Interview: Dead Space 2 producer Shereif Fattouh on “real space, real terror”

By Patrick Garratt, Friday, 21 January 2011 12:11 GMT

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With Dead Space 2 releasing next week, EA’s taking Visceral’s team on the promo road. VG247 Australian news editor Brenna Hillier caught up with producer Shereif Fattouh in Sydney today to quiz the developer on Isaac going vocal, the most difficult point in the single-player campaign and the need for “real space, real terror”.

VG247: How big is the Dead Space 2 team?

Shereif Fattouh: At max, Dead Space 2 was about 150 people. Huge team.

VG247: You’re a producer for the whole Dead Space series. How much is it your baby? Is there a core group of people that really owns Dead Space?

Shereif Fattouh: There’s been a core of people who have been on it since the original idea. There was an initial group of 11 or 12 people that really kicked off the franchise, and then I came on a few months after that. And then our team has just grown from there.

Everybody really has a lot of ownership and feels a lot pride for the game, so I wouldn’t say that it was one person’s baby; everyone really feels engaged with it. I think that kind of shows off in the game. Everyone is definitely into it and feels like it is their game, their franchise.

Our team is the game. It isn’t just one person. It’s the whole team. That’s kind of how we feel about it.

VG247: Do you get much input into the game from outside the team? Obviously with huge publishers like EA, there are definite goals that need to be met.

Shereif Fattouh: We have a lot of autonomy as a development team. There’s a lot of goodwill built up through the games that we’ve released, with Dead Space, Dead Space: Extraction, and now Dead Space 2. It’s definitely allowed us to have the creative freedom we want as a team. There’s been no time, throughout the course of development, that we felt pressured to go in a different direction. They have confidence in us.

It’s been one of the ways that we’ve been able to make such a great game, that we do have that freedom, and we have a lot of support from within the studio, within the company, within the Games label, and within EA. It’s been great to have that support and it really allows us to do what we want to do.

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VG247: What do you feel is the core aspect of Dead Space? The thing that really defines it? The marketing seems really focussed on the horror recently. Is that it?

Shereif Fattouh: At the heart of it, I think atmosphere is probably a better way to put it. That creepy atmosphere, and the sense of unease, and being futuristic. Obviously horror, and survival horror, is our genre, but I really think that Dead Space is really about the mood, and creating this emotional vibe of creepiness.

Obviously, it takes place in the future, but when you look at it, and you look at all of our settings, and you look at our gameplay, and you look at the enemy design, it sets this tempo and sets this tension level that’s always underlying there. I think that’s really the heart of the franchise – making people feel uneasy, but very engaged and immersive in this sort of space.

VG247: When we were watching the demo upstairs I was kind of weirded out by Isaac talking. How did you find the transition, internally, from a silent protagonist that everyone can project onto to a real person, so to speak?

Shereif Fattouh: It was a big decision, where we weighed a lot of the factors. Having a silent protagonist, like you’re saying, the player can project their own personality onto the character. But with Dead Space 2 we really wanted to move forward in more of a storytelling fashion. Story’s really important to us. It was one of the tenets we had for the sequel.

We really felt that humanising the character in Isaac was very important to us, and the way to do that was to give him a voice and allow him to have more of a personality, and really define who this character is. This is a person. We wanted him to react to all this crazy stuff that’s happening to him and be more character-driven this time around.

We felt that we could still keep the immersion, and keep the player engaged but give them an emotional character that they can relate to that is not a robot, not some random pixel on the screen. Like we want to believe that this is a human being.

VG247: Was it hard finding points in the game where it seemed right for him to speak? In the demo we saw him interact with other characters via view-screen, and at one point comment on a piece of technology.

Shereif Fattouh: It’s definitely important as far as pacing the game to find the right places to have him talk and how long he talks. We’ve gone though a lot of edits throughout the game’s development, where we write a line of dialogue – or maybe a monologue – that sounds great on paper, it makes sense, and it fits in with the story – but then we put it in the game and it’s like, “Wow, this is really taking too long,” or, “This is gating us from going on to the next room.”

You know, I’m already running into the next combat sequence or I’m going on to the next story beat and he’s still talking. It’s kind of out of rhythm.

He’s not a chatty Cathy, is the expression we use. He doesn’t talk so much throughout the game, but just at key moments, and it is important to pace it in the right way so it doesn’t stop on combat, or stop on another story beat, or some of the other elements – a horror element for example. We don’t want it to supersede that, so we’ve been very, very cognisant of that.

