"Isaac and the Ishimura, it's like a date with destiny."
The original Dead Space was released back in 2008 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC, and it immediately felt like a breath of fresh air for the horror genre. With its sci-fi setting of the derelict Ishimura spaceship through to the main protagonist being an engineer and using something called a Plasma Cutter to “cut off their limbs,” it quickly became one of the defining releases for that generation of hardware.
Getting a built-from-the-ground-up remake over a decade later from EA and Motive (Star Wars: Squadrons), enough time has passed for it to make a lot of sense in 2023. Utilising the Frostbite engine to ramp up the visual detail and immersion that is a core part of the series and genre, the Dead Space remake also expands the story with new dialogue and even some new set-pieces built from cut content that didn’t make its way into the original.
And with that, the previously silent protagonist Isaac Clarke is being given a new voice, or a familiar one, with Gunner Wright, reprising the role he helped define in the game’s sequels - Dead Space 2 and Dead Space 3.
With the remake right around the corner, it’s out on January 27 for Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 5, and PC. We had the chance to sit down with actor Gunner Wright and Motive’s Realization Director Joel MacMillan to talk about all things Dead Space. From reprising the role of Isaac and fleshing out the character with new dialogue to the extensive performance capture work that went into the remake. Above all, we learned that the team at Motive are huge fans of the original, and in many ways, this remake is as much a fan-made project as it is a significant release from a huge publisher.
So strap into your suit and arm your Plasma Cutter; here’s our conversation with Gunner and Joel.
Dead Space 2 was more cinematic in terms of story, with Isaac in the original Dead Space being more of a silent protagonist. And with that, it had that isolated immersive feel. From a development perspective (and a game one), how would you contrast Isaac in the original Dead Space versus the sequel?
: With our version of Isaac, we wanted to have a continuity with the rest of the series, where the story ended up going from Dead Space through to the third game. We wanted to make sure that the Isaac we were recreating for our version of Dead space followed that character arc. That's why we all had our fingers crossed, hoping that Gunner would be available and able to support that with us. When you know at the sequels in the franchise, Isaac did speak, and so it made sense to try and adopt that for our version of Dead Space.
It also helped us address a couple of other issues that we had with the silent protagonist. In the original Dead Space, characters talk to Isaac without Isaac responding. This gave the impression that he's a bit despondent or ignorant, and we wanted to make sure that we didn't have that disconnect [in the remake]. Our version of Isaac interacts a little bit to help endear him a bit more to the player.
: At the same time, in the original, because missions and tasks were given to you by the other characters, it made Isaac feel a little bit like an errand boy and less like someone in the driver's seat, so to speak. We also wanted to give our version of Isaac a little bit more agency. He's a capable space engineer. We wanted to lean into that fantasy, and we wanted him to be more solution-oriented. We wanted him to be the one that thinks through the problem and provides the solution. And the best way to do that was to give him a little bit of a voice. Sparingly, because we didn't wanna lose what fans like about the original, that sense of isolation by having a silent protagonist.
"In the original Dead Space, characters talk to Isaac without Isaac responding. This gave the impression that he's a bit despondent or ignorant, and we wanted to make sure that we didn't have that disconnect [in the remake]. Our version of Isaac interacts a little bit to help endear him a bit more to the player."
And when you don't have that voice, that running commentary in your head with people telling you what's going on, having an absence of dialogue makes you feel a little bit more alone. And in some ways, it feels a little bit more suspenseful. We were very conscious of retaining that, which they did so well in the original.
From a performance perspective, knowing Isaac from the sequels, how did you approach the character? Knowing where he ends up, did that inform the performance at all, or did you try and kind of forget everything and become Isaac before all of the crazy shit happens?
: I was blessed with keeping a lot of my materials. I think pretty much everything from the days of shooting Dead Space 2 and Dead Space 3. I still have those scripts that I was able to go through and take notes on. Even some of the creative mission statements that EA had, going back to Dead Space 2, I rummaged through those. But really, it was Joel and the creative team [at Motive] who helped me ground where Isaac is [in Dead Space].
Keeping the DNA, the character from the series, but in this new frontier of circumstances and grounding him. With his personal issues with his girlfriend, he's simply going there to get this ship back. Isaac and the Ishimura, it's like a date with destiny. In his world of work, the Ishimura is a special ship, so that was the way to hook into the story and character. Of course, that whole team helped me steer that narrative.
A remake can leverage all of the modern technological advances in game development and visual fidelity, especially when there’s been this big amount of time. Coming back now, was the process different, and how did the updated visuals impact your perception of the world?
