The Art of Dead Space – Book Review

Available: Forbidden Planet/ Amazon

R.R.P: £29.99

From Titan Books and author Martin Robinson, the accompanying release to the survival horror series of its namesake, The Art of Dead Space. Featuring development art work, sketches and concept work that covers the entirety of the franchise to date from the design team and artists that brought the game to the seventh generation in 2008. From the characters and creatures of the Dead Space franchise to the horrific landscapes and environments of the series, it is an expansive and informative exploration of this series. 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.

Released in February 2013, this was positioned as a tome of development concept art to support the entirety of the series with its conclusion. With over 300 images, it has a wealth of material to absorb and enjoy, with insight from the games design team which gives some illumination to the design process of the many fascinating, macabre images witnessed throughout the campaign. In contrast to other games released at this time, this was one of the earlier releases of a dedicated art book for a series from the West as titles begun to expand into the third person genre in a more stylized way. By no means the first corridor based game released, as the hardware and programming had finally reached a stage where it could accurately depict the artistic vision, these supporting novels represented a way to bridge the art to the media. It marked an expansion into the West of the gaming genre and pastime from a bedroom hobby into an acceptable mainstream form of media, these books readily available in Far East becoming readily available for Western console releases.

Unlike other books in the range, this covers the entirety of the Dead Space franchise to date, as such it does feel at times quite condensed in it’s depiction of the gaming universe it brought to life. Thankfully, from a personal bias it does focus more extensively on the first game in the series looking at the design and development of the Ishimura, the planet cracking mining vessel that serves as the setting for the majority of the first release. Also, the design of Isaac Clarke, alternating between traditional armored space marine to this final form depiction as the practical, industrious engineer who manages to use stealth and ingenuity to overcome a variety of puzzles and the hostile necromorph threat. Given the nature and setting of the game, there was a tendency to push through to completion, missing many of the smaller and more nuanced touches littered throughout the game. Here then an opportunity to enjoy the experience of this franchise in a quite, distinct way separate from the game and appreciate the imagination and vision of the series design team and creators.

“I can clearly remember walking into the studio during the first weeks and seeing a small group, no larger than five or six, of spaceship sketches on the wall meant to only be preliminary ideas. “That’s it. That’s the Ishimura” I said out loud, pointing at a hulking oil rig of a ship with an epic rib cage. It was perfect. It took a matter of days to get to our hero ship”

Ian Milham, Franchise Art Director Dead Space and Dead Space 2 November 2012

Character Design

In the formative stages of the game design, there was a clear evolutionary process in the creation of the main character, from a more traditional video game ‘hero’ with energy weapons and blade designs that bore some resemblance to the protagonist in the Mass Effect series before a directional change to that of an engineer. It’s fascinating to consider what may have been but equally the impact on the user. Certainly the gruff marine avatar would inspire a more Gung ho approach to confrontation as opposed to the civilian engineer which combined with the design of the environments and tone of the game seemed more fitting. It was a deliberate decision to take a step back to consider what the purpose and role of the character was, presented here the steps of the evolutionary journey of Isaac Clarke from warrior to engineer and how the game then in turn was designed to reflect that paradigm shift. The pencil sketches of Clarke in his armored appearance were quite distinct but the more final form renders in color do show how the character would progress to the armored style we would come to know on release.

The initial sketches and designs of the character reflect the symbiosis between the mechanical and organic elements of the game, the use of ribs specifically highlighted and noted when the design of the Ishimura was developed from concept to final form and here in his exo-skeleton suit where the joints reflect a rib aesthetic. This design was scaled back somewhat in the design process to his final form but it is interesting to see how many of these points were included or considered at one point. The use of the tube at the back to signify the characters health was present in the formative stages and carried through to the final form, as were the stasis packs which control that power element in the game. It does support the environment the character finds himself operating in with especially in the zero gravity areas where a reinforced suit would make a certain sense. What works well here and does inform the reader is how much the puzzle elements and environmental design team were shaped and influenced by these formative stages and built the game around this central protagonist. You do come away wondering how different it would have been with a traditional action hero aesthetic of the gruff space marine.

In both the first game and as the series progressed, there was an opportunity to evolve the suit to provide better protection and capabilities for the hero. In the first game, this involved amending the material as you progressed in addition to certain design elements that removed elements of vulnerability and built the thickness of these ‘ribs’ and features up. It didn’t remove the sense of vulnerability and this was a deliberate design choice to keep the user feeling vulnerable against the alien threat. As the series shifted location away from the Ishimura so the design of the suit changed to reflect the colder environment you found yourself in during the second title. There were certain key elements carried over such as the tubing and status meter on the back that had become a critical feature of the series in allowing the user to immediately identify the health status of the character without bringing up the menu and breaking the immersion. Some of the ‘rib’ elements of the first game were removed to reflect a more traditional armor suit but it certainly had the general aesthetic and tone of the series. Like Gears of War released on the same generation of hardware, its interesting to see this studio process of a theme evolving over a trilogy of games but retaining core elements throughout.

