There’s something to be said about a game that is frustratingly difficult — at points terrifyingly so — but that somehow doesn’t deter you from wanting to play it.
Prey, a sci-fi game shrouded in mystery from the start, is one such game.
At first, it feels impossibly difficult. There’s no way you’ll survive enemies that can kill you in two hits. There’s no way you’ll ever have enough ammunition at a time in your inventory to get them back. Surely your fate is just to run away, hide, be terrified, come to terms with your mortality, curse Arkane Studios’ name as you wonder what kind of gamer they think they’re catering to — dexterous gods and creatively resourceful geniuses?? You need to upgrade your abilities to even sneak around your enemies properly, FFS.
But that’s just how it starts. Thirty hours later, Prey feels like a different game.
Things start off slow. You barely have any weapons or even an idea of who you are. You know your name is Morgan Yu, you are either a man or a woman (the game lets you choose), and you’re partaking in some kind of scientific research as a test subject. You’re woken up in the middle of a science experiment presumably gone wrong. The experiments you’ve been undergoing are followed up with a systematic reset of your memory after each session, so you don’t know much more than that initially.
Once you shift away from your test subject routine, you’re off on your own — alone. You’ve got a wrench and a constantly-changing objective that basically amounts to: find out what’s happening aboard the Talos I space station you find yourself on, and survive it. Oh, and also possibly save Earth and all of mankind, because this is a video game.
The enemy creatures in Prey are something out of a horror movie (or Alien, as the storyline seems to love). In the beginning, while things are still slow, you’ll see humanoids that can warp and teleport around a room, or spider-like things that often take you by surprise, mimicking objects around you and jumping out as you near their hiding spot. They’re shadowy — wrapped in a vibrating, shiny black color that can only be described as a shade of ‘black hole.’ Fitting, considering they’re aliens in space.
Or maybe organisms or bacteria is the more scientifically accurate classification for this species, known in the game as typhon. Whatever they are, some are able to spread their species via humans — they infect people with their shadows, reanimating them after they’re dead. If you turn subtitles on, you can hear the typhon phantoms (the humanoids) in the distance, muttering to themselves as they pace around rooms.
Thirty hours later, Prey feels like a different game.
Subtitles are great cues for when enemies are closeby, but it adds context to the mystery of the story, too. They whisper about me and the other TransStar employees. They wonder where we came from. They wonder if they made us in a lab. They insist that we want to live inside them, like a disease. It feels like projecting, or like I’m meant to reconsider who is predator and who is prey. But considering I’m just a player exploring someone else’s story at best, and an oblivious, under-armed scientist with a memory deficit at worst, I can’t be sure what the hell any of that means while I’m playing.
On top of dealing with the creeping, strong, and scary creatures, the space station you’re on is a maze, spread out across multiple floors with locked doors scattered between. You spend a lot of time navigating this maze, searching desperately for the tiniest bit of food for health or a spare canister of gloo for the versatile gloo gun. It’s easy to get lost, and it takes time to master the layouts of each level.
Every successful tip-toeing step around a typhon, and every apple you pocket feels like a moment worthy of a quick-save — the button you’ll become intimately familiar with during your playthrough.
Thirty hours in, though, is a whole other story. Before you know it, you’re zooming between divisions of the station — jumping off platforms, creating shortcuts with your gloo gun to scale between floors and skip enemy encounters. You’re dashing around narrow corridors, aiming for the one door you can visualize in your mind because you’ve been through it 20 times by then.
Thirty hours in, you’ve got this. You know the space station like your memory wasn’t wiped clean, you’ve got a shotgun, some new abilities, and constantly changing motivations that shift you closer to the edge of your seat.
Once you hit the point in Prey where you finally don’t feel underpowered, your progress slows for a different reason. The story — though consistently compelling for the whodunit and wuthappened mysteries you’re trying to unravel — drags through missions that send you running back and forth between levels. Every time you thinking you’re nearing the end — the big reveal — new promises are made. Your brother, a fellow TransStar big wig at the head of the experiments, promises just one more destination or key item and all will be told. But once you get there, that promise extends beyond another request and then — surely then! — you’ll know everything you need to know.
Backtracking — either for missions or for resources — is inherent to progressing in the game.
You can’t always just shotgun your way through the typhon.
Resources are everything in Prey, and they can be hard to find. By gaining new abilities — like hacking or lifting heavy objects — you’ll gain access to more and more pieces of the maze of Talos I and, hence, more resources. What seems like trash can be converted into important materials (using a recycling machine) that can then be turned into important resources (using a fabricator machine) like health kits and ammunition. Fortunately, this constant focus on scrounging for useful materials does lend itself to the narrative that you’re in a desperate, frantic struggle for survival.
