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Exclusive: Dissecting Dead Space - A Revisit to the USG Ishimura with Co-Creator Michael Condrey
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 09:13am 05/10/22 | Comments
We chat exclusively with Dead Space co-creator Michael Condrey and take a trip down USG Ishimura memory lane...

Update: Below is an account of how I managed to connect with industry veteran Michael Condrey, one part of the OG Dead Space creative team and the IP's co-creator. Since posting this feature, which loosely found its way to fruition off the back of the fairly unimaginative Negative Atmoshpere being announced, the Dead Space Remake was announced (now with fresh new details), and Dead Space's other co-creator, Glen Schoefield, is about to unleash the series' spiritual successor, The Callisto Protocol. Proving interest in this left-of-field IP never truly went away, as EA wrongly expected, and I was on the money to put the request in with Condrey in the first place to revisit the USG Ishimura...

Original post: Red Dead Redemption 2, Resident Evil 2 Re-Release and Metro: Exodus finished, sadly, I found myself pooling through my shame-pile in the early parts of 2019. It shouldn’t be a stretch to assume a games journo would have a big shame-pile. But I’m also a fan of the classics -- the day Nintendo drops a Metroid Prime Trilogy HD remaster on us with Pro Controller or GameCube controller support, I’ll sign off for an extended period with no apologies. At any rate, I played a bit of Hand of Fate 2, a bit more of RDR2 to explore and finish Challenges (and wax philosophical) -- you know, a bit of this and a bit of that. But nothing was overtly grabbing me. Then I remembered news of Michael Condrey setting up a new studio under the 2K umbrella, which got me all itchy under the skin...

Condrey was a key figure in the creation of Dead Space, a now seminal sci-fi survival-horror title, that just happens to be one of my favourite games of all time, and was also where I landed on what to play after the aforementioned trawling.

“I couldn't be more excited to have the full support of Take-Two Interactive behind our new 2K Silicon Valley studio,” Condrey reveals after agreeing to chat to us about his history with EA, Activision, and Dead Space specifically. “We’ll have news down the road on the official studio name, and more info on the game [we’re working on] when the time is right. In the meantime, suffice to say, I’m grateful to all the fans who have continued to support the Dead Space universe since its launch over a decade ago.”

"Visceral Games was ultimately shuttered last year by EA after a series of challenged game releases by the studio..."

If you’re not in the know, Condrey worked at EA Redwood Shores for more than a decade before rebranding it into Visceral Games, following 2008’s Action Game of the Year, Dead Space. Condrey later departed to found a new studio, Sledgehammer Games for Activision. Visceral Games was ultimately shuttered last year by EA after a series of challenged game releases by the studio. EA’s corporate headquarters is located in Silicon Valley, California. It’s Redwood Shores campus houses the majority of the Publishing functions, as well as several game development teams. The studio had tremendous commercial success with highly popular licensed properties like Lord of the Rings, Tiger Woods, The Simpsons, and others. However, it didn’t have a strong track record of original IPs.

“At that time, launching a new IP at EA was really challenging. In fact, it was largely considered the most risky place for a team to work at EA,” Condrey recalls. “Few new IP teams were given the time to bring a vision to life, and almost none found their way to full launch. Conversely, while popular licensed properties had their own creative challenges, the built-in fan awareness was such a powerlift that a good game would almost certainly be commercially viable.”

Condrey worked on the James Bond franchises at EA Redwood Shores, beginning with the N64’s The World Is Not Enough -- incidentally the first game I ever reviewed for the much-loved N64 Gamer magazine Kosta Andreadis (AusGamers co-Managing Editor) and I would run and transform into Nintendo Gamer over the following three-plus years. TWINE was successor to the 1997 ground breaking GoldenEye 007. He also led the teams on Agent Under Fire, Everything or Nothing, Nightfire and From Russia With Love.

“Working on the Bond franchise was amazing,” Condrey enthuses. “007 is one of the most recognised [characters] in modern pop culture, and at that time, the movies were as iconic as anything in film. Professionally, I was lucky to work with some of the most passionate and dedicated game developers in the industry. Personally, recording tracks at Abbey Roads Studios, working with Pierce Brosnan at Pinewood Studios, and having Sean Connery star in From Russia With Love… it was incredibly fulfilling.”

It was on From Russia With Love where Condrey first partnered with Glen Schofield.

"That team incubated a survival-horror title inspired by some of their favourite entertainment properties -- ultimately landing on a creative centre of “Resident Evil meets Alien”..."

“We were proud of what the team created with From Russia With Love, and how hard we worked to create something special for fans,” he explains. “The dev cycle was very aggressive and the franchise fatigue with gamers had started to show, however. EA gave us the opportunity, as a team, to follow up FRWL with another Bond title.”

