Games take a long time to make. The Callisto Protocol was first announced two distant years ago during the 2020 Game Awards. It had already been in production for over a year, a nascent gleam in the eye of the game’s creative director and studio runner, Glen Schofield, who had previously helmed the influential sci-fi survival horror game Dead Space. With the financial support of Krafton, the Korean publisher of the megahit Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, Schofield sought to reanimate the abused and defiled corpse of Dead Space (though it continues to remain ripe for extraction, exemplified by Motive Studio's upcoming remake). The Callisto Protocol is the result of this mad process; it is the spirit and the many-limbed body of Dead Space brought shambling back into the zeitgeist, albeit with a new name and an interesting new twist.
Instead of being set in the same industrial mines, space stations, and factories as the Dead Space games, or making the player into a worker, a laborer in a rig, Callisto takes place in a maximum security prison on the eponymously named moon of Jupiter and makes the player into an inmate. The calculus feels starkly simple: a prison is an evolution from a dig site (in Callisto, it literally is, as we find out it’s been built over an abandoned mine). It’s an evolution in edge, in brutality, in monstrous horror, and violence; violence which sits that much closer to the surface, boiling, ready to pop.
In the intervening years since the game was announced with a grim trailer of inmate on inmate violence, the world and, not insignificantly, its prisons, suffered prolonged and very real tragedy as the COVID pandemic tore through them. Though the virus has touched seemingly everything and everyone, its effect in prisons has been far more pronounced and deadly. Prisons, notes a New York Times article on the subject, “... have been infected at rates several times higher than those of their surrounding communities.” Elsewhere in the piece, prisoners recount hearing their guards screaming: “Man down!” They describe hearing it “ … several times a day as the coronavirus ripped through California’s San Quentin State Prison in June , eventually killing 28 inmates and infecting more than 2,200 others—about three in every five prisoners.”
To sit down today—in a society which has largely ignored the darkness at its iron-barred core—to an experience like Callisto, a game in which a virus rips through a prison, turning inmates into vicious monsters to be put down, is unsettling to say the least. The game appears hardly aware at all of its connection to the real catastrophic events of our own world. It is utterly ignorant, disconnected from reality in a way that only videogames seem capable of being.
It seems that it’s mostly games which tend to lean into this position, of being glibly unaware of what exists outside of themselves, outside their creator’s blinkered worldviews. Callisto, in this mold, is in conversation principally with the kind of science-fiction stories your average white male between 25 and 45 probably grew up watching. Its comfort zone lies far outside the double-layered chain-link fences of America’s prisons. It sits instead in a prison of its own making. One built from the pastiche of better visionaries. It’s a prison built from the worlds of Ridley Scott, of James Cameron, of David Fincher, even Paul W.S. Anderson (Dead Space was inspired principally by Event Horizon). This prison is composed of dimly lit industrial corridors, wet from condensation dripping from hidden vents and busted pipes. Its soundtrack is whirring circulation interrupted by the metal clangs of shrinking bulkheads or inhuman howls from unseen directions. A well-worn aesthetic patina, a satisfying warm memory; the scratching of a seemingly primal nerd male itch.
How this might happen is easily observed. Prisons are purposefully siloed from the rest of the world. They are kept outside of our imaginations save for the specific stories we consume which only stereotype and fetishize, creating a myth with which to make unserious horror tales about the monstrous and inhuman. In an essay I wrote for Vice in 2017, long before COVID struck, I described how another game, Introversion’s Prison Architect, exemplifies this pattern of using the idea of prisons rather than spending any time engaging with the real thing: “When Introversion claims it wants to simulate ‘a kind of ideal prison in the sky,’ I can't help but see this reflected in the way prisons prefer to operate. Prisons, most of them built far away from the places where people live, are as separate from society as Prison Architect is actively designed to be. Though where the developers of Prison Architect meant to present a simulation absent of cultural context or commentary, prisons in their solitary hermitage mean to function entirely apart from the society which bore them.”
For most who get to develop blockbuster games, prisons, and the men and women who are confined in them, must remain in the realm of fantasy. They appear in media as constructs, built to assuage our guilt at having ignored this population by painting them as not worthy of thought, rights, or consideration. Callisto shares this approach, as contributor Ruth Cassidy wrote about earlier this month. Its prison is marked, down to its bones, by the inhuman. Our player character, Jacob, is barely locked up for two minutes before the mysterious super-contagion begins sweeping through the neighboring cells and awakening the monstrousness that was clearly already nesting there. These men were lost long before the virus appeared, their humanity written off. It’s kind of sad, but it’s also super fun to beat them to death with bats, to stomp on their limbs until geysers of blood explode outward and power-ups drop. It’s fun to wade about in the filth, at least for a little while. Here is suffering and inequity, reduced to sinew, blood, and grime, rendered in fine, bump mapped detail, transmitted at 60 frames per second.
In the end, in a hedged moment of sensitivity, the game’s plot reveals that the prisoners were victims too, that the prison was designed as some big petri dish, some kind of twisted Tuskegee-like experiment operated by cultish madmen to force human evolution through wanton alien mutation. Sure, we still had to put down a good hundred or so of these feral things, but it’s important to note, apparently, that they got this way by no real fault of their own.
Sadly, even this meager contrition is short-lived and makes little lasting impact. Far more significant is Jacob’s dejected remark during the game’s final cutscene. He has finally owned his own culpability in transferring the alien contagion to different test sites. Out of a sense of guilt over this, he sends off his compatriot Dani in the only remaining escape pod, telling her: “I belong here,” as he traps himself back within the prison.
For Jacob’s perdition, the prison suffers. It remains forever a site of guilt and culpability. Sure, the prisoners shouldn’t have been turned into monsters but everything short of that happening was probably right and probably good. They belong there and so, apparently, do we, the videogame protagonist and the developers who build our grim playgrounds. Forever in search of more grist to gnaw against, further corridors to stalk. For this fantasy, prisons must suffer, unchanged in imagination as they are ignored in reality.
Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer. His writing on games stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.