Discover more from Resident Anna
The Callisto Protocol and the Horrors of Incarceration
Horror can be an opportunity to drive positive change... but only if we are brave enough to take it.
Content Warning: this article discusses the prison-industrial complex, mass incarceration, and the many intersectional issues (such as racism and human rights violations) therein. Additional content warnings for mentions of dismemberment and a brief mention of needles and eye-related trauma (thanks, Dead Space 2).
This article also contains spoilers for The Callisto Protocol (2022), Presentable Liberty (2014), and Wendell & Wild (2022).
…This one might get a bit divisive.
In 2008, Electronic Arts would release its newest survival horror game, Dead Space, to thunderous acclaim. Just a few years post Capcom’s magnum opus Resident Evil 4, the survival horror genre was thriving. Sales of the first Dead Space were good, but according to EA: not good enough. With the financial crisis of 2008, a greater reliance on physical media at the time, and expensive marketing costs, EA reported that despite the critical and popular success of Dead Space… profits were down.
But with critics and players hailing Dead Space as a titan and arguably a crown jewel of the genre, EA set out to make Dead Space 2 with San Francisco Bay-area studio Visceral Games, hoping that the word of mouth and name recognition would result in a real blockbuster. As you might expect, the next installment of the franchise would release with glowing reviews and players chattering about the now infamous “eye-needle scene.”
But once again, EA said that its sales numbers were lacking.
Hoping that the third time was the charm, Visceral would go on to develop Dead Space 3, which incorporated co-op elements unlike the previous two titles to better reflect changes in the console market. While reviews were far from poor, its reception wasn’t as universally positive as the previous installments, and (you guessed it) EA said that they were disappointed with sales. EA would eventually go so far as to completely close Visceral Games in 2017.
The Dead Space franchise seemed to have a major problem on its hands. Despite quite literally being regarded as a staple of the survival horror genre, shipping three AAA titles, and being on best seller-lists… it was never good enough for their publisher. The game was great, but the numbers were simply too low.
It’s a grim reminder to us game developers who fancy ourselves artists: games might be art, but they’re still a product. And products have to sell.
But the spirit of Dead Space continued to live on in the fond memories of players… and in the minds of many of the original developers. That’s why in 2019, PUBG Studios-affiliated Striking Distance was formed with the intention of making a “spiritual successor” to the series, with many of the original developers at the helm. What they would end up making, The Callisto Protocol, had many of the hallmarks of a Dead Space universe game: undead creatures, some sort of cult or newfangled religion, and of course: space. And, uh, this ol’ gag:
But it also had one other unfortunate hallmark… it didn’t meet sales expectations.
The Callisto Protocol’s release was met with middling reviews, consistently saying that the game was visually stunning, but that the story was lackluster (and almost a little too much like that of Dead Space, even for a spiritual successor). Tristan Ogilvie of IGN wrote that Callisto presented “a campaign that was heavy on startling jump scares but light on any major story or gameplay surprises.” One reviewer scathingly called it “a relic of the past.” Ouch!
But the game itself is a real visual feast. It’s a bona fide AAA horror game extravaganza, complete with crunch discourse. The combat primarily has a melee focus, allowing the player to hack and slash their way through claustrophobic hallways and and otherworldly snowstorms. One of the standout weapons is a GRP (pronounced “grip”) device - an anti-gravity glove which can be used to manipulate the environment and engage in combat. The GRP is a fun little gadget that you can upgrade as you continue to play, even if it does take a while to recharge after use. The audio and SFX were sparkling and the performances given by the celebrity cast were great. With a metacritic score of 69 (lol, lmao), for every gorgeous vista there was a frustrating moment of UX. For every tech-art masterpiece there was a design disaster.
The Final Frontier… Is An Old Institution?
But there was one thing that stood out about the Callisto Protocol’s universe as distinct from that of the Dead Space IP: one thing that was inexorably overshadowing every story beat, every character design, and every undead creature, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind.
The Callisto Protocol takes place in a prison.