No ammo, no worries

Instead, the two would go on to convince EA to seed a small new IP team built from hand-picked developers from within Redwood Shores. That team incubated a survival-horror title inspired by some of their favourite entertainment properties -- ultimately landing on a creative centre of “Resident Evil meets Alien” and resulting in 2008’s Dead Space.

Famously, Condrey and Schofield would eventually leave EA and create the earlier-mentioned Sledgehammer Games, with their first release task being to co-develop with a troubled Infinity Ward for the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. To raucous applause, mind. And that was followed-up by the critically acclaimed Advanced Warfare. But we’re not here to talk about Call of Duty, just know that these guys know, and knew, what they were doing.

"You know, pitting Unitology, metaphorically, against EA as a whole; culminating in the release of Dead Space 3 and the eventual closure of a studio..."

Rather, we’re here to remember and dissect a seminal gaming experience that even today stands tall, but has been left in its own proverbial shadows; a victim of necromorphism if you will, that is perhaps more on-the-nose than even Condrey, Schofield or soon-to-be Visceral Games could predict. You know, pitting Unitology, metaphorically, against EA as a whole; culminating in the release of Dead Space 3 and the eventual closure of a studio which had become a shadow of its former self, to keep the metaphors rolling.

Plus no more plans for the series from within EA’s walls. At all. Dead, space.

What Dead Space did so well was introduce us to an entirely new game-world, or game-universe, really. And it’s easy to look at the Isaac Clarke character design, which is now iconic, against the creation of the Necromorphs and then labelling the whole thing survival-horror, but there’s so much more to even what went into the first game than that. “Cut off their limbs”, initially, was what many reviewers felt was just a differential way to separate the game from Resident Evil 4, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Contextually, Isaac is an engineer, and the tools he uses within the game are, largely, engineering tools. Even the audio stingers found throughout the first game mimic the sounds of metal falling on metal off in the distance, like a tool being dropped from a ledge to the floor below. And most of the tasks you haplessly perform are engineering tasks. Despite Isaac’s partner, Nicole Brennan, being part of the USG Ishimura crew manifest (thus giving him an emotional reason to be there), he’s been brought along on the mission first and foremost for his engineering skills.

“At its core, we knew we needed to ground Isaac’s character, equipment and surrounding in strong and familiar roots in effort to provide fans creative permission to believe in the threat of the fantastic -- reanimated space undead; the necromorphs,” Condrey explains. “Ridley Scott’s Alien was such a powerful north star for us in that way. The crew of the Nostromo, and the space tug itself, were very familiar and set a tone that allowed the alien threat to feel credible and relatable. Our primary focus for the USG Ishimura was functional spaces that supported our gameplay goals, but the form was rooted in environments and cohesive spaces that were grounded to today’s shipping crew needs -- medical decks, science labs, crew quarters, food storage, the bridge…”.

To add to this context, one of the more brilliant design decisions was to have the failing systems on the Ishimura add to the game’s horror by working to build on tension. Despite having Hammond and Kendra in communication in parts in the first game, this is essentially a solitary experience where often you feel lost, alone and backed against the wall, both figuratively and literally. What’s haunting about this is that a mystery slowly unfolds and the necromorphs you’re dismembering kind of become more ‘human’ as you realise these are all mutated crew members. In fact, in the video below you can hear very human sounds coming from the Slasher as it slowly dies. This escalates the deeper you get into the game while the game’s game-world mechanisms, art-direction, audio and all important context, coalesce to heighten a very real-feeling horror experience.

Listen to the sound of the second Slasher as it dies...

“We started work on Dead Space, in its infancy as a new IP, in early 2006,” Condrey tells us. “It was a very small team, initially, and we had built a decade of expertise in the Bond tech at EA. However, the console transition to PS3 was approaching later that year and we wanted to harness all of the capabilities of the new hardware to bring the horrific atmosphere of Dead Space to life. There was a lot of work done by an exceptional team of engineers and tech artist that went into the core engine development. Large scale dynamic and deferred lighting was different than anything that had been done in videogames at that time, and it was essential to the experience. Similarly, we spent a lot of effort on sound and music, and [developed] the audio tech needed to capture the sense of terror and fear that were necessary to fully immerse fans in Isaac’s world.

"The broken Star Trek door in the tramline corridor adds a seemingly escalating cadence to the urgency of your mission, but then amplifies the terror of your multi-sided necromorph all-in huddle..."

