INT: Dead Space


Ian Milham (Art Director)
- One on One Interview -

Tell the people what you do on this game.

IM: I was the Art Director- in short, I’m in charge of making sure the game looks good. Sometimes it’s through drawings and paintings but mostly I hire other artists and cast them in terms of their strengths.

So you kind of oversee the whole process.

IM: Yeah, it’s my job to ensure that the game comes out looking good, so that you can’t tell that multiple artists worked on it. It needs to have a cohesive vision.

How did you ever get involved with this crazy video game business?

IM: I started off as a freelance illustrator, before computers, drawing with pencils and paint. I ended up interning, trying to find a painting gig, since freelance is a tough world to break into. I interned and did concept drawings for some ex-ILM people, drawing monsters and stuff. This was about 14 years ago, and then the original Playstation came out, a real leap from the SNES, where you could put more stuff on a CD, like background paintings. So, I ended up doing background paintings for several Playstation games. Over time, I moved to LucasArts and did background artwork, working on Star Wars stuff. Moved to EA 3 years ago and have been working on this almost ever since.

How did you get to Dead Space specifically?

IM: I knew the guys starting it up, our executive producer (Glen Schofield) put his career on the line to make this horror game his own. I knew these guys a little bit and they knew what I could do, with a sci-fi background, so they asked me to help with early parts. We were a small team of less than ten, and we grew along the way, trying new things. It was wild, a real R&D, skunkworks kind of vibe. Some people think “Big bad EA, they aren’t into these things”, but we were trying new gags, trying little ways to scare people, designing these throwaway vignettes with the sole purpose being to frighten people. It started to build a bit, they gave us 6 months and a few more people, and we made a little example and the head guy jumped 3 times while playing it, and loved it.

So it started very small, like a temporary idea.

IM: Yeah, we thought we’d be cancelled every other month.

It was never a sure thing.

IM: God no, it’s really hard to get horror right. It’s all about timing- something can be super scary, but if you change the timing just one second it falls flat. In a video game it’s doubly hard, because a lot of other factors are present. You know, if some executive is playing it, he doesn’t care if he lives or dies. A player is invested in the game- they know the story, they know the vibe, and some of the more subtle effects might be lost on an executive versus someone at home. This is what made us so hungry, we felt we needed to prove ourselves to keep going and keep outdoing ourselves to get more funding for the project, especially in a place like EA, which at the time was unsure about it. Of course now they’re way behind it and have given us nothing but support.

Which is great.

IM: It’s been fantastic, when John Riticello came back to EA, it was just starting. We weren’t sure what he would think, but he literally came into the meeting and was like “Oh my God, I’ve always wanted to make a horror game, this is going to be awesome.” He really plays his games, and he just got the whole project. He was familiar with conventions from other horror games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill and he was like “Oh, can you strafe?” and had us fix things he didn’t like about those games if they were to appear in ours.

And that’s a huge shot in the arm.

IM: yeah, it’s been huge.

I think what you’re saying is really important. The fact that you guys are constantly going the extra mile to give horror fans their just due. Horror is a tough genre to break through, anyone can make a horror movie, but there aren’t a lot of great ones. To make a great horror atmosphere on film is one thing, but to do it in the interactive medium of video games that involves timing and countless other important factors is a true feat.

IM: Dude, I’ll be honest: it was way harder than I thought it would be. We knew it would be tough and that we’d have to iterate a lot, but I can’t tell you how many horror setups we thought would be awesome that turned out to just be terrible in the game. Especially with your point about movies, we’d recall our own favorite horror films and we’d try to deconstruct them and then institute them just like you’d see them in the films. We’d get the timing and the vibe working, and it would just be lame, you know? You don’t know where the player’s looking, what about the camera? We had to learn our lessons and learn what works specifically for games. We needed to have more dialogue with the player and let go of control a bit and sort of figure out how to get the dance between the viewer and the player.

It’s all about context.

