Content Type: Gaming News
Date: November 22, 2022
The Callisto Protocol comes out in less than two weeks now, and in light of that, I’ve been playing its predecessor, the original Dead Space from 2008. In revisiting the old masterpiece, I found myself constantly amazed at how well most of it held up. It is a classic for a reason. But, at the same time, there were a lot of elements that were dated, or simply not done well even for the time. Glen Schofield, who directed both games, has spoken in interviews about The Callisto Protocol‘s place as a successor to Dead Space, and it got me thinking about what that might entail about the game to come.
As I carved my way through the darkened corridors and cavernous rooms of Dead Space’s USG Ishimura, I found myself noting specific things that I wanted to see replicated in The Callisto Protocol. And, of course, I noticed just as many things that I sincerely hope Glen Schofield will be content to leave in 2008. Since the success of The Callisto Protocol might just come down to what lessons it takes from that old masterpiece, I made a list of those lessons: ideas that it should and shouldn’t take from its predecessor, in order to create the best space horror experience possible.
A final note: since Dead Space was the first of the franchise, like Callisto, and since it is still the highest regarded of the trilogy, that is where I focused my attention with these observations. While Dead Space 2 and 3 have their own lessons The Callisto Protocol could take, it will get the most out of examining the original, best game of the series. Without further ado, here are five things that The Callisto Protocol needs to learn from the original Dead Space, and five it should forget.
What to Learn: Enemy Design
The original Dead Space had some of the most creative and horrifying creature designs of not just sci-fi video games, but sci-fi as a whole. The body-horror-fueled Necromorphs are macabre and powerful, their forms just distorted enough that you can still make out the humans they once were. They are threatening, but not mystical. In fact, they were gruesomely anatomical.
What’s more, there were tons of different Necromorphs, all unique and challenging in their own ways. They were truly a masterclass of horror creature design, and if The Callisto Protocol borrows one thing from its predecessor, it should be that same obsessive focus with having a variety of grotesque, captivating monstrosities.
What to Forget: Waves of Enemies
Necromorphs are excellently designed, but it is hard to remain scared after dispatching your dozenth sharp-limbed monster in a row. Dead Space continuously ramped up the number of Necromorphs it threw at you, and in so doing made the overall impact of each weaker.
Even from early on, Isaac faces hordes of them and, aside from some boss-tier creeps (we will talk about them later), even the more interesting of foes become cannon fodder to Issac’s iconic plasma cutter. As satisfying as that may be, it meant that enemies didn’t pose much of a threat once you understood them. The Callisto Protocol needs to learn from this and have fewer, more formidable enemies, where each actually poses a meaningful threat.
What to Learn: Iconic Weaponry
Speaking of Isaac’s plasma cutter, that was just one of many, many great weapons in original Dead Space. From limb-severing work tools to fully-ready military equipment, the weaponry in Dead Space was satisfying to use, perfect for its purpose, and brilliantly designed. Since much of Isaac’s arsenal was improvised weaponry (including the plasma cutter, which was “meant” to be an engineering tool), it gives your loadout a somewhat scrappy feel, like you are just trying to make due against the encroaching aliens.
Every weapon in Dead Space was lovingly crafted both for the game, and for its environment, and that made using them feel special and unique. Though The Callisto Protocol’s weaponry looks to be a bit more traditional, hopefully the game can follow suit with fitting, great-feeling weapons to elevate the experience.
What to Forget: Overpowered Weaponry
There was a downside to the incredible selection of weaponry in the original Dead Space: it was too good. Dead Space was a horror game, and yet even a moderately competent gamer was able to turn rooms full of Necromorphs into piles of severed limbs even at the highest difficulty. So long as you searched in nooks and crannies, ammo rarely became an issue, and so you could plow your way through enemies like butter, even (or perhaps especially) using the first weapon of the game.
While this feels fun, it is another thing that removes from the horror of the situation. Being able to dispatch enemies with ease makes you feel like Isaac is the monster to them. The Callisto Protocol should be careful to give you weapons that pack a punch, but not ones that can mow through enemies without a second thought.
What to Learn: Ocean-Deep Lore
Dead Space has some of the most original, deep, and complicated lore of any horror project to date. Between its three games and tie-in novel and movie, Dead Space was able to reveal a grounded universe, realistically shaped by the presence of the sinister Markers and Necromorphs. It does so in a convoluted way, revealing only reasonable tidbits to the player at once, always asking more questions that it answers.
Delving into the lore of Dead Space is like descending into a cavern that is not only getting darker, but larger. From the Unitologists to the Markers (which are sometimes artificial recreations of clones of the original marker?), the lore of Dead Space is deep, well-considered, and enigmatic. If The Callisto Protocol has a world that even holds a candle to the depth of Dead Space, then it will open itself up to be revered and analyzed for years to come.
