In a line-up of survival horror characters, Isaac Clarke stands out. Rather than a regular Joe attempting to outrun zombies, Dead Space’s protagonist is a space engineer ready to weather the harshest conditions. That’s clear to see in his now-iconic space suit, which has received a grimy upgrade for the upcoming Dead Space remake.
The original suit was designed by Chi-Wai Lao, a concept artist who worked at EA alongside Dead Space creator Glen Schofield back in the early 2000s. “[To begin with] my suit designs were all over the place,” says Lao, “ranging from very slim-fitted to very bulky, some very robotic looking, a couple even [carried] a giant sword. They were drastically different from the Dead Space suits we recognize today.”
As Lao refined his concept, he turned to pop culture to inspire the details, specifically a beloved Japanese mecha anime. “One unusual candidate that was the most influential to me at the very beginning stage of designing the suit was the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion, particularly the spine and the Entry Plug design of the Eva,” he reveals. “It was a prominent functional and visible element of the Eva design, and got me to implement a similar emphasis of a very prominent spine and a life support system of sorts on the back of the suit at its early stage. It was mostly for visual and fictional purposes at that point. However, the idea of having the HUD on Isaac’s back came soon after from the team, and the spine then went through dramatic changes to implement that HUD afterwards.”
Lao’s final design for the suit came together when he challenged himself to work with repeating sci-fi motifs that he traditionally found quite boring; things like exhaust vents that are often used to fill in the blank spaces on a design. “But what if I [used] this ‘boring’ repetition as a motif, a visual language of sorts on the suit?” he asked himself. “How well would that work to fit the theme? It might convey an interesting rugged look, yet something that I normally wouldn’t go for.
The ribbing motif became a resonating aesthetic for the rest of the game.
“So as I [did] more sketches, I [started] implementing this ‘ribbing’ design on the suit with long thick horizontal armor strips, rather than conventional armor plates,” he says. “The suit needs flexibility, so I added spacing between these thick armor ribbings so they are less restrictive. The ribbing flows more [organically] in some sketches than others, but that was pretty much the first step of [turning] the iconic Dead Space suit into its current form we know.”
That ribbing design soon became a vital part of not just Isaac’s suit, but the entire game. “Not only did it work very well on the character level, it could be something that worked on our rooms, our hallways, our vehicles, and even the exterior of the Ishimura, the ship where Dead Space 1 took place,” Lao says. “The ribbing motif became a resonating aesthetic for the rest of the game, wherever we [could] apply it, to create our version of a somber Gothic architectural environment in space.”
That industrial gothic aesthetic has since become iconic, and so one of the biggest challenges faced by the Dead Space remake team has been upgrading that look for 2023. “Well, it’s interesting because we had the opportunity to redesign the suit from scratch,” says Mike Yazijian, art director at EA Motive. “And we did. Early on we did some sketches that explored a quite different version of Isaac. It looked a lot more sci-fi, that’s always the place that most artists want to go. But it didn’t feel right. It felt too futuristic. It felt more like Isaac was turning into a robot. There’s tons of glowing lights and things on him that I didn’t feel like it was right.”
“There’s a lot in the characters about bones and dismemberment, and basically what’s inside that should not be outside,” explains Roman Campos-Oriola, creative director of the Dead Space remake. “It’s the theme of the body horror that is really strong in Dead Space. […] I’m seeing those bones and stuff, it should not be outside. It’s a bit the same with the concept of the armor. That’s why there are all those metal plates that look like ribs and those elements. It’s not only to be consistent with the world design […] but also to reinforce some themes of horror in Dead Space.”
It still feels like the same suit from a distance, but when you see it up close, it’s a lot more realistic
“Just like with everything else in the game, we want to make sure that we are honoring the legacy of Dead Space,” says Yazijian. “We want it to feel exactly like the original game, but of course with the enhancements that we want to add to it. So after those first passes [of the suit] we said, ‘No, no, we have to come back and look at the original design. We want to make sure that the silhouette is the same as the original.’”
The final design stays faithful to the ribbed brass diving suit look of the original, but with an increased level of detail. The aim was to sell the suit as a genuine, functional piece of equipment. “We said, ‘Okay, let’s get a little bit closer to the suit itself and think of how it would function. What do we need to do to add those credible details to it?’” recalls Yazijian. “So we just started from the ground up. We said, ‘Okay, well the helmet looks cool, it’s very iconic, but let’s model the whole thing. Let’s see what it looks like on the inside. Let’s add the padding to make it more comfortable for Isaac.’ So that’s how we would think of it, is that in a very credible way, if you had to wear that suit, what would you do to it?”
To ensure credibility, the team considered what materials would be available to engineers in the Dead Space universe. “What is it made of?” Campos-Oriola asked himself. “For example, a good insight coming from my job as director was that [Dead Space is set in] a universe where resources are stranded. That’s why they have to go to space to mine a gigantic planet, because nothing’s left on Earth. So leather in that type of society must be really, really rare. So we need to make sure that it’s not leather on him.”
While much of the design remains faithful to Lao’s original suit, some things did need to be altered. “The other thing that bothered us a little bit were the boots,” Yazijian says. “It felt very simple in the original version, but we came back to that design as well and then actually gave him proper boots that have a lot more articulation in the foot and the shins and so on.”
“We’ve added a little light on the heel to signify you when the mag boots are on,” Campos-Oriola reveals. “But you also now have the thrusters, because you can float in zero-g and now you can navigate and fly around. So we had to think, where are those thrusters on the suit? How do they work? How would they help you navigate in zero-g? That went into the design of the rig.”
The rig, of course, is the most important centerpiece of Isaac’s suit. The illuminated spine acts as a diegetic health bar, and the half-moon Stasis indicator completes the in-universe HUD. The design has been kept for the remake.
“It’s very similar in that the original rig, I loved the design,” says Yazijian. “It looks so unique and iconic, and we wanted to retain that. We don’t want to mess with it. But when you look at it, it does look kind of flat and simple. And what we did is we actually modeled all the individual pieces. You can actually zoom into each one of those sections and you see the mechanism that’s inside. […] And we also added on the back, you can see the Stasis meter and the Kinesis as well. So there’s a lot of detail there.”
“So I think overall it works because it still feels like the same suit from a distance, but when you see it up close, it’s a lot more realistic,” concludes Yazijian. “And then the last pass was the materials. We really went back and then [added] a lot more realistic shaders to it to make sure that it actually felt like the material it was supposed to be. It wasn’t just dull and flat.”
The final version of Isaac’s suit is representative of the Dead Space remake as a whole; a more detailed, believable version of the thing you’ve loved for years. At a glance it’s the same, but take a closer look and you’ll find dozens of new elements that help elevate it into the modern age.
For more from Dead Space, check out how the development team recreated one of the original game’s most chilling scenes, and how the remake fits into the modern survival horror renaissance.
Matt Purslow is ‘s UK News and Features Editor.