: Extraction on the Wii, which later appeared on the PS3). Walking into the development of Dead Space 3, what did you know you absolutely needed to not fuck up?

Steve Papoutsis: (laughs) Good question. So, I think when we kicked off working on Dead Space 3, like always we did a kind of inventory of where we were at with the franchise, and what continues to be a cornerstone of the franchise. For Dead Space, it's always been about great atmosphere, tension, immersion, great audio, suspense, terror, thrills, and action. And so those are elements we knew we needed to have in the game.

As we started exploring new concepts for the game and when co-op came into play, I would say the thing we really did not want to fuck up, to use your words, was making sure that the single player experience continued to deliver what players have come to expect. (That it) didn't become this single player game with an AI follower that changed the whole feeling that playing a single player Dead Space game to date had created with players. So that was probably the main thing.

P: You talked broadly about feel and tone and look and story, but let's talk about mechanics. What's the basic gameplay foundation of Dead Space that you've needed to be careful to not screw up or not change too much?

S: One of the core tenets or philosophies with the series has always been to work from the controller out. So, to really think about controls, and when we're creating tension, we're not doing it solely (by) the controls feeling bad. We wanted the controls to be easy to pick up, challenging and fun to master, and we didn't want the controls to ever feel like they were what was making the game scary -that you couldn't control your character, therefore it created tension, therefore you were scared.

So that's a very general answer. As you dig into what makes Dead Space (what it is), I think over the years it's evolved, but it's really always been about strategic dismemberment. That's one of the cornerstones, absolutely. Stasis is a key component, the ability to slow down enemies and use it in fun ways. And kinesis, which is the ability to pick up objects and fire them around the world. So with Dead Space 2 we evolved kinesis, evolving the ability to rip limbs off of downed enemies and fire them back at enemies and impale them. So that was a natural and logical evolution of that mechanic.

The other component that's been in the Dead Space series is zero-gravity, with zero G sections. With Dead Space we played around with simple point to point jumping version of it, and always felt that it would be great if we allowed players to have a little more control and more movement, so we've evolved those controls and allowed you to float around in the 3D space and move around freely, as opposed to being limited to one plane at any given time. So those are things that have always been cornerstones from the beginning, which we've continued to evolve.

With Dead Space 3, the evolution is really around continuing to make sure the controls that people have enjoyed are there, and don't feel drastically changed, because people are comfortable with that, and enjoyed them. But we've made some small enhancements to them allowing players to crouch, or roll or dodge out of the way. Also, when people really get into the game people will see an evolution of kinesis again, which allows us to use torque, so you can grab an object and rotate it, which is different and new.

In terms of enemies, I talked for a little bit about strategic dismemberment, but in terms of evolution and keeping it fresh in Dead Space 3, one of our new enemies which we call "The Waster" is actually a multi-state enemy that you can dismember and have him transform into different states. So if you're focusing on dismembering his top area, once you've shot off his arms or head, he'll sprout tentacles. If you shoot his legs, he'll become a crawler and jump from wall to wall and fire at you, basically creating another level of assessment for the strategy of defeating enemies. It's almost a puzzle using strategic dismemberment. So we're really leaning into the idea of being strategic when you're trying to defeat these enemies.

P: Do you think unpredictability is part of Dead Space's strategy for scares? You've talked about not wanting to make a game scary by making the game less responsive with regards to controls, and you've been fine tuning throughout the series — Dead Space 2 controlled better and I felt much more empowered. Traditionally survival horror has relied a lot on a limitation of control and a limitation of view, and that's been the defining motif of action horror. So how do you try to accomplish the same goal without resorting to the tricks that previous survival horror titles have used to make character weakness the root of that fear?

S: We've really strived to achieve the tension and scares and horror through our pacing. You kind of touched on it, making moments feel fresh and unexpected, and keeping players on the edge of their seat by surprising them from time to time. So we certainly leverage traditional scares, you know, your monster jumps out at you and gets you to kind of jump back. Really, we try to regulate the pace of the game, so we're creating these situations so at times, you feel very isolated and alone, you're in a very closed and oppressive feeling environment, and as you progress through that environment, maybe you start to hear sounds and you start to notice things and it starts to create an expectation in the player that something is going to happen. And then you get to a moment, and you hear a big bang, and you expect that the bang will be followed by an enemy, and it's just a grate falling out of the ceiling.

So there are a lot of little things that can be used to keep people on their toes, and create tension, and not resort to limiting them via controls. I think really it puts an onus on the team to kind of really pay close attention and put a lot of effort and love into creating these moments so that they work out properly. Ultimately I think that's much more satisfying pulling that off. We really just use the pace of the game, whether it's the combat or the downtime.

I think the downtime of the game, when you're traversing, is a huge part of creating tension and terror. It's about that expectation that I talked about - the anticipation factors into it. And varying the pace makes sure things don't become overly predictable, and it's one of the things the team does very well, I think, is the use of audio, to tease at things and set up things. So the music can come in, and you get a certain feel. And then when the music goes away, it makes you feel a different way. Really using everything to our advantage, visually, sonically.

