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Dead Space 2 director on designing the eye-poke scene: ‘I could barely watch it’

If you’ve played through Dead Space 2, you remember the “stick a needle in your eye” scene. Near the end of the game, protagonist Isaac Clarke climbs into an eye surgery contraption so he can receive some data about the monsters he’s been fighting. This data has to be inserted through his eye into his brain via a needle, because sure. During this horrifyingly interactive scene, the player must guide that needle into Isaac’s pupil while he’s strapped into the machine, twitching in barely contained agony.

I played Dead Space 2 when it came out in 2011, and this scene has haunted me ever since. In honor of Halloween, I reached out to Dead Space 2 creative director Wright Bagwell to ask him to explain why he and the rest of the designers at Visceral Games did this to Isaac’s brain and to mine.

Polygon: Why don’t you start by telling me the conception of this scene?

Wright Bagwell: So I wasn’t heavily involved in writing the dialogue or the story. But the guys who were working on the story and the writing, they came up with this thing where they were incorporating children’s nursery rhymes into the game, as part of Isaac’s hallucinations and journey into insanity. I remember that there were some folks working on trying to figure out how some of the final scenes played out in the game. And I remember one day — if I remember correctly, I might not be right about this — but there was a producer, I think John Calhoun, who threw out the idea of the old children’s saying, “Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” That came up. And I remember somebody said, “What if we try to make that into a moment that happens in the game?” And then we were talking about, like, “What if you stick this needle into his brain somehow to extract information?”

I took that idea and ran with it, and I wrote a design for what we called “the eye-poke scene.” I remember it vividly, because I actually wrote the design pretty quickly. It was this fun thing to work on. For a game like Dead Space, it’s of vital importance that the player stays immersed. And what I didn’t want to do is to have a little minigame that you played where we had to give you a tutorial and break your immersion, and get you into some kind of abstract thinking mode, where you’re thinking about playing some kind of minigame. I wanted it to be a minigame, but I wanted it to be something that was so intuitive that it required no thought, and I wanted the player to feel like they were discovering how to play this little minigame and being horrified by the realization of what they had to do. Because it didn’t really tell you. It was so fun designing it, because I thought, the point here isn’t to make this really difficult. Again, I wanted you to be more immersed and horrified by what you had to do, more than the fact that you were deeply challenged by it.

I wanted the player to get a really deep sense of anxiety about this, which I thought would come naturally from the fact that you are driving a needle into your eyeball, but I wanted to amplify it by having Isaac on the screen, reflecting his anxiety, too.

The light turns blue.
Image: Visceral Games/YouTube

So the idea was that you would learn how to play this game at first doing what I thought was really intuitive, which is — you know, the first thing players do, if they don’t know what to do, is use the sticks. I think the left stick moves the little laser beam that came out of the bottom of the needle. The left stick moves that around, and then it changed color when it went over Isaac’s pupil. So players would learn really, really quickly that you could move this thing, and it was telling you by changing color what you had to do. I think it went from red to blue, or something like that. Blue, that cyan color that we used for the user interface in Dead Space — cyan was the color that we used to help guide you through the world. A door he had to go to or a button you have to press, those are always cyan. So the player would learn that that was a positive signal. So it changed color, and then of course the second thing players do, they press the A button. If I remember correctly, the A button made [the needle] go down, and the B button or the Y button or something made it go back up. We tested that idea, and players figured it out really quickly. And I was so happy, because even people on the team were figuring this out really quickly, and I realized we didn’t need to tutorialize this at all. Again, the goal was to make something that we didn’t have to explain it all.

So then, the closer it got to his eye, the more he would start to breathe heavily. His eye would start twitching, and then we used his heartbeat to help increase the sense of anxiety. And if I remember correctly, the other thing I did is, I made it so that those signals that you got from Isaac, his heartbeat, and all that kind of stuff, it would go up. It would not only increase based on the distance the needle got to his eye, but also how quickly the needle was going down. So, again, this was designed to make you take it very, very slowly and force you to move at this really slow pace and constantly be cringing at the fact that it’s sort of… sloowwwly… [laughs] pushing the needle in.

You created a fail state as well, which is pretty bloody. Was that part of the design process as well?

Yeah, I think the guys that actually built the scene, I think they improvised the death scene. I don’t remember specifying exactly what would happen. But we had a number of people who were pretty good at doing some pretty horrific stuff. They improvised on the death, and of course took it as far as possible, which is what Dead Space is all about.

