What Sets The Callisto Protocol Apart From Dead Space--And Why Surprises Are The Name Of The Game
Just when you think you're out of the woods, that's when the scares should hit… sometimes.
In just a few months, we'll finally get our hands on The Callisto Protocol, a spiritual successor to Dead Space from that game's original creator, Glen Schofield, and his team at Striking Distance. GameSpot had the chance to chat with Schofield about not only what makes The Callisto Protocol a distinct and unique beast compared to the Dead Space games, but also how Schofield's approach to game direction has evolved and how Dead Space and The Callisto Protocol are a reflection of Schofield himself.
One of the biggest points Schofield stressed in the interview, which you can read in full below, is that unpredictability is the key to any horror game's success. In even the most gore-filled horror games, like The Callisto Protocol, instilling terror and fear in the player can't be accomplished by constant "scary" images or events.
"As soon as something is predictable, it stops being scary," Schofield told us.
We've seen lots of other games fall into this trap, even in established franchises that have gotten it right in the past.
Instead, there must be a disruption to that rhythm, whether it be following a period of silence with a whole bunch of loud monsters or intentionally waiting hours in between encounters in order to continue building that tension to the point where it's boiling over. Lean too far in one direction or the other, and the player will begin to anticipate when the next scare is coming, lessening its impact significantly. Occasionally, the biggest fear-driver can even be a complete bait-and-switch, with rising tension leading to something that's not scary at all in order to make it even harder to get a read on the game's plans.
Inspiration can come from anywhere for a video game, but for Schofield, other horror games haven't been his main source lately. Instead, he's looked to foreign horror films, including movies made in South Korea and France. Schofield specifically calls out The Martyrs, an extremely disturbing 2008 French horror film that all but the least-sensitive people will have difficulty watching. Given the Dead Space games' (and The Callisto Protocol's) famously gory death animations, this isn't a huge surprise. Still, we seriously suggest approaching that film with caution if it sounds interesting to you.
Read on below for the full interview, which has been slightly edited for clarity. In addition to the aforementioned topics, Schofield also talks about how accessibility options have been added, how the game approaches a "power curve" to keep things challenging, and how it makes unique use of the DualSense controller on PS5 to create an even more unsettling experience.
GameSpot: People have compared and will continue to compare it to Dead Space for obvious reasons, so what does the dev team see as different about Callisto Protocol, and what do they feel distinguishes it as an experience that stands on its own two feet?
Schofield: While the two games share some creative DNA, at the end of the day, they're both just my style. I make the kind of games I make. That said, The Callisto Protocol is an all-new game, set in a new universe, with new characters, a new story, and new gameplay mechanics.
It's been almost 15 years since Dead Space came out and I've changed a lot as a director, and the technology has changed even more. We're able to do things in The Callisto Protocol that we only dreamed about back on Dead Space.
We're really proud of the combat system in The Callisto Protocol which pushes far beyond anything seen in a horror game. We blend shooting, melee, and a gravity weapon on top of a deep gore system, dismemberment and our new Mutations feature that allows monsters to transform in real-time.
What lessons have you taken from other modern horror games about what to do or not to do when building tension and atmosphere?
The only rule about creating a great horror game is that there are no rules. Great horror comes from the gut. As soon as something is predictable, it stops being scary.
Our game design is built around an idea we call horror engineering. That basically means that great scares need to be designed by hand. We mix atmosphere, tension, and brutality with feelings of helplessness and humanity to keep players on their toes.
Sometimes we make players wait 10 or 15 minutes for a big scare. Sometimes we hit them with two or three in a row. Sometimes we build up a ton of tension and get players ready for a jump scare then don't deliver it. It's kind of like a game of cat and mouse. As soon as you become predictable, it's over.
What are the games the team has played and been inspired by?
I'm really kind of old school in that I still love the Resident Evil and Silent Hill games. They will always be inspirations.
To be honest, I take more inspiration from horror movies lately. And recently I've been watching a lot of foreign horror. The Koreans and the French have been putting out some amazing stuff lately that has had a huge impact on my work. If anyone really wants to be disturbed, check out the French movie Martyrs. But don't say I didn't warn you… that haunted me for weeks.
What do they think is the scariest game right now?
I really loved Resident Evil 7. That series is unparalleled in its ability to create a truly oppressive atmosphere. As soon as you walk into the world in a RE game, things feel hopeless, heavy, and horrifying.
What sort of accessibility options are being added to help players navigate low-light environments and know the direction of noises? And are there any approachability options?
We have a High Contrast mode where you can set a custom color for your player character, enemies, and interactables, including pickups. This allows players with vision impairments and Color Blindness to go in there and choose the colors that best work for them. We did this instead of having a catch-all preset of Color Blindness types, which does not always work for everyone. We also had to iterate on the look. I wanted to make sure, even in this High Contrast mode, that our game still looked high-quality for players that prefer to play that way.
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We are also working on a variety of haptic feedback for all players to enjoy, but also keeping in mind those players that are hard of hearing. So for things like the direction of noises--the player might get a subtle rumble in their controller when an enemy is nearby.
We're still working on the game, but are trying to get in as many accessibility options as we possibly can.
How linear are the environments in the game? Can players backtrack?
The Callisto Protocol is a narrative-driven game, so there's definitely an alpha path for players to experience. That said, we've also built a lot of beta paths with additional encounters, content, and collectibles to reward players who want to hunt through all the shadows in the game. We try and avoid making players backtrack, and keep the action moving forward.
How lonely will the protagonist be? Do they run into many people/get a chance to work with them or are they pretty much on their own from start to finish?
The feeling of isolation is central to the game, but there are a number of characters that Jacob will interact with that we haven't revealed yet. Story is a big part of the experience and we're excited to reveal more about that a little closer to launch.
What has Jacob Lee been imprisoned for ahead of the start of the game? Does his crime factor into the weapons he uses/how gameplay works?
Jacob is just an ordinary guy in a terrible situation. He doesn't have any special training and the only weapons he has, he must find around Black Iron Prison. We were very cognizant of making sure that all the weapons and equipment make sense and have a purpose in a prison, whether that's high-tech gear for guards, or improvised weapons like a shiv.
How does the game take advantage of the PS5 DualSense to up the fear factor?
We've spent a lot of time trying out different things to do with haptics--they're a powerful tool in conveying urgency to the player, and help us to ratchet up the tension in cool ways. One of the things that gets me every time is feeling a creature's bones crackling through on the controller when you land a crushing blow with the stun baton. It really immerses you in the experience. And anything we can do to make players more immersed helps us deliver a scary experience.
Will the game pause when you open your map?
No--there is no map in the game!
How many different types of monsters will the player face? How much can combat change encounter to encounter?
We're still finishing the game, so I can't give you a final count, but there are lot of different enemy types, and several variants of some enemies, like the grunts. When you mix in the different mutations, players will see quite a bit of variety in the creatures they face.
Different enemy types also have different combat styles. Some are fast, some are tanks, some use ranged projectiles, and others have camouflage.
How does The Callisto Protocol approach its power curve? Will players feel much more powerful by the end of the game or does that challenge keep pace to ensure players remain weak?
It's a delicate balance. We're a survival horror game first and foremost. We want players to count every bullet and be nervous about every encounter. The feeling of helplessness is one of the tenets of our approach to horror engineering, so we never want players to feel overpowered.
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