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The original Dead Space remains one of the most unnerving games I've ever played. Following in the footsteps of another horror classic, Resident Evil 4, Dead Space put a gun in your hand that could tear apart the creatures coming after you—yet those hideous Necromorphs were still terrifying. They skulked in shadows and toppled boxes on the edge of your periphery, a mortal but unyielding threat.
Dead Space has been dormant for a good few years now, but the spirit of it has carried on into a new venture. Striking Distance Studios, a new developer helmed by Visceral and Sledgehammer veteran Glen Schofield, is looking to create a new experience in the PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, or PUBG universe. It's single-player, it's vaguely sci-fi, it's definitely scary, and it's stacked with Dead Space's creators.
Joining Schofield is Chris Stone, the former Animation Director at Visceral Games and Sledgehammer Games, who has taken up the Chief Creative Officer role, and Steve Papoutsis, who helped oversee Dead Space at Electronic Arts. Stone says the whole studio is "just riddled with Dead Space pedigree."
"Glen and I have talked about doing another horror game for years, he and I have worked together for the better part of 20 years," Stone tells USgamer. "And so to come back and start doing something like this, it's been a blast. It's been really, really fun."
Dead Space's main series came to a close in 2013, and though there have been a few attempts at prequels, the universe has stayed mostly in the past. Coming to the PUBG universe, it might seem like Striking Distance would need to swap out Plasma Cutters for cast-iron skillets; but Schofield told us earlier this year that the studio's been given "carte blanche," and that's reflected in the trailer shown during last week's Game Awards.
Rather than nameless combatants airdropping onto a non-descript murder island, the trailer for The Callisto Protocol takes place in a prison, set on a planet that seems far away from Earth. Stone confirms that the game does indeed take place on the icy wastes of Callisto, a moon of Jupiter, in what he calls the "Alcatraz of the future." This definitely isn't Erangel.
Stone reassures me that Striking Distance's project is absolutely tied into the PUBG franchise, but as much as he'd like to, he can't confirm the specifics of how, exactly, the two are tied together. It doesn't seem like The Callisto Protocol is striking off into space to avoid PUBG, though.
"We don't want to come in and say that we're attached to the PUBG franchise, and then feel like we are just completely unrelated," Stone says. Any more connections are left to speculation for the moment, though.
What he can share is that The Callisto Protocol will be a horror game and yes, it will be single-player. Despite PUBG's battle royale roots, The Callisto Protocol will be focused on the moment-to-moment of playing solo. As Stone notes, this allows the experience to be very tailored, and every twist and turn can be crafted for optimal shrieks and frights.
"You know, when you have a multiplayer experience—and this is not to take anything away from multiplayer online, I'm a huge gamer, I play everything—but it's very difficult to have a very, very strong narrative that's tailored," Stone explains. "If you have multiple people doing all these different things all the time, you know, one guy runs into one room, and the other guy gets teleported into that room, and now you're in something, it's very disjointed."
The team at Striking Distance are what Stone describes as "over-the-top fans of horror." They're not just looking to get some jump scares out of the player, but to really dig into the nuance of what makes a horror game work; Stone cites older horror movies, like The Exorcist and Halloween, that are as much about the build-up and tension as they are about the actual moment something frightening leaps from the shadows.
It's something you can see reflected in The Callisto Protocol's trailer, as the main subject of the trailer is a prisoner whose roommate has been turned into something strange and aggressive. Showing the human side of a creature, as Stone says, can make it a little more relatable, a little more recognizable, and all the more frightening. Much like the infamous body-horror of Dead Space's Necromorphs, there will be something both familiar and unsettlingly alien about these new aggressors.
"I think you're gonna see a lot of variety and enemies that do a lot of crazy stuff," Stone says. "And definitely lean into a lot of next-gen tech."
The industry, and the tech around it, is in a very different place now compared to where it was with the original Dead Space. Stone cites improvements to performance capture and ways that you can control and relate to character as places where gaming has advanced. But there's also the soul of what made Dead Space—finding a way to make getting scared fun. Innovations like Isaac's many, many death animations were the result of a quest to make death fun in Dead Space.
With Striking Distance, the veterans of Dead Space have assembled a fairly senior crew. Alongside the franchise pedigree Stone mentions, there's an average of about 16 years of game dev experience across the board at the studio; an "extremely senior team," though he says the team will be hiring more junior and mid-level people in the future, who can learn from the assembled veterans. Between the core leads of Schofield, Stone, and Papoutsis, and other developers on the team quite familiar with each other's work, Stone says it feels like playing on the Golden State Warriors: "It's like everybody knows what everybody else is bringing to the table, and then you all just kind of move in sync."
It will be a while before we see the results of this collaboration; The Callisto Protocol is aiming for a 2022 launch. Until then, we can only speculate how the world of PUBG ties into this veteran Dead Space team, crafting a space horror set on a planet that was, at one point, literally a "dead moon." It seems too on-the-nose to be true, and yet somehow, the sci-fi scares have found a new home at Krafton and Striking Distance Studios.
"It'll all make sense in the long run," Stone reassures me. "I promise."