Ask Steve Papoutsis if he plays a lot of horror games, and he just laughs; "Oh yeah! That's all I'm doing!" That, and serving as executive producer for the Dead Space franchise. His team's top priority right now: figuring how to scare the hell out of us all over again in Dead Space 2.
…as we dance to the masochism tango!
His problem? Horror, like comedy, doesn't always play as well the second time around, and fans know Dead Space's rhythms cold. Papoutsis must meet expectations and deliver the unexpected at the same time, knocking those gamers out of the comfort zone — if such a thing exists when undead killers hunt you through dark passages — they built up playing the first game. It sounds counter intuitive, but Papoutsis wants to create a feeling of familiarity when you fire up the sequel…so he can hit you hard right where you feel the safest.
"We're aware of the tools that we went to the well with, and we're trying to evolve them," he says. But it always comes back down to what he calls the Dead Space mantra: "Real space, real terror."
Papoutsis is happy to translate. "What that means is we look for elements that are relatable and believable. The setting needs to be a place you could imagine yourself in." Wandering the Ishimura, a mammoth planet-cracking ship that served as Dead Space's setting, players came across normal living spaces to balance out high-tech bridges and cavernous engineering decks. This time, main character Isaac Clarke lands on the Sprawl, a frontier city built on one of Saturn's moons. "There are things you expect to find in a city," says Papoutsis, "a church, a mall."
Of course, a city's also supposed to be populated. But once the necromorph infection takes hold, Isaac finds himself very alone in places intended for large crowds.
That sense of isolation isn't the only returning element. Anyone who's seen the demo knows jump scares make a big comeback, but Papoutsis isn't relying on them. "We're trying to do more with the atmosphere and the story and the setting to put you into different emotional states." He points to a favorite moment in Dead Space's Hydroponics level as an example. "You're in this unique environment, looking at these plants…and all of a sudden, there's a sound. The misters come on. It's a simple thing. The misters come on, and it startles you."
Oh God, I just saw Seth Rogan naked! HOOORRRRRFFF!
"Dead Space 1 was very effective at creating tension and riding that tension all the way to the end. That being said, some people couldn't play it for too long. It felt too grinding." In the sequel, Papoutsis wants to you to experience different emotional states, from the nerve-rattling suspense of aiming slowly, carefully, at monsters advancing on you, to the panicked frenzy of being surrounded by the Pack, a new enemy that might attack you ten at a time. From ten directions.
Many new additions leverage those tempo changes into varying gameplay. Papoutsis cites the Crawler, a moving time bomb players can detonate from a safe distance or decapitate — read: "pull pin from grenade" — and toss into a mass of enemies. Meanwhile, ammo-conscious players can spend one bullet instead of twenty by shooting out a window, dispatching a half-dozen necromorphs via explosive decompression. They just have to re-seal the environment before they're sucked out as well.
The intention is to keep players off-balance, forcing them to constantly change tactics while building towards the game's "epic moments." Those crescendo encounters are designed to blow the action completely off the charts.
Good boy! Now roll over! Play dead!
So is Dead Space becoming more action-oriented? Papoutsis doesn't think so. "We like to think of it as an evolution." Still, if the public decides DS2 is Aliens to DS1's Alien, "I don't have a problem with that," he says. "The place you're really going to feel that pacing change is in these big epic moments." But the core game, Papoutsis insists, remains intact. You won't get far without strategically dismembering necromorphs — he tells me "That's concrete." Hopefully, you won't get far without an uneasy feeling in your gut, either.
Ask Papoutsis if there's a moment in the game that gets under his skin, and he doesn't laugh. "You better believe it," he says, but he can't talk specifics. "It just goes back to personal, primal fears. And things I'd never want to see in real life."
Sure sounds like Dead Space to me.