One of the things that I think I was most proud of is the fact that in the development of Dead Space, we were always trying to come up with these scenes that would frighten you and horrify you. Of course, the way development usually plays out, when you first build these scenes and build these game mechanics [and] put them in kind of a rough state, inevitably things tend to look almost comical when you first see them. When you’re working on a game like Dead Space, we’re just — we’re always laughing, right? Just, hilarious things are happening. You’re kind of laughing at the fact that you get paid to do this ridiculous stuff. And it takes a long time. It takes a long time to get the music right, and the timing right — all these things that really create true horror.

The eye-poke scene was the only thing that I ever worked on in Dead Space where it didn’t start off feeling kind of lame or silly or that kind of thing. The first time we saw it — the first time I saw it, anyways — I could barely watch it. And when we finished it, when we had a meeting — you go into this dark room that’s kind of a theater where we would do daily reviews of the game. And I remember when we got to the end, and I had to sign off on it and say, “Yes, this is good. Let’s ship this as-is.” I remember everyone in the room still was cringing.

That was the only thing in Dead Space that would do that. All the jump scares and blood and guts and everything — you just become totally desensitized to it after working on it for weeks. This is the only thing that, to this day, I still will have trouble watching. I thought, “This is gold!” [laughs] Because of that, you know it’s gold.

When I played it, I kept expecting it to turn into a cutscene. The fact that you have to control every moment of it, and you can’t look away because you have to line up the needle… I remember looking away from the screen, then being like, “Nope, can’t do that. Got to look at the screen.”

Yeah. Well, I’ve always been an advocate for never taking the control away from players. And we did that on Dead Space, mostly for two reasons. One, there was a precedent on Dead Space 1 that that would happen. And two, just for time. We didn’t have time to figure out how to make all those scenes interactive.

We actually made Dead Space 2 on a pretty small budget. I think I worked on Dead Space for about 18 months or so. So the production was quite short for a AAA game. I was always kind of frustrated by the fact that there were a lot of cutscenes that took control away from you. But that was one place in the game where I was so thrilled to be able to try to figure out something that was fully interactive, but yet had the power with storytelling sort of cinematic palette of a non-interactive cutscene.

Isaac recovers from his eye surgery very quickly.
Image: Visceral Games/YouTube

Have you noticed that people still talk about this scene a lot? Even in researching it, I was kind of relieved that I wasn’t the only person who was so haunted by it. Do people ask you about it all the time?

I’m trying to remember if any reporter has ever asked me about it. I don’t recall. But definitely, when I talk to people and Dead Space 2 comes up, this does come up pretty frequently. People really remember this scene. It may be the most memorable scene in Dead Space 2. It was towards the end, though. So, you know, I don’t know how many people got to the end. But yeah, it does come up fairly frequently.

I would have expected it to have influenced other games, but I really can’t think of anything. Maybe that’s fine. I don’t know if we need more eye mutilations in games.

[laughs] Yeah. I think so much of horror tries to be shocking, but I find that most of it is actually pretty familiar. You know? Blood, it’s not shocking anymore.

Or, jump scares of all kinds. There are only so many ways you can do that.

Yeah, yeah. So, I mean, maybe it’s just because it is truly horrifying, and people just don’t like going there. It’s really uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable to watch during design.

I hope everyone was OK and took breaks when they were working on those animations. It feels like it would be an emotional thing, and clearly not as fun as designing monsters and other horror elements.

Well, the people that worked on it— you know, there were obviously a lot of people who worked on it. But I remember the three people who I met with most: Dino Ignacio, who did the user interface elements; Neal Thibodeaux, who did the animation; and Tony Gialdini did some of the animation. This guy named Michael Newman, who did the programming for it. All three of them are just hilarious people to work with. Oh, sorry, and the other guy was Seth [Tyler Hall], who was a visual effects guy. I think they had so much fun with this. Because it was — I don’t want to say it was easy to make. But the scope of it, as a game feature, was relatively simple. Most game features require — even the simplest things these days feel like they require an army of people to make all the little pieces work. But this one, I think because the design was so simple and straightforward, I think they had a lot of fun.

Honestly, when I wrote the design — I’m pretty used to writing designs where people come back and say, “Hey, you know, we can’t quite pull this off. We’ll have to cut corners. We’ll have to make it simpler.” You know, that kind of thing. But it was one of the few times where people looked at it and said, “Oh, we can totally pull this off.” And in fact, it actually turned out way better than I expected. The team just blew me away with how well it was implemented and how much attention to detail they were able to put in and how quickly they were able to crank it out. So that was another reason why it’s just such a memorable moment in my career. I was so proud of what the team was able to do with it and, in fact, they did it better than I ever imagined.

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