Visceral Games Shut Down: A Look Back on the Dead Space Developer’s History

Visceral Games, the studio behind the futuristic survival horror franchise Dead Space as well as the God of War-inspired Dante’s Inferno was officially shut down by its parent company Electronic Arts last month. In other words, Dead Space is dead, and that’s a total bummer. Though not even EA's most controversial decision this year (they have the furore surrounding Star Wars Battlefront 2 to thank for that), with much scrutiny now being placed upon EA's handling of the Star Wars license over the course of the past two weeks, I thought I'd take a look back at a studio that made it for 19 years before being taken out back with a plasma rifle. So let's take a look at what they offered to the video games industry, in good times and in bad.

It seems fitting to start off with their first title from back when they were known as EA Redwood Shores. Future Cop: LAPD was a third person shooter about a policeman in a transforming mech shooting stuff until it exploded in order to take down criminals and save the world, or something along those lines. A modest concept, but one that is pretty much tried and true by now. The game released for the original PlayStation and PCs in 1998, and barely sold 200,000 copies despite receiving mostly positive reviews for its intense cooperative multiplayer action. In a way, this critical success without proportionate returns mirrors the lack of financial results seen from games like Psychonauts during its initial release, and that game is now a cult legend; so all in all, not a bad first crack at the gaming industry. Still, because the game did poorly from an economic standpoint, a number of employees split off and left the company for other endeavors.

Also: EA CEO Speaks on Visceral Closing and Star Wars Game Refocus

A couple years and a genre switch later, Redwood Shores had released two golfing games- one entitled CyberTiger, and the other being the 2000 iteration of the PGA Tour series. Both of these received mixed to positive reviews. The positive reception for their games was not unique for Redwood, and neither was genre swapping. As a matter of fact, in the following years, the company jumped from genre to genre quite a bit, covering third-person shooters, more golfing games, a NASCAR racing game, a platformer title, a Sims spinoff, and more. They also took on various existing IPs like The Simpsons, The Godfather, and Lord of the Rings. This constant change of pace would remain consistent throughout the developer’s entire lifetime, allowing it to remain fresh while consistently providing quality products. You might even say they were akin to the Nintendo of third-party gaming in that respect.

It wasn’t until the year 2008, however, that Visceral really made a name for themselves by releasing Dead Space. Literally, the game that released in that year is what lead to them rebranding and officially becoming Visceral Games. The game scored an 89% on Metacritic and sold over 2 million copies. This success was well-deserved; not only was the horrifying atmosphere top-notch aboard the USG Ishimura spaceship that the game took place on, the third person shooting was exciting and the enemy design was innovative for a game that was essentially a zombie title. Sure, the Necromorphs were basically space zombies with a fancy name, but their unique biology made them interesting to fight because unlike in most shooters, their weak point was not actually in their heads. Instead, playing as the engineer Isaac Clark, players were tasked with using tools like the mining laser to slice the alien infestation up as the only way to truly kill them was by removing their limbs. Of course, this was complicated by the fact that they were near-universally preoccupied with trying to separate your head from your neck, and the cold vacuum of space wasn’t any nicer to players either.

Because it was such a big hit Dead Space received not just one but two animated adaptions as well as a cooperative rail shooter spinoff on the Wii. From there on out they mostly followed up on previous titles until 2011 but one game stood out as being something entirely different- namely, Dante’s Inferno. This was a God of War-styled hack and slash game that adapted the famous epic poem into an epic action-adventure where half the fun was in seeing how Visceral managed to twist each successive circle of Hell into a different kind of level. In Greed Dante was tasked with navigating through a treacherous landscape filled with molten gold, in Violence Dante was forced to find his way through a forest filled with once-human trees and in Treachery Dante had to find his way across a glacial canyon. Dante himself was changed from a brilliant poet into a bloodthirsty Crusader who fought using weapons like Death’s scythe and Beatrice’s cross, and characters like King Minos who were only spoken to in the poem became gigantic boss battles in their own right. Players would meet with various shades and decide whether they deserved redemption or damnation, and using the souls gained from doing so they would be able to level up Dante’s abilities. Crashing the gates of Dis on a giant demonic beast, smashing a living ship into the cliffs of Hell, fighting the Cerberus, and navigating a labyrinth created by the devil himself were just a few of the things players were tasked with along the way, and it was all pretty awesome.

And then there was a part where an army of dead babies came out of a giant naked Cleopatra’s nipples in the Circle of Lust, but we don’t talk about that, nor do we discuss the fact that Satan’s floppy dong was visible throughout the entirety of the final boss battle with him. We just don’t.

The year after Visceral hit audiences with Dante (which received a respectable 75% on Metacritic and got an animated adaption of its own) they were back at it again with Dead Space 2, and though it was given the excellent Metacritic score of 87%, it was an even better horror experience than the original for many. The Sprawl was an even bigger location than the Ishimura with a greater variety of locations and enemy types, and the action set pieces managed to be massively exciting without losing out on their freakiness. An exploding train with alien zombies climbing onto it? Dead Space 2 had it. A nursery filled with undead children- strangely a recurring theme with Visceral- that were volatile to the touch? Got it. Isaac slingshotting himself across the entire space station while dodging debris that would crush him like a bug, jet packing through a sewage system filled with deadly grinders, performing potentially deadly self-surgery on his eyes with a laser machine, riding on a drill tank through a crowded alien cavern, and negotiating past a rogue AI hellbent on his destruction? Check to all of that and more. Combat was improved, general movements were improved, and for the first time, Isaac spoke full sentences regularly, revealing that he was a regular middle aged guy more than anything. In fact, some of the most interesting aspects of the game came from Isaac’s PTSD-like reaction to the original game which existed precisely because he wasn’t some generic space marine. In Dead Space 2, Isaac’s psyche was just as dangerous to himself as the environment was to him, and overcoming both would be essential to his survival. Luckily this time he also had a partner in crime in Ellie, a fellow survivor who would become beloved to fans due to her fun dialogue with Isaac and indefatigable survivalist mindset.

Of course, all good things must eventually come to an end. In 2013 Dead Space 3 was released, a game that seemingly missed the point of being a Dead Space title. Whether this was due to a loss of focus by Visceral or interference on EA’s part, it is difficult to tell. What is clear though is that things just weren’t the same; a cooperative mode was added and the horror focus of the previous titles was largely replaced with more conventional third-person shooter tropes. The game was received decently but much less warmly than the others with a Metacritic score of 78%, and after a story expansion DLC it still ended on a cliffhanger, much like Dante’s Inferno did. Visceral only made three military games after that, and in 2017 they were finally shut down for good by EA in mid-production of a single player Star Wars game. It is unclear what exactly the fate of this adaption will be, but it has been said that it will be undergoing drastic changes to make the experience more open-ended.

The question now is, what does this all mean for the gaming industry as a whole?  Well, unfortunately, it means that it has lost a once-excellent developer that innovated in multiple genres and seemed to have the potential to continue doing so.  Fortunately though, Visceral has been shut down but its employees are still around, meaning that the potential for a PlayTonic-esque revival of Visceral Games in the form of  a spiritual successor company is still possible, as is the potential for the minds behind Dead Space to find other companies to work for and continue improving with their ideas.  Anything is possible, and so while the death of Visceral Games is disappointing as is the ending of multiple series from them on some really terrible cliffhangers, this can also be thought of as something of a new beginning- frightening perhaps, but exciting all the same, just like the games they once developed.