Game Talk #1: Prey [2017]

Welcome to Game Talk! Basically, it's just me talking about games I like and feel like deserve a little bit more attention. Most of these games won't be all that well-known, or have already had their time in the sun, and now only the hardcore or nostalgic fans still think about them.

Because I want to cut into specifics of the game, I will have to make this a spoiler post. But because I very much believe that you should experience something on your own, I'll make a clear distinction before heading into spoiler territory.

So, let's get this kicked off!

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Prey is a very bittersweet game for me.

Let's get the first Prey out of the way, and examine a little history.

I first heard about a game called Prey in 2006. For some reason, at the time, I was under the impression that the game was being made by id Software. It did seem like their kind of game. So naturally, I was excited. After Doom 3 and Resurrection of Evil, I was ready for something new. But when I did get a chance to look at the game, it just didn't really interest me. So I passed.

Still haven't played it.

For a long time, Prey 2 was being made, but after a lot of development and dicking around, they finally gave up. Now, this is a simplified version of events, but basically, Bethesda Softworks purchased the rights to the game and, after screwing around with it for a bit longer, approached Arkane Studios and was like, "You wanna make a game for us? The only thing is that it has to be called Prey." And they were like, "Well, we have this really cool idea that's like System Shock, so...yes?" And Bethesda was like, "Okay, cool. Do that."

And so it was done.

I mean, that's my understanding of the situation.

Now, personally speaking, I have to say that I wasn't really all that interested in what they were developing for Prey 2. I'm far happier that we got a System Shock-esque Sci-Fi Survival/Horror FPS. There are so, so few good horror stories set in outer space. (My personal favorite setting and genre combination.) I remember earmarking Prey to be played at some point, but due to my schedule, and my natural tendency to replay games I really like, I'm always behind on newer games. But I was lucky and a friend of mine gave me a copy of it for Xmas. So, with a few reservations, I sat down to play it.

Now, I say reservations, but what I mean is reservations about my own ability to play the game, not the game itself. I figured it would be a pretty solid game, I just had a feeling. The thing is, I'm not particularly good at games. Ironically, I'm not very good at horror games that lean more towards horror elements, i.e. Alien: Isolation, Slender: The Arrival, games where you are woefully under-equipped to deal with the threats you face. I'm better at games like Dead Space and Alan Wake, games where you've got a fighting chance. Also known as games that aren't really survival/horror games.

And, at first, I felt that I was right. I was getting my ass kicked barely an hour into the game.

But before we get into that, let's talk about the game itself a bit.

What is Prey about?

In Prey, you play Morgan Yu, a scientist working for a corporation that your family owns. Taking place in the near future of the 2030s, the corporation has begun developing a revolutionary new technology: NeuroMods. When applied, NeruoMods rewire the brain within a matter of minutes, turning the user into an expert at whatever mod was chosen. In mere minutes, someone could become a genius level mathematician, an expert pianist, a veteran marksman. Currently, you are helping test these NeuroMods. However, something goes wrong, and after an anomalous event occurs, you are forced to confront the fact that your world is nothing like you thought it was.

And that's where I'm going to have to stop the description, because, as implied, there's a decently big twist immediately. Like, within the first ten minutes of the game. As a matter of fact, I'm just going to end the non-spoilers section here, because there's a lot to the game, and if you want to maintain the mystery, all I can say is this: If you like First Person Shooter, Survival/Horror set in space where you fight interesting monsters, scavenge for supplies, and get to upgrade aspects of yourself in a pseudo-RPG style, you should just go get it. It's a great game.

SPOILER SECTION

Okay, now we can talk about the game freely.

Prey comes straight out the gate hard and strong, and doesn't really let up in terms of being awesome.

The first big revelation that slams into you comes maybe ten minutes into the game itself when you realized that no, it is not 2032, no you are not living in your posh Earthside apartment, and no, NeuroMods aren't 'the next big thing'.

