A love letter to Prey
(This article contains minor spoilers)
John F. Kennedy said: “We choose to go to the Moon… not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard”. In the alternative history of Arkane Studios’ Prey, Kennedy was not assassinated and decided to join forces with the USSR to ramp up the space program that eventually resulted in the catastrophic disaster, which the events of Prey depict so colorfully. Prey is such an incredibly complex, tightly written, and all-around profoundly impressive immersive sim, that making one work seems like an impossible task, and yet Arkane did it, and it’s an absolute triumph of game design.
I finished my 90+ hours long playthrough of Prey two weeks ago and I still can’t stop thinking about it. Like Morgan Yu, the main character of the game, I keep having this dream — I’m just staring into the black between the stars, and there’s something there. Coupled with rewarding game mechanics, the story, world and characters of Prey provided the experience I will never forget.
Among numerous things that are great in Prey, there were three aspects that stood out to me the most.
I wrote earlier that Dishonored 2 is a masterful game, but one thing that Dishonored games lack is a captivating, haunting story — and Prey delivers on that front. One of the reasons I couldn’t stop playing through Prey was the desire to understand what the hell happened on Talos I and if I could fix things.
Honestly, I doubt I have ever played a game that is written so tightly, so masterfully. If you novelise Prey and make a book or a film out of it, it would be regarded as the first class science fiction work. Prey’s writing is very mature, very reserved, very tasteful across how the main storyline and key events are presented to the player, how characters are defined through dialogue lines, audio logs and emails. Famous Chris Avellone (of Planescape: Torment and Fallout fame) contributed to writing massively, but the bulk of work was done by Arkane’s creative director Ricardo Bare, and the studio’s founder and Prey’s creative director Raphael Colantonio. This is characteristic of Prey — you can see how this game is fully driven by its story. Everything, from world design to gameplay systems, are derived from it — this is not uncommon for narrative driven single player games, but for immersive sims, this story-based approach is pretty remarkable (arguably, BioShock is the only other immersive sim where the story serves as a foundation for everything).
Remarkable writing is particularly notable because the game is so open and so rarely guides the player. Unlike BioShock, which is pretty linear, let alone even less systemic games full of cutscenes and non-interactive fragments, Prey lets you do what you want and go where you want almost form the very beginning. Almost any dialogue, audio log, email or note can be skipped, making writer’s work excruciatingly hard — and yet, Prey’s story and writing always make sense.
And then of course there is this post-ending credits scene which essentially turns everything you learned and assumed in the previous playthrough upside down — not quite on the level of BioShock Infinite’s ending, but close. The ending fuels so many theories, including even religious parallels — something particularly interesting, considering that there is, to my knowledge, zero signs of any religious beliefs at all on Talos I. The space station is completely devoid of human gods, and yet the final scene made me think about religion. What is even cooler, if you really play carefully and pay attention to bits and snippets of the story that you learn along the way, you might start to get an idea of what might actually be happening, but the game still doesn’t spoil it to you — it rather fuels your imagination.
By nature of being games about the feeling of space, true immersive sims are always great at worldbuilding — but Prey manages to stand tall even when compared to Dishonored or Deus Ex. The obsessive attention to detail in Prey is just remarkable. Every area in Prey is built at scale — if you put together all separate sections of Talos I into one huge mega-level, it would snap and fit together perfectly like a puzzle. Talos I is one coherent, tightly designed world. The game even lets you leave the station and fly around the massive mile-long installation in space – the scale and location of each section relative to the others are preserved when explored from the outside, which significantly contributes to the overall sensation and believability of being locked on the station in space.
Only the best science fiction about space manages to achieve and convey the feeling of helpless humanity lost in emotionless, endless ocean of hostility. Prey achieves this not only through its story, enemies and mechanics, but through worldbuilding as well. Talos I is a sprawling installation which will take you dozens of hours to explore, but fly outside in a space suit and look at it against Moon or Earth far away, and it will look tiny compared to the horrors of what would devour Talos I without hesitation if you do not make the right choices.
Go back inside, and each area of Talos I is thought through with insane dedication. Arkane paid attention to every little detail, as if they were designing not the game, but the actual space station. Where do engineers and scientists work? How do they relax? Where do they go and blow off steam after hard work hours? Where and how they sleep and keep fit? Every area in Prey contributes to the design of Talos I as one coherent entity, but remarkably, each still stands apart and feels unique. Crew Quarters, bright and art-deco styled, reminds of certain BioShock interiors, whereas Neuromod Division or Hardware Labs are fascinating research facilities. Arboretum is a relaxing garden in space, whereas G.U.T.S is a long, cold and dark zero-gravity facility tunnel, full of hazards. Offices, closets, toilets — every little part of Talos I makes sense and exists not necessarily always to provide meaningful gameplay situations, but to make you believe.
