Glen Schofield interview: How horror engineering comes to life in The Callisto Protocol

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Glen Schofield is a master of horror engineering. He enjoys scaring the bejeezus out of us and has done a good job over the years.

His games include titles from familiar series like Legacy of Kain, Call of Duty, and The Lord of the Rings. But he’s known for being an artist who rose through the ranks and became executive producer on Dead Space, the 2008 sci-fi horror title from Electronic Arts. Reminiscent of Alien, it gave us a slow pace, marked by moments of sheer terror, with every scene engineered to creep us out.

He moved on from EA to start Sledgehammer Games, where he worked on four Call of Duty titles. Then he split from Activision a few years back and started Striking Distance Studios, which is making a survival horror game, The Calilsto Protocol, for Krafton. The game is coming out on December 2, just ahead of EA’s remake of Dead Space on January 27, 2023.

Schofield is back to prove that he still has some good scares left in him. I attended a preview event where I played hands-on with the game. The event was held in the basement of The Mint building in San Francisco, where they had a lot of creepy orange lighting.

Schofield says that horror in games is tricky because you don’t always know where the player is looking, in contrast to the fixed camera position in movies. He says you have to engineer scares, whether they’re jump scares or a smouldering fear that maybe something is sneaking up on you. It’s all about catching you off guard.

The new game is set in Black Iron Prison, a maximum-security facility located on Jupiter’s moon Callisto, where something has gone terribly wrong. The game comes out on PC, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S/X this December 2.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Glen Schofield at a preview event for The Callisto Protocol in San Francisco.

GamesBeat: What should we know about this level, this habitat? Can you put it into context?

Glen Schofield: It’s about the third level in. You’re just getting started. What I mean by that–we gave you a loadout where we think you would be, having had–well, we gave you a bit more, because you haven’t had the chance to practice. You’ll be better at it, but you may have a little less with you.

GamesBeat: I felt like I had to unload four bullets in each guy if I wasn’t really cutting off a leg or–

Schofield: It depends where you hit something. Even the grunts–the normal guy that you see with two legs and two arms, he’s called a grunt. We had five or six different versions. We might be up to eight now. But as we went deeper into the game, we started making bigger ones that take a bit more. We were able to take the normal grunts and turn them into–some are faster, some are slower. They have different attacks.

GamesBeat: I was fighting when two or three of them came at me, and then I either couldn’t take them all down or reload fast enough. I had to use the gravity–

Schofield: The Grip itself is like crowd control. I can throw one against the wall and I don’t need to deal with him for a second. How were you at dodging and all?

GamesBeat: Yeah, dodging I had to pick up when I started dying.

Schofield: Once you get dodging down, and then there’s the block, you’ll find that, “Okay, I can miss the first two.” The third time they come at you, you may not be able to get it. We had to make the dodge not as–people that were perfecting it were making it too easy.

The Callisto Protocol comes out on December 2.

GamesBeat: As far as the speed of the game, is it 30 frames per second?

Schofield: Yes, although we do have the 60 frames per second on performance mode.

GamesBeat: Also, you default to walking, but there’s an option to run?

Schofield: Yeah, if you hold L1. But when you use the flashlight on the gun, you can only walk. That’s deliberate. It’s like, “Oh, shoot, it’s dark. I have to walk.”

GamesBeat: This is not a Call of Duty, 60 frames per second, run and gun type of shooter.

Schofield: We could never do that, no. The graphics are so rich, the VFX, the monsters. The main character himself–we have a main character on screen where Call of Duty doesn’t. Our main character, I don’t know if you ever got a look at his face, but we spent a lot of time. It looks pretty damn real.

GamesBeat: Does that match up with the notion that horror should be slower-paced?

Schofield: Well, like I said, we give you the run if you want to. But what I learned through Dead Space was that people want to walk. They only run through the forest, right? When you’re being chased. But most of the time they kind of go around–you remember Scooby-Doo, right? They’re always going around slowly. That’s the way people naturally play. Except for the speedrunners.

The Callisto Protocol comes from the co-creator of Dead Space.

GamesBeat: Because you’re scared?

Schofield: You don’t know what’s around the corner. If I go around too fast and there’s a guy there, he’s going to take me out.

GamesBeat: The atmosphere felt–dark and orange? I don’t know how you would describe it.

Schofield: It’s dark. It’s moody. It’s uncomfortable. Sometimes the light, when there is a light, it might shine right in your eyes to blind you a little bit. We do a lot of light at the end of the tunnel. I have to run through the darkness, get through the darkness, just to get to the light at the end of it. But then you don’t know what’s hiding in the light.

GamesBeat: Are you doing some of this film-like thing where you’re making us left instead of right, as we’re coming to–

Schofield: We can never predict, of course. But there’s some of that. “Hey, look over here,” and then we put something over there. But then somebody smart might think, “Aha, I know what you’re doing now, I’ll look over there.” It’s not like Call of Duty where we’re going to throw five guys here because that’s where you expect them to come through. In horror you’re always trying to mess with the player.

GamesBeat: You have to be paranoid.

Schofield: That’s the best way to go through it, yes. We also have beta paths in there, so you don’t have to go through everything. But if you want to pick up everything in the game, we encourage you to really explore more.

GamesBeat: I remember in Dead Space that you had the pathway to follow for your mission. Are you doing any of that?

Schofield: It may be–it’s a personal thing. But I kind of feel that’s a bit old-school now. I purposefully said that we’re not doing that. You have to explore, like real life. It will be pretty evident if you get turned around. We try to put landmarks all over the place. “Oh, I saw that already.”

