Welcome to the first episode of Third Person Presents. This will be a special standalone podcast and sometimes article about games, news, events and more with the Third Person team. In this edition, editor Alex Marshall, video producer Craig Jay and Editor-in-Chief Colin Cummings talk about Arkane's Prey. Spoilers ahead!
You’ll see the word “subversive” pop up frequently while consuming criticism of Prey (2017) – typically referring to how the game rewards players attempts to subvert its mechanics. Want to kill this NPC? Sure, go for it. Want to use the GLOO cannon to circumvent all of these phantoms? By all means. Want to take an escape pod off the station at the first possible opportunity? Bon voyage. While all this is well and good, Prey’s real achievement is altogether subverting our notions of player agency. Released amidst a deluge of open-world games – filled with soulless avatars and weak narrative – Prey is a welcome shot in the arm for an industry that can’t seem to present players with decisions worth making.
While telling a compelling story about fatalism, morality, and what it means to be human, Prey manages to provide master-class in discovery-based play and exploration. It pushes the player to seek out new areas, and piece together personal details of random TranStar employees. This discovery-based play isn’t out of some rote expectation of reward in the form of experience points. Rather, the exploration is out of curiosity and instinctual self-preservation. I completed side-quests because I wanted to know more, not because there was a carrot being dangled at the end of a stick. I fiendishly read through employee emails and notes, listened to every audio-log I could find, and tried to piece together the complex social webs. All of this work, without the thought of reward. Even when the game decided to reward me for my diligence, it simply felt like a bonus.
Yet, despite my feverish 30-hour play through, I don’t think I’ll play Prey again.
I haven’t touched Prey since “beating it” a few days ago. I didn’t stop due to a lack of time or access. I simply haven’t felt compelled to re-enter and re-explore Talos-I. In a consumer-space obsessed with replayability and end-game content, this might seem like a criticism. However, I genuinely felt satisfied with a single play-through. Prey, in my opinion, is best consumed as a singular experience where the player lives with the consequences of their decisions and doesn’t quick-save/ quick-load their way out of every situation. Playing in such a way allows Prey’s systems to come to life in ways I could not have imagined. The idea that January – your guide through this nightmare scenario, and a character I thought indispensable – can be killed off, without resulting in a game over, is incredible. It’s truly a testament to the thought Arkane Austin put into this game. It’s also just one of many instances in which Prey subtly surprises you. Prey is at its best when the player seemingly throws a wrench into (read: subverts) the narrative. The game simply deals with it, and moves forward to its ultimately inevitable conclusion.
Prey’s epilogue has been divisive. So it was all a simulation? A test within a test within a test, where the decisions I made regarding Talos I and its inhabitants provided the evidence for an Operator tribunal to decide my fate. Again, Prey’s real achievement is subverting the player’s notion of agency, and what they have come to expect from a narrative shooter where you get to make decisions. The game got me good. I felt tricked, and somewhat miffed that the decision to blow up or save Talos I was entirely inconsequential – that the time spent helping (or not helping) the characters you cross paths with had somehow been wasted. However, the more I think about it, the more impressed I am that Arkane decided to end the game on this note, and made me care in the first place. It’s a clever subversion of the “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey” trope. It’s a subtle rebuke of the weird inclination the industry and its consumers have towards “player choice” – as if to say that giving the player choices somehow better serves them than telling a meaningful story.
Prey is as close to Half-Life 3 as we’re ever going to get, a mute protagonist scientist with a starting melee weapon, fighting off Headcrabs, Mimics, Alien Slaves, Phantoms, and Barnacles Cystoid Nests. The similarities aren’t a bad thing. From Resident Evil, System Shock 2, Deus Ex, and Bioshock, the list goes on. I think it grabs what all these games do best, and relishes in them. The first hour is all I want from a game – the “everything is not what it seems” got me hooked. An unsuspecting simulation, an alien invasion, and it’s your job to find out what the hell is going on, and stop it.
The enemies in the first half of Prey are terrifying, with barely any weapons to begin with, besides the Gravity Gun GLOO Canon. The Mimics are jumpscare worthy, but as soon as you’re able to ‘scan’ potential Mimics in a room, camouflaging themselves as mugs or stools, it gets less intense. That is, until the Nightmares show up, and I end up running for my life. So, when it came to approaching new enemies it always felt refreshing. Finding yourself trying to decide how to approach each one, with whatever weapons and abilities you have at your disposal, was always challenging.
When talking to other players of this game, it was interesting to me that there are so many side missions and people to meet. It made me want to re-play the game, and potentially change my ending. One highlight for me was the Danielle Sho / Abby relationship, and the Chef mini-story. Finding clues, traps and audio transcribes enriched my whole experience of the game. With potential stories and relationships aboard this ship, I wanted to keep looking for more.
