Please note that this article contains spoilers for Prey.
Allow me to begin by saying that, from announcement onwards, I wasn’t all that much interested in Bethesda’s and Arkane Studios’ soft reboot of the Prey franchise. I don’t exactly know why; I suppose it just didn’t seem like my cup of tea. That remained my position until I put a live stream of the game on in the background whilst puttering about the house. Since spoilers didn’t concern me, I was content to watch and listen to the streamer work through the game, enjoying the experience on a vicarious level.
I just so happened to be watching him when he reached the end, and it was at that point, during the post-credit epilogue, that I realized how mistaken my initial perspective on the title had been. No word of a lie – I purchased a copy immediately. The more cynical among you might think that’s testament to the power of advertising inherent in live streaming, but I’d rather see it as the power of impeccable design. It’s so rare for contemporary games to have compelling or satisfying endings that it seems far more likely that Patrick Stewart will follow me to work and recite Shakespeare to me all day than I’ll enjoy the conclusion of most games.
The majority of developers have proven their competence when it comes to crafting engaging narratives set in well-rounded worlds, but – either through editorial oversight or a failing of the crunch dynamic that’s par for the course in modern game development – very few of them seem capable of producing solid conclusions. Even greats like Bioware aren’t immune to the curse of “cheaping out,” as evidenced by the infamous outcry over the Mass Effect 3 ending. This situation isn’t helped by the apparent need to build-in sequel potential for new intellectual properties that haven’t even proven themselves with a single title. This approach inevitably results in the dilution of the experience in an attempt to appeal to a “broader consumer base,” as well as ensure customer retention and satisfy the accountants.
Story is so consistently undervalued in game development that it’s become more than just a coincidence; it now feels more like an inevitability. Yet maybe not, because Arkane have, with the ending constructed for Prey, reaffirmed that it’s possible to produce a game where each individual element complements and enhances the others without sacrificing narrative integrity. The result is a harmonious blending of game design and gameplay in which every action and decision has irrevocable consequences not only for the unfolding story, but also for the player. The game forces you to confront not only your enemies, but also the nature of your self.
Big things have small beginnings, and Prey is no different from many other games in this regard. The first choice that you’re faced with upon starting a new game is the gender of the protagonist, Morgan Yu. There’s nothing revolutionary about that, but the decision to offer players a choice of gender in a first-person shooter is actually quite canny. For most games of this type and genre, the character is almost overwhelmingly male, which makes sense given the default audience for video games is largely assumed to be male, and it’s logical to feature a protagonist that the majority of the player base can immediately identify with. Unfortunately, the assumption of gendered perspective has been a factor of narratives for thousands of years.
However, this is the 21st century, markets have diversified, and great strides have been made of late to address this imbalance. Having such an option is a neat way to differentiate this game from others on the market. These days of course, gender, beyond the physical manifestation of genetic variables, is largely a matter of personal preference, and given Prey‘s focus on freedom of choice and exploring the concept of individual agency, it seems logical to include this foundational aspect of identity as a starting point. On a more sophisticated level, this initial decision ties into themes and concepts that the game attempts to explore. Although men and women largely perceive and interpret the world in the same way, there are subtle variations that make an enormous difference, and the inclusion of this choice reflects an awareness of that. It may not seem like much, and in truth it is very minor, but it is the first piece in the much larger puzzle of who Morgan Yu is.
Standard practice for modern game narratives is an in medias res beginning that thrusts the character –along with the player – into a situation that needs to be resolved. Arkane have tinkered with that device to such a degree that the character – and by extension the player – are the situation (insert your preferred out-dated Jersey Shore reference here). Reconstructing the personality of the protagonist is the driving force of the entire narrative, and it is who you are as a player that ultimately determines who Yu is. The fragments of memories and the remnants of facts that are used in the creation of the simulation are carefully considered to provide a constant stream of psychological feedback regarding your decisions. The game then uses these to make a very direct judgment about your actions and reactions.
