Settings and Variety
In our editorial section, we check in with our Editor-in-Chief, Liz Kelly, for her thoughts on a wide variety of subjects related to storytelling and gaming. All potential spoilers will be labeled ahead of time, so that fans who wish to play specific games unspoiled will be able to set the editorial aside for a later time.
Games Discussed: The Callisto Protocol (Striking Distance Studios, 2022), Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady, 2009), Prey (Arkane Studios, 2017)
Last week, Striking Distance Studios dropped their hotly-anticipated survival horror, The Callisto Protocol, only to be met with middling reviews. As the latest in a long line of Dead Space-likes, The Callisto Protocol was supposed to stand apart from the crowd because it had Dead Space director Glen Schofield at the helm. Unfortunately, The Callisto Protocol didn’t move players as its predecessor did. The game’s Metacritic score sits at a disappointing 73 out of 100, and reviews are littered with phrases like ‘unimaginative,’ ‘ineffectual,’ and the worst condemnation of all: ‘boring.’ While many of the title’s problems can be chalked up to gameplay issues and tech problems, its story didn’t escape unscathed. Players found it forgettable at best and cliche at worst, and you don’t have to play the game long to see where they’re coming from. If you do see the story through to its conclusion, you’ll probably figure out why the game is also being called repetitive. You’ll spend most of your time running between narrow hallways and empty rooms, and it won’t be long before the areas start to blur into each other. This isn’t just a gameplay problem; it’s also a narrative problem.
The Callisto Protocol takes place inside a high-security prison on—you guessed it—Callisto. The story begins when interstellar delivery boy Jacob Lee crash lands on Callisto, only to be locked up in Black Iron Prison. Smash-cut to Jacob waking up in his cell, where he discovers the entire prison population has been infected with an unknown zombifying disease. Naturally, he has to fight his way through the zombie hordes in an effort to escape the prison, and there are lots of twists and turns along the way. There are also a lot of hallways.
Like Final Fantasy XIII before it, The Callisto Protocol keeps players on task by funneling them through a seemingly-endless selection of corridors. Unlike Final Fantasy XIII, The Callisto Protocol doesn’t infuse these corridors with any kind of variety. Everywhere you go, you’re faced with the same metal walls, tangled pipes, and duotone lighting. You might be forgiven for thinking this is realistic for a prison, but A) real prisons aren’t built to entertain people, and B) realism has limits in a game about shooting space zombies. Black Iron Prison is a fictional place, which means it could have been anything its creators wanted it to be, including interesting.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I know there’s more to game design than typing a few lines of code that magically convey the places in your imagination. Game designers face a variety of limitations every day (which you can read about here), and there are plenty of technical or financial reasons why The Callisto Protocol might look different from the game the creators first imagined. Having said that, I wasn’t there for every moment of the game’s development, so I can’t be sure why the finished product turned out the way it did. What I can do is explain why setting variety matters to storytelling, and what opportunities the developers missed.
The first thing to look at when fleshing out a setting is the limits placed on it by the story, so let’s return to the primary location of The Callisto Protocol: Callisto. Callisto is a crater-covered moon of Jupiter made primarily of ice and rock. It’s a cold and lifeless place, one that doesn’t facilitate or reward surface-level exploration. In other words, it’s not a place you’re going to put your player for long periods of time, which means you’re better off keeping them indoors. Luckily, Callisto’s Black Iron Prison is a prison (shocking, I know), so it makes sense for the characters to be stuck inside anyway. Such a cramped setting might seem like a real handicap for a storyteller, but it’s actually common enough to have its own name: the locked-room story.
Locked-room stories, also known as ‘bottle episodes,’ are famous for their constrained settings. In a locked-room story, one or more characters are forced to remain in a tightly-enclosed space for the entirety of the story. One of the most extreme examples of this concept is The Twilight Zone episode ‘Five Characters in Search of an Exit,’ in which a handful of people are trapped in a round, empty room with no windows or doors. While this uniquely-constrained setting served the narrative well, most locked-room stories give the characters a little more room to breathe. Instead of locking everyone in a single room, they’ll be locked in a house or a building with different areas to explore. The tension of being unable to escape remains, but the writers have some flexibility to add variety to the different spaces. If done right, that variety can tell us a lot about both the world of the story and the people who inhabit it.
Now that we know the basics of locked-room stories, let’s return to the site of ours: Black Iron Prison. While prisons ostensibly serve a single purpose—housing prisoners—they’re by no means homogenous buildings. They contain infirmaries, commissaries, locker rooms, utility rooms, and offices, all of which must be decorated and maintained by individuals. Each cell can also contain individuals with their own habits and preferences. The presence of these individual personalities invites the possibility for tons of diversity in the setting—diversity that doubles as character-building detail. Every room and every cell presents an opportunity to tell a story within a story by inviting us to imagine the people who occupied them. Rocksteady’s Arkham Asylum used this concept to great effect in its own locked prison by decorating different areas to reflect the personalities of their residents. Harvey Two-Face’s cell is stylishly split down the middle with lighting effects representing order and chaos, while areas traversed by Poison Ivy are filled with vines and leaves. The Joker and the Riddler also leave their marks on the prison, scattering plastic teeth and question marks, respectively. While it’s fair to say that Rocksteady had an advantage with Arkham’s already-familiar cast, it was still clever of them to use those familiar details to build character and add variety to an enclosed environment. Had The Callisto Protocol used its setting to tell us about the characters, the spaces might not have felt as lifeless as the moon outside the glass.
The endless metal plates and pipes in The Callisto Protocol aren’t just wasting chances for character development, but also obscuring the setting’s history. Large buildings are constructed in parts, with some opening before others, and many buildings with more than a few years on them have seen some expansion or remodeling. While these additions can be designed to blend seamlessly with the original facility, they often have modern amenities and decorations that the original building lacks. Walking through a building that’s undergone multiple sets of renovations can be like walking backward in time, and that trip down memory lane can reveal a lot about the people who were in charge of design and construction. Different bosses have different priorities, and those priorities can shape a building’s history in any number of ways. One of the best examples of this phenomenon can be found in the game Prey (2017), which takes place entirely within the confines of a crumbling spaceship. Thanks to multiple changes in ownership, along with several renovations, the station boasts a wide variety of spaces that speak to its tumultuous history. Elegant gilded offices reflect one owner’s appreciation for the art deco revival, while mid-century modern facilities with Cyrillic signs hint at former Soviet occupation. It’s all the same space station, but it’s a station with an interesting history. Black Iron Prison has no history, on the other hand, and it definitely isn’t interesting.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and say The Callisto Protocol has no positive qualities, but settings make a big difference in the quality of a story. They’re a reflection of the characters, both who they are and where they’ve been, and a boring setting is often indicative of boring characters. Maybe with a little more time in the oven, The Callisto Protocol could have been something special, but the way it looks now, there’s not much to see. You’re better served playing through Arkham Asylum or Prey instead—or you can just play Dead Space again. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Liz Kelly, Editor-in-Chief
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