Hopelessness defines The Callisto Protocol, one of 2022’s most highly anticipated horror games. Set deep in the bowels of a futuristic prison planet, Striking Distance Studios believe the game’s carefully crafted, terrifying universe makes it completely unlike anything out there, with chief technology officer Mark James giving us a deep dive into what makes it different to its space-based horror peers during our exclusive Gamescom preview.
Picture the scene: you’re in a dark room at Krafton’s Gamescom booth, avidly awaiting the new gameplay demo for a new Dead Space-inspired scare ’em up. Within seconds of the footage starting a mutated human hurtles itself at the camera, attempting to take a chunk out of the hero. A man a couple of rows in front of me jumps out of his seat and lets out a little whimper, before looking around, presumably to check no one noticed.
This is The Callisto Protocol in a nutshell.
Designed with the intent to terrify, Callisto is all about facing your fears. Except, your fears are now humans contorted in a multitude of ways, making the whole thing even creepier. There are no aliens, no monsters – just infected humans that are a stark reminder of what you could become. There’s no one to share the burden with, and nowhere to hide – there’s only the distinct feeling of isolation.
“We wanted the sci-fi to be relatable,” James explains. “This is just earth 300 years in the future – no alien civilisation has been discovered, there’s no wormhole technology.
“The horror is also relatable,” he continues. “We didn’t want to go too far with fantastical horror. If you go too far with technology it feels somewhat like magic. We wanted to ensure the creatures aren’t aliens, or undead – they’re just infected humans.
“There are a lot of fears in Callisto. There’s the fear of spiders, the fear of falling; we want to represent all those other fears to create relatable horror. I think if you go too fantastical it becomes unrelatable to the player.
“We don’t want to take you to the Guardians of the Galaxy prison,” James laughs, “[Black Iron Prison] is just an expansion within our own solar system.”
Crafting real, spine-tingling horror isn’t easy, and yet the short demo of The Callisto Protocol manages to instil plenty of fear without me getting hands-on. As someone with severe arachnophobia – I literally can’t breathe when one of the eight-legged demons gets too close – I asked James how the team went about crafting the dismal world of Black Iron Prison.
“We talked about [fear] as kind of like filling a balloon,” he says. “So we fill the balloon with fear, then we give you the release in the scare, and then we start again. Horror engineering is about understanding that curve so that when the final release happens there’s a reaction. If we just gave you scares, it just makes you a nervous wreck by the end of the game.”
The team also utilises devices like colour theory to make things all the more creepy. “We deliberately designed our colour spaces around certain functions. The area we showed you with the Rushers [creepy spider humans] is very wet, it has a lot of greens and yellows because they trigger the emotional reaction of disgust.”
James also took inspiration from real-life prison systems, drawing specifically upon the architecture that has come to define the modern-day supermax. “We very deliberately looked at prisons where they were loosely manned because, again, we thought that this is a moon in the middle of nowhere, you kind of want it to be run by a skeleton crew, and mostly to be automated.
“So we designed Black Iron to feel like one of those kinds of automated prisons. We looked at a lot of references to supermax and those types of institutions. We looked at the unlocking mechanisms and the observation mechanisms that are in there to craft something unique and terrifying.”
The result is a horror game where you feel totally hopeless: trapped in a max security prison with nowhere to hide, and surrounded by innumerable horrors, the vast majority of them former inmates just like you. We’ve had space-based horror games that touch on isolation and, but James is confident these little psychological flourishes set The Callisto Protocol apart.
“We believe in the strength of our game,” he states. “We absolutely think we are unique in our setting, in our approach to horror, and we actually arrogantly think we’ve got some of the best horror-makers in the industry.” While he admits that the likes of Resident Evil and Alien: Isolation influenced parts of the game, he concludes with a resolute “we do think we’re unique enough to be an exception.”
The Callisto Protocol release date is set for December 2, and you can pre-purchase the day one and digital deluxe editions on Steam now. If you can’t wait until then, however, be sure to check out the best space games on PC to help pass the time.