The Dead Space franchise boasts a home to many a disgusting creature, with Visceral's art department plumbing nightmarish depths to create some truly abhorrent apparitions. We caught up with Art Director Ian Milham to have a chat about the challenges of stepping things up for a sequel.
Matt Gardner: Hi Ian. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us this afternoon.
Ian Milham: No problem. It’s good to be here!
Matt Gardner: Let’s jump straight in. When you sat down to start planning Dead Space 2, obviously coming in off the back of a wider acclaimed first game, what was your main focus going forward in terms of the art direction for the sequel? How did it differ from the first game?
Ian Milham: I think the big thing was that with the original Dead Space we were so concerned with being original and establishing our own look in every sort of way that it might I art directed it maybe a little too tightly, resulting in a game that might have perhaps been a little too samey in that respect. Hour ten, for example, might have looked quite a lot like hour one.
The key, for us, in terms of this sequel really came down to one word: variety. So retaining the level of quality we had in the first game, but with a lot more variety. So instead of just one brown spaceship, there are now loads of different looks from Isaac, to the locations, enemies, everything else. It still looks like a Dead Space game, but with more variety.
Matt Gardner: From what we’ve seen so far of The Sprawl, being an urban metropolis with families represented here too, there certainly seems to be a wider range of enemies – and indeed a more varied array of reanimated corpses – this time around.
Ian Milham: Absolutely. One of the things we wanted to do with the enemies this time around is give them much more of a story. Each one of them has a much more readily identifiable history to them, there are more clues as to what they were before, whether an adult or child, but also how they came to be reconfigured. It makes the enemies slightly more evocative in a way. I think in the past a few of the Necromorphs might have appeared as a bit of a mess of parts, now you can really tell what happened to them. That was our big buzzword when it came to enemy design this time around: trying to be more evocative.
Matt Gardner: I imagine the Necromorphs can be quite fun to design, but I’m assuming that you don’t simply take a dead body and stick on a crimped limb here and a tentacle there, marinated in a bucket of gore...
Ian Milham: (Laughs) Yeah there’s slightly more to it than that!
Matt Gardner: They’re such striking enemies. Where do you begin with the Necromorphs, particularly with regard to this game?
Ian Milham: Well the designers have a specific gameplay role in mind when they’re coming up with ideas for the Necromorphs. Let’s take The Pregnant [the rather large pregnant reanimated beasts who release mini Necros if you shoot them in the belly] as an example. They basically said, ‘Ok...we’ve set up this notion in the game that it’s really good for you to place your shots and use strategic dismemberment when taking out enemies. Now we want to punish the player if they don’t. So it’s not just that it’s better to strategically dismember, but now it’s much worse if you don’t. So if you shoot them in the gut, more enemies come out!’
That’s all we were told.
So then we start coming up with a look, an idea, then we draw a bunch of silhouettes which is basically just the outine of the creature. Then, from the silhouettes, we’ll build and animate a very rough model that just gives us an idea of whether we’re going in the right direction. From there if we’re good going forward we’ll dive into the fiction and start fleshing it out and move towards final drawings.
Felix Kemp: The Sprawl is obviously a much larger, more diverse setting for this game than the Ishimura was for the previous title. What sort of locales can we expect Isaac to find himself in, and what would you say is your favourite setting.
Ian Milham: Oh wow, you know I think my favourite might just have to be the elementary school.
Ian Milham: Exactly, I mean right away everybody smiles because they can imagine it you know. Everybody went to an elementary school, at least I hope so, so there are certain touchstones of what we remember. So there are certain visual elements that we can really play off of and mix things up to create a fresher, often scarier experience than one might find in a brown hallway. I mean, we’ll give you a brown hallway! But by going into these unique settings, by playing around with visual elements that are so identifiable and so universal, it allows us to do some really cool stuff. And you’ll see a lot of it.
Matt Gardner: A potentially contentious question, but we wanted to get your take on it...Obviously here in Dead Space 2 we get so see a fair amount of Isaac sans-suit. He talks and we can see his face, and might even be said to resemble another EA-related hero – a certain Commander Shepard.
Ian Milham: (Laughs) I was actually a female Shep!
Matt Gardner: But what would be your response to potential detractors suggesting that now he’s just another stubbly white man with short dark brown hair?
