Scientology and Dead Space: how the horror series may carry a hidden message of religious skepticism
I'm a big fan of the Dead Space series of games, partially due to the well-designed religion of Unitology that plays into the games' story. Unitologists worship the Marker, a sort of twisted design that represents an alien artifact that has some rather negative effects on human physiology. Isaac Clarke, the series' protagonist, actually fights through a church of Unitology in Dead Space 2, and I noticed something very interesting: Much of the Unitology's rhetoric and imagery seemed to have been lifted from the Church of Scientology. I wrote a long article about this, complete with screenshots, back at Ars Technica. During E3 I was able to sit down with Ian Milham, the franchise art director, and asked him point blank about the connection. He was refreshingly frank about the inspirations behind Unitology.
“So Scientology was an inspiration, in as much as it’s one of the only modern religions that has had a modern gestation. There really aren’t that many others. We intentionally didn’t want to turn it into a satire of Scientology, it’s a little broader than that, there just aren’t that many examples of modern… that type of modern religion. There are similarities, but it isn’t meant to be a direct comment on Scientology,” Milham said. Scientology is also different than other religions in that it costs money to study, and there have been reports of earnings goals that must be hit by church officials selling those goals and services. Unitology is much the same way; it's an aggressive religion that needs followers to bring about “Convergence.” The end goal may not be cash, or at least not only cash, but it's a religion that's being marketed to the lost and vulnerable in the world of Dead Space.It's also interesting to see how happy and at peace everyone looks in the posters and advertisements for Unitology in Dead Space 2. This is in direct contrast to the gore and horror that surrounds the player, although that violence is the end result of Unitology. “All that kind of counter-tonal signage in the world has a kind of ironic comment of what’s going on,” Milham said. “All their materials are hopeful and blandly optimistic. All of that is evocative when it’s laid over the grimness that’s around.” There was also inspiration in things like the design of the cross in Christian religions; there is no “correct” way to show a cross, although it's an important symbol for Christians. Each sect of Christianity takes the basic shape and subtly changes it to reflect the values of the church. I personally grew up Catholic, and I've seen crucifixes that looked as graphic as props from horror movies. “I looked at the Marker, and you see how it’s different,” he explained. “Look at the how the cross is shown in Greek Orthodox… it’s very ornate. And in other religions it’s very simple.” The Marker is shown in many different ways in the game to reflect the idea of a basic symbol being used to mean different things, filtered through different cultures. That all being said, Milham was direct and honest about Scientology being an inspiration for the game's religion. ” “Scientology is the clear one. Some of the examples of what they have, I don’t even know what it’s called, when they validate people and test them, and they do that kind of stuff. We did some stuff like that, because it’s so intriguing.” He's referring to the process of “auditing,” a kind of guided interview with a device called an E-Meter. I've included a video to show the process.
Having a “realistic” religion is important for the game
The Dead Space team isn't afraid of courting controversy with its marketing, and there have been some sly references to other religions; the company gave out little tracts that were designed to resemble “Chick Tracts” of evangelical Christianity, the hateful little books that show the horrors of things like Dungeons & Dragons and homosexuality. The satirical tracts were given out at meetings during E3 to promote Dead Space 2. The entire meeting room was set up to look like a Church of Unitology, complete with pews instead of seats. These references are clearly poking fun at existing religions, but at least on some level the church of Unitology had to be attractive. “We were careful, we didn’t want [Unitologists] to be dismissable lunatics. That’s not very interesting,” Milham said. “From their perspective, it makes sense. Some of them, when they see how it all goes down, they have a crisis of confidence.” In fact, Dead Space 3 will explore what happens when followers of Unitology see what the prophecies really mean, and have to decide whether to abandon their religion or trust in their faith and the teachings of the church. “The bad guys need to think that they’re the heroes for it to be interesting. I’ve always been cognizant that they’re not… anyone who can see that done to a person and think they’re on the right track, they become cartoons at that point,” Milham explained. There has to be conflict when people see the truth in Unitology, in other words. The reality of Convergence is very different than the images of a peaceful and welcoming melding of souls they were sold when they joined the church. While the imagery and aesthetics of Scientology are a big part of the world of Dead Space, the team seems to be poking fun at all the different ways religion is marketed to people, even going so far as to try to sell the press on a video game inside a church-like environment. While religion is still a taboo subject in many games, there seems to be a subtle skeptical message running through the Dead Space world: Be careful when someone promises something too good to be true, whether they're asking for money, or your soul.