January 20, 2012
We don't see religion pop up in games very often. The quarian fear of ancestral punishment by way of the geth is the next best thing in Mass Effect. Thane Krios is devoutly faithful to the drell's dwindling faith, and the most spiritual character in Mass Effect 2. With the world ending, we doubt there's much time for faith in Mass Effect 3. Spirituality is mentioned but rarely explored in video game stories, and conflict is almost nonexistent outside of the Chantry's persecution of the mages in Dragon Age.
Dead Space 2 earned a nomination for Best Action Game during IGN's Best of 2011 awards for more reasons than its excellent action. Its masterful pacing, intense combat, and frightening atmosphere are slaves to the story Visceral put at the front of its design. Every one of these elements -- as well as characters, settings, events, and enemies -- ties back to a singular thing that differentiates Dead Space from most everything else in the medium. Story Producer Chuck Beaver relies on the ever-evolving nature of religion to drive the franchise forward.
We picked Beaver's brain about Unitology, the in-game religion formed by fanatical followers of Michael Altman; they worship Altman's "Marker," an alien obelisk he discovered on Earth. Beaver spilled on Unitology's creation, where it's going, and what role religion plays in video game storytelling.
What follows involves extremely detailed specifics about the Dead Space lore, including the games and expanded universe. Spoiler Warning for the entire Dead Space story is now in effect.
IGN: I was going to ask about a story bible, but now I'm more curious if you guys have literal Bible stuff. Unitology Scripture. Is there a collection of it, like a real Altman book?
Chuck Beaver: We reference that there is Unitology scripture of some kind, but we don't have the literature written out yet. If there are any passages that've appeared they were probably written as they were needed. The closest thing is the church level in Dead Space 2 where there's a lot of explanation about how Unitology came to be.
To answer your original question, we do have a full lore bible.
IGN: How do you keep other writers in line so they abide by it? When people work on the comics and movies and games, do they answer to you?
CB: So far I've been able to keep the empire under control (laughs). Mostly through points of contact. I'm in charge of all that, then I lens it through Ben Wanat, my Creative Director. All the movies and books and comics that have been produced, I've produced the story for those. So they come from a single fountain that understands everything. The people we work with, when we hire the writers, they get the bible, they get to see all the work that's been done so far. We set them up [in the world] so there's no conflict or overlap, and then let them flesh out the details.
IGN: Unitology isn't just something in the Dead Space world, it's what everything we know about revolves around. We know names, history, its faults, its attraction. We get to explore its churches, read its teachings, discover who its leaders are. What's the biggest struggle when developing a fleshed-out and fully believable religion in fiction?
CB: I have to say, it wasn't incredibly difficult. It's a lot of what me and co-creator Ben Wanat tend to think about anyway. All the time (laughs). The nature of humans and why they gravitate toward religion, what purpose does it serve, why is it so persistent even in the face of utterly clear contradictory data? So that impulse is really interesting for us to talk about.
When it came time to create [a religion], we just took all those conversations and put them in the design for Unitology. It felt like a natural response to what might happen if a Marker appeared. You know, people get all crazy about Jesus on toast, so imagine if an actual alien artifact appeared. Of course there would be a religion about it, religious impulse is very strong for that sort of stuff. It started with that basic, organic assumption that this is what would happen, and then we started growing fun and interesting ideas after that.
IGN: How characters respond, positively or negatively, and how that affects everyone else...stuff like that?
CB: [Storytelling] is about asking questions once you set something in motion. Here comes a religion, right? Let's give it like 200 years of history so it has some sort of root system it can withstand, it's got some sort of tradition and body of knowledge and scripture to work from. So there's something to react to, and then you start looking into that and seeing how people react.
We looked up what a cult was, like what is it that defines cults? We applied that to Unitology to begin with, which, unfortunately for us, drew us into a lot of unintentional comparisons with Scientology. We had a lot of people saying we were making fun of Scientology, and we're like "no, no. We made a cult that happens to look like Scientology." Once you establish what your religion is -- ours is about the Marker, and this history, and you give up all your money, and believe in this unification, and all humanity is going to be in oneness in the end -- then people encounter it. So it's, just like you said, about populating the world with people's reactions to it. Then they either believe it devoutly or believe it for the wrong reasons. Once you have a normal layer of how society is functioning, something crazy happens to it. In Dead Space 1, their entire world belief system is challenged because their religion is telling them suddenly, "these terrible, hideous monsters are what's supposed to be happening." That's when it becomes an absurdist test of faith...we had tons of fun with that. A religion put into absurdity is really a blast to write because you get to see everyone's reactions.
IGN: That's the most interesting thing to me. You have all these different worldviews reacting to the same one thing. There are all these characters whose perspectives are forced on the player. Isaac is anti-unitology, literally fighting against it. In the iOS game, Vandal is a practicing Unitologist, which is the best thing about it for me.
CB: Ha, that's my favorite thing! Right? Here's this fresh recruit, a smart science nerd, and as with everything you're like "it's faith, and it's going to be all good, and it sounds like a good idea!" And immediately there's betrayal. She's like, "Really, really? I gave my heart to that and that's the first thing that f***ing happens?" It's innocence lost, and really harshly. Bruised knees and everything for her...she doesn't know she's being used. It's just a great statement about all of religion in general. She doesn't even get a moment where she's consoled by it...and then they leave her to die. Sorry!
IGN: We see a lot of religion in games, but rarely any conflict within it. Assassin's Creed: Revelations missed out on some interesting Muslim/Christian culture clashing, I think. How do you think having this conglomerate of conflicting viewpoints about one religion best benefits our interaction with the Dead Space story?
CB: I think it makes the world that much richer. It's certainly a big mystery box that never gets fully opened. Because you're never really sure where an absurdist religion is going to go. What are they capable of doing, you know? There's always a very viable conspiracy theory that's percolating in your head that might actually be true, because sure enough, there are Markers, so maybe Unitology is halfway right. These convergence events are happening, and it looks like they're on to something. It's nice that it keeps you compelled to learn more, because it's possible your imagination is filling in these big circles. That's kind of titillating, I think.
IGN: If you're steeped in the Dead Space lore, you know more about Unitology and the goings on in the world than anybody actually appearing in the games. It's an interesting way to position players when throwing them into the fiction.
CB:Did you read Martyr? I don't want to spoil [the novel] if you haven't...
IGN: I didn't finish it but I know what happens.
CB: That's a great example of what you're saying. Like, everyone thinks Altman, whose name you hear constantly, was the founder. It's wonderful that it turns out, no, it's just human hubris at work again. [Unitology] is nothing more than a construct of bad intentions and people being manipulative. It has this really grotesque beginning and it turns out the public face of Unitology is this shiny, happy thing. And it's corrupt to the core.
It's like the Scientology thing. Human nature takes the religious impulse, and certainly unscrupulous impulse and uses it to great effect to localize benefit. A few people can manipulate a lot of people if they get a religious idea people really believe in, and then use it without believing in it. So they saw there was a movement coalescing around Altman and thought they'd use it, which is what they did in the Martyr book. We wanted to play up on that whole idea, make a statement: This is what happens to religions. They aren't this pure, honest, belief system untouched by the soiled hands of man. Often it may be only soiled hands masquerading as this religion. And that's what we wanted to use to showcase Unitology. It piggybacks on the religious impulse of man.