Halo and Gears seem to have rung in new gold standards in game mechanics, and the general trend since they hit the scene has shifted to favour action-intensive, fast-paced shooters. How has this affected the survival horror genre?
Here at E3, we chatted with Dead Space senior producer Chuck Beaver and asked him about creating fear in such an action-heavy, fast-paced environment. Many of the standard-setters for survival horror — think Silent Hill and the earlier Resident Evil games — used atmosphere, environment and careful pacing to terrify players. But Beaver's got some very specific tactics planned for Dead Space:
I'm the sort that when an enemy leaps out and terrifies me, I reflexively mash my pause button. Not only does it give me a little break to calm down, but it lets me check my health, ammo and other stats (anyone else do this?). I will not, said Beaver, be able to hide behind my pause menu anymore. Everything in Dead Space happens in real-time.
"It keeps it live", he said. "So if you don't have your shit together, you're going to be in trouble".
This extends beyond the game mechanics themselves into Dead Space's narrative structure — there are no game-stopping cutscenes or scripted events, Beaver told us, in an effort to present a continually-flowing game experience. Beaver cited the "divine design"of Half-Life 2 as an inspiration for this. The overall intention is to tell the story without having to stop the gameplay in order to do so.
Although Beaver said the team studied horror films like The Thing and Alien for inspiration, films like these, he said, use certain visual auditory structures to create fear in a way that can become predictable. Aside from the continual focus on real-time, uninterrupted action, Dead Space relies on depriving the player of any predictive cues they can use to know when the scary stuff's going to happen. As a horror title, he explained, a key strength is that the actions and events are specifically designed to be unpredictable.
I asked Beaver if he had one area of uncertainty with this title, and that's where he and I talked about the difficult task of having to create a survival-horror title in an era that favours in-your-face shooting mechanics. Though Dead Space is very action-intensive, Beaver hopes that people don't see a shooter when they look at it — he's aiming for the middle ground where favoured and current game mechanics meet environmental storytelling and psychological fear and suspense.