When your clearest inspiration is a visual smorgasbord of references from Aliens to John Carpenter, you’re in for a treat. Gather the kindle, prepare the stones and take your place, around the bonfire as we review The Art of Dead Space.
As we move towards the twilight of the current gaming generation with the progression and expansion of open world releases that at times share both common strengths and collective weakness in comparison, looking to the 7th generation for inspiration presented a series of titles that pushed the collective boundary of design, perhaps not influence drawing from the collective survival horror genre of movies and titles that had come before. The Dead Space series of titles from the now closed Visceral Studios and EA owes as much of a clear debt to the designs of HR Giger as it does The Thing from John Carpenter but to suggest a lack of originality does it a disservice and as such reviewing the Art of Dead Space was an enjoyable experience, discovering the progression of design of the central protagonist Isaac Clarke and his evolution over the course of the series from surviving the horror aboard the Ishimura to the final confrontation on the alien planet. In addition to the humanoid adversaries faced, the design of the alien creatures from concept to final depiction and the weapons and equipment used.
From Titan Books who produced the equally impressive Alien Isolation Art Book we looked at previously the publisher brings another high quality art book exploring all facets of the Dead Space universe covering the development and events of the trilogy. Starting from the conception of the protagonist character Isaac Clarke this was of interest to me having gone back and played through the series again my initial recollection of him was of a fairly forgettable character but in retrospect there was a touch of the ‘everyman’ aspect of his design and aesthetic, deliberately so creatively as there were various iterations of the generic ‘tough guy’ persona, the space marine cliche to the finalised engineer approach they settled with. Whilst initially there were hints the series would be progressing with the standard trope that was popularised by its contemporary peers such as Gears of War, it was the everyday approach I found refreshing when playing through again, going with a design akin to Samus from Metroid Prime, hiding the face and persona of your playable character allowing you to personify the individual you were controlling for the experience of the game.
Whilst the design of the other human characters perhaps aren’t as memorable or perhaps, as thought out in terms of their memorability after the event the alien creatures encountered certainly had a presence both in your first encounters aboard the Ishimura through to your final encounter on the alien planet. In retrospect your first, initial encounters did illicit other medians and sources quite closely, memories of the xenomorphs first appearance in Alien certainly channeled when it bursts out of the ventilation duct but from here on out they take on various states of mutation and design that channels the best work of The Thing as you realise the crew of the ship you are sent to investigate has turned into these beasts.
Aesthetically to a certain generation of individuals you can see the clear influence of these creatures and designs. From a gameplay perspective the title presented unique ways to dispatch the demon hoard. Visually however why I have come to enjoy collecting these books is the opportunity to study the creature design and the creativity that went in, allowing the gamer the chance to delve further into the world so easily missed during an initial play through. Admittedly when you encounter these creatures your first instinct isn’t to marvel or take stock of the creation before you. But here, thankfully you can see the minutiae that went into creating these humanoid creatures, actually begin to understand the process that changed them from the civilian crew to these unfortunate victims. You begin to ask yourself who was this creature? what purpose did he play on the ship before the infection spread and you encounter him.
One of comments you come across when you discuss this hobby with those who find the concept alien, so to speak is the concern of a lack of creativity or the detrimental impact these titles have on the user experiencing them. When I see the creative effort that goes into designing these creatures and characters, from concept sketches through to finalised depictions you do begin to really see the artistry and design work that went into a figure you encounter perhaps fleetingly. There is a touch of the macabre in survival horror genre, the design work giving credence these creators were well aware of the tone they were portraying. And as with all titles should you wish all of these small touches and images you can push past fleetingly or stop to give measure to.
Beyond the organic one of my interests does lie in the world building, both in the literal sense when studying environmental design but also the general atmosphere, the signs and symbols, the creation of the ships and crafts that populate these titles. As this book covers the entire trilogy of games it gives chance to look at the creation from the first spaceship surrounded by the debris field and asteroid belt to your final encounter on the ice world and the alien caves and atmosphere. Throughout, the small detail that went into building the atmosphere of these locations. There is a gulf, between the science fiction worlds created in the early days of software to those possible on both the previous and current generation of consoles. Blade Runner often is cited as an influence on titles such as these and in a specific way this is entirely true. Focusing on the small detail, building up the lore of the world and the design embeds you in the character you are directing. Like Bioshock and the world of Rapture, in Dead Space the design team did an admirable job creating the look and aesthetic of the space station, ship design and planets. But beyond creating the simple corridors and computer software it was designing the badges, the stickers and advertisements.
It was during this generation, for me personally, the aesthetic and design that went into these titles flourished. Arguably not the first examples and certainly other studios were utilising the world building methodology, Rockstar primarily comes to mind. But Dead Space shares a similarity with the work of Bioshock in presenting a world that is both familiar and alien at once. We understand this is a livable environment, that given a path of progression man and society could find ourselves in this situation. Small touches but design choices that were clearly thought out and put in place to add that level of connection between the player and the world you found yourself in. That the series progressed to an alien world more detached from this level of familiarization was a weakness I felt, beyond the other criticisms levelled at the final game in the series.
Equal consideration went into the ship design, mirroring the design of the alien species to an extent using imagery akin to the organic bone structure in their aesthetic. This harks back to the best works of Giger in his approach of using the familiar and inverting that familiarity to your detriment. We can understand the design here, the rigid bone shaped structure and support. That familiarity however can breed complaisance and a false sense of security that doesn’t serve you well during your experience in the Dead Space franchise. During the gaming experience, certainly of the previous generation where streaming was in its infancy during these moments of levity there was a temptation to break away from the experience and miss certain small detail as you prepared for the next encounter. Through reading and enjoying an art book of this time gives pause to reflect on the design that went into the ships of this series.
As before the value and worth of this title is a subjective construct, I experienced the journey of Isaac Clarke from humble beginnings to saviour at his journeys end, having the opportunity to go back and delve into his design and creation was a rewarding experience and these art book do provide a genuine moment to do so. As with any form of art form there is a sense of diminishing returns as more popular and contemporary software titles value the immediate satisfaction and associated thrill. The art work and design of titles such as Minecraft or Fortnite I wouldn’t find especially interested or motivated to explore. Both of which present more simplistic but accessible design. Whilst Dead Space from a design perspective borrowed heavily from its peers and other notable sources there was a clear effort to design and build a world that was both real, and therefore relatable and challenging at the same time.
The Art of Dead Space currently is available from Forbidden Planet for £14.99, for me personally an absolute must have purchase for someone that enjoyed these titles on their release. Whether the journey or series continues with the demise of Visceral studios is in the hands of EA. But in terms of the series legacy this Art Book does it justice.