One of the first living human beings the player encounters can be found locked in the quarantine cell of a ransacked medical bay, trapped in the depths of a Typhon-induced telepathic nightmare. At that point in the game you’re armed with only the most basic of weaponry, so even a seemingly innocuous encounter can have deadly consequences. Knowing full-well how games with this kind of set-up usually work, I interpreted the presence of that enthralled crewman as an imminent threat that had to be neutralized. After all, I had no idea when or if he would break free of his confinement and attack me, so upon acquiring access to the cell, I promptly killed him. Ordinarily this would not have not have given me pause for thought; in all games where the primary narrative scenario features a lone hero pitted against innumerable, unyielding foes, it is not only prudent but (in most cases) necessary to ensure your own survival by shooting first and not bothering to ask questions later. That was just an unscripted encounter that I could have completely ignored, and it would have not made much difference to my enjoyment of the game, but my awareness of the central premise of Prey‘s narrative conceit made me instantly call into doubt my actions – not just in this instance, but in all preceding and following ones.
Prey is rife with moments like the above. Every mission you embark upon, whether it be a simple fetch quest gone awry or a main plot objective, involves some element of choice that feeds in to the hidden mechanism of the experiment. While they might not all be directly relevant to the actual outcome of the plot, they have a cumulative effect on the psychological ambiance of the experience. Each crew member you rescue, kill, or fail to save becomes a red mark in your ledger, and rest assured, a tally is taken at the end of the game. Actions and decisions taken in your approach to quest resolution have a direct impact on how the Typhon you’ve been playing as is judged by the minds studying its ability to adapt to human experiences, as well as on how the player is judged on the basis of their gaming personality.
It’s a very Brechtian format, in which all the walls of digital artifice come tumbling down, and you are forced to confront the nature of what you have just seen, heard, and done. Still, it’s just a game you might say, and you’d be right. It is just a game. Citizen Kane is just a film. 1984 is just a book. Beethoven’s 9th is just a symphony. The Mona Lisa is just a painting, and the Taj Mahal is just a building. The point is that great art, no matter its form, has the power to inspire awe and contemplation. The latter is in short supply these days, so it is heartwarming to find a developer that is capable of producing thought-provoking AAA titles.
The multi-layered simulation in which the events of Prey‘s story transpire constantly toys with the idea that memory is the foundation of self. Thought, action, and experience are here held to be the keystones of human understanding. The events of our past and the choices we made in experiencing them not only dictate our perceptions of current events, but also inform our approach to the future. Consequently, our “self” consists of an impossibly intricate network of recollections that, given the linear nature of our existence, afford us the ability to exert some measure of control over the evolution of our ever-changing present. If the recollections of past moments can be manipulated in a specific way, then so too can an individual’s concept of the world around them and of their place within it.
That is exactly what Alex Yu’s (the protagonist’s older brother) research on the Typhon lifeforms and Neuromods (plug-and-play devices that allow for spontaneous sharing of memories and knowledge) has been trying to accomplish. He has been trying to find a way to resolve the global crisis unleashed by investigations into alien consciousness by imprinting the essence of humanity into a Typhon creature. This way he will discover if it can learn the ability to empathize in the same way it is able to mimic our physiology.
In game terms, this is done in order to change the course of the invasion of Earth, but for the players it could be considered a thought experiment designed by Arkane to investigate the Lockean concept of the tabula rasa – that the construction of self is the result of a learning process rather than the result of inherent knowledge, as posited in Cartesian theory. Tied into this development of self is perhaps our most defining characteristic as a life form: our ability to consider options and make choices. Without that capacity, our level of cognitive development would be largely redundant. Although we would have the ability to comprehend the stimuli we were exposed to, we would not be able to effectively differentiate between them or act upon them accordingly. This capacity for choice manifests itself in the form of macro-level collective behavior that passively determines our social structures, as well as on the micro-level, as moment-to-moment actions taken over the course of any given day formulate individual experience. Every action you take during the game is a stage of Prey‘s test, just another part of the process of exploring consciousness and conscience in an environment as demonstrably hostile as Talos I.
Speaking of Talos I, it is by no means an inert space constructed simply to serve as a visually appealing backdrop for the story. In the best tradition of player-augmented environments (for example, Yharnam from Bloodborne), the space station is, in essence, a gigantic puzzle box (although not on the same scale as seen in From Software’s work). The human mind is likewise vast and labyrinthine in scope, even though it exists in a distinctly confined space. In practical terms, our minds are nothing more than an assemblage of neurons and synaptic pathways that, for all their complexity and often inexplicable interactions, are fundamentally limited by the constraints of current human physiology. Yet, the mind is also simultaneously so much more than that; even the greatest biologists are sometimes left baffled by the extent of its abilities. We are never fully aware of the true extent of our own thoughts, and determining our self-identity is often a task that takes a lifetime to accomplish. This translates into Prey, as the player never being fully cognizant of the actual extent of their surroundings, and even viewing the station from the outside (as in the above image), doesn’t give an accurate impression of the scope of its interior. This would be a prime example of architectural mimesis, where the concept of the overall design indirectly replicates the structural components of its primary subject matter. Prey‘s story and the locations the player explores as the story is told both directly mirror the intangible nature of the concepts that the game itself is exploring.