Even with more abilities and weapons, scarce resources means you have to adapt to intelligently make use of what you have on hand, moment to moment. You can’t always just shotgun your way through the typhon. If you’ve only got battery packs for your stun gun and a few gloo canisters left over, you have to be creative in your plan of attack. That helps alleviate the sometimes-repetitive nature of the enemy encounters you come across.
As you’re running back and forth between mission areas, or between newly-discovered junk and the last recycler you can remember running across, there’s a lot of fighting phantom typhon, and fighting phantom typhon again.
Areas you think you’ve cleared are constantly replenished with new enemies. They often get progressively more difficult or numerous, too, as the alien breach on the station grows, reflecting the tense and time-constrained nature of your situation.
You’ll face new threats — like giant floating typhon that can control both human and robotic minds, or the dramatically-named nightmare that will chase you for three minutes (on normal difficulty) across the map (but that is super easy to hide from) — but combat becomes rote anyway.
You hear people’s apologies and regrets. You hear their fear, and their defeat.
The upside to the back and forth run-around is that you’re forced to explore, illuminating all the remaining greyed-out areas on your map. Exploring means more resources, but it also means you’ll come across more TransStar employees who didn’t survive the breach. Many of them have transcribers on their bodies that hold the details of either their last moments or important pieces of the storyline. You overhear conversations between the people involved in the interrupted research operation. You get insight into who your brother was as its leader, and as a person. You hear people’s apologies and regrets. You hear their fear, and their defeat. You can even track down specific crewmates by name, leading you to their last stands. Phantoms of their stories play out in your head — visualizing their failure to survive is strikingly eerie. It’s all at once unnerving and comforting, having finally come across another human being, even if it is a dead one.
The station is empty — literally dead. But then, out of nowhere, humans show up left and right. You go from no interactions — traversing the game through mostly-silent stories that you decipher on your own — to interacting with the rigidly-animated faces of alive TransStar employees that were in hiding or near death. It fits the story, in a sense; they were so holed up that it took some time to get to them, but it breaks the pace of the game’s tension by unloading them almost all at once.
I’m not convinced featuring any survivors in this way did the game a service, either. Corpses of TransStar employees let you embrace a distant, past, long-dead voice that reminded you there was something here before all this happened. It maintained the creepy edge of the game, while still connecting you with its history and its humanity. It added the right sense of dread to the experience of what is, effectively, a horror story. Coming into contact with a bunch of live humans all at once meant a pile of new fetch quests. Their roles do begin to add some kind of substance, but their rapid succession makes the overall experience of the game feel disjointed.
Though it never gets easy by any means, Prey does open up to you the more you play it — both in terms of gameplay as well as the story. As you get more powerful, you get more comfortable. As you learn more, you feel more responsible for the story.
Warning! Potential spoilers. Allusions to the ending follow.
Discovering more about the typhon, the station, and your connection to it all makes you realize that your efforts all have limits. You embrace the conflicts of morality and the potential impact of the decisions you have to make. Because, ultimately, however this ends, it sure does seem like there is no perfect solution. Playing out Prey’s story often feels like you’re always going to be on the lose-lose end of things, one way or another.
As you get more powerful, you get more comfortable. As you learn more, you feel more responsible for the story.
Throughout the game, you’re constantly being pulled in opposing moral directions, both sides of which make convincing arguments. Do you blow up the space station, along with all the research so many people invested their time and lives into? Do you spare the research? Do you spare yourself? You use everything you’ve ever learned from any sci-fi storyline to envision the possibilities. Ultimately, you can make educated guesses as to what conclusions arise out of what choice you make between the ones presented to you.
On one side, you have an operating machine who you apparently programmed with your instructions, recorded with your voice. She (or he) deals with you in a very frank way. As she tells you, you have to decide what kind of person you are in order to make these decisions. On the other side, you have your brother. He’s family — but does that mean he knows best? Does that even mean he has your best interests at heart, or anyone’s but his own? He’s still only human, after all, and even family can let you down.
I struggled with the dilemmas behind the possibilities, and I loved that. But all the scenarios I dreamed up in my head — using all the information I gathered and pairing it against my gut — never got the opportunity to necessarily confirm or deny my suspicions.
TLDR: I enjoyed Prey. It’s tough, even frustratingly so, at first. But as the game opens up and rewards your commitment to it, you get to play out the fantasies of a horror scenario centered on big moral questions. It’s easy to get consumed by its mysteries, and get wrapped up in the guesswork/detective work of exploring those mysteries to their ends.