VG247: I’m always amazed how many devs will say, “Oh sure, he does talk for a long time but it’s very, very interesting,” and I think of ADHD gamers screaming, “Skip, skip!”

Shereif Fattouh: We definitely were very aware of that and being in the gameplay group, I myself was usually the one [saying], “That can’t happen, it’s way too long, we gotta go into the next thing”.

I don’t want to hear him talking. This is ridiculous. I wouldn’t be talking while I’m shooting, you know – while I’m being chased by these necromorphs, and he’s having a monologue about his lament for his ex-girlfriend – or dead girlfriend, sorry. Projecting my own problems. No. [laughs]

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VG247: How much of the Dead Space narrative is embedded in the environment and how much is told?

Shereif Fattouh: The environment definitely plays a huge factor in the storytelling and what the game is about. “A picture says a thousand words,” and when you look at some of our environments, and the geography, the environment art really in and of itself really tells a story. In the demo you saw the Church of Unitology – you don’t really need to have some sort of long exposition on what that means. When you see that kind of environment you kind of get the vibe of what that’s about and how ritualistic the Unitologists are, with the iconology they have there.

Our environment artists have done a fantastic job; we’re really lucky to have them.

VG247: Is there a codex or something, so players can learn more about the background of the Dead Space universe?

Shereif Fattouh: There is a Unitology language, a real language. It can be translated. There’s actually some little secrets in the front end where if you start navigating around you can see some Unitology text if you move the controller. So there definitely is a true language to it. I don’t speak it, so you can’t ask me for any pointers, I can’t give them to you. But there is a way to break that code.

VG247: But there’s no encyclopaedia of Dead Space?

Shereif Fattouh: If you bring up your rig, you’re able to scroll by and review any of your transmissions that you’ve received. You pick up text logs and audio logs and video logs throughout the world and you’re able to review those again. It’s not necessarily a codex in the way that you’re talking about, giving you background and stuff – it’s just a way to review previous things that have happened. So it’s kind of cool; if you’ve forgotten something about the story you can always review it.

VG247: Where does Dead Space fall, genre-wise? What are its competitors?

Shereif Fattouh: Honestly? I don’t want to come across as arrogant rot anything like that, but I feel that Dead Space has its own market. It’s carved out its own identity. I enjoy playing a lot of games out there and I think they’re great but I think Dead Space is really unique in its own way as being a science fiction, survival horror, action horror genre. We don’t have a lot of other games in that space.

VG247: Do you have a catchphrase that neatly sums up what Dead Space is?

Shereif Fattouh: I think still from [the] original [Dead Space] – “Real space. Real terror.” It speaks a lot to what Dead Space is about. It really is science fiction, but it’s rooted in trying to be realistic. You look at some movies like Bladerunner; there’s a difference between that and Star Trek. It’s there, but there’s not as many fantastical elements to it. One of the design tenets that we have is that there’s no magic in Dead Space. There’s not gonna be any lightning bolts or magical sleep spells or anything like that.

VG247: No orcs.

Shereif Fattouh: There’s no orcs or warlocks and things like that. We keep it rooted in contemporary science fiction reality and that to me really says, “Real space, real terror” – the terror aspect of it being that whole uneasiness.

VG247: At the end of Dead Space 2, where will we be in terms of the overarching story of the franchise?

Shereif Fattouh: We look at it in [this] way – we’re building a universe here. We have the graphic novel, we have the full novel, there’s the animated features, there’s the comics, there’s the motion comics, and the games are at the heart of it. At the end of Dead Space 2 I think the players are really gonna feel very substantial fictional elements have been revealed, and that a lot of their questions are gonna be answered. But there may be some that are still open.

VG247: And new questions?

Shereif Fattouh: New questions, always new questions.

VG247: Who has central creative control over the franchise? Is there one person or group who keeps tabs on all the disparate elements that make up the canon?

Shereif Fattouh: We have our senior production designer and one of our other producers really manage the story base of the franchise. Not just the games – the entire franchise. We work with different writers on different projects, but they’re really in charge of maintaining the fiction of the game and the continuity along with our executive producer. So they really make sure that every story that we’re telling has a purpose, that it’s not just a spin off, one off kind of thing. It ties into a larger picture.

