In the future, our starship captains won't be as blindly heroic as their television counterparts. Their years of virtual training -- inside holo-capsule games like Dead Space 13: Amputheater -- will impart every single reason to avoid stranded ships and suspect space colonies. Even here, in 2011, Dead Space 2 provides an uncomfortable glimpse at the scary doors, inadequate fluorescent lighting and snarling horrors that await us off-planet. And that's before you die and come back to vicious near-life as a necrotized bag of flesh, running around wildly with scissors for hands.
The inhospitable world of Dead Space 2 and the creatures that make a rickety existence within it hardly seem worthy of care or devotion, yet it's all you see in every fuggy, expertly lit scene. There's no better way to see the detail-driven efforts of developer Visceral Games than by narrowing your focus to just one minute of the game, in which you're forced to watch a man shed every semblance of humanity and transform into a grotesque mess of flesh.
It's probably not as painful as it looks, I found out, because the poor guy doesn't have a brain.
"We really wanted to create an epic moment at the beginning of the game, to set the tone for Dead Space 2," says Veronique Garcia, character director at Visceral Games. "And showing the transformation in a horrific and disturbing view and with such a close-up, I think, will do it." Veronique has a background in animated films, where she modeled faces and costumes for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and designed characters in The Animatrix: Final Flight of the Osiris. She built all the morbid details in preparation for Franco Delille's spectacular demise, granting him an anatomically accurate skull, a functioning jaw, an attached set of teeth, a tongue and a pair of eyeballs (blink and you'll miss them popping out later on). The modular construction was necessary because morphing -- an animation process that allows seamless transitioning between different polygonal models -- wasn't supported by the underlying graphics engine, and it was too risky to add it while the game was in production.
"So, the idea was to create the asset as close as possible to the human thing, or how it would work if you were alive and it happened to you."- Dead Space 2 character director Veronique Garcia
"So, the idea was to create the asset as close as possible to the human thing, or how it would work if you were alive and it happened to you," Garcia says, completely detached from that grim possibility. With the skull complete, she added veins and adjusted the skin's thickness. "We were just missing the brain and we were done."
Despite being brainless, Franco Delille snaps his fingers and awakens Isaac Clarke, qualified engineer and straitjacketed patient in a mental ward of rather questionable reputation. Delille attempts to convey the urgency of the situation, only to be cut short. "Isaac," he pleads, gripping the still-captive Clarke, "you're in terrible, terrible dange-URGH!" Before he can finish stating the obvious, he's impaled through the chest by an Infector (a manta ray-esque creature that can create other roaming necromorphs), which then stabs a hole into his forehead and triggers an irreversible mutation process. Franco's eyes roll back, his body writhes uncontrollably, two sharp appendages burst through his shoulders, his jaw drops and his ruptured neck pops out like a putrid PEZ dispenser. His face splits open, tentacles wiggle out of every orifice -- and all that nice skin that Veronique Garcia added? It sloughs off in an instant.
"I think that our key word was 'sloughing,'" says Tony Gialdini. "We wanted the skin to slough." Gialdini, who has worked with EA for ten years, is the animation lead on Dead Space 2. Think of him as the puppeteer behind the off-putting, unbalanced movement of the necromorphs, working with a team of animators to capture a creature that is neither alive nor alien. "It's not actually like an alien creature, it's a human, that then mutated into this," Gialdini says. "And they're dead, so we can't do a lot of screaming or anything like that. So, basically, you're looking at it as if something is inside your skin, wearing it, and then trying to move around in it. That's how I look at it. If something burst out from the inside, it's now kind of wearing you as a suit."
"So the model itself has all the cuts within it, he already has the head with a hole for the infector, and all the cuts that are going to happen on the skin when the gums peel out."- Veronique Garcia
It's fair to say, then, that Franco's transformation is tailor-made from three segments, split up between three animators. It begins with his short dialogue scene ("Isaac, can you hear me?"), which is motion- and performance-captured, and matched with a visage borrowed from Dead Space producer Rich Briggs. That's followed by Franco's sudden death by Infector. The animated agony on his face was drawn from a video of Tony Gialdini coughing, contorting and flipping his head from side to side, like when your iPod goes to a Black Eyed Peas track.
