header is screenshot from The Callisto Protocol
They Weren't People
Ruth Cassidy

What is horrifying, to The Callisto Protocol? It has two answers: One is the visceral, grotesque violence one body can inflict on another. The other is the mass violence that an institution can quietly inflict while making abstract decisions about people’s lives. These two ideas, as executed, are also entirely in conflict with each other throughout the game.

Crash-landed on Callisto, cargo pilot Jacob Lee finds himself unduly arrested and imprisoned at Black Iron Prison, a maximum security penitentiary where inmates have numbers, not names, and their sentences don't end. He’s dead to the world now, a particularly sadistic guard tells him, and his new life starts here, along with Dani Nakamura, the pirate-slash-terrorist who took his ship down to start with. Restrained, forcibly implanted with the spinal device that serves as both health bar and brain link, and taken to a single grotty cell in a vast, exposed grid of grotty cells, Black Iron is a visibly hellish institution—and that's before we even get to the zombies.

But the first experience we have with violence in The Callisto Protocol isn’t with zombies: it’s with other prisoners. Soon after he arrives at Black Iron, Jacob is mobbed, unprompted, by a gang. One swings a sledgehammer wide and gets it stuck in a wall, disarming himself, but continues to attack Jacob with his fists. Jacob kills him with the hammer, and throws another prisoner—identified by the subtitles as simply “Gang Member 2”—over a railing to his death. The camera then pans over to the third gang member being killed by a zombie—the first of the monsters that Jacob has noticed. Before he or we even encounter the real threat, it's established that Jacob is extremely capable at violence, and that prisoners, as a class of person, are inherently reckless and aggressive.

This is also what we come to learn about the zombies, which have filled the station overnight. They are pure, unfiltered aggression, pursuing no other goal than to brutally attack humans. Jacob’s death animations include having his jaw ripped off, his eyeballs squeezed out, his arms ripped off, and—in one execution, particularly memorable for its juvenile high-school-bully feel—being pummelled in a headlock until his skull is ... pulped.

Death by zombies is gross, but so is killing them. In the early game especially, you get up close and personal, limited to melee attacks only. There’s no luxury of the physically and emotionally distanced headshot; you’re battering off limbs and heads until their owners stop moving. Then stomping on them for loot, acquiring those few pieces of ammo or health through kneecapping corpses. By the time you do acquire the guns which allow for that emotionally distanced headshot, you discover that they aren’t enough to incapacitate the zombies. Even headless, they still close the gap between you. As your capability scales, so does theirs.

Zombies in The Callisto Protocol are, in more ways than one, near invulnerable. They don’t seem to experience pain, and they can survive extensive brutality before they’re even immobilised, let alone killed. Few of them hold the trappings of their previous human lives, shedding their clothes for raw skin and sinew that, paradoxically, leaves them less exposed, and less of a ‘person’. There’s not even the suggestion that they could be allowed any dignity in death. Everything about them is designed to say that they aren’t just acceptable targets, but necessary: don’t feel bad, it’s do-or-die; they aren’t people anymore.

But the subtext that The Callisto Protocol carries throughout is that they weren’t people to start with either: they were just inmates, which is only another kind of non-person collective noun. Inmates get turned into zombies, prison guards get killed by them. Inmates are experimented on by scientists, and it’s the scientists who get to tell the story of what happened. The only cognizant zombie you encounter—the only zombie with any personhood—is a guard, whose turning wasn’t part of the Black Iron warden's plan.

There is only one named inmate you interact with: Elias, who serves as quest giver in the early part of the game as he tries to help you escape. In the only scene where he and Jacob have any extensive interaction beyond passing instructions back and forth, he admits that he’s in Black Iron for murder, but he’s “taking accountability” for it. Implicitly, he believes he deserves his fate. In the next scene, he’s dead—with his helpful, quest-giving information literally ripped out of the back of his head to ensure the story progresses. We have more insight on Elias than any other prisoner, and that insight only serves as a commodity.

Around this point in the game, the dynamic of struggle that The Callisto Protocol relies on for its necessary violence vanishes. Jacob escapes Black Iron, now in a guard’s powersuit, armed with a guard’s baton, and a guard’s gun. No longer wrongly imprisoned and having to fight for his survival, the suggestion of a conspiracy sends him back into the prison to search for the truth. Killing is now just an obstacle on the way.

The Callisto Protocol's visuals only become more gruesome as you go on, as earlier shocks and novelties wear off and the fighting becomes routine. Later areas are drenched in blood and home to pustule-covered hives, and enemies scuttle on the ceiling, spit acid, and explode into tentacles mid-fight. But with increasingly 'acceptable' targets, that sympathetic impact of weapon-on-bone is lost. Making the visuals more disturbing only furthers, not counters, that sense of desensitisation, while the corpses—sometimes literally—pile up.

At the game’s climax, we learn that the outbreak in the prison was intentional: the warden released a biophage among the prison population in hopes of evolving a super human, someone who would retain both the physical resilience of a zombie and their human awareness. This is violence on an overwhelming scale. ‘Isn’t it awful that he treats these prisoners as expendable’, the narrative tries to say. But they are, according to the game’s viewpoint, expendable.

Even while Warden Cole points out that he and Jacob aren't so dissimilar, confronting Jacob with the lengths he's gone to to survive, the issue doesn't lie in the character's viewpoints, but the world's. In order to horrify me with its unflinching body horror, its crunchy soundscape of gore and broken bones, The Callisto Protocol constructs bodies that I cannot feel guilt—or horror—about breaking. In its world, the only innocent victims of institutional violence are those wrongly imprisoned. The rest were never people to start with.


Ruth Cassidy is a critic and journalist who writes about games and the contexts they're played and created in. Their bylines include UnwinnableEurogamer, and Fanbyte, and you can find more of their work at their portfolio.