The Dead Space series, and its hero Isaac Clarke, live and die on how good, how solid the technology of the world is. So much of the original game’s plot is wrapped up in engineering tasks, fixing equipment or retrieving material to try and get you and your rapidly dwindling band of survivors off the Ishimura that it becomes the spine of the game and that idea, the combination of a skeletal design motif combined with the sort of grubby-booted work environments that Sam Bell wouldn’t look out of place in, gives the series a foundation that it’s built on for three consecutive games now. Whilst Dead Space 3 switches the setting and expands what you can do that battered, weather worn functionality still lies at the heart of the series.
The Art of Dead Space, written by Martin Robinson, explores the designs that the series is built on, and, refreshingly, doesn’t just focus on Dead Space 3. There’s a lot of material on the newest game, certainly, but it’s all necessary. One of Dead Space 3’s strongest points is its sense of place and the three primary environments; the flotilla of dead ships, Tau Volantis and the city are all explored in expansive detail. The city is a particular standout, as it is in the game, and there are some neat insights from the designers. Alex Muscat, for example, talks about how the city has a circular motif to not only show this was where the aliens came together to build the great machine that powers the final act of the game, but also as a subtle visual cue to the sort of puzzles the player will face there. The city’s an immensely atmospheric place to walk around and it was one of the spots in the game where I genuinely felt uneasy. It’s a pleasure to see the design strategy for it walked through here.
This level of detail is present for every aspect of the games, with the Sprawl from Dead Space 2 getting some much deserved attention. Again there’s interesting design insight here, especially about how they worked on building the space station in a believable way, with utility passageways leading out onto the public face of the Sprawl. It’s all grounded, sensible, pragmatic design that feels lived in and real. The designers talk about how they got this feel, by systematically building environments that actually related to one another rather than just a collection of set-pieces. It’s why the Ishimura from the first game remains one of the most impressive settings as the ship was designed in a way that meant each section connected exactly as it does in the game. It’s a weird thing to be impressed by, but it pays off to the extent that, in the opening levels of Dead Space 3 you’re relieved to see the Terra Nova in orbit because it looks so much like the Ishimura. No place like home, but it’ll do when you’re trapped in orbit over a dead world that isn’t quite dead enough…
And speaking of not quite dead enough, the Necromorphs are, for many people, the real stars of the games and they’re given room to shine and shriek and…glisten unpleasantly here. The Necromorph chapter really goes to town and Brett Marling, the chief designer on the nastiest looking creatures in recent years, comes across as an admirably laconic, deadpan guy. You get the full tour here, from the traditional sword-armed, shrieking and ripped corpses of the first game up to the alien Necromorphs of the third. The odd thing is, after a while, there’s an odd beauty to the Necromorphs. It’s a terrifying, multi-fanged beauty that wants to kill you and build with the pieces of you but it’s there and it’s a pleasure to see the series’ iconic villains given such a spotlight here. It’s also nicely contrasted with the character designs for the doomed SCAF expeditionary force from the third game, a collection of burly, heavy coated military men whose form is still visible in the monster they turn into. There’s a very definite hint of The Thing to Dead Space 3’s design choices and, from the characters to the battered vehicles of the SCAF, it’s very much in evidence. This is a game about what happens just before, and right after, you stop being human and Carpenter’s classic is referenced in an affectionate, and reverential way. After all, if you’re doing science fiction body horror on an ice world not doing ambulatory severed heads would just be disappointing.
The level of detail in the book is consistently really impressive and that’s never more apparent than in the logos and stickers scattered through it. Everything from the ubiquitous but never quite explained Peng to Red Dwarf ale is on display and it’s these little touches that really bring the world to life, just in time for the Necromorphs to rip it apart. This isn’t a shiny, clinical future, it’s one that’s still wearing the boots it had on when its shift started several days ago and that sense of a lived-in universe really shines through in the little details like the consumer goods you see advertised on the Sprawl or the tattered public information poster on how to use a Suit kiosk without dying.
It’s also the guiding principle behind the Dead Space games’ approach to weapons. The third game builds on the customization options of the previous two and allows you to craft weapons yourself. There’s some nice concept art of the bolted together guns you can build on display here. What’s particularly interesting though, is reading the designers talking about how difficult it was to work out how each weapon could both standalone and work well as part of a larger gun, to say nothing of making sure it fitted into the game without disrupting Isaac or any other graphic on screen.
But my favourite section is the tools. So much attention was lavished on Isaac’s equipment and suit, because, with the original game’s decision to scrap the HUD, the suit told you everything you needed to know. Again you’re walked through the various stages of the design, and it’s interesting to see how, just as the Necromorphs were originally influenced by aquatic life, Isaac’s suit was influenced by old fashioned diving gear. It gives the character weight and presence at the same time as subtly keying the audience in on just how dangerous the situation he’s in is. Isaac is no slouch, but he’s not the traditional action hero by any means and the Suits are most often designed for harsh environments rather than combat. They’re not really armour, Isaac isn’t really a soldier but in the absence of anyone else, he’s all we’ve got. Well, him and his tools. . Fittingly, for a game about an engineer, each decision made is logical, careful and backed up by everything that went before. This is bootstrapped science fiction that’s been attacked by full scale body horror and the collisions of those two concepts make for some really fun games for us, and a never ending stream of nightmare fuel for Isaac.
The Art of Dead Space is beautiful, even the pages dealing with the Necromorphs. Every aspect of the world is explored here, with real insights from the designers and it’s nice to be able to wander through at leisure instead of running or creeping like you tend to do in the games. Crammed with beautiful art, this is a great companion to the series. It won’t make you whole, but anyone who’s played the games knows that’s the last thing you want…