Franchise Festival #111: Dead Space

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a fortnightly column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.

This week we’ll be mining the interstellar catacombs of Dead Space. Cover art is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.


Background

Electronic Arts (EA) transplanted its headquarters from San Mateo to Redwood Shores in 1998. Following the move, the studio set up a new internal development label called EA Redwood Shores. This team would establish a reputation for competent but unremarkable licensed titles like 007: Agent Under Fire (2001) and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003) before finally being given the opportunity to create a distinctive new intellectual property (IP) in the mid-2000s.

Dead Space (2008)

Inspired by the success of Resident Evil 4‘s over-the-shoulder camera perspective and emphasis on white-knuckle combat, Executive Producer Glen Schofield and Senior Development Director Michael Condrey set out to produce the gold standard of survival shooters. The team initially pitched their game in early 2006 as Rancid Moon, an original horror property set in space, and built a prototype using the original Xbox console in only three months. Once their corporate supervisors greenlit the project, Redwood Shores shifted development to the Xbox 360 under creative director Bret Robbins using  the proprietary engine it had designed for The Godfather (2006). Dead Space launched on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows PC platforms in October 2008.

Isaac Clarke and his team approach the Ishimura. Source: virtualcat2010

Players take on the role of aptly-named Isaac Clarke, an engineer who lands on the seemingly abandoned USG Ishimura alongside his small team in 2508. This vessel, designed to mine distant planets and return the resulting booty to a deeply resource-strapped Earth, is owned and operated by the Concordance Extraction Corporation (CEC). Clarke discovers upon his arrival that the Ishimura has been overtaken and infested by Necromorphs, grotesque monsters created by an eerie object called the Red Marker, and sets off on a quest to find his missing girlfriend Nicole and escape the ship.

Necromorphs’ terrifying clawed appendages can only be slowed by removing them from the host’s body. Source: MobyGames

Players defeat Necromorphs by dismembering their lanky bodies using a futuristic bolt cutter and other weapons. Instead of a traditional heads-up display (HUD) that conveys character health, ammunition and so forth, the player must rely on environmental details to remain alive; Dead Space‘s over-the-shoulder perspective foregrounds a series of lights on Clarke’s back that correspond to his health, while a translucent screen can be brought up to confirm remaining ammunition without pausing the surrounding action.

Enemies can attack Clarke while he uses his projected inventory. Source: MobyGames

The Ishimura’s claustrophobic corridors eventually give way to a handful of sequences set on the ship’s exterior. These areas replace creeping dread with zero-g platforming challenges and turret-based asteroid-blasting, increasing gameplay variety at the expense of tension. Twists and turns in the narrative are more effective, though, as Clarke learns about a deadly conspiracy led by the Church of Unitology cult.

The asteroid-blastin’ sections leave a bit to be desired. Source: virtualcat2010

Dead Space did exactly what its creators had intended, definitively establishing Resident Evil 4-inspired third-person survival shooters as the predominant sub-genre of video game horror. Criticism of its meandering mid-game couldn’t dampen fan enthusiasm for a series that had so perfectly captured the interstellar terror of James Cameron’s Aliens in an interactive medium. It was so commercially successful that EA soon granted Redwood Shores a new name, Visceral Games, and asked the team to produce a sequel.

Dead Space 2 (2011)

Thanks to an extensive 2011 interview with Creative Director Wright Bagwell by Gamasutra’s Kris Graft, we have a deep well of knowledge on Dead Space 2‘s development. As had been the case in the early stages of planning Dead Space, many of the scariest moments were pitched by all levels of staff during informal roundtable conversations. These setpieces would then be prototyped and whole levels would be built around them. 

Fan input led the team to change the game’s pacing, offering moments of greater freedom and empowerment to reduce the potential for players being desensitized by constant tension. Grisly death animations were likewise prioritized due to the popularity of YouTube videos compiling fail states from the previous game. The studio was aware of new trends in horror, including genre-defining indie hit Amnesia (2010), but believed that retaining a strong focus on action was the only way to remain commercially viable among a large audience. EA published Dead Space 2 on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows PC platforms in January 2011.