We’re building this universe and there are all these great stories and we’re open to new ideas but those are the guys, the handful of people who are really in charge of that fictional control, and what stories we want to tell, and how the universe is going to unfold. And that’s really their main job – and it’s difficult too. They have to maintain all this, they help write the stories, and they maintain the story integrity because we don’t wanna have any holes – especially when you come to sci fi, everyone’s very quick to point out any inconsistencies; we do our best to make sure those don’t exist.

VG247: Isaac is quite hardcore. He does a lot of really macho stuff, and he’s obviously physically strong, but he’s not potrayed the way many other game’s protagonists are.

Shereif Fattouh: Space marine? Adrenaline?

VG247: Yes, that unbelievable, hyper-masculine thing. In comparison to that, he ends up looking quite slender and agile. Is it a deliberate decision to step away from that?

Shereif Fattouh: Absolutely. I think at the heart of it, Isaac’s an engineer. He’s not a super-soldier. he hasn’t been specially trained by, you know, the Martian Police or whatever it would be. He’s definitely an engineer, a real person. That’s a theme we want to continue though [with], the everyday man put in a really horrible situation.

You know he has his own talents, and that’s the whole using-tools-as-weapons thing, and you’ll see some more of that in Dead Space 2 with our puzzle mechanics. He’s kind of hacking into machines and using his ability to do that to progress through and kind of change the pacing of the game. But we never want him to be the crazy, hyper-masculine super-soldier. That’s not Dead Space.

VG247: In Extraction, and in this one just from what I’ve seen in the demo – female characters seem to feature more prominently, perhaps?

Shereif Fattouh: We definitely have a lot of diversity throughout the game, and there’s a strong female presence in Dead Space 2 [chuckles] that’s for sure. One of Extraction’s main characters was Kendra. I think it’s just the nature of the story that we’re telling. In this one you’ll see more of that.

VG247: Is there anything in particular you want to get out to fans right now?

Shereif Fattouh: Not really – I’m just really excited about the release. I mean, i can’t believe it’s only a week away. For us, we’re really excited about the fans and what their feedback is. When you work on something for so long you’ve been trying to really anticipate what the fan reaction will be, and I personally just can’t wait to see.

We really care what they think; we’re always monitoring on message boards and Facebook and Twitter. Our executive producer, Steve, used to put up a lot of Twitter questions for some of our gameplay issues and be like, “So, do you guys wanna have a 180 degree quick turn or not?” and we’d get a response like [mimes Twitter answers spitfire] no, no, no, yes, yes. We were always engaging with the fans, so I just can’t wait to see what people have to say, good or bad. The fact that that anticipation is almost done; I’m really excited about it.

VG247: Has there been any major gameplay decision directly based on fan feedback?

Shereif Fattouh: The introduction of a hardcore game mode was definitely based on fan feedback. We were talking about survival horror, and people felt it would be a really cool game mode to add, a very challenging one. We put it to the fans and came up with this game mode. The hardest form is you only have three saves. You can use them whatever you want, but if you die at any point, you start right back at the beginning of the game – or you start back from your last save was, but you only get three, so you have to choose where you use them. The game mode is locked until you finish it once, so you’d know where to use them, that would be too crazy ’cause you have no idea where it’s gonna end. It’s hard, and the enemies do a lot more damage, and you don’t get as much ammo, and resources are scarce, so it’s definitely for the hardcore. But that was one thing that the fan feedback has allowed us to do.

VG247: How good are you at the game?

Shereif Fattouh: I’m probably the best player on the team.

VG247: Oh really?

Shereif Fattouh: Yeah.

VG247: Big call. So you’re the one to watch on multiplayer. Do you give out your PSN ID or Gamertag?

Shereif Fattouh: Woah. Multiplayer? Let me rephrase that a little bit: I’m probably the best on the single-player side. Don’t wanna put myself out there. I’m pretty decent on multiplayer.

VG247: Will you do any events like the Red Dead redemption team, where at specific times players can challenge Visceral staff?

Shereif Fattouh: Definitely. I think there’s some details about that coming soon. There’ll be some “game against the dev” stuff going on. I don’t know the exact details of the ones that are coming up.

VG247: What’s your favourite multiplayer scenario or level?

Shereif Fattouh: I love a map called Solar. That’s one of my favourite ones. I really love the environmental layout. It’s just a lot of fun. The vent locations for the necromorphs are pretty strategically placed. I love poppin’ out. I like playing as the humans, too, but in Solar in particular I love p[laying the necromorphs, and there’s a lot of areas that catch people by surprise.