: Oh, it looks like a film. There's a moment, a sequence, where Isaac's building the Plasma Cutter, and I just want to reach out and grab it. The plasma cutter is so detailed as a tool and a weapon. My background as a kid is racing motorcycles, where the gear is very cool to look at, but there's a purpose to it. Especially with rider suits where they've got airbags and leather, but there's all this technicality to it. Seeing Isaac's new suit, and then hearing from the team, articulating the design, making it purposeful for that equipment. I can look at that suit and just see it and see how useful that would be to where I just want to throw it on. That level of immersion is spectacular.
"Isaac and the Ishimura, it's like a date with destiny."
: All of that extra tactile detail really does add to the immersion. All of those extra details, the different material types on Isaac's armour, dissecting how the Plasma Cutter assembles and disassembles, working out how things actually move. Finding that level of realism in all those elements helps give the world greater credibility. And that was one of our goals, from the script page to the level art, the lighting, the audio, and basically every aspect of the game. We really tried to ratchet up the immersion value.
: Going back to Isaac's suit, you know, we really wanted to give it a sense of weight as well. Isaac's suit, it's heavy metal, it's canvas. Gunner, you were emulating that weight, and when I saw that, I immediately pictured Isaac in this world. He's a competent space engineer, and he's probably worn that suit a thousand times. It's still heavy, and you can see that he's carrying that burden. It looks great and adds to the immersion.
: You guys actually built the realistic padding inside the helmet, which is awesome.
: There are a couple of sequences where we see Isaac take off or put on the helmet in the game. And we wanted to make sure when he does that, the interior of that helmet had enough detail that it supported the realism we needed.
That level of detail is impressive. Dead Space has always had that grounded feel that adds to the horror and terror. I’m wondering how that all works from a performance perspective. I know there was performance capture, but was that done early or late? How much planning is done to get you ready to react to what’s happening at any potential in-game moment?
: Maybe just one thing because you probably have a good answer for that, Gunner. For this particular project, we had a dense mocap marathon. Over the course of a year, we shot 10 or 12 mocap [motion capture] and pcap [performance capture] sessions. So we had a lot of performance animation data coming in pretty hot. And at least for the latter half of those shoots, we had a number of game assets and game sequences blocked that we could provide for Gunner and the rest of the actors on set. To use as a visual guide to help project them into that world.
: And previs [pre-visualisation]. Being able to just look at a computer screen and map out where we're going in the Ishimura. It really helped us quickly go, “Okay, got it.” I see where we are.
: It also helps to have the original as a guide. That helped us in a number of situations, and we always had a blueprint to go back to. Everyone on the dev team is a fan of the original and the franchise. We weren't mandated to do this game. This was something we chose to create, where everybody on the team really wanted to make this game. And so we were all very familiar with the game heading in.
"We weren't mandated to do this game. This was something we chose to create, where everybody on the team really wanted to make this game. And so we were all very familiar with the game heading in."
: As I said, it gave us a blueprint to work from. When we were laying out certain sequences [for the shoot] and blocking or even designing certain sequences, we understood the geography of the Ishimura. Even without some of the finer details and smaller elements that might move and shift around, the general layout of the Ishimura remains the same. And so we could use that to determine where characters were going to be and what they could do.
The original Dead Space is an iconic game, so making any sort of changes, even having the confidence to do that, is daunting. Even something like new dialogue is potentially huge as it could change the tone of a certain scene. What were your thoughts during the early stages about making changes? Were there pillars, or did you take stock of what the game was/is and what needed to be there at every level?
: As part of the core leads group, one of those first pillars was simply to honour the legacy. It was important that we adhered as closely as possible to the original. Because we're huge fans of the original, we didn't want to change anything just to change it. That was really something that we challenged ourselves with over the course of the whole production. Whenever someone would suggest a change, even if it was something small, we would ask ourselves and each other, do we need to change that?
If it was done really well in the original, and we understand how they did it and why - where’s the need for change coming from? Does it need to change at all, or do we need to update it? Does it need to be enhanced? That was a philosophy we had all the way up until the end. We didn't make any rash or quick decisions. We had hubris when putting this game together partly because, when looking under the hood when we started, checking out the engine to see how well everything was put together by the original team - we all quickly developed a real sense of humility. We all have a real sense of respect for what the original team did.
We didn't want to mess with it more than we needed to. The goal was to augment and enhance where we could. Yes, we have added some sequences, and we've added some features, and we've added some game mechanics, but it was always under that guiding light.