‘Callisto Protocol’ Developer Talks ‘Horror Engineering’ That Makes ‘Dead Space’ Tame

A shadow glides around the corner like a gassy cat.

A light flickers above, strobes at an abnormal rate. The silence weighs heavy, weighing heavily on the prisoner below. In the distance is a shape – strange, distorted, weird. The shape advances towards you, slowly, carefully, before rushing towards the nearest wall and disappearing.

No game makes you feel dread like The Callisto Protocol.

“He came down the vent and ran away,” says Mark James, technical director at Striking Distance Studios. I’m sitting in a small room in Hall 4 of Koelnmesse, the chaos of Gamescom 2022 swirling around me. We are talking The Callisto Protocol right after he was introduced to the masses, and how monstrous mutated humans called the Biophage will scare you in broad daylight.

“It was so strange to see, but it’s actually on purpose. This [Biophage Grunt] looked at what had happened before – he could see the victims,” James says. “And then he thought, ‘I have to get close to attack successfully. Our AIs observe your behaviors up to this point and examine different ways to attack.

“So he went into the ventilation system. The worst thing for the player at that moment is that he thinks: “This guy is gone”. I don’t know where it’s going to come out. He could follow me, he could be in the next room, he could be behind me. And in this particular game, where we saw this happen, the AI ​​actually came out of a vent that the player had been through, grabbed their shoulder, and pulled them to do the attack.

This cunning escape surprised even some developers. James explains that it’s the product of systemic design that deliberately makes enemies more unpredictable. It’s just a small piece of what the team has dubbed “horror engineering.”

engineering horror

The process focuses on the conscious integration not only of fear itself, but also of the functional mechanisms by which fear can be instilled and controlled into the overall experience. James insists that there are crucial differences between creating fear, instilling terror and simply scaring people. But how do you manipulate the relationship between these states to confuse the player and blur the lines between them?

Horror engineering has a chilling level of detail: sometimes the strobe lights during an encounter will match the rhythm of a monster’s footsteps, so you can subliminally pair the two. The next time the lights appear, you might subconsciously tense up, expecting the monster to appear – and it might, or might not.

“In film terms, these are black cat moments,” James says. “Something comes up, normally a cat, and knocks something aside, and you’re like, ‘Thank God that wasn’t near me.’ But then the same thing happens under the same circumstances later – and it does.

But there are some subtle differences between cinematic tension and what’s possible in the gaming world.

“You can program using the psychology and cinematic references that we’ve been working with for years. You think there’s going to be a striker at the top of the ladder because we designed it and then we put it somewhere else,” he says. “It’s a perfect black cat moment. We think of fear as a balloon that we fill with helium, like fear that slowly grows, and then we scare you. Then we blow up another one, but sometimes we don’t realize the fear and the tension hasn’t been released.

While many of by Callisto the horror mechanics can feel scripted (and some of them are), much of the game’s composition is systemic, which means developers can move things around. The fully functional ventilation system is just one example.

“There will be unpredictable scares,” James says. “They won’t be the same in your next game. Biophage will either make a different decision or mutate at a different time because you can’t control mutations. If you’re quick enough to shoot the tentacles, you won’t be attacked. So even the way I play, I change the things that happen.

Floating on a river of excrement

The biophages are all humans mutated by a terrible disease, and the team went to great lengths to ensure that these mutations reflect real infections. Measles is a disease everyone has heard of, James thinks, but how many people know exactly what this terrible rash looks like? The combination of medical references with practical effects and pop culture body horror means that these mutated humans still retain a shadow of their former selves.

“A lot of enemy designs start with, ‘I want this guy to have scissor feet,’ and then you go back from there,” James says. “We worked forward from our humanity and then looked at the horrific design of the infection to see how it would warp. The greatest fear in an enemy is that humanity will warp, rather than become super fantastic and then work to put humanity back together.

Even a person’s or enemy’s eye is designed with ray-traced reflections, which may seem gratuitous, but for James it’s a crucial element in maintaining the level of immersion needed to establish the fear. He explains that a gamer’s brain focuses on processing faces, allowing you to perceive details that may seem irrelevant but can break immersion. Because your eye contains water, it has been treated with the same respect as other fluids in the game when it comes to being not only reflective, but also refractive.

