The Dead Space franchise has been Visceral Games’ main project for five years now, and the most recent release of Dead Space 3 has proven they still have what it takes to create an awesome survival horror.
This is something that would be unachievable if it were not for the concept art that is created first to aid in the design process. Concept art is an extremely important part of video games and one that isn’t often thought about. However without it many of the worlds that we know, love and have spent countless hours inhabiting would not exist as we know them.
It’s because of concept artists like Patrick O’Keefe that immersive worlds like the Dead Space universe exist. I was lucky enough to be able to chat with Patrick about his work on the concept art for Dead Space 2 and 3 and get a little insight into what goes on in the world of concept art as well as learning more about Dead Space 3 and Patrick himself.
Bear in mind there are some spoilers throughout this interview so please tread carefully if you have not finished the game yet!
When/how did you get involved with Dead Space?
I came on halfway through Dead Space 2 to support the Montreal team. Throughout that I worked on some single player and multiplayer elements. After that they asked me to come back for Dead Space 3 and were excited to get me more involved with its development process. As a result I moved to the San Francisco studio. It really was great to have a much bigger impact this time around. Coming onto Dead Space 2 late I didn’t get to have as large of an impact, I was still able to see some of my work resonate to the final product, but Dead Space 3 is where I’ve been able to really see my efforts take form.
As we know, the Dead Space games come from the survival horror genre and are known for being extremely terrifying. However, there are also a lot of beautiful moments throughout Dead Space 3. What was it like having to create both sides of the spectrum?
Horror needs realism. If it’s not believable, then it won’t be scary. When we see things in film or television that is too far out of our reach, it’s not scary. When it comes to my work and paintings, I will always try to capture moments of beauty because the world is a beautiful place. I try to blend realism and horror as I can to make relatable situations that you’re just happen to stumble upon. That element will make the viewer believe they’re in a real place. When you add the horror element to the believable environment they complement each other. If it feels like a real place then your fear should in turn, also feel real.
Even though you are an environmental concept artist, can you touch on how Isaac has changed physically and esthetically in Dead Space 3?
We really wanted to put a face to Isaac and humanize him. Because of this Isaac’s face is shown a lot more so that the players have a chance to truly empathize with him. However, when I paint Isaac it is always in relation to an environment. I love to think of Isaac as Die Hard’s John McClane, the guy can’t ever catch a break and just die, as if it’s not up to him but controlled forces greater than him pulling him back for the next round. In a lot of my paintings Isaac is doubled over with his health meter blinking on the last little segment of life, but he’s still trudging through deathly snowstorms and trying just to make it to the next step. He’s gone so far and been so abused, battered and bruised that he just has to keep going, he’s so close and yet so far. I love the idea he has this insurmountable impossible objective but he has to keep him going. He never accomplish his goal, but his blind faith and altruism keeps him going every step of the way.
How has the scare factor changed between Dead Space 2 & 3?
We kept the concept art as scary as ever. The settings, the environments are just as terrifying as they’ve ever been, if not more so. In Dead Space 2 the settings were made to be eerie, we took spaces that you were used to seeing occupied with life and completely emptying them causing an unsettling feeling. Dead Space 3 sees the environment as much more of an antagonist, your surroundings are literally out to kill you. The weather systems on the planet is merciless and are battering you at every turn; it is made of caves to fall down, glacier shards to tear you apart and snowstorms that will freeze the blood while it pumps through your heart. And prior to getting there, you’re on the flotilla, in these hundred year old spaceships, whose hulls are moaning and whining just waiting to fall apart and suck you into the vacuum of space. In Dead Space 2, you’re in a horror house. In Dead Space 3, you’re in a universe that is trying to destroy you at every turn. The creepy spaces in Dead Space 2 are always fun but it’s a whole other thing to design a universe that is pure evil.
While you’re working on the concept art, how much of the story are you actually given access too?
The story is available, but It’s being finessed throughout and they’re usually doing rewrites on the fly so it’s not like you get to sit down and read the whole script like you would for a film and then do it all part for part. The emotional through-line is the most consistent takeaway you have from the story. I’ll read the documents, but it’s mostly through discussions through the art/creative director and production designer that I’m able to tap into what the emotional core and state of Isaac and the player should be.
So who got the task of creating the Brethren Moon? The creature artists or the environmental artists?
