The Callisto Protocol AI is more interested in scaring you than killing you
The Callisto Protocol is constantly compared to Dead Space – and it makes sense, really. A lot of the developers are the same, a lot of the core ideas are the same, and it even sounds pretty similar, really. But this new venture from young developer Striking Distance does more with its horror than Dead Space could in 2008; we are now 14 years away and technology has come a long way.
Striking Distance really cares a lot about horror. The staff have been ruthless in studying the psychology of fear and have boiled down the principles of human fear to how we react to atmosphere, tension, brutality, helplessness and fear. ‘humanity. By taking each of these five installments and tinkering with them individually, Striking Distance reckons this is one of the scariest games ever made, regardless of your personal tolerance for horror.
Why is the developer so confident? Much depends on its technology. Mark James, the studio’s CTO, told me in an interview that next-gen games can do things that just weren’t possible even a few years ago. While “50% of the horror is in the audio,” James assures me that much of Callisto Protocol’s terror comes from its frankly sadistic AI.
“We have amazing AI,” he tells me. “Our AI will sometimes make the decision not to attack you. Instead, he’ll jump into a vent in front of you – making sure that happens – so now you know an enemy is there, and he’s just waiting for the next time he can get out of there. another vent and attack you.
Previously, James told me that the entire game had a “complete ventilation system” for his creatures to move in and out of. You can go back to a hallway and see an abandoned air vent on the floor… then you see a hole in the ceiling. You end up with this uneasy feeling that something has been here, but you don’t know what. Or, indeed, where he is now.
“That’s the ‘open door’ of horror tropes, right?” smiled James. “’I didn’t open that door… what opened that door?’ It makes you doubt that you are not alone. It’s a very simple change in the environment that makes the player wonder what’s going on – and it’s very powerful.
I tell James it reminds me of the AI director of the Left 4 Dead games, and how it would intentionally avoid placing enemies in your way to bother you before doubling up to send you a wave of the worst undead hordes . He smiles, nods and continues:
“The first time it happens, when we make you think ‘why didn’t this guy attack me, why did he run away?’ – that’s where we have you. Because as gamers, we assume that whatever is on screen is going to attack us. The first time that doesn’t happen, we make you really uncertain. We so we can use the audio engine to give you little clues as to where this thing is around you, you might hear it rushing right over there, or you might hear a distant jolt, 20 feet away Or we could even put it in another room The AI is looking for the best time Anything that will make it worse for you [laughter].”
But what if you die later in the level and come back here, face the same enemy again? Will it act the same – jump in vent X, spawn in room Y, attack you with behavior Z? You would like the Callisto protocol to make it easier for you.
“The AI always finds the best way to attack. Sometimes they’re the ones trying to get closer to you. Sometimes they react to the way they play to take advantage of you better. Let’s say, for example, you continue to use long-range ballistics – the enemy will move out of your line of sight, probably into a vent, and find another way to come at you.
So if you keep using GRIP (think Half-Life grav gun, but a little weaker) and bring enemies towards you to hit them with your stun baton, they’ll get wise. They will block and counter. Or they will turn into more of a threat at close range so you don’t want them near you.
“If you repeatedly use the same type of attack, the enemy will intelligently change its behavior. It’s all about this changing virus – it mutates and evolves humans who were in prison to become better adversaries. Opponents that can kill you more easily!
AI hiding enemies from you is also not the end of how you have to constantly weigh threat against survivability. This virus that hides in your enemies sometimes manifests as a physical eruption; where tentacles tear apart chests or dismembered arms, ready to attack you. If you miss your hit on these tentacles, or if an invisible timer is counting down and you haven’t dealt with them effectively, they become more aggressive.
“If you shoot them and miss the area you need to hit…you’ll lower that timer further and make them more aggressive,” laughs James. “So you better make sure one hit is good. Otherwise they’ll mutate faster – and that makes them more powerful, that makes them faster, that makes them harder to kill. What you could have killed in one hit will now cost you four.
In a world of survival horror, where ammo is “strictly limited”, that’s not ideal, is it? James tells us that while everyone is “shooting their limbs!” The system in Dead Space was great, Striking Distance wanted to go further in The Callisto Protocol – give you more ways to react, more areas to shoot, suffer more consequences if your gamble doesn’t pay off.
“We still have this amazing gore system in our game, like Dead Space had, so you can cut a limb on what you’re fighting, but there’s a risk reward scenario to doing that. If you make it more aggressive and let it mutate, it will just… regrow that limb! So going for that option in the first place is just a waste of ammo, at this point.
From what I’ve seen and heard about the Callisto Protocol so far, I’m confident it will live up to its promise and be a true next-gen horror game. I’m scared to play it – and that can only be a good thing. Right?
Callisto Protocol is coming to PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S on December 2.