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Prey (2017): Shaking Things Up, Like Old Times by Joshua Henson

I’m stranded at the top of the Arboretum, the Talos Station’s only botanical hub, hurtling in orbit between the Moon and the Planet Earth. I’m making my way to the Crew Quarters, searching for the voice recordings of a woman that I’m sure is long dead, consumed by the monstrous inhumanity that are the Typhon. Blocking my path is an oily black sphere that radiates death, taking potshots at me with energy that eats away at my suit. If it manages to burn my suit, the inevitable decompression that I’ll have to endure could be fatal.

That’s only the first layer of the problem in front of me. This creaturea Telepath has brainwashed some of the only survivors of the invasion into schizoid slaves, minds alight with the implanted thought of killing me. They belt out apologies, frantic pleas for me to run while I still can.

If they get close enough, they are going to die, as the beast destroys them in order to get to me. Their deaths will be on me, then. And I’m already guilty enough.

This scenario was the moment that Arkane Studio’s Prey truly began to enrapture me. I could have stayed and fought, trying to avoid killing the civilians caught in the middle, and I may have even succeeded. The problem, then, is within the next battle. Would I have time to restock before the next fight? Would I find any ammo, any medicine, anything to turn the odds in my favor? Or was I doomed from the start and merely prolonging my end at the hands of the aliens?

It was these anxieties that ensured that I did not fight the Telepath, nor its minions. I had enough batteries in a non-lethal stun gun to stop three of the humans, if they were to notice me. That would, at the least, keep them alive, if incapacitated, but likely to return as a thorn in my spine the next time I needed to pass by. I found myself praying that by then I would be more confident and more powerful. Instead of playing as a hero, I fled into a maintenance tunnel, barely skirting the view of one of its guards, sliding into the next area just before a blast of energy could slam into me and draw my quest to an unfulfilling close.

However, the most enthralling aspect of Prey (2017) is not the survival-horror esque focus on resource management, nor the feeling of insurmountable odds bearing down upon the player. It is the fact that the game does not confine the player to the duality of a fight-or-flight response. There were a number of ways that I could have fled beyond the maintenance tunnel: I could have used a special ability to morph myself into an ordinary object, and rolled past the Telepath as it wracked its mind to understand why a ceramic cup was moving on its own accord; I could have merely enhanced my stealth abilities so that I could sneak past in place sight, darting from dark corner to dark corner and seizing opportunities as they came; or I could have tossed a Nullwave Transmitter, a grenade-like tool that would stifle the mind control effect for the crucial seconds I needed to pass by. As an extension of that idea, I could use the Transmitter to turn the hovering blob into a sitting duck, returning the favor and filling it full of bullets. I could, in a cruel mimicry of its own powers, overload its’ thralls’ minds so that they could not hurt me, before turning the same powers onto it. Every conflict within the game, from combat to circumlocution, is granted the same open-ended potentials. The game designers, far from giving me a simple series of hallways with scripted excitement, have left me with a sandbox, and respected me enough to merely give me a destination.

It is this freedom that marks Prey’s heritage. Although the game’s troubled development began as a direct sequel to a 2006 game of the same name, it concluded wholly separate to its namesake, instead accepting the pedigree of games such as Thief: The Dark Project, Deus Ex, and perhaps most importantly, System Shock. Despite the separate settings and tones, from Deus Ex’s paranoiac look at the near future to Thief’s early-industrial age of darkly Dickensian class violence, each of these games confronts the player with a startling abundance of freedom. While that isn’t to say that no story exists, the story that is created is at least partially emergent; the player’s actions within the world have a substantial impact on how the game constitutes itself. The game prides itself on simulating a realistic world as much as possible in order to immerse the player. 

For a game to be labeled with the nondescript title of “Immersive Sim” the creators must have not only considered the flow state of the game, but the flow of its universe. The world must be constructed beyond the player. Thought must be given to how the unique mechanics of the game affect the societies within, be that via currency or class consciousness. Prey (2017), for example, considers the moral quandary of its crucial upgrade system: the neuromods.

A new technology in 2035, neuromods are special implants that have the potential to revolutionize society. By modifying the neural structure of a user, a neuromod can increase the aptitude of an individual, but beyond that implant skills of incredible quality to people without any need for natural potential. The masterful dexterity of a concert pianist, the eloquence of an effective public speaker, or the brutal efficiency of a soldier are on their way to being devalued. After all, what is potential when the eventuality can be reached with only a needle and a willing volunteer?

