header is screenshot from The Callisto Protocol
The Protocol
Ed Smith

I keep thinking that games are self limiting, like no matter what happens or how hard everyone tries, too much time has passed and too much convention has set in – or maybe games have always been formally incompatible with X and Y and Z—that there’s no way they’ll ever become great, artistically great, expressively great, whatever that means. I shouldn’t be laying all this at The Callisto Protocol’s door. The Callisto Protocol is fine. It’s just a game like so many other games. I don’t care about The Callisto Protocol. I don’t feel like I need to tell people to play it or not play it or why or what it’s doing or anything really whatsoever. It’s just normal and basal and benign and fucking jejune. It’s just The Callisto Protocol. It does its work, it never gets in trouble and it leaves with flat C grades, like all the models and data and projections said it would. So this is really only partly about The Callisto Protocol, which I guess happens to be the game that I played in the same month as all the thoughts and ideas and precepts and whatever that I’m about to write down, it was the same month that they all crystallised and formed and acquired definition in my mind sufficient for me to write about them. It’s my fault, here. I was going too fast—I drove into The Callisto Protocol

But what I’m saying is, I think the entire language and structure and what we consider (or rather, have existed alongside and within the rubric of long enough we don’t consider) videogame normality all needs verifying and interrogating and maybe a lot of it needs taking out and completely changing. There are so many—so, so many—traditions, cliches, and conceits in videogames, and I guess a lot of them are in The Callisto Protocol. And I don’t think, besides ironising and joking about and sometimes kind of semi lamenting them, we’ve ever, as an audience, as critics, really investigated why we keep them around. And I’m not talking level design or plot stuff, like the kind of thing Penny Arcade would have done a strip about back in the day—isn’t it crazy how there’s always three valves you have to turn, and the enemies always wait until you’ve finished turning them? I mean like zoom out, and zoom out, and zoom out, and zoom out, and look at the absolute, holistic object or text or item that a videogame is, and whether that’s what it ought to be, and if it serves anything. Like for example you achieve something in a game, you get some kind of in-game reward for it; kill a monster in Callisto, you get health packs or ammo or money to make your weapons stronger. But why? I mean, psychologically and ludologically I know why, but what about narratively or dramatically or thematically? And I’m not saying that this—this system by default, this thing that’s in everything, that seems unusual or notable only if it’s not in something—absolutely never has any narrative or dramatic or thematic purpose. But does it always have a purpose? Is the purpose the same always? Could a game like The Callisto Protocol mean more, do more, be better if it weren’t there?

There are certain terms, expectations, statutes, prescripts, normalcies, dictates, etc. that appear in just about everything, and the problem is that by listing them out it makes me sound like I’m nitpicking or doing some, like “Hey isn’t it dumb how—?” YouTube video on top ten game cliches that “need to be retired.” And that’s not the point. It’s not like the language of games—or not even the language, but the foundational components of language; the syllables, vowels, morphemes—is wrong and every game is made by unthinking dumbasses. It’s more like, from game to game, the decision to use the foundational components of game language is too automatic, or too unquestioned. If you’re shooting in a game, it’ll be one button to aim, one button to shoot, one button to reload—that’s at least what it will be. And then it will be against small groups of easier enemies at first, and then maybe you’ll be able to get other guns or upgrade the guns you have. And it will basically always be that or some accessory variation. And again, it works, it’s fine. But surely there are possibilities, hitherto unexplored, dramatically, thematically, and so on, that exist beyond the expressive—as it were—range of these codified, stratified, settled-upon systems. I’m not going to give examples, because you start sounding like some sophomoric game design wannabe trying to shock people, or come over all visionary—“how about a game where you run by alternately tapping L1 and R1?” But still, I don’t know, maybe that game design wannabe I just made up is onto something, in spirit at least.

The Callisto Protocol is composed entirely of established, ratified, customary videogame stuff. To labour the language metaphor, if you were trying to learn to speak videogames, as it were, The Callisto Protocol would be your dictionary, phrase book, Rosetta Stone, Google Translate. And, for the final time, it’s not that all these cliches and routine systems and mechanics and structures and functions should be automatically avoided and subverted. Genre games are some of the best games. But it feels like we got to a pretty elementary stage of videogame language, as in, which systems and styles and classifications we’d accept and how we’d use them, and stopped, like we got sound and expressive lighting and maybe depth of field and match cuts, and got them right and did some good stuff with them, and then just carried on doing them the same every time and didn’t add anything else. Movement is movement. Shooting is shooting. Level design is level design. And so they have been for the last 20 years. 

I used to say this was all a marketing thing—publishers make their games like other games that were successful, so their games will be successful as well—but I don’t think so any more, at least, it’s not just that. It’s more like there’s a pretty limited set of actions that you can do in games (problem one) and you always do them the same way (problem two), and you can’t help wondering whether if doing them a different way might be more relevant to an individual game thematically and so on (problem three). It’s not like the people making games are all lazy or unimaginative or don’t have whatever mental or technological apparatus to do anything about all this, it’s just that we’re stuck somehow it seems, like we’re kicking the can down the road, or at some kind of mechanics/idea/narrative plateau where even if something is really good it’s really good exactly the same way as something else really good. 

And I guess that’s it for The Callisto Protocol, which is basically good, but good in many of the same ways Dead Space or Uncharted or Tomb Raider or The Order 1886 or The Last of Us or the Resident Evil remakes or whatever else is good. Good in the same way all broadly functional modern videogames are good—proof there are things now games can do really well, but doing those things really well doesn’t matter any more, and there’s got to be something beyond them, surely. Maybe that’s it. The Callisto Protocol is good at all the constituent, component game stuff, and that’s all it is, and that becomes proof that those constituent, component game parts—in isolation of any other ideas or identity—are empty, that mechanics as we’ve come to accept them in most games are, on their own, empty, meaningless, automated, and I’m stuck wondering if it’ll always have to be like that.


Ed Smith is one of the co-founders of Bullet Points Monthly. His Twitter handle is @esmithwriter.