The story follows protagonist Jacob Lee, who is basically a space trucker for a logistics company: he gets a contract, gets items where they need to go, and gets paid. The inciting incident involves a terrorist group known as The Outer Way trying to board his ship, resulting in Lee crash-landing on Callisto. In real life, Callisto is Jupiter’s second-largest moon, named for a nymph in Artemis’ hunting posse who forever swore to remain unwed (what a queen). But in the game, Callisto is the home to a massive penitentiary known as Black Iron Prison, conveniently operated by the same logistics company that Jacob has been a courier for.
As he’s technically trespassing, he’s immediately apprehended. Unable to talk his way out of the situation, he’s taken in as a convict - alongside supporting character Dani Nakamura, who is believed to be the leader of that pesky terrorist cell. Like all convicts at Black Iron Prison, Jacob is forcibly fitted with a CORE device - an implant which, through a disturbing cutscene, conveniently places a diegetic health bar on the back of Jacob’s neck.
After only a short time, all hell appears to break loose within the prison, as “biophages” (read: humans overrun with a zombifying condition) begin to emerge. The robo-correction-officers, Black Iron’s oddly flirtatious Captain Ferris, and a newly-appointed (and waxing poetic) Warden scramble to contain… whatever has occurred. With special authorization of lethal force, of course.
In the chaos of the outbreak, Jacob works with a fellow prisoner named Elias and eventually Dani Nakamura herself to escape, all while trying to figure out what has happened on the ill-fated moon.
I was excited about this title because of how iconic Dead Space had been. I don’t even mind some performance issues upon first launch or the frequently bemoaned tight runtime. I knew this would be a “Deadspacelike,” but I just couldn’t get the whole “prison” thing out of my head. The Callisto Protocol is happy to revel in the bloody details of an outbreak of a zombifying disease - but it had absolutely nothing to say about the fact that the game takes place in a corporate-run private prison.
“Horror isn’t a genre that shies away from truly horrifying issues, but it is hauntingly quiet about this specific one [the prison industrial system].”
Gabe from The Ghouls Next Door Podcast
Thanks to the work of activists such as Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander, much attention has been brought to the phenomenon of so-called “private prisons” and mass incarceration in America within the past decade. But in case you’re still unfamiliar (especially for international readers): in the United States, we are prison-obsessed. With the rise of private/for-profit prisons and increase of “tough on crime” legislation since the 1970s, the American Civil Liberties Union (ALCU) states that the incarcerated population of the United States has increased over 500%, which is “far outpacing population growth and crime.”
The reasons for this are vast and steeped in America’s own shameful history of slavery, white supremacy, and the failed “war on drugs” - scholars have spent their entire careers studying this topic and its many integral intersections: I cannot even begin to detail it all here. The Netflix documentary Thirteenth does a terrifyingly good job detailing how mass incarceration particularly impacts people of color, especially the Black community in the United States - but I must warn you it is not an easy watch, and I encourage you to look up associated content warnings before doing so.
However, should you wish to learn more about mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex in the United States in a general sense (especially for international readers), this video from the leftist YouTube commentary channel Second Thought, does an excellent job compiling the basics in the following video.
In Callisto, the biophages, cult elements, and atmosphere are absolutely fair game for a Dead Space spiritual successor, but I found it odd that more of the horror was not reflecting upon the terrifying realities that humans have already invented and forced upon a large sector of our population.
The two primary genre spaces that Callisto fits into, horror and sci-fi, have been used to perform commentary on current events since their inception: with the overlap of the two typically attributed to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein in 1818. By entering a fictional world of sci-fi and horror, we have an additional lens for us to examine the things that feel uncomfortable, high-concept, and even horrific. Yet this stalwart pillar of these genres is completely abandoned in Callisto, which leaves the story feeling hollow and, quite frankly, toothless. Especially because many of the opportunities for this reflection were right there: the ball was going straight across the plate. Swing, batter, swing!
Jacob has been incarcerated without any discernable charge and held in a corporate-owned prison that financially benefits from inmate labor. He witnesses and experiences brutality at the hands of corrections officers within the prison. He is given an invasive medical procedure against his will and later unearths evidence of medical experimentation on other inmates. All of these are things that are currently happening or have happened historically in prisons in the United States.
