The Callisto Protocol’s protagonist Jacob Lee – I had to Google that – is the embodiment of the Wetherspoons day goer, the bald ‘wahey’ dad that queues for the pub opening back up when lockdown loosens. Or at least, that’s who he is in my head. The Callisto Protocol doesn’t give us much to go off other than some grunts and the odd bit of dialogue where he buries his feelings and cracks on with the job like he’s doing something as ordinary as putting together a shed. If Ethan Winters is the Diet Coke of video game protagonists, Jacob Lee is the flat, two day old Diet Coke.
Warning, spoilers for The Callisto Protocol.
It’s no surprise that the most interesting survival horror protagonists lately have been from remakes, and that’s because characters like Ethan and Jacob are awkwardly bobbing between silent protagonist and full character. They’re supposed to be an everyman you can easily step into the shoes of and see yourself as, even if Ethan’s tasked with saving his (now your) wife from the get-go, as both of them are ordinary-looking straight dudes. Everymen, aye?
It’s hard to relate to a blank slate, just like it’s hard talking to a brick wall, and that’s what both feel like. Jacob’s personality boils down to, “What do we need to do? Right, I’ll do that,” for seven hours until he sacrifices himself (which he survives) for Dani. And yet their relationship feels rushed, with the resolution coming because the plot needs it to. She robs his ship, it crashes, Jacob’s co-pilot dies, she’s big mad at him and he’s big mad at her, circumstance makes them work together, and then he ends up willing to die for her. The reason we’re given is that he has to atone for what he did on Europa, but none of that guilt is expressed or unpacked through Jacob, but instead dumped onto us in the form of exposition-heavy dialogue and flashbacks.
Leon Kennedy puts on a brave face and stomachs a zombie outbreak in Raccoon City because he has a sense of duty and a desperation to save everyone around him, but it’s painted as naivety from him being a rookie cop. It’s his first day on the job and, even if everything has gone to shit, he’s desperate to prove his mettle and put things right, and a lot of that begins to unfurl when he meets Ada. It goes from him mindlessly putting down the undead, searching for puzzle pieces, and uncovering Umbrella’s sinister plot, to letting a man’s daughter ‘live’, even though she’s already turned. He has a heart, cares about people, and gets rightfully annoyed when he’s left in the dark. There’s a lot to explore about his ideals and the way he handles the smaller moments in his brief time in Resident Evil 2, let alone his later appearances in 4 and 6.
Ethan is a little closer to Leon, but a lot of the personality and emotion is stripped away because he’s so barebones as a character to make room for us, but Jacob barrels through plot points and exposition without ever slowing down. There’s no room for him to be anyone other than a puppet for the player, despite us being with him through this whole journey, watching everything collapse around him, and as he loses everything. Yet, he seems as annoyed as I do when I’ve run out of milk and have to nip to the shop to get some more. We never get to dig beneath the surface of how it all impacts him, how he’s coping, what his ideals are, and ultimately, who he is.
Survival horror is losing what has made it so interesting for so long – personable characters. If you think Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Alan Wake, you think of their leads. They’re a huge part of the genre and what makes these horrifying excursions bearable. It’s still scary being trapped in a ghost town under siege by fog and otherworldly monsters, but taking that leap with Harry Mason made it fun. By comparison, being trapped in a space prison with Jacob Lee was like being stuck in a room with a secondary school physics teacher who just wanted to get their paycheck and go home.
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