In fact, it is 2035, you are living in a simulation of your apartment, specifically a simulation of the very first time you ever installed a NeuroMod. You are actually aboard Talos I, a space station orbiting Earth that is built around the remains of a joint U.S.-Russian station originally designed for top-secret government research and exploitation of an alien lifeform discovered back in the '50s during the initial years of the space race.

Which sounds obviously weird.  A joint operation between the United States and Russia during the '50s and beyond? Prey takes place in an alternate timeline where Kennedy survived and the existence of aliens was discovered, so both countries basically decided to get over themselves and work together, at least to figure out if maybe these aliens they found could be exploited. But as the decades wore on, research proved difficult and expensive, and largely fruitless. Eventually, the station, and the research garnered thus far, was sold to a private corporation.

TranStar.

So, plugging back into Morgan Yu, it turns out that you and your older brother Alex are the children of the couple that runs TranStar, and you were tasked with heading up the research on Talos.

And now something has gone wrong. The aliens, known as the typhon, have broken containment and are running rampant throughout the facility. Death and destruction rule over Talos and by the time you break out of your simulated apartment, mostly everyone is dead, transformed into a typhon. Shortly after escaping, with the assistance of a mysterious person who calls themselves January, you make it to your office and learn the true gravity of the situation: the typhon threaten all of humanity, now that they have escaped containment, something you feared might happen, and thus the station must be destroyed.

The second thing you find out is that January is, in a way, you.

And now we get to the reason why you were in a simulation of your apartment, thinking it was three years ago: it's because NeuroMods have a huge drawback. At their core, they basically remap the brain so that you are given whatever ability it is you want. Essentially, it forms memories of, for example, playing the flute, as if you have been doing it for a long time. Unfortunately, the brain cannot differentiate between the altered 'memories' and real memories. When you uninstall a NeuroMod, it also kills any memories formed beyond the point of installation.

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Morgan Yu installed their first NeuroMod down on Earth, in 2032. You agreed to, for the sake of experiments, have all of your NeuroMods pulled, so that certain tests could be done on you to advance NeuroMods as a whole. And these tests are repeated daily, so every day seems like that specific date in the opening prologue.

There's a lot to this game, but I don't want this to blow up into a massive post, so let's go over the stuff that leaped out at me.

Morgan Yu. The protagonist. You. One detail that was pretty cool is that you can choose which gender you want Morgan to be. Functionally speaking, this doesn't have much impact of the story itself, but it was a really nice addition. A lot of people are too quick to dismiss having male and female options in games, but they add a great touch. The primary change is that January has a different voice, as you are the one who created it. January is an operator, basically a hovering machine with some special abilities. It was January's task to help you break out of your simulation should the typhon ever escape containment, or should Alex ever keep you there indefinitely, cyclically erasing your memories.

Both happened.

Morgan is...not a great person. But naturally, I'm drawn to them because they have amnesia. Morgan knows about as much as you do as you begin playing the game, and it's interesting to learn about your past actions secondhand. Sometimes you hear about how the tests were affecting you, how having your memory wiped every twenty four hours was affecting you, and sometimes you learn about some things you did in the past, before the memory wipes, in the name of science.

And it's pretty grim.

Which raises the question of: can you be held accountable for your actions if you genuinely have no memories of them. Doing something during a blackout is one thing, but amnesia? That's a little different. Whatever reasons, justifications, or notions you had for doing those actions, they're gone. So thoroughly gone and inaccessible to you that they might as well have never existed to the person who you are now. So can the current Morgan be held responsible for past Morgan's actions? The question does come up.

Briefly, I wanted to talk about the soundtrack. It's fucking amazing. I don't want to say too much, except that it reminds me of the OST from 28 Days Later. Right from when the main menu pops up, you'll hear that first track, and you'll know exactly what I mean. It's fucking great. Plus, there's a couple of more unique tracks in there that are very, very different in tone, but just as stellar.

And now we can talk about the station itself, Talos I.

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This place is amazing.