Our demo featured a sequence where you get caught up in a violently rushing stream, dodging obstacles as you race down a seemingly endless series of waterfalls.

This is actually where all the sewage from the prison is treated.

“There’s a certain disgust that leads to that,” James says. “And then you say to yourself, it’s even scarier, because I’m going down this river of excrement.”

Disgust was also used to reinforce the horror in the hydrosphere around the prison where all the food is grown. Instead of vibrant greens and blues, it’s a handful of dirtier yellows. The team spent hours discussing color theory. James says the art director combed through each piece, matching colors with emotions to control the overall mood.

An incompetent hero

A side profile of Jacob, the protagonist of The Callisto Protocol. He wears an orange jumpsuit.Studios within striking distance

Unfortunately for the player, the game’s protagonist, Jacob, isn’t exactly a weirdo. He is a pilot who was wrongfully imprisoned in a high-security penitentiary on an ice moon orbiting Jupiter, which contributes to his status as a player substitute. We can see it in the way he fumbles with weapons or how he dodges his hands in the air. He moves instinctively rather than intentionally.

“Funny, I saw a comment the other day that was like, ‘Oh, give me a fight roll.'” James said. “And it’s like you don’t really understand what we’re trying to do.”

This design approach also affects play on a functional level: Jacob holds and swings the stun baton like it’s the first time he’s done it…because it is. So what happens when he obtains restricted access codes for the 3D printing kiosks set up throughout the prison? Suddenly, this untrained civilian with no combat experience has access to an arsenal of powerful weapons. In order to make this consistent with the game’s premise and systems, Striking Distance needed to carefully consider how to deal with weapons, enemy encounters, and the relationship between the two.

” One must use [weapons] in combination, and read the individuals and how they behave to know that there is a combination out there,” says James. “And you could find that out just by dying. And it’s good. You will die a lot in our game. We make no excuses.

Dying – and dying a lot – is part of how you learn.

“I’ll be honest: in dead space, I used the railgun,” he admits. “I never felt the need to pick up another weapon. In our game, you have to use them in combination. You won’t survive just using the gun. There are never enough balls or time to react. There’s actually a bad time to use them, especially with mutations, because some guys are just [damage] sponges. I think that’s the beauty of it: our combat feels so much more strategic. And this is probably one of the distinguishing factors [from Dead Space] apart from the characters and the story.

kill dead space

dead spacethe legacy of The Callisto Protocol. Not only do the games share an uncanny resemblance, but Callisto Game director Glen Schofield was the pioneer behind Isaac Clarke and USG Ishimura. No matter how much the developers want to differentiate the two games, they are intrinsically linked. James explains that the team took a distinctly “no-nonsense” approach.dead spaceapproach to this game to help put that connection to rest.

dead spaceIsaac may have been an engineer, but he still felt like a combat professional. With Jacob, “everything should look like a knife”. Jacob also has a backstory and relationships with other characters, as opposed to Isaac’s relatively blank slate. There are plenty of characters and cast that the team has yet to reveal. Overall, James says, “We think we’ve pushed sci-fi horror forward.”

James assures us that Callisto fulfills some of the nightmarish dreams dead space couldn’t reach 14 years ago. Modern hardware makes all sorts of new things possible, including audio features like occlusion and portal that make positional audio a much more powerful horror tool.

An enemy, the Rusher – his flipped torso and extra limbs inspired by The thing — has a camouflage mechanism. Thanks to improvements in audio design, you can reliably track it over significant distances via sound. But Biophage’s natural prison soundscape and other ambient moans and noises heighten the overall horror tenfold.

So what does Striking Distance ultimately hope to accomplish with Callistoand what does it look like down the line?

“No developer throws out a new IP and says, ‘I want this to be a game’,” says James. “No developer wants that. We hope he will succeed. We hope to be able to tell more stories in the universe – we have built a universe! There is a society that manages the planets. There is a story behind why the virus exists. We’ve built way more stories than we can tell in a single game and we really want to do more.

“The real hope for this game is that people look at it with the same respect they had for dead spaceand say, “Now this is the scariest game I’ve ever played.”

The Callisto Protocol will be released on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X and PC on December 2, 2022.

About Lucille Thompson

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