VG247: Are there any brand new designs for necromorphs? Really surprising stuff?

Shereif Fattouh: Absolutely. We have a lot of new creatures. Some of my new favourite enemies are the stalkers and the puckers. I think there’s definitely gonna be some necromorphs that people are a little bit creeped out to see, so I’m excited to see the reactions.

VG247: Speaking of the puckers: have you seen the “Your Mom Hates Dead Space 2” with the Spanish-speaking mother who just loves it?

Shereif Fattouh: No, I will check that out. I will.

VG247: How does your mum feel about it?

Shereif Fattouh: She doesn’t like it that much, to be honest with you. My mum actually does hate Dead Space. She wishes I worked on, you know, something more…

VG247: Kirby?

Shereif Fattouh: Yeah. That would be awesome for her. I played it a little bit for her over the Christmas holiday and she got to appreciate it a little bit more, but she still isn’t a huge fan. As soon as those deaths come out she kind of cringes.

VG247: If Visceral wasn’t doing Dead Space 2, what would it be doing?

Shereif Fattouh: Everybody’s really focussed on the Dead Space franchise right now. There’s always other ideas like, “What kind of game would you make if you could make any game,” so everyone has their ideas, and games get greenlit and we’ll see what happens. But right now everyone’s focussed on Dead Space.

VG247: Not Kirby?

Shereif Fattouh: No. Probably not.

VG247: I was kind of hoping you’d say, “We always sit around talking about how we’d like to make a Bust-a-Move, set in the land of cats,” or something.

Shereif Fattouh: Actually you know, I would love to make a dance game, karaoke.

VG247: Really?

Shereif Fattouh: No. Sorry.

VG247: What’s the deal with Dead Space 2’s colour design. It’s not easy to blend the traditional blues and greys of sci fi with the gothic elements in the Church of Unitology. Is there one design manifesto to rule them all?

Shereif Fattouh: Too bad you’re not in our Redwood Shores studio. We actually have these huge panels that are broken out by all the chapters of the game, and it was one of the first things we created in the pre-production for Dead Space 2, where our art director Ian Milham actually set up a colour guide, and we have very specific themes of what these chapters are about.

Early on in the hospital you’ll see kind of white and blue colour scheme that gives you this kind of sanitary vibe, the whole medical deck kind of feel. And you see the colour scheme change through the course of all of the levels. I can’t get into all the details, but there’s specific themes that were set there early on which I always thought was really interesting.

I’m on the gameplay side, so I interface with a lot of animators and artists when it comes to enemy design and so on, but when it comes to the environment art I didn’t even know how in-depth it went in terms of colour and how early in the process that comes into play. It really gives our concept artists and our environment artists direction early on as to what their themes are gonna be, and colour does play a huge factor in it. Colours have certain emotional ties to them; the warm reds and cold blues, deeper blacks and browns – they all have a lot of meaning. But probably better for an artists to explain them than the producer.

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VG247: What about space-wise? You mentioned during the demo that the level begins in a confined space reminiscent of the original, and then opens up into this huge room in a church. Is that standard in each level, or do the levels get larger as your progress?

Shereif Fattouh: The level designers have created several, very intricate environments and they’re all very specific to the story and the theme that we’re trying to tell in that particular space. Some of them start off in a huge environment – what you saw in that church actually starts off a whole environment, and then it narrows off later on. There’s certain areas that they do have huge environment after huge environment after huge environment. There’s no one particular method that we use. It’s really about, what is this level about? How does it fit into this space that we’re creating?

VG247: What’s the most difficult point in the single-player campaign?

Shereif Fattouh: There’s a stalker fight – which is one of our new enemies, they’re kind of cat and mouse kind of guys, they’re very deadly – and we mix them in with some of our landines, and there’s exploders, and there’s one particular combat sequence that’s very, very challenging. That one is in one of the later chapters. It’s not easy.

VG247: Do you have statistics reporting back to see if people finish the game?

Shereif Fattouh: Yeah, we have statistics reporting back. There’s always a percentage that don’t finish. Our goal is always to have people experience the full gameplay, but we know that’s not the reality. People have other games to play and sometimes you just don’t have time to play games at all. We’ll get those metrics back but I’m hoping that as many people as possible play through the game from start to finish.

Dead Space 2 releases for PC, 360 and PS3 on January 25.

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