Dead Space remake interview: How Motive Studio is rebuilding a classic for Xbox Series X|S, PS5, and PC

Dead Space remake generator
(Image credit: Electronic Arts)

Finding the right balance for remaking a game is never easy, but the team at Motive Studio seems to have figured out the right approach. 

I recently went hands-on with the Dead Space remake, playing for almost four hours and going through the first three chapters of what Motive Studio has built. You can check out my impressions in my preview of the Dead Space remake.

While playing, I got the chance to speak with senior producer Philippe Ducharme and technical director David Robillard — both of them have been involved with the project since the beginning — about the process of working on this game, what’s new, what’s staying the same, and how the team figured out the right balance for what could be one of the best horror games of 2023. 

Disclaimer: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

Samuel Tolbert, Windows Central: Can you talk about how long the game has been in development, where exactly “day one” is?

Philippe Ducharme, senior producer, Motive Studio: We started in August of 2020. There were discussions internally that were happening prior to this to say — that was prior to me joining — ‘What's the next project with Motive after the team ships Star Wars: Squadrons?’ And so Patrick Klaus, our GM at Motive, talked with the team and people that were there about ‘What's the interest? What do people want it to be? Like, where is there a subject of passion?’

They came up with Dead Space and making a remake of Dead Space, and that was presented to Sam Ryan, VP our business unit, and she was like ‘If the team wants to do that, I'm all in.’ There’s passion among fans, that's something that the community keeps bringing back, ‘When is there going to be more Dead Space? So, I think that the stars aligned, and we've been making this for just a little bit over two years. Time flies.

So talking about the early production of a remake, Dead Space is a beloved game. Critically successful, people go to it as one of the iconic images of horror in games. What were some of the early discussions like? When talking about ‘Okay, if we're remaking Dead Space, what do we change, what do we not change here?’

Ducharme: It was definitely that kind of reflection of like, ‘Don't fuck it up.’ [Ducharme and Robillard both laugh] But one of our first pillars, when we started talking about Dead Space was ‘Respectfully,’ we're all fans of the game, we actually have Mike, who’s our art director, who was on the second one as well. We know it's a beloved franchise, it's got very solid foundations. 

The first thing we did was, ‘Let’s go revisit the first one, let's go play. Let's do a full walkthrough and then start analyzing beat per beat per beat. What works? What is maybe a little dated now? Where do we want to enhance the experience, not change it for changing’s sake, not saying we're going to work on this and we're going to make it better than the first one. No, we're going to enhance the first one.’ When we think back, well, it was a tremendous experience.

David Robillard, technical director, Motive Studio: I think we had the opportunity with the fact that there was Dead Space 2 and Dead Space 3, and the series had evolved from a gameplay mechanic [perspective], with zero-G navigation, to narrative, there was a full lore at this point because of the comics, the novels, Dead Space 2, Dead Space 3. So there was a lot more juice that we could go in and look at and say, ‘Okay, well, they weren't covering this in Dead Space 1 because it wasn't existing [sic], we can bring it back now inside the narrative, we can bring it back, it adds elements that players can explore now.

(Image credit: Electronic Arts)

So building on that, would you say that people — if this isn't their first time with the Dead Space franchise, obviously it should be accessible to them who have experienced all the games, they've gone through the comics and all that, are they going to get more out of this?

Ducharme: I hope players will perceive it as the definitive experience for Dead Space 1. It's an amazing game, Dead Space 1, but it's also 14 years old. So it's not just about rebuilding the graphics and Frostbite. For sure, it looks better. But it's also [about] playing it, the gameplay mechanics, how are they, how are they feeling now, that's also evolved in the last 14 years. I do think that for fans that are returning, there's also going to be content there that is going to add more to their experience. And that's going to feel fresh.

Robillard: There's choices on immersion. Immersion was a really big thing for us. And that's what prompted us to go towards the interconnected ship, the traversal, which then led to having the Intensity Director content system and keeping the player immersed in that haunted house that is the Ishimura, making sure that their highs and lows are controlled, they’re not, you know ‘Well, I finished Chapter 2, so I can just go on over to medical, nothing's gonna happen.’ No no, you will get content thrown at you. It won't just be Necromorphs all the time, we’ll keep you on your toes, we'll make sure that you have that experience of the haunted house. If you finish Chapter 11 and you're not going on the surface right now, you want to go back and revisit the chapters…you're gonna have a decent experience that’s gonna surprise you.

I just finished chapter one, and there was a pretty big change for me. I was like, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Where's that tram? What's going on here?’ Can players expect that kind of change all throughout the game, woven in as ‘Okay, these smaller narrative beats not the big stuff, but the smaller stuff may not be exactly as you remember?’

