Glen Schofield is feeling relaxed. It’s been, you sense, a whirlwind few weeks for the Dead Space creator, his new team having finally put out the first glimpse at its stylish, slick and incredibly gory space horror Calisto Protocol at Geoff Keighley’s Summer Games Fest - a reveal that marks a significant milestone in a project spun up some three years ago alongside new studio Striking Distance.
"It feels like freedom," Schofield says as we chat in the sun in an annex to Summer Games Fest's LA venue. "It always feels that way, but somehow this one was more cooped up for longer. I'm kind of used to it because Call of Duty always made you keep your mouth shut, but this one felt longer."
Put some of that down, perhaps, to the challenges of working through the pandemic - challenges that Striking Distance had to adapt to just as it was spinning up development. "We were about 50 people or so when we moved into our brand new spot," Schofield says of the studio's headquarters in California's San Ramon valley. "We'd been working on it for six months: designers, artists, architects, you know, everybody. Nine days later we got kicked out."
It feels like a small miracle that The Callisto Protocol is on track to make its release date later this December, something Schofield never really doubted. "We never really picked the day," he says. "We just said 2022. Luckily, we were kind of open because it's a new engine, a new team, new studio and a new IP in the middle of a pandemic. It's hard to put a precise date on that."
As to the genesis of the The Callisto Protocol, it's something that came as Schofield was taking a break from his previous studio Sledgehammer, where he'd overseen the likes of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and WW2. "Activision, nicely, was paying me but I took a year off. It's time to say thank you and relax from here. So I took a month off! I went down to Tucson to a spa - I’d done that after a couple of games, I take like 10 days by myself to go relax.
"So I went down there and I decided that I was going to draw out in the desert. I would go out in the desert - much to their chagrin - and just sit and draw. And at the same time I'm coming up with ideas. Some of them I would just focus on from day to day and then they'd get bigger and bigger. After a few weeks, I had seven, eight, nine, ideas. And this was one - it wasn't called The Callisto Protocol, I called it Meteor Down. It had gotten pretty big, you know, with pages and pages of stories and stuff."
"I knew that I wanted to come back to do this sort of thing. I just put it together, did a presentation, wrote more about it and filled in some of the holes. When I went out looking for a new studio, at the same time I sold the studio idea I had a business plan, and I had a creative plan and the two came together. One did not come without the other - you're either gonna make my idea or we're gonna say goodbye."
PUBG Corp was the suitor - an unlikely one, it seemed to many outsiders like myself, and eyebrows were certainly raised when it initially emerged that The Callisto Protocol would somehow be taking place in the same universe, though that plan quietly went away through the course of development. "As we started writing the story and the characters, the universe and the world, it just came naturally away from it - and this was a while ago, it was only recently we were like, you know, people are starting to ask us about it, we better make an announcement."
"At first I had them over a bit of a barrel"
The Callisto Protocol is familiar territory for Schofield - when it was first announced, it felt something like a spiritual successor to Dead Space. What, I wonder, did Schofield set about to do differently this time?
"I don't think it was anything like 'Oh, I forgot to do this'," he says. "It was more like I really enjoyed it. But when I look back at Dead Space, there were times like when they took a year and a half to greenlight it. I'm kind of forgetting about that.
"At first I had them over a bit of a barrel," Schofield says of the trials of getting the original off the ground. "When I said I wanted to make science fiction horror they were like, okay… And then when I said it's like System Shock they say 'oh, yeah System Shock, we did that!' It took forever to get the greenlight going, though, because they don't usually have to greenlight shit. They're EA and it's like Bond or Lord of the Rings - so everything was already greenlit.
"It was really hard. In many ways, they were betting on Mirror's Edge - they got so much good publicity out of having Dead Space. It was like, wow, edgy new EA, right? They got a lot of good publicity at that time. But [former EA president] Paul Lee was a fan and then [John] Ricitello came over and he was a fan. It was pretty smooth sailing after that."