There are some butt ugly monsters in The Callisto Protocol.

GamesBeat: If you throw the guys, if you’re using the Grip to throw them, do you have to throw them at something? I did see the oxygen tank. I could throw that and blow them up. I think I could blow up more than one.

Schofield: Yeah, sometimes, if you hit the right one.

GamesBeat: But then if I’m throwing them onto the pathway, they’ll just get up again. If I throw them into something like the fan, or I think I threw them over a ledge, they’ll die. Although I threw one over and he flipped back up again.

Schofield: He must not have fallen too far. It’s real physics and all that.

GamesBeat: The Grip does run out of battery, though?

Schofield: Yeah, you need to get new batteries.

GamesBeat: So you have to use that sparingly.

Schofield: We actually made that one a bit more forgiving in the game. Yes, you’ll find ways that you–you’ll find that you have more than enough. It’s not overpowered, but it’s kind of close here and there. As the game goes on, nothing is really overpowered.

GamesBeat: If you’re in a fight with multiple enemies, is the ideal to use all three weapons?

Schofield: Yep. There’s the stomp. There’s also–we didn’t showcase it in the level, but we have a shiv that you can use for stealth. There’s multiple ways.

GamesBeat: What are the little guys, the wormy guys? Do those spawn into dead bodies, something like that?

Schofield: They’re called parasites. We hide them in places that you won’t normally–I don’t know if you died by one, but there’s one that goes in your mouth. It’s a great death.

GamesBeat: There’s a wide variety of death scenes?

Schofield: Yes, a lot. We tried to do as many as we could.

GamesBeat: Stomping works on them, though, to save ammo.

Schofield: Right. But what really does work–if you knock a guy down, he’s down on the ground, and you think he’s dead, he’ll respawn with the tentacles. When he’s down on the ground you should stomp on him. Not only will you stomp on him and kill him, but he’ll give you a pickup.

GamesBeat: You can see that glinting that shows there’s something for you to pick up.

Schofield: Yeah, we try to do a glint, or we have it sticking up, something like that. We didn’t want it to be too much, because it takes away some of the scare.

You can strategically dismember in The Callisto Protocol.

GamesBeat: When it comes to spending credits, does it resemble Dead Space in that you find these store things at some point?

Schofield: There are different ways. Sometimes an enemy will drop something, or you’ll find it in the world. We want you to explore, like I said.

GamesBeat: Are you crafting a lot of items?

Schofield: You’re upgrading your weapons. You have your skill tree. But we’ve made it so that you won’t be able to completely upgrade a weapon. You’ll have to go back and play.

GamesBeat: What are some other things where you think this is an improvement on Dead Space? Things that you thought about much later, or that couldn’t fit into the older games.

Schofield: It was tough making–now, this is from the original Dead Space. We didn’t have the main character talking. It always felt like he was being ordered around. Go left! Go right! This one is more like–you feel like you’re doing it on your own. We have the movies, the cinematics in the game, which really bring the story together. You’ll actually come into contact with other characters, quite a few of them. The cinematics look great.

GamesBeat: How do you have access to that AR memory thing? Like when I saw the guy walking around with the wrench–

Schofield: Oh, that just comes up. That’s just storytelling. We don’t do that too many times. But you’re seeing the memory–we call it an echo, the echo of something that happened. That’s Elias helping you out. Hey, there’s an echo here, an echo there. You have to watch that closely, because it’s giving you some hints.

GamesBeat: What we played here seems pretty solitary. Is it like that through the whole game?

Schofield: No, like I said, there’s a number of characters. You probably heard Elias talking to you in there. There’s a couple of others. You have Danny Nakamura. She’s the NCO of the squad. She was voiced by Karen Fukuhara, who was in Suicide Squad.

GamesBeat: You made use of that mocap studio.

Schofield: We used it a lot. During COVID that was the one room that was open. We had rules, major rules.

GamesBeat: I compared things to The Last of Us a bit.

Schofield: There’s a little of that, yeah.

You don’t want to miss your shots in The Callisto Protocol.

GamesBeat: Every fight was a brutal fight. You never easily walked through a fight. You always had to survive by the skin of your teeth, even a one-on-one fight. I don’t know if that’s more interesting to do now than just taking out 10 enemies at once.

Schofield: I’m more of a–in this game, we want you to at first think, “There’s four of them! How do I fight that?” There’s a little knee jerk. But then as you move on to the next one–maybe you die once, but you think about it. There’s enough space that you can sit back and prepare and think about it and go back in with a strategy.

GamesBeat: I was picking up that oxygen tank and bringing it with me.

Schofield: See, not everybody does that. That’s good to hear. And it works. Dodging is powerful too.

GamesBeat: Does it feel like you took the horror engineering to a different level? How would you describe that?

Schofield: I feel like it’s an evolution of Dead Space’s combat. That’s for sure. It feels different to me. It’s more in your face. It’s more brutal. We wanted to make sure it was satisfying and fun. If you get into it, there’s even more than that. When you pick up an enemy and he’s flailing, you can use that as a blocker for the enemy that shot at you. Now, the cool thing is, you’re using the block, but that guy may get his arm knocked off, because he can be dismembered. Or the enemy you’re holding may look back at the enemy who’s shooting like, “Hey!” We put in as much personality as we could.

It’s not Dead Space 4 to me. People ask me if this is a spiritual successor. I didn’t think of it that way. I know that some of my DNA is in it, so it’s going to be like that. It’s my style. But we want this to be different characters, a different story, different locations, a different game.

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