IM: You’re right. And not even to mention, the time! Keeping people on their toes- what percentage of a horror movie is actually spent trying to scare people? Maybe a half an hour? How long do you need to do this? Our game is (hopefully) scary from moment one, and most people will play through in the mid-teens of hours. That’s a long, long time. It’s a lot of work, and letting people rest, finding the rhythm of the emotional beat through that long of an experience? That’s hard work, man. I’ve never worked so hard on anything in my life.

I think that shows in the product, and to do it in a game that is slightly less traditional- there’s no HUD, and there are very few moments when you’re not in control of the player- to institute all of these things while the character is in control of the environment and its surroundings, and still have it be effective, is a real feat.

IM: Yeah, that no HUD thing turned out to be tough. We were angry with ourselves for sort of putting that line in the sand, but I’m so glad we stuck to it, trying to make it all work. How scared can you be with a glowing picture of a gun on top of the screen? You’re always reminded that you’re playing a game. We were dedicated to that from the start, but we’d constantly have trouble with it, because gamers need hints from time to time. You can’t have a big arrow on screen, that was tempting, but we found solutions to the problem. It was way harder, but it really paid off. How scary can you be with a HUD? I’m really proud of it.

As well you should be. It’s one thing to implement a no-HUD system, but to get all the ins and outs and not take a cheap way out is tough.

IM: Exactly, and it’s not like no game has done it, but one of two things happen: They break down when lots of info comes to the player, or they stick to it but you don’t know what’s going on and you can’t see what’s happening.

It becomes too subtle.

IM: That’s right, and the whole thing is “oh, he’s panting so he must be hurt”, and the whole thing becomes just as contrived as it would if there were a HUD.

So that’s why the Sci-fi things work out so well, the elements you need can be created with a lot of work.

IM: Yeah, you kind of thread the needle and it did take a lot of work. The color of Isaac’s mask, the ultra marine color, you’ll never see that in the game anywhere else. First of all, it’s the complementary color to the burnt-umber style the game brings, it pops. Also, you need to be able to see your health and see it from your peripheral vision. You wouldn’t be able to see it if that color was anywhere else. There were a lot of decisions like that we had to think about.

From what I gathered, there’s been a lot of horror influence in this game, but no particular one shines through. I know there is a concerted effort to not look like “Alien”. As an art director, does your horror experience bring anything to the table?

IM: I knew the horror would be tough to get across, and Sci-FI works against horror in many ways. I knew we had to dedicate our art to horror, you need to think of the way the monsters in the Thing make you feel. A lot of monsters can be creepy or violent and maybe a little scary, but few are horrific. You’re not repulsed by them like you are in The Thing, that whole “What the F is that?” feeling. We didn’t rip off the thing, but we did want to replicate that vibe. What I was really trying to do is think of horror on an elemental level, like things in daily life like the dentist’s office. There’s a way people feel about compound fractures with bones sticking out.

And there’s a LOT of that in the game.

IM: It makes you shudder, and it’s very relatable. Getting shot isn’t as bad as getting your teeth all busted out, getting a bottle opener taken to your mouth. A lot of our monsters have mutilated teeth and that makes the player squirm. We were trying to get that feeling going.

It’s like a cerebral, universal, instantly relatable feeling.

IM: Exactly.

What was the toughest part of the whole experience?

IM: Horror is a personal thing, and people respond to different elements. Getting people to come along and know where we were going with the game was hard. You can’t just watch the game, it’s pretty but watching it is different from playing it. Only one guy could play it at a time and it’s tough to get that momentum going. It forced us to develop the game with no BS, we knew that nothing short of really scary gameplay would get someone convinced. It forced us to do it and make sure the game was frickin’ scary. In the end, that turned out to be profoundly valuable. It was really hard, but it worked out.

Thanks a lot for your time man, best of luck with the game’s upcoming release.

IM: Thank you man, for taking the time out to travel such a long way to get here and for playing our game!




Source: AITH

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