P: One of the things I was struck by as I was playing through it single player is that, for lack of a better way to put it, it didn't feel like I was playing a co-op game by myself. To elaborate a little, I was a bit surprised at how often I was alone, as a character in that universe. The isolation didn't feel impacted by the fact that Dead Space 3 is a co-op game. As Isaac I think I was by myself about 90 percent of the time -

S: That was our goal, so that makes me super happy to hear it.


P: How does that affect the design process, as far as making a game that in large part is being marketed as a co-op experience but still has this single player legacy? How did that affect things to want to keep one and still have the other?

S: We certainly didn't make things easier on ourselves when we decided to do co-op and decided that we were going to do it in the way that we did it. I'm assuming you played it and got to play co-op?

P: I played through the entire demo (ed's note: around the end of chapter four) in single player and co-op.

S: Great. So speaking earlier about the thing we didn't want to fuck up, and it sounds like we didn't, one of the goals at the outset was to deliver a co-op experience that people hadn't really seen before, that didn't impact or distract from the single player. And one of the common things we think of as a team, which we say a lot and hopefully this doesn't come across as cheesy, but we also want to put our players first. We want to make sure that when they're playing the game, they never feel bummed out because of something we've done.

Playing a lot of co-op games with my friends, it's fun to come into work the next day and talk about it. What I've noticed is that sometimes the game will allow me to play co-op, but then my buddy gets busy and can't play for a few days. And you know, I just bought this game, I want to keep playing, and I think "do I need to wait for my buddy, or am I going to get ahead?" Eventually I just decide I'm going to play it single player and then I'll just go back to playing co-op when my friend's ready. And then I realize I've leveled up my character or got a powerful weapon and by the time my friend's ready to continue playing, I say screw that, because I don't want to go back to that save. My character in that save sucks. It immediately makes you feel that you're missing out on something cool, that you're farther ahead.

So we really thought, how do we avoid doing that? With Dead Space 3, if you and I were playing and you had to take a break for a few days, I could keep playing from the point you left. Even if I was Carver and you left, I could then play on as Isaac, using all the stuff that I'd amassed, all the weapons I crafted, all the progress that I made, and continue playing the game. So when you eventually came back, at that point I can make the choice to use chapter select to go back to where we parted ways and continue forward from there, or I could decide to start from the beginning again so we're on equal footing. It's the flexibility of the drop-in, drop-out nature of what we're creating that's really, really important, so that people can keep playing the game the way they wanted, and experience it any time that they wanted, and they're never in a situation where they're bummed out that they're playing single player or co-op. They have the control and ability to play it any way they wanted.

I'm super proud of what the team's been able to accomplish, because it's one of those little details that puts our players first, and shows that we think about them. So it was important to make sure that single player doesn't feel impacted by co-op, and that co-op and single player are interchangeable, so people could go and try it for a little while and leave it if they wanted to, and continue to kind of improve their game state.

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P: How do you go about making a game that works as a horror experience in a single player capacity and a co-operative capacity? It seems to me that a lot of Dead Space's basic horror premise is the prospect of violence in isolation. And co-op is obviously not that.

S: That's one of the big things that we really wanted to figure out. Basically, the team talked about what is Dead Space co-op? You've played a lot of co-op where it's just two dudes shooting things. And that works for those games, because it doesn't have this history of what the previous games were, right? if you're a soldier, and your buddy's a soldier, you're running around shooting bad guys, which makes sense from a fictional perspective. And it might make sense, from a lineage perspective for that game you're playing.

But with Dead Space, to your point, there's an expectation of what Dead Space is, and some people come to it for a very specific thing. So when we were deconstructing Dead Space and figuring out how we could make a co-op game, we really asked how we could continue to have those things that were really Dead Space elements, with the tension, and the immersion, and the fear of the unknown.

What we asked was how we got those things originally. We originally got them from Isaac, from his relationship and what he was going through, and the connection he had to his girlfriend, and the resulting actions that took place around that. And that all came from the character, and who he was, and the fact that he wasn't a superhero. He was an engineer in a bad place in a shitty situation. And that added to that kind of feeling.

So we wanted to recreate that in a way that made sense in Dead Space 3, which we did by introducing and all new character, which is John Carver. He's a more traditional character in that he's a soldier, but he's a soldier that's been through some very disturbing things, that fans can see in our graphic novel. He's been through some rough times. He's literally and mentally and emotionally scarred from those things. And so he immediately as a character has some flaws and some demons that he's dealing with, and has some vengeance that he has to get out, based on the things that have happened to him. And so he's kind of similar to Isaac in that he has similar things going on as Isaac.

So Dead Space 3 is trying to tap into the psychological horror. As you progress through the game, you start to get to see these things through the extra content you get with a partner. It becomes more important and more evident in the co-op version of the game. Dementia throughout the story is important - you'll see characters actually change, because the dementia is there, and people who are new to the franchise need to understand that when the markers are around, they cause people to go crazy and do irrational things, which you'll see throughout the game. That became more of the horror aspect for co-op.

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