The Sprawl is a much more densely populated environment than the USG Ishimura. Source: Dead Space Wiki

The second chapter in Visceral’s spooky space story is set on the Sprawl, a civilian station built within Saturn’s shattered moon of Titan. Clarke awakens in a Sprawl hospital in 2511 with no memory of the three years since he escaped the USG Ishimura. A Necromorph outbreak soon overtakes his new surroundings, leading Clarke to team up with pilot Ellie Langford in a quest to save other survivors and halt the violence. EarthGov, the totalitarian government of Earth and its spacefaring population, is revealed to be a sinister force more concerned with covering up dangerous atrocities than averting them.

Quick-time events allow for more terrifying scripted moments. Source: MobyGames

Much of Dead Space‘s gameplay returns, including diegetic HUD elements, powers that allow Clarke to slow time or telekinetically move objects, and automated shops from which Clarke can acquire supplies. Changes, like expanded level design and new Necromorph creatures, are largely iterative. The most significant mechanical departure from the preceding game is the addition of thrusters to Clarke’s suit; these allow him to more freely navigate zero-g environments and make those gameplay segments more compelling than the exterior spaces of Dead Space.

Dead Space 2 features more NPCs to interact with, and Isaac Clarke consequently evolves from a silent protagonist to speaking role. Source: MobyGames

As part of an EA initiative to “keep people playing long after they bought it,” new copies of Dead Space 2 were packaged with an online pass that granted access to a four-versus-four competitive multiplayer mode. This scenario, which sees a team of Necromorphs trying to stop a human team from accomplishing an objective in one of several maps set across the Sprawl, remains active a decade after the game’s release. A paid downloadable content (DLC) package titled Dead Space 2: Severed was likewise designed to enhance long-term player engagement by continuing the story of two characters introduced in Dead Space: Extraction, a spinoff rail shooter released for the Wii and PlayStation 3 in 2009. A stronger critical response than the one received by Dead Space and 4,000,000 copies sold were not enough to offset the game’s $60,000,000 budget, however, leading EA to be more involved than ever in dictating how the series’ next game was designed.

Dead Space 3 (2013)

In a 2012 interview with CVG, EA’s Frank Gibeau explained that “we’re thinking about how we make this a more broadly appealing franchise, because ultimately you need to get to audience sizes of around five million to really continue to invest in an IP like Dead Space.” This directly translated into a mandate for more multiplayer components and less horror. According to producer Zachary Mumbach, as quoted by Jason Schreier in Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry (2021), “Co-op came from publishing. Publishing said, ‘You need to make this game co-op for it to be viable.’” Co-op required an online pass bundled with new copies of the game, artificially driving down the resale market. EA’s capricious business strategy would be put to the test when Dead Space 3 launched for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC on February 5, 2013.

Clarke is no longer alone when he battles Necromorphs and Unitology cultists, since a second player can take the role of Jason Carver via online connectivity. Source: MobyGames

Isaac Clarke returns as the primary player character, but he’s joined for the first time by a playable partner named Jason Carver. Carver introduces Clarke to the team’s objective: rescuing Dead Space 2‘s Ellie Langford – with whom Clarke had experienced a doomed romance following the events of the previous game – from a colony on the ice planet Tau Volantis. Pursued by radical Unitologists, Carver and Isaac flee Earth’s moon on the USM Eudora before encountering hordes of Necromorphs on the derelict USM Roanoke. They eventually make their way to Tau Volantis itself, where they meet up with Langford and uncover the history of the series’ mysterious Marker obelisks.

Tau Volantis offers exploratory minigames, like this tonally-questionable rappelling segment. Source: MobyGames

Combat is still focused on dismembering enemies using projectile weapons. The game’s emphasis on action and set-piece battles, however, necessitates the addition of a dodge roll. Crafting is likewise a bigger part of the series than ever before, as Clarke and Carver create new weapons from scratch at designated weapon stations rather than simply upgrading weapons as Clarke had in preceding titles.

Boss fights are bigger and more bombastic than ever. Source: MobyGames

While Dead Space 3 can be completed by a single player, its cooperation-oriented level design departed from what fans had been expecting. Even so, critical reviews remained surprisingly positive and Dead Space 3 became the bestselling video game of February 2013 in North America. Unfortunately, these sales failed to meet EA’s unreasonably high projections. Following March 2013’s Awakening, a story-based DLC that sees Clarke and Carver attempting to return to Earth on a Unitologist ship, EA put the series on indefinite hiatus.