There's some good news in all this for the Infector, which must have been pleasantly surprised to find a convenient, pre-made hole in Franco's skull, hidden there by Veronique. "We couldn't make any morphing, so we needed to open him up and see all the insides and fleshy areas," she says. "So the model itself has all the cuts within it, he already has the head with a hole for the infector, and all the cuts that are going to happen on the skin when the gums peel out." Since the gaps in the skin are so close to each other, you can't see the cuts running across Franco's face until the animator lifts them up as fleshy flaps in that final, climactic sloughing. "So, that's the trick: create one model that contains everything, and is as close as possible to a real head."
The other secret is step-by-step iteration, Garcia says, where a simplified construction is submitted, discussed and then gradually detailed. "We go by steps, so first I create a simple model with a simple skull in it, I give it to the technical director to have all the joints, and see with Tony how we can animate that, and little by little we go back and forth and I add detail and detail and detail, and you end up with a very complex model." And though that model is clearly the centerpiece of the scene, it's by no means the only component.
Including asynchronous schedules and feedback time, it took eight people two months to conspire and kill Franco Delille. Aside from modeling and animation, the scene was augmented with sound, lighting and video effects like smoke, depth-of-field and blood sprays. "I can speak from the animation side and say we spent three weeks animating it," says Tony Gialdini. "Just the transformation part."
"Because, you know, you have a creature with a big provocative thing being shoved into a dude's head. So, how can you show it infecting without it looking ... uh, disturbing in the wrong way?"- Dead Space 2 animation lead Tony Gialdini
It gets worse -- for Franco, who has tentacles coming out his nose, and for the animator who has to charm those unruly things. "Actually, the most hellish part of that was actually not the animation of all the skin falling, as you would think, it was actually the 18-22 tentacles that were all wiggling around on his head," Gialdini says. "The animator, which is a really talented animator by the name of Ryan Hood, it was slowly driving him insane trying to get these tentacles to behave." Hood was able to save time with some automatic oscillation of the tentacles sprouting from Franco's nose, mouth and forehead, but every pose had to be animated by hand. "Each one, individually."
The final, cathartic stretch sees the neck elongating and the face splitting apart in a monstrous, parting roar to Franco's humanity (or maybe it's a belch in Isaac's face). At one point during the process, animators had to pick a facial expression and pass it back to the character director, Veronique Garcia, so she could split and texture the skin correctly for that particular facial shape -- an oddly subtle process in creating an elaborate, overt piece of horror. But would it surprise you to learn that things could have been just a tad ... too much? "At first, his face kind of exploded," Gialdini recalls, "like all the skin flew off, and then we didn't really like that and actually went back."
Though the animation is clearly intended to repulse, an earlier version only did so because it -- somehow -- imparted a weird, sexual vibe. "Because, you know, you have a creature with a big provocative thing being shoved into a dude's head. So, how can you show it infecting without it looking ... uh, disturbing in the wrong way?" If you can answer that question, you should probably ask for a job at Visceral Games.
Considering the development team's mad attention to detail in constructing just one minute of Dead Space 2, it's little wonder that it regularly eschews subtlety before gleefully shoving something horrible in your face. Like Isaac, you're forced to watch the necromorph's birth without pause or mercy. "We really wanted it to be just like in Dead Space 1, the camera never cuts. We don't have cuts," Gialdini says. "So, it had to be from Isaac's perspective, watching this guy transform. We weren't going to do the whole thing where he turns his head away from the camera, and then looks back and has a completely different face, or anything cheesy like that."
Franco Delille's death presents a remarkable unraveling of advanced animation and technology, but there's more than just entertainment value in it. The cutscene preys on a point of intersection between Isaac and the player, bringing the enemy unbearably close, yet removing any ability for either party to act against it. Only when Isaac butts heads with the enemy and makes his escape do we regain control, reminded that our advantages dwindle every time a necromorph comes in for a close-up. The more active role and consequences of the Infector in Dead Space 2 is also part of the lesson -- just hang around in the starting room to see that the jolting introduction has produced a deadly in-game enemy.
"By the time you turn around and look, he is still there -- and he will kill you," Gialdini warns. Nobody wants to say it, but that's always been the inescapable truth of space travel. The things out there are always programmed to kill you.