Horror journeys into the mind in 'Dead Space 3'

In "Dead Space 3," developers moved to more psychological horror to keep up the franchise's scary tone for a third time.

Story highlights

  • In "Dead Space 3," developers explore psychological horror to keep up the scares
  • Producer says his team knew they needed to keep the story fresh
  • "Dead Space 3" is the most anticipated horror game of 2013
  • It went on sale Tuesday in North America, sells later this week in Australia, Europe
When you are creating the most anticipated horror video game of 2013, there is a certain trepidation about how you are going to bring the scares to your audience. Visceral Games hopes it's up to the challenge with its latest title, "Dead Space 3."
In the series' third installment, everyone's favorite head case, Isaac Clarke, is back, and still trying to get the visions of a twisted future out of his head. Aliens are still transforming humans into hideous necromorphs (zombie-like creatures made from different body parts) and it is up to Isaac to save humanity from a fate worse than death.
Steve Papoutsis, executive producer of the "Dead Space" franchise, said his team recognized that keeping things fresh and scary for fans in the third title would be a challenge. It was easy to frighten players in the first game just by introducing the team's horrifying creations, and the second title offered new scares by changing the pacing of the action.
This time, Papoutsis said, the developers are adding new creatures and answering plot questions that have lingered throughout the franchise. However, they really wanted to dive into the head of Isaac more than in previous titles, and in co-op play, that element takes on a new life.
"When you decide to play with a friend, you get details about John Carver (the co-op character) and his back story and his personal journey," Papoutsis said. "We actually leverage that by delivering psychological horror moments. You'll have the psychological dementia that only occur in co-op and really bring details out."
Papoutsis said those dementia moments are highlighted by action occurring on one player's screen while the other player sees nothing. For example, Player One may see Player Two grabbing his head and asking what's going on. Meanwhile, Player Two is involved in a battle for his life against necromorphs. The question then becomes which character is seeing the world as it really is.
"Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will." -- James Stephens, "The Crock of Gold"
The development team at Visceral also moved away from "timed" scares, frightening moments that are keyed by a character moving to a specific spot in the game. They focused on an overall package of elements -- music, characters, mental tension and even background environments -- to create the feeling of angst players have come to enjoy from the franchise.
"One of the things we looked at over the course of this game is how does our environment play into scares? That's why we really liked the concept of (icy planet) Tau Volantis," Papoutsis said. "It spoke to us about things like survival, subzero conditions, low visibility.
"All these things reinforce the horror element. How can we surprise and delight and keep the players guessing?"
Papoutsis proudly said he has no fear. However, when pushed, he admitted he does get vertigo from time to time when he's high in the air. He said when designing the horror moments in the game, his team members search for the "relatability moments," things that frighten them and in turn will frighten the player. He said the visual moments in the game that could potentially happen, or that players could envision happening, create the most fear and tension.
"The enemies, for instance. These are twisted, suffering humans. The fact you can see the necromorphs with their limbs twisted, spiky bits are sticking up, jaws are missing -- that resonates at a primal level, because you look at it and go, "Wow. That would be super painful to have that happen to me.'"
"You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you." -- Eric Hoffer
Papoutsis said the game's art and design teams also pushed the boundaries of current gaming systems to make scary moments look and feel even more traumatic.
"There are definitely more things to do," Papoutsis said. "We've added a lot more exploration elements."
He is hoping players will get deep into the missions, find out more about the characters and grow more attached to what happens to Isaac. It gives him personal enjoyment when players talk about getting emotionally invested in the game -- through either the story or the horror.
"It takes such a big effort for the team to create some of these scenarios. When you hear a player talk about the moments in a way that expresses how much fun or tension or excitement they had playing through them, it is extremely satisfying and one of the coolest things about making games," he said.
While he wouldn't reveal what he would call his "OMG moment" in the game, Papoutsis said there are definitely a couple of moments in that will surprise and shock players.
"We're anxious to see how our players react to them," he said.
As such, Papoutsis is inviting players to reach out on Twitter to him (@leveluptime) as they play. He said he enjoys bouncing ideas off fans and is very interested in their reactions to the latest chapter in the franchise.
"Dead Space 3" became available Tuesday in North America and releases Thursday in Australia and Friday in Europe. It can be played on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC. It is rated M for Mature due to blood and gore, intense violence and strong language.