Holy hell, these games had a look. Photo credit: Electronic Arts

The People Working on Dead Space 2 Knew They Were Making Something Special

Patrick Klepek

When last year’s Dead Space remake came out, we didn’t just endlessly sing its praises on a podcast. No. Instead, we also streamed a side-by-side comparison of the entire 2008 horror classic and its spectacular 2023 update. We even interviewed the game’s original creative director (Bret Robbins) alongside the remake’s creative director (Roman Campos-Oriola).

Surely all that adoration, from us and others, would provide a chance for the same team to tackle Dead Space 2, or their own original sequel? For a brief shining moment…maybe? Sadly, it appears Dead Space was a financial disappointment for its publisher, Electronic Arts (EA), and while some ideas were tossed around, including remaking Dead Space 2 or a sequel, nothing’s in active development, and the franchise is, once again, being put into cold storage.

We’ve been here before, Dead Space fans. It’s a sad and familiar place.

The leap from Dead Space (2008) to Dead Space 2 (2010) is not unlike Alien to Aliens. I’ve found it silly to ask people which xenomorph movie they prefer, because their aims are different. Both feature the same creature, but one is a horror thriller and the other an action movie. It’s a real “why not both?” situation that saps the greatness of both, and it’s easy to feel similarly about Dead Space 2, which ratcheted up the set piece-y nature of fighting Necromorphs.

(Dead Space 2 and Aliens, despite an action bent, both feature truly horrifying imagery.)

Most of the developers who worked on the Dead Space remake were new to the franchise. Dead Space 3 was released in 2013, and while its developer, Visceral Games, released a few more games—Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel, Battlefield Hardline—it was the beginning of the end. It’s no shock, then, that many creatives who worked on Dead Space eventually moved on. 

That included Ian Milham, art director on the original Dead Space and Dead Space 2. (On Dead Space 3, Milham helped shape the game’s look until it went into full production, at which point he moved to helping shape a new idea within the studio that never moved forward.) These days, Milham works as a visual production supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), having touched projects like The Mandalorian, Thor: Love and Thunder, The Creator, and others.

But Milham still thinks about Dead Space—it was a formative moment in his career. He even joked on social media about EA, for a second time, deciding it was done with Dead Space.

Recently, Milham agreed to answer a few questions in the wake of the will-they-or-won’t-they around Dead Space 2, his time working on the series, what it means to shape the art direction of a sequel, and more. We may never get a Dead Space 2 remake, but hey, we’ve got this.

Dead Space 2 was in the news recently because of chatter over the possibility of a remake. It was a pretty heated discussion. Why do you think people remain so passionate about this series, so many years later?

I think too many things today feel like they are designed by algorithm or focus group.  People are smart. They can tell when something was made by people who cared about it, and had a point of view. Dead Space had a clear identity and I think people could tell that we loved making it, and they responded to that.

It's also possible that the intensity of it created some searing memories for people that were and are fun to share. Although I wonder if Dead Space is popular now because it wasn't that popular then? It's more fun to be passionate for and advocate for an underdog, or share something that other people likely haven't tried.

It's been 13 years since the release of Dead Space 2. When you think back to that game, what still sticks out? What do you remember most strongly about working on it?  

The further I get from Dead Space 2, the more I realize how specific and special that time was, and how grateful I am. What I remember most about working on it was how bought in we all were. A big chunk of the first Dead Space team had left to form Sledgehammer Games (that worked out pretty great for them, everybody won on both sides, which is cool) 

But it meant that the people who stayed specifically chose to stay to make this. Also, the new people who joined specifically chose to join us. We had all that we learned making the first game, tons of great player feedback, and then the fresh wisdom and skill of people from other studios joining us. The vibes on that team were great.

What do you recall about those early conversations about Dead Space 2? Did you start chatting about what was possible during the development of the original game? How soon did the idea for Dead Space 2 crystalize?

When we were making Dead Space, our EA studio hadn't released a new IP since Road Rash in 1991—seventeen years earlier. Thinking about a sequel seemed to be foolishly optimistic. We honestly didn't think the first one would get out. We didn't really get going on Dead Space 2 until months after the first game's release. 

The biggest early discussion I remember was do we evolve into a main character, with a voice and performance and point of view, which I was firmly on the side of, or continue with more of an avatar/vessel for the player, which had upside, but was also very limiting. Once that was decided, a direction started to emerge: a game with more setpieces, a more player-centric story and epic scope, where we doubled-down on our strengths rather than try to add a bunch of new features.

You worked as an art director across the first two Dead Space games. This is a series that's memorable in great part because of its iconic look, particularly the enemies, ship design, and weapons. With a first game, you're designing so much from scratch. With a sequel, it's a balancing act. Is it difficult to stop yourself from reinventing the wheel, simply because that'd be more interesting than following in the footsteps of work you've already done? What's the difference in defining the art direction of a sequel, compared to the original?

We were so focused on establishing a visual identity in the first Dead Space game, I think we might have overdone it, actually. Over the course of the game the visual look was too consistent and got old. So we knew we wanted to explore a lot more different aesthetics for the sequel, and The Sprawl was chosen partly as a location to give us that flexibility. Even then though, although we thought we had changed a lot, our first test players didn't see it that way. It was more of the same to them. So we stripped the Dead Space visual keys back to their core essence and built more distinctive things around it.

That's when we really leaned into more change, especially Isaac's main suit, and specific locations that had key visual differences like the Church of Unitology. 

Speaking of the art, what's the most memorable piece that you were involved in, one that you still think about to this day? This can be as elaborate as a set piece, or as small as the way a particular gun is modeled. I'm just curious what comes to your mind when you think about the art of Dead Space 2, and what you remain proudest of.

We knew that in order to spend more resources on some areas of the game, that meant we'd have to spend less on another. An obvious candidate was the return to the Ishimura, since we could reuse a lot of assets. So the budget for new art for that area was way less. But how do we make that difference count? How does it not feel like a cheap re-skin? 

So we came up with high key visual changes that would play off the emotions of the character and the player: Tarps, tape, mops, black light. When people talk about that being one of their favorite sections of the game and how engrossing it was, I'm pretty proud of that because they had a great experience, and we freed up budget to make another part of the game better, too!

Patrick Klepek (he/him) is an editor at Remap. In another life, he worked on horror movie sets, but instead, he also runs Crossplay, a newsletter about parenting and video games. You can follow him on TwitterThreadsMastodon, and Bluesky.

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