Callisto Protocol creator Glen Schofield says: ‘We’re trying to be even more gross’
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You know you’re in conversation with someone who’s serious about the nasty end of the horror spectrum when they namedrop Martyrs. Last week, midway through a call with Glen Schofield, he mentioned the 2008 French New Extreme film as one of the inspirations for the The Callisto Protocol. In terms of subject matter, they’re not an obvious fit. As pretty much everyone has noted, the grim sci-fi of The Callisto Protocol is a spiritual successor to Dead Space, whereas Martyrs is a contemporary suburban nightmare in which [spoilers] extreme torture is inflicted by a shadowy cabal trying to sneak a preview of the afterlife. But Schofield told us he was haunted for weeks by Martyrs, and its unflinchingly gruesome effects have fed into the obsession with body horror that can be found throughout The Callisto Protocol.
The Callisto Protocol was one of the stand-out games showcased at this year’s E3-ish sequence of livestreams, and in a strange twist of fate, it’s going to be competing with the remake of its predecessor. We spoke about how Schofield and Striking Distance Studios intend to move survival horror forward given direct competition from its well-loved predecessors.
PC Gamer: Let’s dive straight in: tell me a little bit about why the prison setting in The Callisto Protocol lends itself so well to horror.
Glen Schofield: To most people prison is scary already. So you’re starting with a place that people don’t want to go to. You only hear horror stories about it. We’ve set it on a moon, that’s already scary. The idea is like, this is one of the worst, if not the worst prison in the galaxy. It just felt like a great setting, right from the start. That’s where I wanted it.
In terms of creating shocking moments and building atmosphere generally, what has the power of the PC and next gen consoles enabled? What are you doing that wasn’t possible with Dead Space?
It’s not like all of a sudden “Wow, we got all this new gameplay stuff.” It’s more power and we can do things like ray tracing where we’re able to really make things realistic, which I think is important for a horror game—the more you can feel like ‘I’m there. I’m a real person. Everything I’m seeing is real.’ Headphones are the way to go with this one. We’re doing stuff in the background [that makes you go] ‘where was that?’
The more you get the player to turn their head a little bit and take their attention off something, the better. It allows us to do more cool special effects that not only keep it grounded, but make it feel more realistic as well. So it’s a lot about the power. There’s stuff that I wish we could have done in Dead Space. We’re really paying attention to details.
The plasma cutter was such an iconic part of the Dead Space games. Is there anything comparatively innovative in terms of the combat in Callisto?
It’s a different kind of combat in this game, whereas in Dead Space, people just use the plasma cutter. They may use the line gun here and there and stuff like that, but it’s mostly just the plasma cutter. With this game, you’re going to have to use everything that we give you, especially melee. The melee is very important—it’s in your face, it’s brutal. Some enemies you’re just going to have to deal with that way, then you’ve got to upgrade your weapons for others. Not that you’re gonna get a whole heck of a lot of ammo, but there are some enemies you don’t want to be up close and personal with.
Then we have this GRP system that we’re talking about, which is a Grav Gun, but this Grav Gun can pick up the enemies and fling them into giant fans, into spikes on the walls, and we’ve got lathes and giant machines and things which really get brutal. On top of that, you can pick up things in the world, cut off their legs, cut off their arms—we’ve got a gore system that goes much deeper than we did in Dead Space. You can chop off half the head and they’re still coming at you. You can cut off both arms and they’re still gonna bite you. You can cut off both legs. They’re still coming at you, man.
This core system took us two and a half years. It’s pretty deep and pretty brutal. Callisto Protocol makes you say: “I better use everything, I better learn all the tools that I’m given, because I’m gonna need them.”
Josh Duhamel stars as a prisoner, Jacob Lee, and watching the recent trailer, it reminds me of Norman Reedus in Death Stranding. It really feels like the actor is really up there on screen with these performances. Does the improvement in quality affect how you think about casting as a developer? Do you have to consider a lot more than “is this the right voice?”
Well, you want a good actor, and Josh was one of the stars for Call of Duty World War Two. We got to know Josh pretty well working on that. He has much more range than people think, and we just loved working with him, loved how he got immersed in the character. I think you will see past ‘it’s Josh,’ and see him more as Jacob instead. It was important that we got good acting, because there’s a lot of acting in the game, the story is really important. I’ve used all kinds of actors: B-listers and A-listers and even some C-listers who are actually really good at it.
This wasn’t about using Josh for publicity. This was about using Josh as a good actor.
The enemies in the most recent trailer felt like something between John Carpenter’s The Thing and the fungus people in The Last of Us. How do you go about creating truly frightening opponents in a survival horror game—I’m particularly interested in the fact that you have to make a lot of rank and file enemies, but also, you want to be able to scale up to more substantial boss-tier opponents as well.
Absolutely, you start off with grunts, your first line of enemies, and we make six different versions of them. By the time you are where we are now, we’ve gotten rid of four of them, we’ve added new ones and we’ve changed them.