In the series, it is a largely solitary experience with the exception of the alien menace that presents itself on a regular basis. You encounter secondary characters intermittently throughout the first game, usually at critical junctures in the narrative or through audio logs progressing the plot forward. Given their fleeting appearance and viewed from afar it’s understandable the thought process in their design wasn’t as evolved, the clothing and personification more basic and crude than Clarke’s. They generally share certain key features of the franchise, the health tubing a common element on the suits. By the third release there was some progression in the secondary character design as the human element became more prominent in the narrative. This game was generally deemed a demise in the quality of the series but it did mark a turning point as the in game universe became a little more fleshed out in contrast to the alien aesthetic and appearance of the first game. The introduction of the SCAF, a new armed faction in the franchise represented a more traditional gaming military appearance though at this point the character design had begun to lose a distinct identity, no different from many other gaming series in this genre.

“The engineer thing really fitted. We were thinking of puzzles, so it was great to have this guy who works on machines. Of course, it also gives you the excuse of having this guy who goes to this run-down spaceship where he’s going to fix everything”

Ben Wanat, Creative Director Dead Space

World Building

The USG Ishimura is the primary setting of the first game, defined as a ‘planet cracking‘ ship designed to break up and mine planetary bodies for their resources. It has a similar appearance and tone of the Nostromo in the original Alien movie with a wide expansive rear section and a smaller drive module at the bow. In the opening moments of the first game, the overpowering orange light of the system drowns out many of the defined features of the ship but in the best tradition you are slowly introduced to the layout and design through the use of maps and schematics to gain a semblance of understanding of your environment. The original concept art and colored sketches reveal an intriguing design behind the ship, the organic symmetry and style reflected once more as the grappling ropes descend from above and lift rock samples into orbit. Designed specifically to be this fantastical ship whilst maintain a certain grounded element ensuring functionality and practicality, it does tread a line between the macabre and mechanical in equal measure but was a great setting for the game and interesting to study the fusion of these separate approaches.

The ship in the first game was influenced and designed around the concept of an oil rig, mechanical pylons and extensions its primary use whilst a smaller habitat module was positioned towards the front of the craft. As noted in the opening quote from art director Ian Milham the basic concept of the ship came about fairly on in the design process, from there it was built up in stages with much of the world building brought to life from there on. The use of advertising, signage and audio logs a nice feature that gave life to this horrific setting in a similar way to the setting for Alien Isolation. It has a slightly Gothic appearance to her design, deliberately so, rejecting the stream lined approach of ship design in many futuristic settings and instead opting for this genre type approach in pushing functionality over aesthetic. The pylons and cables projecting an image of substance over style and adding a sense of credibility to it. As with other entries in the genre, you never really see an established exterior shot for much of the first game, only brief glances as you exit the vessel. Seeing the ship in its ‘glory’ was interesting as it added some context to the gaming experience.

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 feels when you explore the corridors of the Ishimura there is a rich history waiting to be discovered, from the advertising plaques and adverts to the various labels and signage, its a confidence in creating an entire narrative that is cursory to your experience but equally has been created with an attention to detail. It adds, credibility to the environment and increases the level of immersion. This extends into the weaponry and armory of the character for instance that all have a practical use and element to them that in addition, serve to provide you with a fitting chance to survive the alien threat around you. Adding to that the religious elements which built upon other games in that generation such as Dragon Age creating an entire religion and following from the more extreme mystical elements of the franchise, it was just layer upon layer of detail that was designed and showcased here at each stage. It adds depth to a macabre setting, each faction with a unique style and appearance, distinct buildings and structures that are immediately recognizable as part of the broader franchise. There is room to expand on elements of this mythology, certainly it is talked about in the first game but expanded upon in later releases but it was always a background element so whatever sketches and designed were released were always a bonus addition to the lore of the game.

“As we looked at the ship room by room, we knew it was going to be really important to link it all together, so the player could understand where they were in the ship and make them feel like it was a large functioning facility”

Ben Wanat, Creative Director Dead Space

An Alien Menace

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 encounter did illicit other media 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 realize 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 game play 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. Any game of this nature is designed to evoke a sense of fear, of fight or flight, that trepidation is constant throughout your experience so a book such as this allows you to study the creatures in a more detailed fashion that otherwise permitted.