It's an interesting insight, especially in light of how Dead Space's influence can now be felt so keenly, through The Callisto Protocol itself, the recently announced Fort Solis and - how could we forget - the Dead Space remake that's launching a mere month after Schofield's new project. It must be a strange sensation, I suggest, seeing his baby in another company's hands.
"Well, obviously, it's interesting," he says. "They're fellow devs so I want them to do okay. I don't want them to fail. In a way it's part of my legacy. But it's very strange. It's kind of weird to see them making your game."
"I would go out in the desert - much to their chagrin - and just sit and draw"
It seems unfortunate, too, that there's only a month between the launch of The Callisto Protocol in December and the remake of the game Schofield had originally made with Dead Space following soon after in January.
"You could say that right now, though it always looks that way. With Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3 came out a month before. I swear, every game I ever worked on had something come out just like it around it. After a while, you know, I'm like I've been there. We'll see what happens. There's nothing we can do about it. So we just make the best game we can."
The ubiquity of a style of game Schofield pretty much invented must also feel a little strange - though I wonder if he's flattered by how all these years after fighting to get the original Dead Space off the ground spacebound survival horror seems to be everywhere.
"It's weird how it happened like this. Dead Space came out, was pretty popular and we won a lot of awards. It didn't sell a boatload at first, right? Now, all of a sudden, I look at the documentary again and millions of people have watched it. I look at the sales and the sales are actually pretty high. And everybody, it doesn't matter how old they are, has heard of it. So it's a very bizarre thing. I guess it's like a cult classic in a way.
"It's funny. I never expected it. I never thought about it, even back when we made it. I'd made Bond the year before, and all they had me thinking about was the budget and the time and everything else. And [with Dead Space] I'm like, screw that, it's about quality. That's it. That's all I'm thinking about. Is that the best thing you can do? That's normal thinking today. It wasn't back then in the 2000s. The 2000s were about movie games. Everybody made them, so it was about day and date. Dead Space was this new kind of thinking. It's about quality. That's it.
"I'm trying to have the same mindset with The Callisto Protocol - make the best game we can, let's try and hit all of our pillars of the game. It's got to be scary, tense - everything that we set out to do, let's just do it.
Is it scarier than Dead Space? That's not for Schofield to say, though The Callisto Protocol is certainly a much, much gorier game than its spiritual predecessor.
"It's got some pretty horrific moments, it really does. We have a gore engine - we built Gore technology. It's a lot of rendering, and you break up the characters into jumps, cut them up with bones sticking out and all that. Then the rendering guys, they do their special thing to it which is make everything look wet. And so every character had to be done that way - and however you go at it, chunks break off, or parts of the face, parts of the head. It's so advanced compared to Dead Space."
"It's got some pretty horrific moments, it really does"
I've often wondered how hard it must be for the people working with this horrific imagery on a day to day basis for months on end. I remember speaking to the original Dead Space's artists about their reference material, and the folders upon folders of pictures of fresh cadavers, autopsies and sometimes so much worse they'd have on their desks.
"Nowadays the internet is loaded with those kinds of pictures," says Schofield. "I mean, these guys were looking at some horrible stuff. It's hard to tell now on the internet. Is that real, or is that fake? There's some horrible stuff - like pictures of people who just shot their face off. And we have reams of that data. They really get into it. It doesn't bother them after a while. It's like, you know, if you're a nurse, you're a doctor, you see it every day."
I'm hoping they get a break and surround themselves with some sunnier imagery when The Callisto Protocol ships later this year, because it sounds like Schofield would like to get them back for more. Where does he see the series in ten years? Maybe someone will be remaking the original The Callisto Protocol, just as they're remaking his Dead Space today.
"I can only hope so - that would mean it's been successful. But yeah, I would like to see this to be a franchise. I mean, I don't have any more new ideas… But no, I'd rather we went on for a while with this."