Although the limited setting of the Talos I Space Station hinders the ability to witness the effects of such a development on society as a whole, the player bears witness to the fracturing among the station’s differing roles after it has ceased to be relevant. Prey (2017) deftly explores an underlying fear of obsolescence through many of its characters with enough sympathy to humanize them, even as they are proven right via the violent evolution of the Typhon they cultivated. This fear is tempered by the potential solution of neuromods, but the hindrances go far beyond the expense. The devices hold the potential to ascend humanity, to evolve its consciousness; but they are manufactured as a direct result of the destruction of human consciousness.

A short way through the game, this fact is revealed with a callous flippancy that is astounding. In the world of the Typhon, the cost of such an advancement is considered a necessary evil. Moreover, although the player is not required to contribute to this process, their avatar has directly done so, at the cost of potentially thousands of lives. The role of Morgan Yu in facilitating the crisis that the player must guide them through largely defines how both experience the world around them.

The character of (or multiple iterations thereof) Morgan Yu is a particularly interesting subversion of some of the usual traits of protagonists within Immersive Sims. Although they do not speak while the player has control of them, Morgan is a well defined character within the game itself- the character of January, a simulacrum of Morgan created before the events of Prey, serves as mission control during much of the game, acting as an exterior consciousness beyond the player. However, the player’s influence over Morgan can create rifts between the two iterations to the point that January questions Morgan’s allegiance to themselves. Far beyond being arbitrary, this discrepancy is given meaning within the game.

The game opens in the year 2033, with Morgan Yu preparing to join the family business of TranStar. After a warm message from brother Alex, Morgan boards a rooftop helicopter and is ferried to the luxurious terrestrial headquarters of the company. As a tutorial for both the player and Morgan, they are put through a series of tests regarding how Morgan interacts with the world. The tests are largely unrelated, such as moving boxes, quickly utilizing stealth to get out of sight, and spriting a short distance, as well as answering a short quiz that swiftly delves into ethical quandaries. Completion of these tasks is met with bewilderment from the observing scientist behind the glass, and his dry assurances do little to convince otherwise. Morgan is set to respond to a Rorschach Test, and as the player guides them to look down at the image, the scientist complains about an empty coffee. When the player looks back up, there are two cups of coffee in front of him; the one on the desk steams and sways as others work around it, and the one in the doctor’s hand shudders violently, before a black tentacle worms its way down his throat and his face melts away into a grimacing mockery of a skull. The room on the other side of the glass explodes into chaos, and the player is forced to watch in similar anxiety as the game fades out.

The game opens in the year 2033, with Morgan Yu waking up to a massive headache and a lingering sense of deja vu. The same warm message from Alex plays as they put on their new company uniform, only to exit their apartment to a dark hallway, the corpse of the friendly fixer-upper that greeted Morgan prior its’ only inhabitant, her trusty wrench clasped defensively in her arms. The elevator refuses to work, and without any other options the player is guided to pick up the wrench, and use it against the large window in the apartment.

As soon as the player swings the wrench at the window, the beautiful cityscape collapses into glass, exposing a room behind it, cold, grey, and industrial. As the player navigates this space, they will likely realize that the entire introduction, including the helicopter ride and the tests, were all fabricated, a well-designed set and not a locale. The earliest hand-holding offered by the game is redefined as a parameter for the true experiment. The game actually begins far from Earth in the year 2035, with Morgan’s memories scrubbed from years of constant experimentation with neuromods. Beyond the cost of human lives, the player discovers along with Morgan that Neuromods carry a terrifying potential for misuse. Removal of the modification forces one’s neurons back to their original structure, meaning that one not only loses the skills granted by the implant. The individual loses every memory made since they received the neuromod. 

Morgan has been robbed of two years of their life, and the player’s acceptance of the justifications given largely determines the game’s early morality. The game withholds other humans for long enough that encountering the first surviving human is a surprise, a light in the darkness that is the Typhon. However, the same freedom permits the player to snuff that flicker of hope out under the guise of experimentation, at the same time potentially earning a Typhon ability that will skew the game in their favor.