Unlike the xenomorph threat in the Alien franchise, these monsters in the series are hatched and born out of their human hosts, maintaining certain elements and features of their unfortunate hosts. The organic element is visceral in its presentation, broken rib cages and wounds evident as the threat charges towards you. They were designed to evoke the imagery and memory of injury, creatures born from a broken body ripped apart as a host to these parasites. In contrast to fantastical alien creatures there is a sense of connection and fear in the user. The earlier creatures in the franchise generally have a humanoid appearance to them with additional limbs projecting out of their flesh to create grotesque creations. The idea to use a persons intestines as a weapon against you was horrifying but again, an interesting idea in the design process to use body parts as a threat. Like the ship, the everyday environment taken for granted now a menace to overcome. It also references many of the jump scare moments, the shapes and structure of the creatures designed to work with the lighting system in the game to alert you as you move from room to room of this uncomfortable presence around you. From the use of short audio bursts to moving shadows, it was an uncomfortable experience and here expanded on in great detail.

As the series progressed, there was an evolution in the design of the creature based on the environment and setting. Where as the first game utilized the more mechanical and utilitarian nature of the ship with elements of the Gothic in both the design of the ship and the alien threat, the planet side environment of the subsequent games represented a new evolution in the creature design. The basic tenet remained of a creature emerging from a human host with broken limbs and tissue distorted and pulled out of place to create these horrifying beings, the books gives an account in the design process of using an animal carcass to dissect and study the imagery of tissue being pulled apart to give inspiration to the design team. Nearly every creature in the game and shown int he development imagery has recognizable elements to them that does create an element of connection to the audience, a deformed head, arms and legs ripped open or pulled backwards, its grotesque but fascinating in equal measure. One of the main elements of the game was the ability to stop the creatures by attacking limbs, here, it does feel forced in part with recognizable weak points in each design but cleverly designed to retain some element of functionality.

The transition to the planet surface for the entirety of the third entry in the series and a pivot towards a more action based approach to the game meant a more traditional, less humanoid form species though given the colony setting there was an ample supply of victims to fuel a new threat down below. The latter games gave rise to more arachnid style creatures which were insidious in their own right but equally the alien terrain and environment. It resembled somewhat the imagery and setting of the Alien franchise and perhaps, lacked a touch of originality but was certainly an interesting world and terrain to study. As with that series, the more fascinating elements were the more traditional settings for a sci fi series, the medical and science bays for instance on the Ishimura in the first game gradually transformed over the course of that title to reflect the growing alien presence. It used a similar dynamic to Alien of using an organic alien compound to transform the ship, but it was a horrifying scene to witness in that film and equally horrific to look at here. Fun, but in a gruesome kind of way. It brought back memories of exploring Rapture in Bioshock and recognizing certain cordial elements, posters and designs but equally a sense of dread as you realized the devastation caused by the menace around you. Great world and alien design.

“It’s important that you get a creepy silhouette. Every enemy had to have a distinct silhouette, and a distinct sound, because you have to be able to tell them apart. That’s kind of how it all came to be”

Ben Wanat, Creative Director Dead Space

Conclusion

The art and design of Dead Space shows a clear inspiration drawn from a number of other titles and media in the genre, certainly, the work of H.R. Giger in the design of the original Alien creature and how that approach in using human elements in the creation of the monster would go on to influence a multitude of projects for generations hence. Like that creature, here the entire design process was based on the concept of pulling apart the human body and living tissue and creating a threat that not only presented a recognizable menace to the user but also at times part of the actual body. That union between the organic and mechanical would shape not only the alien species in the game but also the ship design and clothing worn by the characters, its a constant, permeating element that carries through the entirety of the series of games. Reduced or smoothed over perhaps in the final game but still, a core element to the design strategy which you only really start to recognize from reading the book putting the pieces together. In the moment, when you are blasting away at the various creatures you don’t have time to study them in great detail, that’s what makes books such as these such an enjoyable companion to them.

The value and worth you derive from this title is a subjective construct, I experienced the journey of Isaac Clarke from humble beginnings to savior 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. It is well presented, it doesn’t feel cheap and makes a nice addition to a growing collection of titles. In contrast to books released from Japanese studios and publishers, it does feel lacking in more intricate details at times with more final form imagery presented for use. Equally, its consistent with an approach of Western studios and has a nice balance of sketches and printed material. A great book to accompany a now absent series in the digital ether.

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