Glen Schofield is currently the General Manager of the EA Redwood Shores studio, serving as Executive Producer on Dead Space, EA’s new sci-fi survival horror game coming on October 14. Glen has been working in the games industry for 17 years, and has produced several bestselling games including titles in the Lord of the Rings, James Bond, and Legacy of Kain series. He is a huge horror and sci-fi movie and book fan as well as a big time gamer.
The idea for Dead Space came from being a huge sci-fi and a huge horror fan. I wondered why the two hadn’t really come together in a game, in the way that Alien had in the movies.
I wanted to make something that was very scary. I like other games in the horror genre, Resident Evil IV, for example, but do they scare me? Not really. I felt that there was room to try and make a really scary, horrifying, dreadful game.
The secret of great horror, especially in a game that’s lasting more than 20 hours, is variety. I’ve likened it to a punch line in a joke. You can only say it once or twice and then it’s no longer funny.
It’s the same thing with scary. You can do the same thing, one or two times, but after a while it loses its effectiveness.
Developing this in practice is a constant process of trial and error; of iteration and reworking. The effect of the horror is almost like a mechanic in the game. You try and try and if it doesn’t work you try something else.
It’s about doing something that the player doesn’t expect – something shocking and surprising.
But it’s also about doing something they do expect. They know something is coming, they feel the tension, they are waiting, waiting…and then it finally happens.
The point is, we have to completely change it up all the time.
When we started out, we created lists of ways to frighten the hell out of people. We broke it down into different types of scary – boo moments when something jumps out or psychological moments, or that fear you feel about ghosts or that religious kind of unease.
When you turn those moments into scenarios, or start to mix things up, you get a lot of variety. I’d say we left a lot of things on those lists, because we couldn’t cram it all in, or because, when it came down to the actual experience, it didn’t work out. That’s the iteration process.
There’s a big range of experiences – from lots of audio and visual stuff coming at you from no-where, right into your field of vision; to no music at all, an empty room, and the sound of a can rolling along the floor.
We try to confound expectations. Say you come out of some crazy hellhole. You get a moment of quiet, a moment to breath. Then, the next time you emerge from a hellhole, you’re expecting some peace and quiet. When you get something different, it’s unnerving, so part of the experience is always being on edge. We just mess with your mind as much as possible.
I have watched every freaking horror movie known to man; from big budget epics to five buck slashers. I learned something about what makes scary, from every single one. There’s a lot to learn from other media as well as from the team. Everyone on the team is a game-maker and a game player; but they also experience all manner of media, and they brought a lot of ideas to the table.
The Importance of AI
One of the biggest problems of being scary in a game, is that you don’t always know where the player is going to be. We have to constantly think about where that camera is, where the person is going to be, how do we get really, really inventive with our horror.
It’s not like a movie where all the elements of the shot are arranged just so.
To combat this, we have a very complex AI. We made some the enemies are very smart. They want to get to you. They’re going to climb into a vent and you’re going to hear clanking in the ceiling and you’re not going to know where the hell they are. That’s scary.
There are moments where I still jump because the AI does something unexpected. We have some scares in the game that actually scare us, because we don’t know that they’re coming for us.
Because it’s not al scripted, we can’t set shots up like they do in the movies. But we can do a lot of things they can’t.
When I’m watching a movie I never feel like I’m the one on-screen in whatever horrible situation they are in. I’m detached. I’m watching, sitting there and I am thinking ‘don’t go into that barn you fool’.
But when you’re playing a videogame you’re that guy outside the barn. You know why you’ve got to go into the barn and you know what it feels like to step into the darkness.
I know I shouldn’t go into that barn, but I really don’t have a choice. I need to think of a strategy to survive. It’s so much more powerful than sitting there watching someone on screen doing something that seems stupid.
Gore and Corpses
Another element of the game is the gore. It’s not everywhere, but it is part of the visual experience. It’s something that you’ve got to get right, because if you don’t, the effect isn’t horrifying, it’s just ludicrous.
In the story of Dead Space, there was a war that happened on the ship before Isaac, the main character, gets there. So he’s going to find a lot of nasty stuff, corpses in various states of annihilation.
We knew this would be difficult to portray, because sometimes gore in games looks cheap and unrealistic.
Sure enough, the first few corpses that we did, just weren’t convincing enough. I rejected them.
This sounds horrible, but we had to go look at pictures of car accidents and war scenes and things like that because we had to get it right; we had to portray scenes of terrible carnage and realism. It’s a big part of making that experience convincing.
The corpses that we ended up making are just horrible. When you see them like that, they’re pretty disgusting. We had to have some gore to be sure that it was much more realistic then any game before.
We also had to come up with some crazy technology for Zero Gravity – having blood and limbs and even maggots floating around. We had to create the technology that allows blood to be splattered in Zero G, which is difficult.
The gore is part of the pacing, but as I said at the beginning of this piece, you don’t want to do anything over and over again, which is why we mix up gory and clean sections of the game.
I want to make one final point about the violence and blood in Dead Space, and it’s important to me.
Isaac is not a murderer. He’s an everyday guy set in a situation that just really sucks. He’s not walking around killing humans, he’s walking around killing monsters.
It’s an important distinction to me, that it’s not gratuitous human on human violence, and that it about an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation. I hope it also makes the game even more frightening.