Similar in form to the Plasmids of Prey’s spiritual predecessor Bioshock, Typhon powers are almost supernatural abilities created from the specially modified neuromods earned only through intense study of specific organisms. In order to utilize the scientific advancements, the player must shortly act like a scientist, sneaking observatory glances and peeks as the creatures roam, almost like a perversion of a nature show. It becomes even more macabre when the creature is a Phantom, a bipedal Typhon created through a necrotic infestation of a human corpse. Regardless of their opinion on the creatures, Morgan’s fascination with the Typhon is directly weaponized by the game’s systems. It is likely that by the time the research has been maxed out and powers have been acquired the player has at the least developed an admiration of the creatures, or a surprisingly long hesitation to attack- after all, you can’t study a corpse.

The Typhon abilities also create a unique duality within the game world. While the “human” neuromods are essentially stat upgrades, increasing the weight that Morgan could lift, or their health, the Typhon powers are instead game changers. A psionic brainwave that weaponizes migraines, for example, can either stun humans or kill them outright. In accepting these powers, the player grows closer to the brutality of the enemy. Just like the Telepath, Morgan can weaponize human beings into suicide bombers in order to neutralize other threats.

As a short detour, I want to explain how this fundamentally changes past games of the genre. In Bioshock, the counterpart to neuromods, plasmids, are explicitly the cause of the enemies the player faces. The vast majority of fodder enemies are “splicers,” people who have become violent addicts for the basic drug that creates plasmids, and are frenzied enough to attack anything that should irritate them. I must concede that the explanation is a bit flimsy, and the sheer number of insane objectivists/collectivists/racists erodes at the game’s own world as a direct result of the narrative’s construction. The locale, Rapture, is an underwater city intentionally hidden from the surface world. At a certain point, the population that is communicated via the setting is eschewed, and as a result the conflict simplifies into something much more gamey. The continually spawning enemies violates the narrative that Rapture was a place for only those with impressive talents plus a small maintenance population. In contrast, Prey excels at realizing a limited population. Regardless of playtime, there are a finite number of human beings to be found, and the otherworldly nature of the typhon permits the game to explain the number of enemies without interrupting the narrative flow.

I digress. In the original plans for Bioshock, the corruptive influence of splicing could affect the protagonist, Jack. Just as the enemies have been grossly mutated, it is speculated that the player would have been forced to choose between power and humanity. It is not known how long this concept lasted during development, but by the final release the protagonist is capable of indulging an incredible number of plasmids without any sort of change. Thus, there is no reason beyond a self-inflicted challenge that a player would neglect utilizing these abilities. The moral choice is boiled down to something far less meaningful than it suggests. The question fails to become one of right vs. might. Instead, it is a question of evil for evil’s sake. It would be a further digression to mention how the positive moral choices prove more rewarding in the end, but these discrepancies nonetheless interrupt the narrative insisted upon by the game.

In Prey, Morgan Yu becomes more and more like a Typhon with every new ability they gain. However, this is not only a narrative warning. If the player accepts more than three typhon abilities, nowhere near the maximum permitted, the station’s security system will identify them as a threat and attempt to kill them. While this is only a minor hindrance, it does fundamentally shift the balance of the game. Although enemies may become easier to deal with, the amount of opposition the player faces increases, and areas that would otherwise be easy or nonviolent can become the most tense segments of the playthrough. It is important to note that Prey (2017) does not penalize the player for either choice based on a moral standard.

 It is common within many games to utilize a morality meter, with goodness being rewarded (perhaps exponentially) and evil being punished (or rewarded linearly, with a scowl and a slap on the wrist), even within games that tout player choice. In Arkane Studio’s prior game series, Dishonored, the groundwork was laid for the player choice offered within Prey. However, the game’s unique setting and abilities were curtailed by the game’s efforts to tell a story. The most interesting powers within the game, such as the ability to summon a swarm of voracious plague rats to attack and devour enemies, are directly penalized within the game itself. All of the non-supernatural tools, beyond the sleep dart, are similarly neutered. By directly tying the lives of those antagonistic to the morality system, the game neuters player choice. At least in the first game, the player can not play as a raucous pacifist if they want success. The sequels mitigate these problems somewhat, but the powers on display are still biased towards violent and lethal playthroughs.

Of course, there are in-universe justifications for why the state of the world depends on the player’s actions. The guards who are after the protagonist, Corvo, are merely following the orders of a corrupt government, and killing them limits the able-bodied force of peacekeepers. The number of corpses increases the food source for the plague rats, permitting them to survive longer and spread the plague more effectively. This is sensible, and deceptively solid reasoning, and I will not contest that. However, the issue with Dishonored’s chaos system is that the player is instructed that the most fun ways to play the game are the wrong ways to play it. 

