Jacob Lee is a videogame character. Though he works as the sci-fi equivalent of a trucker, Jacob throws himself into an outbreak of homicidal violence without a second thought. When attacked by hulking fellow inmates from Black Iron Prison, the moon-based prison complex in which The Callisto Protocol takes place, he handily beats them to death and is only fazed when moments later he, still covered head to toe with prisoner blood splatter, sees the first of the game’s monsters.
Because Jacob is our avatar and digital guide to a fictional, far future setting—and because The Callisto Protocol assumes its audience is conversant with the baked-in expectations of its medium—he is not concerned with a level of homicidal brutality that the medium expects us to greet as mundane. But, because he must sell the strangeness and terror of the situation he finds himself in, he must also greet the first of the monsters he sees with a fiction-appropriate level of apprehension. Though The Callisto Protocol is set in the year 2320 in a prison colony on one of Jupiter’s moons overrun with monsters created through a viral contagion, there is very little fantastic about it once this premise is established. Jacob kills dozens of enemies in the span of a few hours, facing incredible scrapes with death over and over again, but there isn't much in his affect to suggest he, presumably a fairly normal man, finds his situation remarkable. The tumorous bulk of a ferocious, shambling, wet-mouthed and bulging-veined creature soon becomes a workaday presence to Jacob. It is unusual in the way seeing a fox in a neighbourhood where you don’t usually see a fox is unusual, or a bright yellow car parked on a street where you haven’t seen a bright yellow car parked before. Something to be remarked upon and then integrated into regular life without too much extra thought.
And so: what are we to make of Jacob Lee, videogame character?
Well: He is a natural born killer. He is strong-jawed and resolutely brunette, matinee star handsome even in an orange prison jumpsuit with his head hastily shaved. He is not too tall or too short, too thin or too muscley. He would never star in a videogame that contained anything close to explicit sexuality, but if he did, he would romance a blonde woman in a sturdy, dependable fashion. He is oddly sweaty, absolutely dripping throughout the game even when sitting absolutely still in a pilot’s seat during the opening scene. And yet he never wavers, physically or mentally, in his journey through the monster-haunted corridors and snowy grounds of Black Iron Prison. When a moment of potentially fatal crisis pops up at the end of the game, we are not surprised to see him perform an act of heroic self sacrifice. We are not surprised, either, that he is revealed as a driving actor in the nefarious plot orchestrated by the prison leadership that most of the story, up to that point, has cast him as an accidental participant in.
Jacob is not meant to play with audience expectations. He is meant, instead, to play a role so familiar that his every characteristic comes across as something preordained. To The Callisto Protocol’s credit, its highlights have very little to do with its cast. Its best feature is the prison itself—a network of dark, foreboding hallways spattered with blood, lined with fleshy tentacles, and covered with lumps of tan coloured, wrinkly organic alien matter that resembles, in turns, soft boiled eggs and giant shrivelled foreskins. To its detriment, though, our guide through this environment is Jacob Lee, videogame character, who doesn’t enliven as much as provide a rotely functional viewpoint through which to take in this world.
That his presence doesn’t spike the game entirely—that his characterization wasn’t dubbed an issue as fundamental as, say, dysfunctional enemy AI, speaks to a larger problem in action games generally. Basically: There seems to be little room in big-budget work for a guy to be shaken up by what he’s seen and done, or to complicate a narrative with the kind of wrinkles that come from believably human protagonists forced to reckon with their lot in life.
Jacob doesn’t need to be clutching his head or writhing in torment to sell the effects of untold violence and mortal danger, but some indication that he’s influenced by having killed and come so close to being killed over and over again would allow the player to gain entry to the events unfolding onscreen. It’s hard not to think of Bruce Willis sweating in a Nakatomi Plaza vent, bracing himself to deliver a burst of machine gun fire and a one-liner, while watching Jacob army crawl through the prison’s grime and slime-encrusted ductwork. In comparison to even a platonic action movie hero, he appears superhumanly calm and, with apologies to his motion capture and voice portrayal by actor Josh Duhamel, there’s not enough personality conveyed in his expressions to convey a sense of inner turmoil or complexity that isn’t explicitly stated via dialogue. Even when the story attempts baseline emotionality, the performance struggles to rise to the occasion.
Instead, Jacob Lee, videogame character, is defined in terms of unflinching strength. Early in the game, his fellow Black Iron Prison inmate, Elias Porter, says something interesting. “You’re harder than I thought,” he replies after Jacob tersely explains that a guard has been mobbed by monsters and pushed through the glass of a watchtower window, presumably to his doom.
“You’re harder than I thought.”
This line of dialogue, delivered as the audience is still getting acquainted with Jacob, tells us that we weren’t wrong to think Jacob was pretty astoundingly unflappable in the face of a murderous brawl against other prisoners. It reinforces our wonder at his incredible serenity in so neatly accepting the existence of a virus that turns people into howling, sometimes poison-spitting kill-freaks. But it also points obliquely toward a crack in the façade of The Callisto Protocol’s business-as-usual character writing and action videogames in general. It allows players a moment to consider that there could be a version of the game where Jacob isn’t harder than Elias thought. That he could have faltered (or really been interested at all) in the gore-soaked, fantastical circumstances he finds himself in.
But he doesn’t. Jacob Lee is a videogame character and he, like so many other videogame characters, cares little for death or its effects. By casting off these essential human concerns, the game leaves a gap in its drama that can only be filled by the pleasures of spectacle. It must rely on aesthetics alone to compensate for characters whose minds don’t work like our own—whose hearts beat only to carry them from one moment of peril to another, to make blood spurt from the newly severed arteries of enemies they encounter. This may be good enough to make The Callisto Protocol an entertaining diversion, but it also means that whatever possible pathos it imparts leaves the mind almost as soon as it’s entered it.
Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.