Frank Gibreau, President of EA Labels, sat down with CVG recently to speak on a variety of topics involving EA’s projects including Battlefield 3 and Need for Speed. One area of discussion happened to be the Dead Space IP and the evolution of the entries in the franchise. Of note is the drastic change involved with Dead Space 3.
What we’ve tried to do with each installment is tell a different story about Isaac but at the same time bring in new features and ways to turn the game into a more connected experience. For example, in the second one we added the deathmatch multiplayer, but we found from fans that they loved the single-player but when they went online they felt it really didn’t capture what Dead Space was about. I think it was well executed, but it wasn’t a big hit with fans.
When we went into the research, we created a few prototypes around co-op. Because one of the insights that producer Steve Papoutsis had was that when you go to see a horror movie it’s always more fun to go with somebody else. It’s more fun to be scared together than by yourself. So we embraced that idea and we tried to open up the accessibility of the IP a little bit by adding a little bit more action, but not undermining the horror. We can’t not be a horror game because that’s what Dead Space is.
So with the addition of co-op and taking it to a planet and mostly away from space… we’re pushing it in areas such as environment, co-op and at the same time we definitely do not want to piss off our fans by taking it too far from horror. We’re very self aware of that – we listen to the fans and we hear them.
A noble endeavor, indeed. Have a set goal and try to get there through various means. But in their quest to make the game more connective, which is a strange goal for a game like Dead Space anyway, they seem to have forgotten some basic tenets such as how horror works.
Let’s take that original idea from Steve Papoutsis as a start. It’s also more fun to go see a horror movie with someone else. This is true for the most part. People do enjoy seeing horror movies with friends. The discrepancy here is that it’s a horror movie. Not a horror video game. What’s forgotten here is the barrier between the horror material and the consumer of horror. In a movie, each individual is affected by the horror personally because it is only them and the work in front of them. The music, cinematography, story, and general content all come together to influence the individual in a certain way that is not affected by having someone else around. That’s why people can feel scared of a lone serial killer despite being in a room with hundreds of other people. That’s why some people get more frightened than others or why different people are unnerved by different things. Nobody is sharing any experience here, they’re a bunch of people having their own personal experience with the same catalyst.
This does not carry over to video games. Doubly so for co-op video games.
The gameplay is the first barrier to group-based horror. Unlike a film which is made a certain, specific, and unchangeable way, video game experiences are completely dynamic. They’re influenced by the player in every regard. Try gathering a group of people to play Silent Hill or Fatal Frame and watch how each person reacts to what’s happening. The player will feel the most tension as they have to manipulate the game to accomplish tasks, often under the pressure of harm or death, leading to them being more intensely focused on the action and content than the others, who will simply be watching the screen and seeing what the player is accomplishing. Their entire experience revolves around the player’s playstyle and they will receive a diluted experience because they have a buffer between themselves and the horror. Will it be frightening? Maybe, but it won’t be anywhere near as bad for them as it will be the player, who has focused their entire concentration on the content. The horror in video games is direct only to the player due to the levels of concentration.
Playing horror video games as a group is not nearly as fun as seeing a horror movie together.
Now, on the issue of co-op: that only makes it worse. Yes, you have more players but it does not multiply the amount of people feeling the same level of horror. If anything, it dilutes it much like adding twice the amount of water than recommended to a spoonful of Kool Aid thanks to many factors introduced and exclusive to co-op. Things like players having to constantly keep in mind where and how their partner is, ammo and health distribution, getting in each others’ ways, etc. In co-op, players never, ever forget about each other and that’s what kills the horror. Right when Hannibal Lecter is killing the guard and stealing his face, are people really remembering that their friend might leave their cell phone behind? When Jack is breaking down the door with an axe, are people really so concerned that their friend has eaten more popcorn than they have? No, they’re not. Not at all.
Co-op is a natural and substantial buffer between horror and the player. Consequently, there has never been a horror game with a co-op focus that has been done well. Resident Evil 5 and F.E.3.R. tried and failed miserably, both remembered as probably the worst entries in their series.
What’s really concerning is that they’ve taken away everything that people liked about the first two games (the isolation, the conservation of resources, the alien enemies, the unfamiliar and unknown settings) with the justification that they’re keeping the horror central to the series. But they can’t possibly do that either because of the co-op focus. Perhaps they’ll do a good job of keeping it around for the single player run-through but there seems to be a clear focus on co-op on EA’s part.
In the end, I’m not sure what fans EA is listening to. It’s hard to find anyone who thinks any of these announced changes to the Dead Space series are good ideas. The series was built on a slow-paced adventure filled with elongated stretches of nothingness and a lingering feeling of dread that something will happen to you around the next bend. It had interesting enemies with a unique way of fighting them, and many tense moments where players were trying to juggle imminent threats and a lack of ammo consecutively. There was the constant run of adrenaline and a fight or die feeling at all times because there was no help.
It’s all been removed now to try and make way for a co-op shooter that can be scary. Like F.E.3.R. and Resident Evil 5 said they would do too.