It is not my intention to argue in the long-contested subject of whether games must be fun to be enjoyable. Despite this, Dishonored’s messaging is developed very little beyond the concept that “killing is bad,” which, while we can all hopefully agree on it, fails to account for the political or ethical intrigue that the game only hints at (though it is important to concede that the sequel, Dishonored 2, does mitigate this complaint a good deal). Despite the truth of that claim, it is a shame that the morality of characters does not play a role in how the game handles morality. Killing a guard patrolling a checkpoint is treated with the same scorn as putting a dying plague victim to death, or even one of the amoral cultists that defines the religion within the game. By offering the player the number of interesting powers and then frowning upon their use, the game misses an opportunity to tell a much more interesting story. Rather than a particularly violent Corvo being seen as unilaterally as a psychopath, wouldn’t it be interesting for Corvo to be identified as a killer of those too far consumed by plague, making brutal decisions that most people would be able to? Or perhaps a specific hater of the Overseers, who actively attempt to kill followers of the eldritch god that granted Corvo his powers? At the very least, a differentiation between the effects of an ability based on the world state would mitigate this complaint. For example, the ability to summon rats would become far more useful in a nonlethal playthrough if the player could summon them as a mere distraction to guards, weaponizing fear rather than the creatures themselves. 

Perhaps pretentiously, the problems that a morality system encounters when applied to a player is often referred to as Ludonarrative Dissonance. While some games are able to get away with it via a specific emphasis on either narrative or gameplay, Immersive Sims are uniquely reliant on a harmonizing of its elements in order to be effective. Since the world of an Immersive Sim must be conscientiously designed, any violation of the systems in place becomes especially egregious. Games such as Bioshock, despite their influence on gaming as a whole, skirt the crucial details that would truly realize the game world.

Prey is not the only game to create an incredibly realized world that is ludonarratively harmonious, of course. Deus Ex or the cult-classic Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines much more adequately realize the systems of the world and place the player in a position that makes them directly accountable to them. However, Prey may be the most mainstream game to ever achieve this. Although it did not gain a large marketing presence, Prey was developed alongside games such as DOOM (2016) and Fallout 4, a series that has over time lost the legacy of developer foresight had by the first games. Prey exists as the culmination of nearly two decades of experimentation from a number of studios, each united in their respect for the abilities of their consumers. In multiple ways it could be considered a return to the format of System Shock 2, a game that has indirectly influenced almost every game that has succeeded it. The lack of financial success for Prey, despite positive response from most players and a large amount of critical praise, may be a direct result of its title, swathed in comparison to the 2006 game Prey, which often favors the latter as a cult classic. Had the game been given a –shock title, or something further distinct from direct comparisons, its emphasis on thematic incorporation of game mechanics and cerebral plot would have likely permitted it to succeed without the associations of the sequel whose corpse the current iteration was birthed from.

For the sake of respecting the game as it is intended to be played, I will not spoil the ending or any major plot points beyond those I already have. However, I must acknowledge the fact that Prey’s very nature is acknowledged by the game itself in ways that made me fundamentally reevaluate the game. There is a morality system, though it is not tethered to the violence that is almost essential to progression, and the player’s rating in no way penalizes them via the gameplay. Certain scenarios may change based on the player’s actions, but the player is in no way robbed of content based on their utilization of the freedom the game eagerly gives them. 

Despite its lack of commercial success, Prey (2017) is one of the most intelligent big-budget games that I have ever played, and although it does suffer from a slow and somewhat slipshod beginning, the game sheds its mainstream simplicity in favor of a much more methodical and comprehensive setup as soon as the player collects a few game-changing abilities. While an outline of the plot may seem cliche or trite, the nuances within the game permit it to surpass the sum of its parts. It is important for me to emphasize that despite taking place in first-person, with firearms, Prey is by no means a first-person shooter. My earliest attempts to appreciate the game were greatly stifled by my insistence upon restricting myself to those rules. It is crucial to the methodology of the game to embrace a mentality far more open than any one genre, to think outside the box, all around it, and even inside of other boxes. Prey takes a number of risks that may stifle its mainstream appeal, but create the same sort of sandbox and sound setting that made the games that inspired. Through intermingling genres and understanding the implications of its systems, Prey (2017) reaches the apexes in the same way that many of its predecessors have, whilst still creating an importantly modern experience that makes it one of my favorite games of the eighth generation.