Remember in Dead Space, if you messed up, you’d see your mentally deranged, long-suffering player avatar Isaac Clarke get impaled through the eye by a massive needle? Or fully decapitated by a horrible alien? Or sucked out into the vacuum of space without a helmet? It almost felt as if he were the plaything of a sadistic god; torturing him for the entertainment of an audience of PS3 and 360 players, safely tucked into a little nest on their sofas.
That level of sadism hasn’t gone away in Glen Schofield's – co-creator of Dead Space and its spiritual successor, The Callisto Protocol. In fact, it seems like he’s eager to get even more indiscriminately violent, this time. In an interview with Mark James, chief technical officer at Striking Distance and second-hand man to Schofield, I learned that The Callisto Protocol wants you to die. A lot. And it even rewards you for seeing all the gruesome ways your new interactive plaything, one Jacob Lee, can be offed.
“This is a hard game, you are going to die a lot,” says James. “But in dying, at least, we can give you a cool way to go.”
Enter the lovingly-named ‘murder dessert’. That’s the name Striking Distance gives to those moments where you see Jacob Lee slam into a sharp piece of metal in the middle of a sewer pipe, say, or get shunted into an industrial log chipper in the middle of The Callisto Protocol’s prison complex. It’s a catchy (possibly upsetting) name for the gratuitous, over-the-top deaths your main character is inevitably going to suffer as you try to escape Callisto.
“That’s what we call them – these brutual moments when you die – that’s what we call them internally,” laughs James. “Because, to us, it feels like the kind-of reward at the end of a meal, you know? Glen loved them in the original Dead Space, and we’ve doubled down on them even more in The Callisto Protocol. It feels like we reward you even for failing.
“People are going to work through our game, and they’re going to be like ‘oh I’ve not died that way before, fantastic!’”
I’m told there are group sessions where the developers get together in a meeting and discuss the best ways to put Jacob through his mortal paces. “The best ones are usually the environmental ones,” James reflects. “We will say something like ‘well, let’s put a woodchipper here!’ and someone might say ‘why?’... well, because it’s hilarious! So we’ve got lots of those, and we’ve also got unique death animations tied to different enemy types, too.”
James tells me that there’s even an achievement/trophy in there that you can unlock by seeing all the deaths – nodding when I ask whether the development team is basically goading you into trying everything you can, to see what’s lethal.
To this end, Striking Distance has had to be careful about checkpointing. In a hands-off demo, we were shown Jacob moving through an industrial logging complex that’s attached to the prison that The Callisto Protocol is set in. With an electrified baton, a gravity-based gun reminiscent of the famous Half-Life 2 grav gun, and some smart use of the surounding scenery, Jacob managed to get through it all without a hitch. The smart use of physics, the gravity-manipulating GRIP gun, and a big woodchipper certainly helped.
But James tells us it’s never usually that smooth-sailing in The Callisto Protocol. “That woodchipper area? You saw someone playing that really well. I died a lot in that one area – maybe four or five times. Just in that one little area. So how many times would you die in the game, overall? It could be huge. Just huge!”
James tells me that these death scenes are basically Striking Distance giving you permission to die, a lot, and not feel bad about it. “We’re not going to give you the obvious solution to dealing with a new enemy,” he says, “the first time you see it. We’re going to let you fail, so you’ll be able to say ‘right, the GRIP gun doesn’t work against this enemy’, or ‘that one is a total bullet sponge’, or ‘no point using ballistics here’.”
The gratuitous and numerous “murder desserts” aren’t designed purely for shock value, then (though, let’s be honest, it’s a key part of why they’re there). They serve to help you understand the threats in the game, and act as trial-and-error endpoints for you as you try and navigate this hostile, dread-filled prison planet.
Let’s just hope you’re not too squeamish.