We can’t not talk about the music, the 80s synth is perfect for the space setting, and for our Stranger Things-like nostalgia. There are times where there was nothing happening, and the music would crash into my headphones. I didn’t know if I missed something, or there was something about to happen. This happened to me on a few instances, and nothing ended up happening. It was disappointing, but my heart rate shot sky high whilst I waited for an impending Telepath to come by, and turn my turrets against me.
There are next-to-no cut scenes, which means you are fully immersed in this world. You can choose to do side quests, or just focus on the main story, collect items, upgrade weapons/ special abilities, and explore the entire station at your own will. Your decisions do reflect the end result, but only just. You can decide to be “good” and help the staff and passengers survive, or be “bad” and kill everyone and everything in sight. Or, if you’ve just had enough, fly off the station, and leave everyone to it.
Highlights for me are the challenging side quests: finding certain crew members to hear their story and accessing locked rooms by turning into small objects and fitting through gaps, or using a Recycler Charges and destroying everything in its path. I wanted to explore this station through and through, and what stopped me after 30 or so hours were the loading times on the PS4. If I wanted to get from one end to the other, I knew I had to wade through at least four time-consuming load screens, and that wasn’t going to happen.
The other downside was the ending (and that awful out-of-place credits song). Without giving too much away, well, it didn’t pack much punch. I liked how the subtle decisions you make throughout the game gets relayed back to you, but the ending isn’t the be-all and end-all, you can just “try again” until you get it “right” to please your brother.
How you play the game is down to you. What I love is that every version of Yu (“you”) is different – removing Neuromods (the abilities and knowledge mods) from your brain resets your memories to when you first put them in – so you can start over. You’re essentially playing your version of Yu. The end result depends on how many people you’ve helped along the way, and you’re presented with one final decision. Does this ending make it to the inevitable Prey 2? We’ll see.
I found myself wrestling with Prey for a couple of weeks. I would boot it up, and get lost in its space station for hours, only to emerge feeling like I didn’t want to dive back in. Then, some days would pass, and I would repeat the same process. Unlike Alex or Craig before me, I haven’t beaten Prey, and I’m not sure if I will. Prey does so many things right, but fumbles on some key elements that hold it back from being an instant classic.
From the ominous corridors with flickering lights and strange noises emanating from the walls, to the splendor and opulence on display while floating outside the station, Talos-1 is a setting that stands out. Designed to be an art deco-esque take on an alternate history – where the United States and Russia worked together on their space-faring initiatives – the station feels like a character in its own right. It’s laid out intelligently, and feels like a grounded environment. Every room and every corridor is important. The station feels like a real place, in a way that calls back to the layered world of the original Dark Souls. In a Souls-like fashion, the game leans on the same environmental storytelling. Small touches in the environment help establish the narrative, and tell stories of those who lived and worked here. From the transcribes – which allow the player to replay conversations had before and during the Typhon outbreak – to smaller touches like GLOO stacked up on a door in a last ditch attempt to stymie the encroaching horde, the environment helps tell the story. The player picks through this rubble and pieces together their own life, as well as those who came before her.
The enemies, at first glance, help add to this narrative. The mimics that disguise themselves as regular objects, and jump out so you knock over things on your desk, add a tense push and pull to exploring the environment. In one case this leads to the player discovering a room covered in sticky notes, an attempt to label what is and isn’t a mimic. There is also the poltergeist that appears to be invisible, and turns all of the room’s objects into flying debris targeted at the player’s head. However, these encounters lose their weight as the game goes on, and eventually boring robots and more generic Typhon enemies take their place. Thanks to my trusty shotgun, and a local grocery store’s bounty in chips and fruit to heal me, combat became a chore that interrupted my quest to track down the fates of the station’s denizens. Near the end it proved to be the thing that would stop me from pressing forward at all.
Prey would have been stronger if they kept the player weak, and made the enemies less numerous, but more dangerous. How can a station full of the most brilliant scientists and most capable individuals fall so quickly to a enemy that the player (Morgan) can dispatch with ease? You have to suspend your disbelief a bit, but it got stretched to its breaking point. There is also an in-game narrative explaining that Morgan has begun to lose her humanity because of the trail mix of Typhon mods she has injected. Except, I never once used a Typhon mod and still never struggled with exploration or combat, thanks to the other avenues the game presents the player with.
Just like the shine and opulence that is masking Talos-1’s dark intentions, Prey’s dark potential is hidden beneath modern conventions and mechanics. It should have made the Typhon a menace, an actual nightmare stalking the player that is constantly creeping in at the edges, as the player picked through the ruins. The freedom of Prey should be praised, but in certain systems and mechanics there is too much choice presented. The Prey we have is a good shock to the system, but should have taken more risks. As a result, the game’s balance goes out the airlock.