Video Game Review: “Prey” (2017)

"Prey" cover
“Prey” cover. Image via Wikipedia.

I think it was somewhere in the arboretum of the TranStar corporation’s Talos I space station, about six hours into Prey, that I started to realize what was wrong.

Something had been gnawing at me; a vague sense of discomfort in the back of my mind.  It wasn’t the apprehension that every object in every room might turn out to be an alien mimic waiting to ambush me, nor was it the thought that at any minute the possessed remains of crew members might teleport in to attack me with psychic energy blasts.

No, these things I had expected, and indeed become accustomed to.

In fact, that was the problem.  What was really bothering me was that none of it was all that scary.

Prey sounds like a game almost engineered to my personal taste.  It’s a horror RPG in which you play as Morgan Yu, a scientist on a space station overtaken by mysterious aliens called “the Typhon”.  As you explore the station and fight the Typhon, you gradually uncover the backstory by reading logs of deceased crew members, and talking with the few survivors. All the while, you must overcome obstacles placed by Morgan’s brother, Alex–the scientist who seems to be responsible for the disaster.

Some of the Typhon, called “mimics”, have the ability to take any form, including such innocuous items as coffee mugs and even health kits and other useful items. So, you never know what might turn into a monster and attack as you creep through the dark, eerie corridors.

In addition to the usual video game weapons–pistols, shotguns, etc.–Morgan can use an experimental technology called “neuromods”, which grant the user all sorts of abilities, but can erase the user’s memory–a significant point, as it accounts for why Morgan has no memory of events that occurred before the beginning of the game. (This is explained by a character named January–a robot assistant who holds Morgan’s memories and acts as a guide in the early stages of the game.)

Prey has multiple paths and endings, and many different ways of accomplishing your objectives–a style of gameplay I strongly prefer.  And to top it all off, Chris Avellone, perhaps the greatest game designer ever, helped write it.

It’s like a hybrid of Doom 3 and Deus Ex (two games that I love), along with many other influences.  It also evokes the mining station episode that starts off my all-time favorite game, Avellone’s Knights of the Old Republic II.

With all this going for it, I was a bit dismayed by how weak the first act was.

Not that it’s bad.  It’s good enough.  Especially the opening 20 minutes or so; which are very disconcerting and disturbing. Not since Spec Ops: The Line has a game so successfully pulled the rug out from under me. But I’ll talk more about that later. (This is probably a good time to mention I’m going to spoil the game’s plot here, so don’t proceed any further if you want to play it without knowing what happens.)

I reference Spec Ops because it’s another favorite game of mine–again, Prey mimics elements from many of the classics. There are elements of Bioshock (takes place in a remote futuristic art-deco station) Half-Life, (the mimics look like headcrabs) Alan Wake (the shadowy phantoms murmur phrases spoken by the victims they now possess) and Dishonored. (This is only to be expected, since both are made by Arkane studios.) Indeed, there’s so much mimicry here, it makes the clever “not a mimic” marketing slogan seem rather ironic.

And yet… it doesn’t quite work as well as it should in the the beginning. And by “the beginning”, I mean approximately the first five hours after the opening sequence.

It’s like how all-star teams in sports don’t necessarily play up to the potential of all the great players on the roster.  This is usually because all-star teams don’t have time to develop chemistry–the sense of timing that makes a team function well as a unit.

Something similar is going on with Prey: it is built up of some very excellent parts, but they don’t always work together to create a coherent whole.

It’s not always clear what Prey is supposed to be. A lot of it looks like survival horror, but it’s not particularly scary. (One exception is an enemy called the Poltergeist. It’s invisible and causes all sorts of disruptions. Very effective, especially the first time it happens.)

Portrait of JFK from alternate future game "Prey"
Portrait from “Prey”

Prey‘s setting is also somewhat puzzling. It’s set in an alternate future in which John F. Kennedy was not assassinated, and the U.S. and Soviets worked together on space exploration.  But it’s not clear to me why this background was needed for the story. It felt like a gimmick.

Then there are the graphics.  They are good, but strangely cartoonish, which makes it hard to take anything seriously. I had this same problem with Bioshock and Dishonored as well. The people in these games all have soft, caricatured features, which creates a feeling of unreality.

I’m not sure why this particular style bothers me more than the outdated graphics of older games like Deus Ex or even Doom 3, but somehow it does

It is probably true that if I weren’t so well-versed in the simulated experience of exploring a creepy station overrun by monsters, the beginning of Prey might have been a lot more intriguing. If you haven’t played Doom 3 or Bioshock or System Shock 2 or Half-Life or Dead Space or the Fallout: New Vegas add-on Dead Money or… well, if you haven’t played many survival/horror games, everything in Prey will be new and interesting.

To get back to the Arboretum, where I first began to have thoughts of just giving up on Prey–well, I didn’t. I pressed on, and was soon rewarded for my efforts.  Because not too long after this, I started to run into some survivors with whom I could actually interact, as opposed to just constantly sneaking around in the dark, trying to alternately fight and run away from the Typhon.