But the focus of the horror is always of course: the biophages. Sure, the corporate entity is bad - it caused this whole thing, anyway. But that’s not where the focus is: the strange cult influence and the rise of the zombies... it all just feels like a missed opportunity for some serious reflection and criticism on an institution which we rightfully should be horrified and ashamed of. And we know that games and other entertainment mediums can thoughtfully address this issue because… quite frankly, some already have.
Case Study: Presentable Liberty (2014)
The 2014 cult-hit psychological horror game Presentable Liberty by Robert “Wertpol” Brock takes place, you guessed it, in a prison. Before we get too far into this: this game is bleak. If you tend to be the sort to like edgy speculative fiction that may or may not involve the trading of organs, this might be for you (or Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator). But I wouldn’t blame you if you skip this section.
The player is confined within a tiny cell and is only able to communicate with the outside world via letters which slide in underneath their door. Unable to (or merely lacking the materials to) respond, the player learns about the goings on in the outside world and the people who still live in it - as it becomes rapidly clear that there has been some kind of apocalyptic event at the hands of a man by the name of… <checks notes> Dr. Money. Who is also sending you letters.
The player must wait for these letters to arrive. The only actions they can otherwise take are walking around their tiny cell and playing on a handheld gaming device: Doctor Money’s Portable Entertainment Product. The games available are simple black and white classic games like “Snake," and they are progressively unlocked by another character known only as Mr. Smiley: your personal Happy Buddy. He’s been assigned to you because the rates of depression in prisons have been so high lately.
The bleakness of this game comes from the overwhelming sense of helplessness on the part of the player: you are merely a witness to the events unfolding around you. But in the end, this actually your saving grace. Sort of. You learn that your importance to these characters comes by way of your isolation: you aren’t “infected.” In a similar scenario to The Callisto Protocol, a virus has broken out. In this case, the kicker is that the virus was made by Dr. Money - who has also conveniently made an antidote which he plans to sell to cure people… of the virus that he… also created. Sounds about right for a guy named Dr. Money.
Only, the antidote isn’t working as planned, and the virus is destroying people’s organs. And the organ black market right now? Is hot. And you? Because you aren’t infected? Well, you and your organs are one hot commodity.
Presentable Liberty is a buffet of helplessness and dehumanization. By becoming a prisoner, you have essentially forfeited your right to being a human and have instead become nothing more than a commodity for the rich (like Dr. Money). Your organs are quite literally worth more than you are as a sum of your parts - you have essentially become your raw components.
And you might say: “sure, Anna, but you said so yourself this was spec fic.” Well, it was in 2014… but not anymore!
In February of just this year (2023 at time of writing), a bill was proposed in Massachusetts that would allow prisoners to shave time off their prison sentence in exchange for donating an organ or bone marrow.
“The bill reads like something from a dystopian novel,” Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice reform advocacy group, told the Associated Press. “Promoting organ donation is good. Reducing excessive prison terms is also good. Tying the two together is perverse.” But this isn’t Repo!, this isn’t even Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator. This is 2023 in the United States of America!
There are multiple endings to Presentable Liberty. All soul-crushingly bleak and depressing. But for Wertpol, that was the point. His work, known now as the “Menagerie” series, offered nothing but a scathing indictment of capitalism, the prison industrial system, and lack of resources for those suffering from mental health problems. Unfortunately, Wertpol would succumb to his own depression and passed away in 2018. But his games really stuck with players. His popularity coincided with the birth of the indie renaissance that’s attributed to the rise of YouTube let’s-players. Presentable Liberty also saw a popular resurgence during the COVID-19 pandemic, as players were able to connect with the protagonist’s sense of isolation and helplessness due to quarantines and lockdowns. Though he is not around to see it, Wertpol’s surreal, anticapitalist games are still creating conversation and leaving people completely and emotionally devastated.
Case Study: Wendell & Wild
I know, I know, you’re gonna be like: “Anna, this isn’t a video game.” And it’s not! But 2022’s Wendell & Wild by the power-duo of Jordan Peele (of Get Out and Nope fame) and Henry Selick (of Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas) is masterful at its critique of private prisons, and does so in a way that children can understand.