I actually did some of work on the moon boss interior. It started off with another artist who created several sketches of what the boss would look like, from there I created a few different roughs and we picked one which I then spent about three or four days painting it. That is a long time in comparison to the other paintings we were doing especially at that point in time. I had a real blast creating this piece because it is an environment and a creature at the same time. My focus was on what the player should be feeling during that moment. It’s as if Isaac is finally facing a God that hates him so much and they’re asking each other which one is ready to give up. It’s an eerie stand-off between Isaac and what I treated as his maker. I like the sense that this is the end of things either way. Either Isaac dies and he doesn’t have to go through any of this bullshit anymore or this thing dies and Isaac can retire and get a front lawn.
How was it different painting all the different atmospheres of the game, from the Moon at the beginning of the game, to the dark space stations, to Tau Volantis?
The game starts on the moon, which is a really slummy and run down forgotten corner of civilization where Isaac is just sort of hanging onto the fringe of society. I didn’t get to work on a ton of that, but I did a lot of the signage which I loved doing. I’m actually working on a side project that is just girls on signage because I had so much fun doing in the game.
Then we move to the Eudora which a safe, clean and high tech spaceship. The Eudora was actually the only place that makes you feel safe it’s filled with calming blues and oranges with clean textures so things feel sterile yet still friendly. It makes you feel like you can handle anything that comes your way, but then that explodes within the first few minutes.
From there we go into these ancient space ships. There was a real challenge that went into designing these because while they are in the future, 200 or so years from our present, they are old in the Dead Space universe. So we had to come up with a way to create a believable “future past” and make it resonate with our past while still making it seem futuristic. For this we borrowed a lot of design styles that seem kind of tacky now. Instead of using shapes like trapezoids which you’ll see a lot throughout science fiction, we used circles because they’re kind of retro and ornamental. We started using them everywhere, doorways, the floor has circles within circles instead of the standard squares, the port holes and vents are also circles. Then we also had to take the engineering and make it feel old in the future. In the Eudora there are holograms and the likes floating around, but in the old ships everything is analog. There are tons of articulating arms and pistons moving around, and to open a door you don’t just stand in front of it and hit a button, you have to crank open the door for yourself. Man that’s old school opening doors with your hands!
As for Tau Volantis, I’m big on weather and how extreme weather happens, so when the chance came up to do the snow storms for Dead Space 3 I jumped on it. I actually asked the development director to put me on those. I was still living in Montreal at the time and actually walking through snowstorms to get to work so I had a real blast digging into those pieces.
As soon as I did one or two pieces they were really into it. I guess it’s because I have that Canadian touch, I know what snowstorms really feel like. I love painting the snow. It’s such a fun thing to work with because you can kind of compose it however way you want.
It was also kind of a hurdle for the team because we were really mastered at doing a scary interior but now we had to take it outside and create a scary exterior that was equally as threatening. New mechanics were designed for the player to be weighed down and hindered by the snow, and new art tools for the art team to lay snow down in a believable way were invented to pull it off convincingly.
What was your favourite piece or part to work on?
Like I said I loved working on the snow, and I have a few random interiors that for whatever reason I particularly like. But the thing that was the most fun was definitely the Peng Pinup posters, which I did in the retro style we kept throughout. They also came at a really fun time as they were my first assignment when I moved down to San Francisco and that meant I immediately got to start drawing beautiful girls for two or three weeks. I love to draw beautiful girls, it’s almost therapeutic for me, if I could get a job just drawing pin up girls I would. So it was really fun and refreshing to be able to do something playful and lighthearted after a year and a half of terrifying environments.
What was the experience like working on a huge game franchise like Dead Space?
It’s something that’s both exciting and terrifying at the same time. Yes it’s a huge game, but it’s also just small enough to still gain a cult following. That’s something you have to always keep in mind, you don’t want to alienate the fans that have stayed true to the series from the beginning, but you want to still remain somewhat accessible to new fans as well.
What is your greatest challenge as a concept artist?
Ideas. Coming up with ideas. We’re idea people, that’s what we do. It’s not about how good our art is, that’s something that is implied. It’s about creating ideas and portraying them and specific feelings that can’t be done with just a script alone.
What are you working on now that Dead Space is finished with?
Well, I’m currently working on an unannounced project for EA which I can’t talk about but I will say it’s going to be huge and it’s going to be awesome.
Otherwise, I may or may not be working on a side project that may or may not be in a graphic novel form and which may or may not somehow involve the dead with a writer friend Nate Totten.
All artwork done by Patrick O’Keefe as concept art for Dead Space 3.