“I’d love to say that we were brilliant enough to design the entire ship’s layout from the beginning, but it was a creative exploration that developed over time,” he adds. “Our first prototype, for example, intended to showcase both our gameplay and tone. We had a zero G section, a terrifying elevator sequence, and an interior combat area showcasing the dismemberment mechanic, all of which inspired the future game, but none that survived 100% intact to the shipped game. As the storyline developed, and the locations became more firm, the USG layout evolved into what fans ultimately came to know in the original game.”

Dead Space Moment -- second tram stop. Destination: Main Lab, on your way to find both Thermite and the Shock Pad to create an explosive device to break through an obstruction -- you know, an engineering mission -- the broken Star Trek door in the tramline corridor adds a seemingly escalating cadence to the urgency of your mission, but then amplifies the terror of your multi-sided Necromorph all-in huddle that makes this small space not only feel smaller, but also impossible. It’s an example where game-world audio can impact the player’s emotions while not breaking any contextual rules. The sound itself becomes the soundtrack ‘stinger’ while also presenting itself as both a puzzle and a tutorial tool for using the game’s Stasis ability -- another engineering tool, I might add.

Frankly, how Condrey, Schofield and co pooled all of this together in a believable way was brilliant. And we need to remember, this was the first entry in a brand new IP from a team not known for working on these types of games. They backed themselves in, too. Often development teams on new IP will world-build, but pull themselves back a bit in case it just doesn’t work out. Not so here. This is a fully realised space with a narrative that feels as old as it needs to be. Unitology, the Marker; Hammond and Kendra are bit players in a larger narrative construct, and it’s one that would go on to be explored in myriad transmedia projects, from animated movies to comics and even be considered for bigger things...

"The broken Star Trek door in the tramline corridor adds a seemingly escalating cadence to the urgency of your mission, but then amplifies the terror of your multi-sided necromorph all-in huddle..."

“Isaac’s story was such an expansive new ‘creative’, we [just] saw an opportunity to give fans more to delve deeper into the rich world of Dead Space,” Condrey reveals when we ask about the development of the game-universe’s transmedia explosion. “Character backstory, Unitology history, insight into the mystery of the Marker, early looks into the state of the challenges that led to EarthGov cracking planets in pursuit of rare materials to sustain the expansion of the human race -- there was so much to work with that in the end, we created numerous comic series, novels, animated films, and of course sequels and prequels.

“In all, more than a dozen creative spin-offs came from Dead Space’s humble beginnings,” he continues. “At more than one point, Dead Space was in talks as a feature film, too. That would have been something really wonderful to see come to life.”

Another example of how contextual audio can craft pseudo soundtrack tension...

Upon my revisit to the Ishimura, I’ve gained a renewed respect for the game on the whole. In my initial review from 2008, I wrote:
In short, while not 100% original, Dead Space offers up one of the most solid gaming experiences I've had in a long time, and it does so because it's not afraid to take the best elements from great games and make them work -- equally well -- as a single entity.
And while Michael has already confirmed earlier that they had goals to gel disparate influences together, what I’ve noticed this time around is how whole and homogenous this game-universe -- from the outset -- is. When you walk under water dripping from the ceiling, or blood, it pours and bounces off Isaac, believably. A small thing, but one that still brings the space to life. Even the elevators you ride, as terrifying as they all always are, have notes citing the last time it had been serviced.

I mean, we’re on a fucking spaceship in a horror sci-fi experience set in the 26th century. But the elevators, at least, have been serviced.

I noted this to a degree in my review, but I think the entirety of it was lost on me, and maybe many others, back then:
To begin with, the universe EA Redwood has crafted here is totally functional. Everything serves a logical purpose, and you'll find even the weight and movement of Isaac as one of the most refreshing things you've experienced in third-person gaming in a long while. He moves with deliberation, ever-crouching because of the weight of his suit (transferred to you, the player, with perfection) while his transitional animations and their various trees are uber-realistic. It's a hyper-real world with true-to-life components that hold it together.
And the thing is, while moving on eventually beyond Visceral to start Sledgehammer, the team and core creators still doubled down on what they’d built in the first game.

“Following the critical reception of Dead Space, we immediately began pre-production on Dead Space 2,” Condrey recalls. “A lot of the early pre-production on DS2 focused on doubling down on what made the original great, while adding new elements and expanding on mechanics that showed promise but we didn’t have time to fully evolve during Dead Space’s development. We also explored the continuation of the story, and brand new mechanics that would further expand Isaac's role as the franchise protagonist. About six months into DS2 pre-production, we were asked to lead the EA Redwood Shore studio overall, and that meant taking a step back from the day to day on Dead Space 2 to focus on larger strategic efforts for EA Redwood Shores.

"Fun fact, Dead Space: Extraction was the last game completed during my tenure at EA Redwood Shores..."