The game really picks up once you start to meet some of the other characters. One suspects there must be a behind-the-scenes reason for this…

Helping officer Sarah Elazar and her men prepare for and then win a battle against Typhon forces massed in a cargo bay was the first really satisfying part of the game, and meeting some characters I cared about (who weren’t already dead) made me feel much more invested in the plot.

Even better were the quests involving Mikhaila Ilyushin. She guides you through a section of the station, and eventually you have the opportunity to get her some life-saving medicine.  It’s an optional quest, but really satisfying to complete.

See what I mean about the graphics?
Best character in the game.

Mikhaila was my favorite character in the game, because the quests relating to her are both rewarding and emotionally “true”. After returning to Morgan’s office, she asks you to find data about her father that is stored in the station’s archives. On finding it, it reveals that Morgan ordered her father’s death. You have the choice of whether to tell her about this, or destroy the evidence. In the end, telling her is ultimately the right choice. “Honesty is the best policy…”

Between her and the security personnel in the cargo bay,  I started to care about the story in a way I hadn’t for the first six hours or so. And so I found myself once again heading to the arboretum to meet with Alex, and hear his explanation for the whole thing.

On reaching his office, you learn that in fact everything he’s been doing has been to fulfill orders previously given to him by… you.  Alex isn’t evil; he’s just doing what he believed the “real” Morgan would have wanted him to do, before neuromods and other experiments changed his sibling into someone he no longer recognizes.

This was a very powerful plot twist, because the game does a good job of making you hate Alex in the beginning, and then does an equally good job of making you want to work with him. The switch is accomplished very economically, and does not feel at all forced or contrived.

Alex explains that the key to understanding the Typhon has to do with the “coral”–a mysterious luminescent substance they have woven throughout the station as they have taken it over. After you study it further, it confirms what Alex claims Morgan initially suspected: the coral is a neural network.

For me, this development happened at about the 15 hour mark, and I was really getting into the game at this point. I returned to the arboretum (Alex’s office is there) to bring back the data I had collected and upload it for analysis. This, I figured, would trigger the endgame sequence.

But no–the upload gets interrupted by a surprise attack from a mercenary named Walther Dahl. He’s been sent by the TranStar corporation to steal back all the data and kill everyone on the station.

He’s also the most annoying character in the entire game. He blows in at the eleventh hour with his army of military robots, totally disrupting the pace of the narrative. He may have been referenced earlier in the story–although I sure don’t remember it–but certainly not in any way that counts as meaningful foreshadowing. My reaction to his arrival wasn’t “oh, wow; it’s that Walther Dahl guy I heard about earlier”, but instead “who the hell are you?”

It reminded me of Stephen Leacock’s mockery of a common trope in detective novels that explains the crime by concluding: “It was the work of one of the most audacious criminals ever heard of (except that the reader never heard of him till this second)”.

Even worse, Dahl undercuts the main enemy of the game, the Typhon. It’s like in Mass Effect 2 and especially 3, when Cerberus and the Illusive Man kept getting in the way of fighting the Reapers.

I actually found myself rooting for and counting on the Typhon to get rid of Dahl’s inexplicable army of robots for me.  This is detrimental to the plot in two different ways: first, it makes you feel sympathy for what had previously been an unambiguous enemy; and second, it undercuts the Typhon’s effectiveness–they can’t be that powerful, if Dahl was able to show up and take over the station in the space of about five minutes.

This whole sequence was undoubtedly the weakest point of the game, and it took about two hours to resolve. (In fairness, defeating Dahl was extremely satisfying, but not so much as to justify his existence in the first place.)

So now, I found myself going back to the arboretum yet again, to do the same thing I had been about to do two hours before, prior to the pointless Dahl episode. And that wasn’t even the worst thing about it–but I’ll get to that later.

There had been several points throughout the game where it seemed like they were just throwing obstacles at me to  make everything as hard as possible. There were quests that went something like this:

  1. “Go get some files from a computer on the other side of the station.”
  2. <Goes there, fighting and hiding from Typhon all the way>
  3. “Oh, the door is broken. You have to get parts to fix it.”
  4. <Gets parts>
  5. “Shoot, the power’s out. Backtrack and turn it on.”
  6. <Goes back; fights more Typhon>
  7. “Hey, the power is out because the reactor is broken. Fix it.”
  8. <Rebuilds nuclear reactor>
  9. “What were we doing again?”

This had been frustrating enough, but the Dahl interruption was just too much.  I prefer games in which each objective involves uncovering new information that advances the plot, rather than have most of the objectives be about doing busywork that eventually uncovers information that advances the plot. It felt at times like they were just dragging it out. And this turned out to be a big problem, but again, more about that later.