There are multiple routes that open up to a destination as you gradually explore new areas in which encounters and problems have no one clear solution. Every moment is an examination of your ability to problem solve and make decisions. As you work your way through the various areas of the station, you will acquire Neuromods that give you the opportunity to purchase perks and skills, which range from simple improvements to your physical attributes and weaponry to the unlocking of various alien powers that give access to options that would not otherwise be available. If you opt to augment your arsenal with Typhon traits, the station’s automated defenses will no longer recognize you as human, meaning that they then must either be destroyed or circumvented. This design choice not only acts as a balance mechanic to avoid the player having total operational hegemony on the station, but also as a reinforcement to the overall premise of memory determining self. Once the player enhances the protagonist with Typhon genetics, its perception of humanity begins to breakdown while the alien reasserts itself over the mammalian. This represents a diminishment of the Typhon’s awareness of the implanted memories, and the mind of the Typhon interprets that breakdown as the station attacking the player character because the ersatz human-alien hybrid no longer recognizes itself as being either one thing or the other.
It’s a relatively simple matter to categorize and quantify the empirical elements of human existence. Like all known biological life forms, we need to eat, drink, sleep and reproduce. Beyond that, we all share (to varying degrees) the same basic range of senses and intellectual capacities with which we perceive and interpret external reality. Smell, sight, touch, taste, and sound are the tools with which we define our existence. We are creatures of flesh, and are as such limited by it. The phenomenological aspects of life, such as thought and feeling, however, more often than not defy any and all attempts at codification. As we grow, learn, and develop, it is our reactions to the world in our heads and in our hearts that come to govern our ability not just to define our existence, but to manipulate it as well. We choose to believe some things to be certain beyond any doubt, no matter how absurd, and will deny the most obvious of truths as absolute nonsense.
As you progress through the story and the various environments onboard Prey‘s space station, you discover computer consoles that contain emails and log entries ostensibly made by the various scientists and technicians. Each of them alludes to or directly reveals specific details regarding the events leading up to the present crisis. Far from being completely objective and trustworthy, these are highly personalized accounts written according to individual agendas. As the player uncovers more about what is going on, it is clear that no one version of events is true. It is up to each player what they choose to believe about the sequence of events, and this colors both how the narrative is perceived and how they choose to respond to the options they are presented with.
Given the pre-determined nature of a non-procedurally generated narrative, these choices are largely illusory. Certain criteria have to be met in order for events to move forward, otherwise the story does not reach a conclusion. Prey‘s multi-layered construct of choices that aren’t really choices is mirrored in reality. No matter what we might like to believe, we essentially have no real control over the course of our lives. There are certain things we are expected and required to do in order to function as part of a human community; the minutiae may be left up to us, but the primary fundamentals are decided before we’re even born by society at large. The only choice that remains unquestionably ours is either to do, or do not.
In Prey, this essential fundamental choice is starkly and honestly represented in its ultimate form when the Typhon being forcibly implanted with Morgan Yu’s memories is given the choice to either kill everything around it or shake a hand outstretched in friendship. Those of you that have played Prey will be fully aware of what makes the ending so interesting, but by themselves, the basic endings are rather perfunctory, and honestly leave you feeling cheated – which is entirely their point, as is not-too-subtly hinted at by the song ‘Mind Game’ that plays during the credits.
When you’re briefly returned to the game world once those have rolled, it’s made fully clear that everything you have just experienced has literally and figuratively been a just that – a mind game. Events during the game have been entirely manipulated to explore the extent of humanity in the monster, but also the monstrous in the human…in the player. That is what makes Prey such an exciting game. The basics of its mechanics and design are far from innovative or unorthodox; if you’ve played any of the Bioshock games, then none of the constituent gameplay elements will surprise you, but Prey is nevertheless a fine example of how a video game can, when created by a genuinely talented team, be a fascinating and provocative work of art, just as much as it is an entertaining way to pass the time.
- Christopher Underwood