-- Michael Condrey

“Of course, staying involved in both DS2 and Dead Space: Extraction for the Wii was a focus in my role as studio COO. (Fun fact, Dead Space: Extraction was the last game completed during my tenure at EA Redwood Shores. It was developed with Eurocom. Eurocom was the developer of my first game with EARS with whom I worked with a decade prior on The World Enough is Not Enough for N64.)”

There are plenty of games that leave us wanting more -- games with memorable moments. In Metroid Prime when you make planetfall on Tallon IV and see beads of water gather on Samus’ mask. In Resident Evil 4 the hedge maze with the ravenous wolves is an anxiety-inducing challenge. In Red Dead Redemption when you arrive in Mexico and unexpectedly Jose Gonzales’ “Far Away” plays, out of nowhere. When G.L.a.D.O.S. encourages you to incinerate the Companion Cube in Portal, but barates you for doing so afterwards. When you cremate The Joker in Batman: Arkham Knight, only to experience him as a ‘companion’ throughout the rest of the game. When you get revelatory narrative clues during boating moments between Kratos, Atreyus and Mimir in God of War... games just impact us and remain with us in ways no other media is entirely capable of.

In Dead Space a lot of these standout. Firing up the game initially sounds like you’re starting a series of systems on a spaceship, like an engineer. The Gondola mission is equal parts terrifying and important in the structure of mechanical tasks needed to be performed, to maintain the goal to “ground Isaac’s character” in the believable; the relatable. In Course Correction, playing the game as I currently am, using only the Plasma Cutter on Hard, left me attempting to gain engine control access with sweaty palms. Not killing the Pregnant Slasher is actually the safest option (what a name for an enemy), especially when your only real ammo is the explosive canisters littered around place and you need to run around frantically arranging them so your precious ammo can have the ultimate impact.

And then there’s the first time you find yourself in a hull breach and out in the vacuum of space breathing with desperation, despite the space vista in front of you being so compelling all you want to do is gawk. Of course necromorphs can also exist within this anti-human habitat, like horribly mutated angry oversized tardigrades. You’re just never safe in this game, which on its own merits is also memorable. Though maybe not fondly.

An example of the game's systems and AI being dynamic to player input...

It might be the sincerest form of flattery that your own product is cited as inspiration, especially when you yourself have utilised inspiration from other sources that tickled you, but the recently-announced Negative Atmosphere might be the most on-the-nose, and in the timing of this feature and chat with Condrey, I couldn’t help but probe him on its existence.

"If it’s just a derivative knock off, that the name and videos currently suggest, then it risks being a disservice to fans and the developers..."

-- Michael Condrey

“I don’t know much about Negative Atmosphere, to be honest, except that it seems to take being “inspired by Dead Space” to the most extreme,” he says with what I imagine might be a wry smile. “EA owns Dead Space and despite reaching critical acclaim, it didn’t seem to ever meet the financial targets the publisher wanted, so I don’t know if fans will ever see another game in the franchise. If Negative Atmosphere can breathe new life in the survival-horror genre for fans, while bringing real meaningful innovation, then I think I’d be ok with it. If it’s just a derivative knock off, that the name and videos currently suggest, then it risks being a disservice to fans and the developers who made Dead Space.”

And on that note -- the very existence of Dead Space as a floating IP lost in space, seems a sadly poignant way to end this deep-dive and conversation. Even if EA ever wanted to use an Infector to bring the series back from the dead, its DNA might never be in the same heart or space as the original, or even the sequel, and we saw that with the mess that was Dead Space 3.

“From the outside, it seems clear that [EA] felt the path to reaching commercial success required the franchise to move far further into an action experience,” Condrey laments. “And it ended up straying from its original survival-horror roots that the fans came to love and expect. Making games can be a tough business, and every publisher has the challenge of balancing their portfolio risk. It’s unfortunate that the critical success of Dead Space was tied to a more niche sub genre that didn’t find as broad a commercial audience as EA had needed or wanted.

"The romantic notion of returning to our roots, rebooting the franchise, and introducing a new generation of fans to Dead Space (or something of that DNA) would be pretty exciting..."

-- Michael Condrey

"Dead Space holds a really special place in my heart," Condrey says warmingly when probed if he'd consider creating something similar at his new 2K digs. "It was an exciting time for us as a small scrappy team fighting to bring a passion project to life. I’m thankful to have been able to continue working with many of the developers from that team for years since we left EA. The romantic notion of returning to our roots, rebooting the franchise, and introducing a new generation of fans to Dead Space (or something of that DNA) would be pretty exciting, for sure.

"As our good friend Sean Connery noted, Never Say Never..."
Read more about Dead Space on the game page - we've got the latest news, screenshots, videos, and more!

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