Once the coral data is analyzed, Alex explains that the coral is used by the Typhon to transmit a signal.  Morgan, he continues, had suspected this from the beginning and had designed a device that could destroy the Typhon by taking over the neural network.  He suggests using this, instead of following January’s suggestion of activating the station’s self-destruct mechanism.

At this point, a massive Typhon creature appears from deep space and begins to consume the entire station. Morgan then has to choose between whether to destroy the station and the Typhon along with it, or activate the device and destroy the Typhon but keep all the research and technology the team on Talos I has developed.

I chose the latter. I’m always a big one for keeping knowledge–same reason I always leave the Collector base intact at the end of Mass Effect 2. It never hurts to have more technology at your disposal; you can always choose not to use it if you don’t want to.

In either ending, the Typhon are destroyed, and the credits roll. But Prey still has one final twist in store. And it’s significant enough that even though I warned you about spoilers earlier, I’m putting it after the page break…

Ah, but first a word about the beginning of the game. That opening 20 minutes that I mentioned liking so much? It works like this: Morgan wakes up in an apartment, and takes a helicopter ride to a research station, where scientists run some tests to prepare Morgan to leave for Talos I. However, one of the tests is interrupted when a mimic attacks the lead scientist and Morgan is knocked unconscious.

Morgan then wakes up again in the apartment, but now it is revealed that the apartment, the helicopter and the rest were all just a simulation, and Morgan has actually been aboard Talos I all along.

I loved this. As I said, it reminded me of the opening scene of Spec Ops: The Line, and not just because of the helicopter ride. Spec Ops also uses its opening sequence to create a jarring and discomfiting effect for the player. It’s almost fourth wall breaking in the way it messes with your perception of what is “real” in the game world.

However, the payoff for the opening of Spec Ops doesn’t come until later in the game, whereas Prey seemingly pulls its trick right after the opening credits.

But as it turns out, this is just the setup for an even bigger twist: after the credits, you again wake up from a simulation–this time to reveal that you weren’t playing as “Morgan” at all, but rather as a captured Typhon that Alex has been experimenting upon, trying to see if it can understand human feelings.

Alex and his robot assistants (who have the voices and personalities of Sarah, Mikhaila and other survivors the player met on Talos I) explain that they constructed this simulation based on the memories of the “real” Morgan Yu’s experience on the station, to see if the creature would respond with empathy and compassion towards the humans.

They then evaluate the choices the player made throughout the game, to decide whether the creature can help bring peace between the Typhon and humanity. (The Typhon are shown to have overrun the earth.)

The twist is very well done, not only because it lends more meaning to the choices the player made throughout the game, but also because of its mind-bending meta-narrative: you just played a simulation of a simulation that started with another simulation.

It’s an ingenious, daring bit of narrative design. And it would have worked even better, except for that one big problem I’ve been promising to discuss.

During the irritating Dahl interlude, I got less invested in the story and my mind started to wander as I fought his regenerating robot army. It was then that the thought crossed my mind: Hey, this thing started with a simulation. I bet it’s all going to turn out to be another simulation.

If not for the game being needlessly dragged out, this probably wouldn’t have occurred to me.  If I had been invested in the story and engaged by the pacing, I wouldn’t have diverted my thoughts from what was currently happening in the game.

This is the thing Spec Ops did right that Prey did not: its plot and pacing were so tight that I never disengaged long enough to start thinking about possible plot twists. I finished Spec Ops in one long weekend; Prey took a lot longer.

I know people want to “get their money’s worth” from games, but for me, that doesn’t automatically mean that more content is better. I’d rather have a tight, well-paced and powerful 10-hour game than a meandering, repetitive and tedious 25 hour game. Not that Prey is terribly meandering and repetitive, but I still can’t help wondering if they added certain things to pad it out.

That’s not to say the twist was completely ruined just because I’d guessed it in advance. It still makes for an intrinsically strong ending, because the player’s choices mattered. (If not for the post-credits scene, the ending would have been almost as lame as that of Mass Effect 3. I wonder if the popular Mass Effect “Indoctrination Theory” influenced the Prey designers.)

Prey is a peculiar game. It borrows and builds upon elements from many other horror games before it, and that is both a strength and a weakness. A strength because these are intrinsically effective as tropes of the horror genre, and a weakness because they lack the power to really frighten because they are so familiar.

But it is not just a collection of borrowed pieces rearranged in a new way. Prey also attempts to weave a meaningful and emotional story with compelling characters into a Lovecraftian cosmic horror setting. This is a very ambitious goal, since cosmicism is inherently opposed to literary humanism. And yet, Prey almost manages to balance the two. The final choice of the game–whether to take Alex’s hand or to kill him–could be read as a choice between cosmicism and humanism.

Like the TranStar corporation that controls Talos I, Prey has built upon the successes of its forerunners and reaches for the stars in its ambitions. But also like TranStar’s experiments, it doesn’t always go smoothly.

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