Spinoffs

Though it only flourished briefly during the years immediately preceding and following 2010, Dead Space produced a large number of spinoffs. This was an intentional effort to entice non-traditional video game fans to the series using a strategy referred to by then-EA CEO John Ricitello as “IP cubed.” Many of the resulting works fall outside the scope of this column by virtue of being other forms of media – two animated films, two comic series, and four novels – but three spinoff games were released between 2009 and 2011.

Lighting effects make Extraction into a worthy successor to its source material. Source: MobyGames

The first, Dead Space: Extraction, is an on-rails shooter that initially launched on the Wii in 2009 before making its way to PlayStation 3 two years later. Its ten chapters tell the story of detective Nathan McNeill and surveyor Lexine Murdoch in the days immediately preceding the events of Dead Space, as up to two players experience the discovery of the Red Marker on Aegis VII before fending off Necromorphs on the USG Ishimura. Rather than being a cheap cash-in, Extraction features a host of original Necromorph designs, a weapon upgrade system, and an atmospheric lighting mechanic that allows the player to only temporarily illuminate dark spaces by shaking their controller.

Ignition trades Necromorph battles for colorful minigames. Source: MobyGames

Dead Space: Ignition (2010) was developed in collaboration with outside studios Megatube and Sumo Digital. Three minigames – a Pipe Dream-esque block-shifting puzzle, a reverse tower defense assault, and an overhead racer in which the player infiltrates a computer system as a virus – are interspersed with motion comics that depict the events leading up to the Sprawl’s Necromorph outbreak. Ignition was simultaneously made available as a free bonus for players who pre-ordered Dead Space 2 and as a standalone purchase on the Xbox Arcade and PlayStation Network digital distribution platforms. While the game was broadly criticized for its inconsistent art and unengaging gameplay, players who make it to the end credits were rewarded with unlockable content in Dead Space 2.

Dead Space‘s mobile port is a genuinely impressive translation of the core series’ mechanics and presentation into a portable setting. Shame it’s been delisted. Source: Dead Space Wiki

The series’ final spinoff, regrettably titled Dead Space, was developed by IronMonkey and released on iOS in 2011 before making its way to Android and BlackBerry devices shortly thereafter. Impressively, the game takes the form of a third-person shooter that directly imitates the style of its home console source material. Players take on the role of Unitologist Karrie Norton as she infiltrates Titan Station’s Government Sector and unwittingly kicks off a Necromorph invasion. The input problems often encountered when playing traditional games with a touch-screen failed to negatively impact Dead Space, which was regarded by critics as one of the best mobile titles of 2011. Unfortunately, as is often the case with iOS and Android releases, the game was delisted from digital storefronts in 2017 and is now only accessible through emulation.

Conclusion

Dead Space was born in 2008 from the passion of Visceral’s development team and a rare willingness to explore new IPs by publisher EA. This promising relationship would be undone only five years later, as Visceral’s intensely unsettling vision was compromised by EA’s demand for exponentially larger sales. Visceral was given one last chance to produce a hit with first-person shooter Battlefield: Hardline (2015) before being dissolved by its parent company in 2017. This was not the end for Dead Space, however: after nearly a decade on ice, Dead Space was finally revived with EA’s announcement of a forthcoming remake in 2021. For the first time in nearly a decade, Isaac Clarke is ready to remind players how terrifying space can be.


What do you think about Dead Space? Which is your favorite series entry? Spookiest Necromorph ambush? Ever played any of the spinoffs? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Be sure to tune into the monthly Franchise Festival podcast if you’d like to hear an even more granular exploration of noteworthy video game series. If you enjoy the articles or the show, please consider backing us on Patreon. Patrons, like our newest backer Celeste, make it possible to keep producing great content!

As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:

  • #112: Assassin’s Creed, 2007-2014 – November 5
  • #113: Assassin’s Creed, 2014-2020 – November 19
  • #114: Breath of Fire – December 3
  • #115: Metal Gear – December 17
  • #116: Dragon Age – January 7