Since we made big ones, small ones, everything in-between, we’re now able to go ‘Alright, this one’s slower, this one’s faster, this one’s a bullet sponge.’ Even the grunts, the fodder are hard [to fight], but they’re also different. We keep some of them until later, of course, but we’re even adding two new ones now. It’s pretty late but we’re dropping them in because these are even cooler. You just get better after two and a half years.
Is it fair to say that as you progress through the story that the enemies you face get weirder?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, they get more bizarre, they have more types of mechanics to them, or you have to understand them better. We’ve got a couple you don’t want to melee you—you need to stay far away. You’re gonna be doing some running here and there. I love when you’ve got enemies you need to flee from. You can kill them, but it’s gonna take some time, some strategy, you’re gonna die a little bit, and then you’re probably going to think about it before you go back in.
This definitely seems like a thematic throughline between Deadspace and The Callisto Protocol in terms of body horror. Why do you find that interesting as a topic? And why is our space such a good setting to kind of explore that thing?
I find body horror is just a big part of the horror that I like. It brings out a weird emotion. Like, we didn’t just bite the head off, we picked the top part of the head off—we’re trying to be even more gross. And with the new graphics and the power of these new systems nowadays, you can make that really gross. Martyrs is one of those. It’s a French film…
I’ve seen Martyrs. Few films have messed me up as badly as Martyrs. It’s very good, but it’s horrific.
Right? It affected me for like, two weeks. Same, same, same. [Glen describes a particularly gruesome scene in the movie involving an eyeball.] Just the sound alone of the scissors…
I had lunch with [Hostel director] Eli Roth after it. And I’m like, ‘Dude, that sound alone.’ He told me: “We used nine scissors, and we put them together to get that sound.”
So I started having us do stuff like that.
Speaking of eyeballs, that eyeball spike scene in Dead Space 2 really sticks with me as well. Are you kind of going for some big set piece kind of scares like that in Callisto as well?
Yes, but different. We’ve got some pretty horrific deaths for Jacob. And we’ve got a dismemberment system for him as well. So, yeah, death is pretty important.
There’s been a trend in horror movies for the threat to be kind of this manifestation of grief or past trauma, they call it elevated horror, that’s been doing the rounds in the last 5-10 years. Is that something that interests you? Or do you feel like it’s a bit played out? Does it suit games?
We don’t really deal with grief in this. It’s a prison system and you don’t get to know the prisoners. There’ll be a little bit of that, but it’s not an important part of it. But there is part of the story at the end—you’re gonna go, oh, there is a little bit of that in there.
Can you talk to me a little bit about the PC version specifically? Is there anything you’re leveraging the PC platform for features wise?
Yes, but we’re just starting to get deeper into it now. So I really can’t talk about it. There are things that we’re trying to do on the PC version that will make it a little bit different. I’m not sure how much different it will feel. But we do have extra time because we don’t have to go through manufacturing with Sony and all that.
We have a plan, and we’ll see what we can get to. I’m sorry, I can’t get deeper into that right now. It should be a lot of fun, though. I’m sure PC people are going to be pretty happy with it.
You were originally going to be part of the PUBG universe, but since then, the game took on more of a life of its own and warranted its own space. Is that right?
When we first came here, they were working on a great big story, and they really got big, great writers, and they’re working on the lore, and they had a giant timeline. We were going to fit on the timeline, and it kind of felt good at that time, right? But as we’re making the game, and we’re making the story, and we’re writing, and we’re going deeper into it, it just felt like we needed to get away from that. Not because we didn’t like it—we love PUBG. But it felt like we’re a new IP. And they were okay with it.
If you’re a fan of Resident Evil 4, do you have any particular fond memories of that game you’d like to share? Or any thoughts on what you kind of hope they achieve with the remake?
That was highly influential on Dead Space in different ways. Absolutely loved it. I didn’t feel it was really scary, but it was a great game. Some of the enemies, like the blind one, were really scary. It was more tension. But it influenced Dead Space. I said, I want my character to shoot and move, and that was a big deal. Everybody’s like, ‘No, it’s not gonna work.’
I was like, ‘I will find ways to make it work.’ And it’s funny, Dead Space was actually Game of the Year at the DICE awards, and the people who gave the award were the Capcom guys who were making Resident Evil 5. And they said to me backstage: “We wish we had the character walk.”
But [RE4] was a big, big influence on me, no doubt about it. When I saw parts of the remake I couldn’t even recognize some of it. I was like, oh, is that the village? It looked fantastic. Absolutely gonna play it.
I’ll throw in a fond memory I have of Dead Space as well. Having the pathfinding line that took you to your next objective on the floor as someone who inevitably gets lost in every type of game because I have no spatial awareness was one of my favorite innovations ever.
Well, I’ll tell you, we’re not doing that [in Callisto]. For me, I feel like that’s one of the evolutions: If I could get rid of that and find ways to get you through the game without it, that’s what I wanted to do.
Now, I don’t care if you get lost a little bit, right—you’ve got to kind of find your way. But we’re trying to do it with lighting, with sound, we’re doing it with signage. I really want you to use the game to get through. To me that’s an evolution that I think we need to have. But I appreciate you saying that. I loved that as well and we needed it in Dead Space, but I think we’re gonna be okay in this game.