From a gaming perspective, it's...I'd personally call it open-world, but I don't want to give you the idea that's as vast as most open-world games today are. I mean, it's big, but it's no Skyrim or Dragon's Age: Inquisition. And although all portions of the station aren't immediately open to you, once they do open, you're fairly free to backtrack as you see fit. Not exactly a new idea, but a very well-executed one.

As for the aesthetics of the station, it's fantastic. The place is both beautiful and diverse, in that while it has a clearly unified aesthetic, each section also looks fairly unique from each other. On top of that, Prey manages to create a near-future that's both fairly believable and unique. It's always a pleasure to see a Sci-Fi setting that stands apart without looking stupid or ridiculous. Although I have to say, it reminded me of both Tacoma and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. Which, in my particular case, made me really happy. I really like both those games and particularly love the environments.

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And then there's the typhon.

These things are pretty horrifying. They're highly adaptive and they reproduce using human beings. Probably the most interesting aspect of this entire game, at least from both a gameplay and a horror perspective, are the mimics. They're awful little creatures that have the ability to, surprise, surprise, mimic most smaller objects in the game.

Seriously, fucking anything can be a mimic. The only way to tell is to shoot it or hit it with a wrench. And the game is good at making you really uncertain as to what might be a mimic.

Phantoms, on the other hand, (the awful looking terror to the right), come in many varieties. Some can shoot electricity. Others can duplicate themselves. Even the basic ones throw fireballs. And they are fast. They can practically teleport. And then there's even bigger ones that can corrupt technology and turn it against you, or hit you with an EMP pulse that will knock some of your equipment out temporarily. And then there's invisible assholes that will throw shit at you like a straight-up poltergeist. And that's what they're called, too.

Prey is not lacking for interesting enemies.

Probably most interesting of all is the Nightmare. It's a custom-made typhon horror, just for you. It's a huge terror that will hunt you specifically, and the game crafts it based on your play-style.

Or at least it's supposed to. I'll be honest, I had heard a lot about the Nightmare, and they'd made a big deal about it, but it was pretty easy to avoid and although it was interesting, I feel like they wanted to do a lot more with it, since it doesn't really seem all that unique. It's just really big. I wish they'd been able to do more with it. And that it had followed you across load screens.

And this brings us to the gameplay.

Like I said, it's a first person shooter with some RPG elements. You can give yourself NeuroMods, but this is where it gets interesting. You have the capacity to upgrade the stuff you'd think of like effectiveness with weapons, hacking, strength, stuff like that. But there's an entire three sub-sections for typhon abilities. You can become a mimic. You can use telekinesis. You can make phantoms. You can shock people's minds, or control them. It's crazy. But there's a catch. All over the station are automated turrets that have been programmed to recognize and kill typhon. It doesn't take many of these typhon-specific NeuroMods for them to confuse you as one of the bad guys and try to wipe you out. You can kill them, but they're pretty useful.

Now, back to my original statement, about getting my ass kicked.

I love exploring. A lot. But I feel like I've kind of been trained out of it by more modern games that don't want you to go off exploring. I don't have anything against linear games, but I do miss more open level design that has shit hidden all over the place.

Prey is like the embodiment of that.

You need to explore. There's hidden compartments and tucked away back rooms and ventilation shafts, and there's stuff everywhere. And you need that stuff, because the game gives you the ability to break materials down to their base components, then fabricate that into useful stuff, like ammo or medical packs or explosives. You'll find yourself collecting used cigars and baseball gloves by the dozens. Seriously.

So because I've been trained out of hunting around and exploring in games like that, I didn't think it'd be part of the game. After getting my ass kicked, I ended up doing some research. I restarted the game and began taking it a lot slower, exploring everywhere, checking out every vent and closet and closed door, and the game really facilitates this. Some of the NeuroMods you use give you the ability to hack open doors, or use enhanced strength to force your way into otherwise closed off areas, and you're often rewarded in some way, small or large, for investigating.

Finally, there's the ending. Or, I should say, endings.