Unfortunately, children are also victims of mass-incarceration in a variety of ways: from being one of the 1.25 million children having to cope with an incarcerated family member to the school-to-prison-pipeline. Peele and Selick create a visualization of private prisons that is both developmentally and socially appropriate for the age of the primary audience (but adults might learn some things too).
The story of Wendell & Wild follows protagonist Kat Elliott, a thirteen-year old juvenile delinquent who has spent the past few years in various foster homes after the passing of her parents. Kat, struggling with her grief and the conditions of the foster care system, has a history of acting out. But she’s been given one last chance to get things right - she’s been admitted to a fancy boarding school back at her hometown of Rustbank as a part of a program called “Break the Cycle.” The intention of the program, or so she’s told, is to help troubled kids find their way back onto the path of the straight and narrow (and thus, avoiding returning to juvey).
Naturally, as her hometown before her parents’ passing, Rustbank carries many painful memories. And it oddly isn’t anything like she remembered it being - instead, it’s a shell of itself. The root beer brewery that her parents owned has burned down, and the Klaxon family (of “Klax Korp”) intend to build a new prison on the land where it once stood. If the community votes that it’s acceptable, of course. The Klaxons insist that it will bring many jobs to the once-bustling area, which could revitalize the town. But Kat isn’t buying it. She knows better.
Siobhan Klaxon (yes, of the Klaxons of Klax Korp), the platinum blonde on the right, takes Kat under her wing, giving her the nickname of “Kay-Kay” (much to Kat’s dismay). Siobhan is your typical smarty-pants mean girl. Born with a silver spoon, Siobhan is primarily concerned about her self-image - and is blissfully unaware of what her parents do for a living. She’s been insulated within a capitalist bubble, but befriending Kat gives her the first glimpse of what life is like for those who have previously been incarcerated… and living with the constant risk of ending back up behind bars. She even goes so far to confront her parents about it, and they respond with a gleeful confirmation - just think of all the cash that will come to their pockets from all those convicts!
There’s also demons involved. And a journey about grief and self-blame. But I can’t give away everything!
If you’d like to watch it for yourself, Wendell & Wild is available on Netflix. Definitely some content warnings for discussions of grief and loss, and there is one scene where a trans character gets deadnamed. But overall, it’s a great, spooky film if you want to watch a claymation movie that certainly doesn’t pull any punches regarding standing up for what it believes in.
The Callisto Protocol inherited much of the DNA of the Dead Space franchise: including the various ways in which it was considered a disappointment - from sales figures to reviews. But for me, the disappointment with The Callisto Protocol runs deeper. It is a deep-seated disappointment with the lack of bravery to really say anything.
As a writer, I don’t have much purview into the world of bizdev: would having taken a firm stance against the horrors of incarceration have helped them escape the shadow of Dead Space? Would it have helped establish the game as a spiritual successor that could stand on its own two feet? Would it have helped sales figures? I don’t know. Maybe. But it certainly would have made it a better horror game.
Horror as a genre works because it provides an opportunity to confront that which is disgusting and uncomfortable: but it can only do so if we truly see the opportunity and seize it with both GRPs.
Thank you for reading this very important entry of Resident Anna. This one definitely got a bit more op-ed-y than I typically try to be, but I think it’s for a good cause.
If you’d like to learn about ways you can help dismantle the prison-industrial system and help end mass incarceration, please see the following resources:
Readers in the USA: find and contact your representatives in government. (Are you registered to vote? You should be!)
Find your representatives in all levels of government through this handy website.
Write to them to encourage “second-chance” legislation, clemency for those behind bars with cannabis-related convictions, ending mandatory sentencing minimums, ending cash bail, restore voting rights for the formerly incarcerated… - urge them to do anything they can to stop the for-profit warehousing of citizens in your community.
Check out the ALCU’s “Take Action” page, where they suggest actions individuals can take based on their available time/energy levels, and allows people to sign up to be notified when new “take action” opportunities arise.
Volunteer or send books to incarcerated people through the Prison Literature Project. This grassroots organization has been sending literature (such as books to help study for certifications, education-level exams, etc) to incarcerated people for over 30 years with the aim of helping to prepare them for reintegrating back into the community. They do great work: they regularly post the thank-you letters they receive from those who have been sent materials, and you can see what a difference it makes.
Resident Anna is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.