What makes each room and area of Talos I feel particularly alive is that every detail also matters from the gameplay perspective — something immersive sims do particularly well. Every chair or table can provide cover from enemies, every large crate can hide a maintenance hatch, every piece of junk can be taken and recycled for valuable materials. Any ledge or far-off opening can be accessed, since you can make your own geometry and path through spaces with the help of the GLOO Cannon (what a nightmare for level designers this thing surely was!). But what makes micro-level gameplay in Prey particularly brilliant is the presence of mimics. These small deadly alien lifeforms can literally mimic almost any object in the game and jump at your face when you least expect it. All the way through the game this makes you question every little chair, cup or cardboard box you see, as anything can be a deadly trap. However, early in the game you can acquire the ability to mimic any small object yourself, which is not only an effective stealth tactics, but also a way to squeeze through narrow openings and windows and get access to locked rooms.
Each immersive sim makes you live in little objects and details, but Prey brings this to another level.
This game is a goldmine of emergent situations, strategies and tactics. I finished Prey playing mostly stealthily and having acquired only one alien Neuromod ability (the aforementioned mimicking) and having used the silenced pistol and the shotgun exclusively — by doing so, I essentially bypassed a whole system of mechanics associated with advanced Typhon abilities and heavy weapons. I can play Prey five or ten more times and have a different experience at each playthrough by just using different combinations of abilities and weapons. But even as a stealth player, I missed so many things I only learned about from the strategy guide when I finished the game — such as the fact that Huntress bolts could attract attention of certain movement-sensitive enemies or be used as a sound distraction, or that Operators could be hacked and turned to your side.
Speaking of stealth, even though I would still categorise Prey as assault-focused immersive sim, it’s surprisingly supportive of stealth players like me. Sure, you have to fight off mimics here and there, but most areas are designed in a way that allows you to either bypass tougher foes completely, or to at least assault them when they do not expect (especially if you have relevant abilities). Like in Dishonored, taking higher ground allows you to stay away from most enemies’ sights, and crouching helps with hiding. By mimicking, you can stay hidden from enemies in their plain sight — unless you move or they step right on you. I once managed to hide from Nightmare by mimicking an apple and laying on the floor for three minutes while it was searching literally almost stepping on me — a terrifying and unforgettable experience.
Oh yes, Nightmare — it will keep hunting me in my dreams for weeks. For a stealth player like me, every encounter was a horror — I had to retreat back to the previous area every time it would spawn (which, by the way, feels like a cheat — I wish there was literally no way to run away from Nightmare, similarly to how you can’t safely hide from The Tyrant in Resident Evil 2 Remake). The way it moves, the sounds it makes and the sheer look and size of it scared me shitless every time I encountered the beast — good thing I didn’t invest into Typhon Neuromods and thus didn’t make those encounters more frequent. Using alien abilities causes not only Nightmare to appear more often, but also security turrets to sense an alien in you and attack you. This is a brilliant mechanic, reminding me of the Chaos system in Dishonored — the more aggressively you play, the more hostile the world becomes.
Once, however, Nightmare did something totally unexpected. Instead of hunting me, it rushed by me while I was crouching in a bush, and killed one of the important story characters it spotted in the open. The game of course continued, but a major part of the storyline was no longer available to me. This is another brilliance of Prey — the game allows most key characters to be killed early on, which profoundly impacts the narrative. It’s amazing how many story forks, options and variants there are in Prey. You can kill a certain character, which will prevent them from destroying another character. Some of those events take place before you, while others happen somewhere on Talos I, and you might never know about them as you might be late to them, or would choose to go someplace else. I don’t think there is another immersive sim in existence that provides so much flexibility in terms of narrative, and so many story forks.
It’s immortality. And it’s beautiful.
Prey is the game where the story, design, worldbuilding and gameplay systems all come together and create something special that is more than the sum of its parts. It’s a game that gives you so much freedom and meaningful choices, and yet it’s tightly written and doesn’t fall apart narratively. It’s hard to tell where pre-designed events end and emergent simulation starts in this game — was that carcass of an operator here placed by a level designer, or was there an actual fight before I arrived, and the operator fell? There is nothing random, nothing without a purpose in this game, and yet it’s so open, so unpredictable and so emergent.
Prey, ultimately, is a game that is high-class, the game that respects itself, the genre, and the player. It is groundbreaking on many levels, but it never screams how great it is. It offers you so much content and so many options, but subtly, counting on your intelligence and your desire to explore and think — not shouting “you can do THIS or THAT!” every five minutes. It tells you a coherent story, but leaves you with theories and guesses about what actually happened. Being a great psychological thriller, it scares you because it wants you to question everything, including yourself, and wonder what the hell is happening around you — not because of jump scares. Prey doesn’t want to be liked by everyone, doesn’t immediately say why it will entertain you (and surely, it has many flaws) — but if you invest your time and your attention into it, if you believe in it, the game will reward you with so much greatness.
Having completed Prey, Raphael Colantonio quit Arkane. You can see how this game is his child, the pinnacle of his career, a triumph of design and writing — after labors of love like Prey, it’s natural that people might want to retire, as making something even greater, even tighter, even more tasteful would be extremely hard.
No two games in recent memory impressed me more than Dishonored 2 and Prey, and there is no development studio in history that I cared about more than Arkane. Their games might not sell too well, but Arkane choose to push the boundaries of single player immersive storytelling not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.
I keep having this… dream.