What to Forget: Bad Horror Twists
For as good as the world building is in Dead Space, it leaves a lot to be desired when you zoom in close. From hilariously-telegraphed (and nonsensical) betrayals to a not-so-shocking “SHE WAS DEAD THE WHOLE TIME!” moment, the original Dead Space had a laughably predictable, and even silly story, filled with horror tropes and clichés that do nothing to help.
Characters that might as well be cardboard standees have hidden motivations that you can peg at the start, and Isaac’s unquestioning silence makes him seem shockingly naive for a badass survivor. While its sequels did better with this, eventually tying the narrative into the incredible world that they built, the original Dead Space is not a game remembered for its horror storytelling, and The Callisto Protocol should be taking notes.
What to Learn: Adventure-Game Progression
Though the story might not be excellent, it didn’t need to be. At its core, Dead Space was not about the dramatic space opera twists or the human drama: Dead Space is a story about survival. And, as a survival story, it is excellent. In order to escape the USG Ishimura, Isaac always has to do “one more thing” in one more section of the ship. This forces him to go from atmospheric level to level, dealing with one problem at a time in the desperate hope that, eventually, he will make it out. And, in repairing engines and untethering asteroids, Isaac always feels like he has a good reason to be exploring the next horrifying-but-fascinating area.
Simple goals that meaningfully incentivize both the character and player to continue exploring a richly-detailed setting? Callisto, I hope you’re writing this down.
What to Forget: Time-Waster Puzzles
The only issue with the aforementioned design is that, once you get to the next cool location or set piece, you actually have to deal with it. And, oh boy, this is where Dead Space is at its worst. From slowly moving the Marker along railway tracks (twice) to solving yet another puzzle that amounts to “press your stasis button to avoid getting hit by the spinning thing,” Dead Space‘s puzzle design is nothing if not tedious.
While the tasks they are meant to accomplish make sense, doing those tasks often involves conveniently-placed obstacles and interactions that demand sluggish patience far more than actual brain-power to solve. Dead Space‘s puzzles occupy the dreadful middle-ground of taking ages to complete, while not being challenging enough to be engaging. The Callisto Protocol should be very careful of this, and make sure tasks are either straightforward to complete, or are intricate enough to actually challenge a player to solve them.
What to Learn: Bloody Brutality
Let’s face it: space horror is its most fun when it is bloody and brutal. And Dead Space was no exception to this. In fact, it may even be more wicked than most. Dead Space’s myriad death scenes, which see Isaac crushed, decapitated, gutted, eaten, and popped, are almost as iconic as the engineering suit or the Necromorphs, and offer a perfectly brutal send-up to classic slasher horror. And, of course, let’s not forget about the main combat mechanic, which sees severed, bloody limbs fly across the room as you turn the monsters in front of you into mush.
Dead Space was a brutal, bloody mess, and it was all the better for it. With its improved graphics and even more grounded design, I should hope The Callisto Protocol can ramp the viscera up to even higher levels.
What to Forget: Consequenceless Violence
As fun as as the entrails and blood splatters may be, they do serve to desensitize the player rather quickly. Like the powerful weaponry and the enemy density, this also reduces the overall horror of the game. Isaac hardly even reacts to the Necromorphs the first time he sees them, even as they slaughter his presumed friends, and by the end of the first level he has demonstrated the emotional stoicism of a robot. Even as his friends perish, even as he uncovers unspeakable atrocities one after another, the game continues on, reveling in the gore without stopping to deal with the horror that it implies.
People lived on the USG Ishimura, and they all died there. Meanwhile, Isaac is carving his way through their desecrated corpses without an ounce of reflection or emotion. With how much games have progressed in storytelling, it creates a tone that feels… somewhat juvenile about the whole ordeal. I’m not asking for the gore to be toned down, nor for the game to descend into navel-gazing armchair psychology, but is it too much to ask for the characters to be actually effected by the tragedies and traumas they experience in The Callisto Protocol? If anything, that sounds more frightening than any alien-monster-zombies ever could.
And there you have it, in a neat and orderly list. Here are the 10 lessons, half-positive, half-negative, that The Callisto Protocol will need to learn from the original Dead Space in order for it to live up to (or even exceed) that masterpiece.
Do you agree with our analysis? Are there other lessons, good or bad, that you think The Callisto Protocol ought to learn from its predecessor? Let us know below, and cross your fingers that Glen Schofield and his team at Striking Distance Studios are of a similar mind. We’ll find out soon, when the Callisto Protocol releases on PC, Xbox, and Playstation on December 2nd.