Ducharme: For sure. We did go for a structure that's a fully explorable ship. The way we transition from chapter to chapter used to be a tram, and it was literally cutting away. We don't want any camera cuts. If you die, yeah, we have to have a camera cut. But if you don't die, the camera is going to be seamless from start to finish. 

And so, that was something that did require adjustments on our end. But we also looked at some of the missions, the chapters, especially the second portion of the game, where reception from players wasn't as good in general, because of specific points. And so we looked at those things as well to say, ‘Okay, well, with the new systems that we're putting in place, are there opportunities for us to change and improve those sections?’ So that's also something that we did that returning players will have the opportunity to experience something that's going to be a bit different.

(Image credit: Electronic Arts)

You mentioned new systems. Obviously, gaming hardware has come a long way, PC hardware is just head and shoulders above where it used to be. This remake is one of the first big games from a third party publisher that is just being published on the newest consoles. Was that a decision you made straight away? Or was there ever a period where you were thinking ‘Maybe we can do the Xbox One, maybe we can do the PS4?’

Robillard: I think we discussed it, probably for five minutes. ‘Are we going to do PS4 and Xbox One?’ And we made a strong case right away to say we’re going to go with…well, current-gen now. I think the reasoning was, at least for me, everybody's got a very kind of nostalgic memory of Dead Space. And if you go and play it again, it's not exactly how you remember it. You fantasize. You romance it a bit.

If we're going to remake it, and we're going to bring this like, beloved experience back into players’ hands, we want to do it justice. Having to support cross-gen at this point would have meant we’d have serious compromises to do. You'd have to cater to the lesser powerful consoles, because you're not going to make two data sets. It's just not feasible. So we made the case to Samantha, our VP, and she said, ‘Go for it.’

Ducharme: It obviously has business implications. But that's where for me, I think EA has evolved. I was at EA back from 2003 to 2010. And now we have these discussions, yeah, it's gonna have an impact on the number of units we sell. But for the people that are going to buy it, it's going to be a better experience, there's no doubt about it. It's gonna allow us to do so much more. And it's a game that we're making for fans, it's a game we're making for the community. And hopefully, it’s going to be a larger community than the original game. But the reason why we're doing it is because of a passion project. And we don’t want to limit ourselves because of this. And EA gave us full support. So, it allowed us to do things that wouldn't have been possible.

You talk about this allowing you to do things you wouldn't have been able to otherwise. Is there anything, in particular, you can point to and say, ‘Like this specifically, no, that would have been off the table?’

Robillard: A few things. I think lighting is probably one of the big ones. We have a lot of local dynamic lights in our scenes. Doing as many would have been extremely painful on last-gen hardware. The amount of dynamic props that we have on the levels is quite impressive, and the fact that you can run around with them, you can stack them up and do whatever you want with them…

Ducharme: Volumetric effects?

Robillard: Volumetric effects, we could have done them on last-gen but not to the fidelity that we're doing. It's a lot of things that combine together to create this.

The PS5 DualSense obviously has a couple of new features that older controllers don’t. Is there anything special y'all have cooked up for that?

Robillard: We’re making use of the haptic feedback quite a bit. Shooting, stomps, it's very satisfying. It's crunchy. We’ve made a little use of the audio in the controller…

Ducharme: We have to be careful because the game plays very well with a headset and surround sound. So if you have the speaker that's projecting noise, it’s a bit weird. And also, if you overuse it gets distracting.

(Image credit: Electronic Arts)

I noticed I remember this being one of the first things talked about in one of the early docs that the studio has been putting out about the game the limbs don't just go flying off now. I shot a slasher in the arm and it just dangled and dripped off. I'm pretty jaded. That's gross. [Ducharme and Robillard laugh] That's great, good job.

Robillard: There's more to come that we haven't shown you.

Speaking of more to come, though, was there ever any temptation to be like, ‘Hey, what if we just put a new kind of Necromorph in here? What if we play around with it? How do you balance introducing new elements with being faithful to the original? 

Ducharme: So for the enemy roster, per se, we wanted to make sure they all had an expected behavior from what they were, what they're supposed to do and what role they have. They're not just creatures that are assigned data, some of them are going to close the gap with you very fast. So we wanted to make sure that that balance was kept right and that it was working properly.  I think that the one of the changes that we did make was that, in the initial game, the Spitter was a little bit unknown, it was a Slasher, and you didn't really understand why one was spitting.

It didn’t have a dedicated role like in Dead Space 2. 