Ian Milham: Well there are reasons that characters end up looking that way a lot. They have to do with broad applicability, you want as a broad a range of people to get behind them, but there are other considerations too. Take the very short cropped hair, for example, in third person games – and this might sound a bit silly but it’s true – you want the characters to block as little as possible. If you have someone with flowing locks there, their hair becomes part of the story and we don’t want that.
I get how people are like ‘Oh it’s another mid-thirties white male with a shaved head’, but those decisions happen for a reason. Although Isaac’s in his forties, and is a bit haggard...you know, what with everything that’s happened to him.
Felix Kemp: How did you approach boss enemy design this time around? Previously, there were one or two larger Necromorphs, but also smaller more human creatures to face as well. Was there an urge to step the scale up for the sequel?
Ian Milham: Without giving too much away, 300 foot tall giant monsters are...fine...but it feels like that’s a little tapped out now. I mean anyone who played God of War III that’s great, but what are you going to do now – like 2000 ft tall monsters instead of 1000 ft tall monsters? It’s been taken to the edge of parody anyway so we needed to come up with other things, things more resonant with the story.
So we have a boss where we wanted really frantic energy. Real fights are frantic, chaotic and hard to figure out. So we have a boss designed to convey that over-the-top frenetic action. But also bosses more in relation to Isaac’s character development. We tried to shy away from epic size for size’s sake.
Matt Gardner: A word that gets bandied around a lot these days, with regard to games that seem to have strong, polished visuals and a welld-one score, is ‘cinematic’. I think it’s a word that gets misused an awful lot...
Ian Milham: I’d absolutely agree...
Matt Gardner: ...and whether for good or ill arises from a desire to constantly compare one medium of entertainment to another. With that in mind, we talk a lot about influences, and there are some obvious genre parallels – Aliens, Event Horizon to name a couple – but you’ve talked about wanting to evoke specific feelings. Did you draw on any other, perhaps more alternative sources, for that?
Ian Milham: Well it’s funny...people talk about Dead Space being a cinematic game but in so many ways it’s not. In this second game, for example, there’s not a single camera cut, from the moment you turn the power button on it’s a seamless experience, no loading screens, no cuts. Uncharted is a very cinematic game. They’re always cutting or trying to actively frame their scenes, the camera is almost a character in itself. Hopefully in our game you just kind of ignore the camera completely.
In terms of our influences, we don’t tend to think of the literal look of a film or exact description of a book,, but rather think about pieces of art or things in life that make us feel how we want the player to feel. So for this we drew from the loneliness, distrust and that recoiling at disgusting horror in John Carpenter’s The Thing. But then you have simple things like the colour scheme. You look at the movie Se7en and half of the impact of that film, for me, was just in the colour of the movie. The film itself felt hopeless and drained of hope and life. It was colour graded and oily. So, yeah, we tried to pick up on evocative things rather than simply make aesthetic stylistic choices.
Matt Gardner: It’s quite interesting that you say that regarding colour because in many ways, as a gamer, I sometimes get the feeling that some simply try to do that by sucking all of the colour out of a game, which isn’t the same thing. Dead Space had a certain grey and brown persistent tone to it, but this sequel seems rather more colourful.
Ian Milham: Yes, the game itself contains a lot of colours, maybe not all of them at the same time. But we do a lot with colour to emphasise a certain mood or action and look to use light and shadow far more than a limited palette. We didn’t want to just make it ‘next-gen brown’.
Matt Gardner: Finally, we like to ask this question, what in your personal opinion is the most awesome, kick-ass thing about Dead Space 2...that you can tell us about?
Ian Milham: (Whistles) Wow...oh man...It’s like choosing between my children. There’s so much good stuff and things I’m proud of what the team has accomplished. You know what, I’m going to go back to the seamlessness, because it’s actually really hard to do. It’s one of those things that most people won’t notice when they play it. But you know what? When you go on to another game and you’re hit with all of these awkward camera angles, then you’ll notice and hopefully be like ‘Aw man, Dead Space 2 was awesome!’ (Laughs)
Matt Gardner: (Laughs) Thanks Ian, it’s been a pleasure.
Ian Milham: Thank you so much.
Big thanks to Ian for talking to us last Friday. Did you enjoy the interview? Have a favourite disgusting Necromorph that you’d like to share with the rest of us? Do you think there should be more instances of sucking the colour out of games? Give us your reactions to the interview below!