Prey can end in a number of different ways. Ultimately it comes down to a few things: do you destroy the station, or try to save it? And, do you go down with the ship, or do you try to escape? It's a bit more nuanced than that, and the game was good at coming up with a few different interesting choices, but I have to say that the actual end cutscene was really disappointing...at first. Because it ended very abruptly. I felt like the game should have a long, intriguing ending.

And then I watched the scene after the credits.

Now, I know this was the Spoilers section, but if you have not played the game, and you at all want to play the game based on what you've read, please go do that now. Because I want to talk about the ending. And this is an ending particularly enjoyable done blind. So...you know, even more spoilers.

EVEN MORE SPOILERS

I was not prepared for the ending at all.

I'm a fan of twists, and I've trained myself to not be able to see them coming. I've gotten good at it. I love being immersed, and honestly, the pleasure of being hit with a twist is far greater than seeing a twist ahead of time. Really, it's disappointing if I figure it out.

The credits come to an end. A new loading screen begins. It gives your present location as UNKNOWN. You hit the Load button and sudden find yourself strapped to a chair. Your brother, Alex, is looking at you, as well as four operators. They each have the voice of a main character you encountered in the game. Alex asks, "So how did it do?" And that's when I looked down at my hands and realized that they weren't human hands.

They were the dark, shifting, oily substance of a typhon.

The entire game, you are a typhon, living out a simulated version of Morgan's memories for the sole purpose of determining whether or not it is capable of feeling empathy after being implanted with mirror neurons. It's touched on earlier in the game, but essentially, typhon lack mirror neurons. There's debate over what they are or what they do, but in the game, they are claimed to be the reason we humans feel empathy.

While you thought you were breaking out of a simulation and dealing with the present threat of the typhon, in reality, it's some point in the future, and Morgan failed to stop the typhon threat. Now, they have overrun all of Earth. Throughout the game, there are times where you get vivid flashes of uncertain images, you hear strange voices, including your own, insisting that "you aren't what they tell you" or "don't let them do this to you".

Desperate and out of options, Alex has decided to capture a typhon and implant mirror neurons in it, then see the results. Based on your actions in the game, they will deliberate about whether or not it worked, and they will decide whether or not to kill you...and then you can decide whether or not to kill them.

This has a lot of implications, but really, you should watch this video by Extra Credits. They're a lot more articulate and intelligent than I am, and they explain some of the more nuanced themes and motifs behind Prey.

In closing, I have to say that Prey makes me depressed.

The reason for that is while yes, it is a sad game with sad moments, it depresses me because of what it represents. I think I'll actually write a separate article about this whole thing, but in short, Prey is a dying breed. It's a wholly narrative, campaign-focused game that doesn't compromise with bullshit predatory tactics, it doesn't needlessly force multiplayer onto the game, nor microtransactions or lootboxes. I'm not fundamentally against those things, but Prey feels like an old school game in that a company made a complete, excellent, stellar game, and then sold you that game.

No bullshit, no hoops to jump through, nothing held back so that it could be repackaged and resold to you later.

And it didn't sell all that well. I personally think this was because Bethesda strangely decided to withhold advance copies from reviewers. Something like that might work for DOOM, which is a juggernaut of a name all its own, but not for Prey. Especially if it has nothing to do with the original Prey. And they probably skimped on the advertising. My point is that I feel that people didn't buy Prey because they didn't hear about it, not because it's not a good game. Unfortunately, it's all the same to Bethesda: the game didn't sell well. They were positive that they were going to make DLC for the game right before it came out, and yet I haven't heard a single peep about it since then. And it's so sad, because I'm so sick and tired of all these games emphasizing being a fucking 'live service' and focusing on multiplayer to the point of exclusion of everything else and watering down the experience so you'll pay real money in order to cut past all the BS.

Prey was a shining beacon of an expertly crafted, quality game in a sea of mediocre multiplayer grind, and we let it flicker and dim.

I've still got hope for a sequel or at least some DLC, but it's not much hope.

If you get the chance, go buy this game and play it. It's fantastic.