Ducharme: Exactly, and so brought it, and so if it spits on you now, you actually can't run anymore. You're limited in your speed until that damage is worn off of Isaac. So there's a few elements there, and when we redid some of the encounters, we wanted to play a little bit with some of the composition of enemies to create different scenarios. That's something that we played around with a little bit. But otherwise, the enemy roster we felt was very strong. And we've just recreated all of them with the different levels of ‘Peeling’ for them to be able to be a threat and something that you can exploit when you're trying to kill them.

Other changes involve the main protagonist of the story, Isaac Clarke, and he talks this time around. That is pretty jarring. Obviously, he developed a voice and much more of a personality in Dead Space 2 and 3. Can you talk about getting the right tone for Isaac in this game?

Ducharme: One thing that we did for the game was we brought a community council to make sure that we had a sounding board for things that we weren't necessarily sure how the community would react [sic]. That was the very first topic we brought to them. We think that Dead Space 2, with a voice for Isaac, actually felt better, because some of the issues of Dead Space 1 were when sometimes, you get told what to do all the time, ‘Isaac, go do this, Isaac, you should do that.’ 

And you're the engineer, you get told how to do stuff. And we felt it was a missed opportunity. And we understand why [the original developers] would do that. The original game was isolating, making sure that you didn't have a chatterbox that was always speaking. And so, how do we tackle that and try to look at what was done in that Dead Space 2, and bring that back and rewrite those portions? The community council was like, ‘Yeah, it worked well in Dead Space 2, be very careful how you do it in Dead Space 1. If you want to bring it back, you can’t break the mood.’ 

So what we did is we set out some ground rules. Isaac will only speak if he's being spoken to. He's not going to start talking on his own saying, like, ‘Oh, I should do this because the player doesn't seem to know what to do right now in the puzzle, so I'll be the one providing the solution.’ That's not how it works. We don't want him to break that feeling of isolation. So he's going to come up with some of the solutions he's going to come up with ‘Okay, you're you're entering medical, there's a barrier, how do you break that barrier?’ 

Instead of having Hammond tell you, ‘Oh, you should get the hydrogen pack and the shock pads,’ it's going to be Isaac that's going to come up with a solution with a very limited amount of words. For it to sound right for us, what voice actor should we take? Gunner [Wright] is Isaac, everyone will notice if we take someone else. So from the moment, we said we're giving him a voice, we’re getting him back to play Isaac, and that will last for a while.

(Image credit: Electronic Arts)

What is the thing you are most excited to see players experience when it comes to this remake, whether they are completely new and had never even heard of Dead Space till the day they played it or someone who's just completely obsessed and played every game a dozen times over?

Robillard: For somebody that's new, going through the paces of narration, but with the added visual fidelity that current-gen provides. I think that we’ve done a good job of respecting the legacy and enhancing the experience. For somebody who has played it and knows it by heart, cool, finish all the chapters and just have a run through the Ishimura. And let us know what you think about the Intensity Director.

Ducharme: For me, what I remember of Dead Space when I played it when it launched in 2008, is the level of immersion that was unparalleled. And when I play our game now — and I've already finished it, like several times throughout production, so things evolve — and I'm still drawn in. 

And even if I know the game by heart, except everything that the Intensity Director does, sometimes it surprises me. I'll still get tension, sometimes, I'll notice myself being tense. My breathing changes. Because I'm in the game, I'm immersed completely into what's happening versus some of the games that I play. The way I consume Dead Space is completely different. Like I'm literally being projected inside Isaac’s shoes walking around, and that for me, for any player, whether it's returning or new players, I think that experience in itself is fantastic. 

Closing things out, congrats on the recent Marvel announcement. That's obviously far off, but any possibility of more Dead Space in the future after this? Is this the only time Motive intends to touch the franchise, or is there room for more?

Ducharme: We’re focused on finishing. Everyone right now is guns blazing on making sure that this game is going to please everyone who wants to play. We'll see what the future holds afterward. We’re passionate about this game.

Dead Space is currently scheduled to launch on Jan. 27, 2023. It'll be available on Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, PC, and PS5.

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Dead Space

The original Dead Space is being rebuilt, and the developers at Motive Studio are putting a lot of care into this. Our time hands-on has been insightful, and it seems like it's all coming together.

Buy from: Amazon (opens in new tab) | Best Buy (opens in new tab) |  Xbox (opens in new tab) 

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Dead Space Digital Deluxe Edition

The Dead Space remake is inbound, and if you just have to have every extra available, you can grab the Digital Deluxe Edition, which comes with three Unique Suits and two Suit Textures. 

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Samuel Tolbert is a freelance writer covering gaming news, previews, reviews, interviews and different aspects of the gaming industry, specifically focusing on Xbox and PC gaming on Windows Central. You can find him on Twitter @SamuelTolbert.