By David Smillie 21/11/2017
With the recent announcement EA is shutting down Visceral Games (formerly EA Redwood Shores) and transferring the development of their much anticipated Star Wars action-adventure title to a different studio, I’ve found myself lamenting the closure of a development team boasting a somewhat spotty history of games, with a mixture of nostalgia and a strong sense of what might have been. Ultimately, Visceral Games is a studio which will be primarily remembered for its brief foray into the horror genre with Dead Space. A series that, throughout its lifetime seemed to stumble and lose its way. Over the course of the three main instalments, protagonist of the series Isaac Clarke slips deeper and deeper into madness. He forgets his purpose in life and desperately battles to keep hold of his humanity and sense of self. A reality in hindsight, I find myself contemplating whether this is not only indicative of a series unable to stamp its personality on the gaming world, but of a development studio unsure of its place in the industry, without direction or a niche to call its own.
Before we go any further, I’m just going to say this and get it out there in the open. Dead Space is the best horror game ever made. It’s better than Manhunt, it’s better than Silent Hill and yes, it’s even better than Resident Evil. That’s not to say the game doesn’t build upon these concepts. Like all good games, it looks at titles that have come before it, uses what worked previously as a base and then builds upon these mechanics to create a true masterpiece. It’s a dark, chilling and oppressive game leaving the player with a constant sense of foreboding, knowing they are never safe.
The game is set in space on a ship named the USG Ishimura which feels very much alive and reminiscent of the mansion in Resident Evil mixed with an oppressive horror akin to the ever present fog in Silent Hill 2. Unlike games before it however, Isaac Clarke feels part of the world in which he exists. He isn’t a special forces agent sent in to fix a situation, but a living, breathing part of the organisation and world in which the game operates. He’s a simple engineer tasked with repairing a damaged ship before returning home. In short, Clarke feels vulnerable, thrust into a situation and forced to react, roll with the punches and make the best of a bad hand. This too is something which seems prophetically appropriate to the life and eventual death of the studio that created it.
Visceral Games has an eclectic past to say the least. Throughout its time, the studio swung wildly between genres, without apparent cause or even concern for forging its own path in an industry coming of age. Starting out with games like NASCAR Rumble and Road Rash: Jailbreak, it then moved on to creating licensed games for the James Bond and Lord of the Rings movie franchises. After this, the studio spun off to create Tiger Woods: PGA Tour in 2006, before changing direction once more to work on the Godfather open world game and Simpsons action platformer in 2007. Even before the release of Dead Space, we have a development house that lacks cohesion. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these games, but there’s absolutely no arguing that this is a back catalogue lacking direction. There’s nothing there to suggest Visceral Games had anything they could stick a flag in and call their own.
Perhaps being able to move seamlessly from racing game to shooter, to hack and slash, to sports title and then on to produce a passable open world game and action platformer suggests a high degree of adaptability, but this also comes at the expense of a personality. There’s no through line, nothing that the studio can stake a claim on. It’s a jack of all trades, master of none resume at best. Solid, but well and truly middle of the road. A fact that makes the release of the frankly exquisite Dead Space in 2008 all the more surprising and special, but also supremely disappointing.
When Dead Space came along, it was indeed once more a change in direction, but a change in direction that seemed, at least on the face of it to be one that allowed Visceral Games to make use of the skills it had developed over the years. It handled much more smoothly than other horror games of the same ilk, the shooting was tight and responsive and the level design had taken into account a set of objectives and executed upon them without fault. It seemed Visceral Games had finally discovered what it was. An industry leading horror developer.
Almost immediately however, the studios eclectic past came back to haunt it. When the sequel Dead Space 2 came along in 2011, it was a good game, maybe even another great game, but it was somehow different to its predecessor. The slow dangerous, oppressive atmosphere had given way slightly to a game that favoured action more than jump scares, to intense fights and action sequences rather than intimidating enemies and environment design. It was still Dead Space, but it was missing something. It wasn’t until Dead Space 3 came along in 2013 that we saw the true fall from grace. It seemed the same madness that had infected Clarke in the story-line, had also infected the games design. All pretence of this being a horror franchise had been cast aside in favour of becoming nothing more than a mediocre third person shooter. It seemed that the eclectic developer had created the ultimate eclectic video games series.
Looking back on the Dead Space franchise now, it’s difficult to describe it as a horror franchise, but it’s also difficult to describe it as anything else. It isn’t really anything in particular. Not quite horror, not quite shooter and not quite action series. It’s a sprawling mix of genres. It doesn’t know what it is, or even what it wants to be. Much like Visceral Games itself.
And perhaps that’s it. Perhaps that’s the ultimate irony and disappointment of what might have been with Visceral games. It was a development studio that suffered from having no identity of its own. It wasn’t a well known racing studio and neither was it well known for shooters, hack and slash games, golf games, open world games or even action platformers. Instead it will be remembered as a studio that created one of gaming’s great titles and then, whether through poor design choices, or pressure from EA itself, it flubbed its lines and created a short lived franchise that ultimately had no idea about what or who it wanted to be.