This article contains spoilers for Prey.
The transition from one year to the next can be brutal. The cold weather no longer justifies its existence via festive cheer. The days are technically getting longer as we begin the trudge towards summer solstice, but I’m pretty sure that from January the base light level is a couple of hundred lumens lower right up until 1st May.
The transition is particularly jarring if you’re a game. The endless lists of yesteryear’s best titles and the new year’s most anticipated ones mark a cut-off where the top-rated, top-selling games get written into gaming legend, ready for those GOTY editions, while those on the peripheries merely slip into the history books.
Prey is almost certainly destined for the latter category. The outbursts of high praise for the game in the inter-year discussions never really amounted to a consensus, and if it was already fading from memory by the end of 2017, it’ll almost certainly be forgotten in 2018. So it feels like an apt time to push it back into your consciousness.
Especially as Prey is something of a love letter to gaming.
On the surface, the Talos 1 space station is a shining monument to scientific utopia; a symbol of a brave new world in which nations set aside their paltry Earthly differences in pursuit of a greater understanding of the universe by studying the mysterious Typhon life-form. Talos-1’s lavish deco-inspired art design makes it appear solid, unshakeable, like a pyramid of the future.
Then, everything changes.
After the introductory helicopter ride, you break the glass in Morgan’s office that ostensibly looks out over a radiant futuristic skyline. But on the other side, instead of a city, there’s only a pokey maintenance area with pipes and valves, exposing the golden skyline as an illusion. This is a central tenet of Prey – from the knowledge that innocuous objects in the environment can morph into whipping, swirling spider-things at any moment, to the fact that behind every wood-panelled room there is usually a cold, metallic room responsible for its running, Prey draws attention to the fragility and artifice of its environment. Bookended by a beginning and end that reveal your experience to be a simulation (then a simulation within a simulation), it’s a videogame exercise in Bowellism, constantly exposing the behind-the-scenes workings that you’re not meant to see.
You can even leave the confines of Talos-1 and float out into space to quietly admire the entire game environment from the outside, without the trammels of gravity. It’s a serene experience, taking me back to the ‘noclip’ modes of 90s shooters which let you glide beyond the map, and see it floating in the blackness of unused game space.
This ethos of complete exposure extends to Prey’s mechanics and systems. When you first get the GLOO Cannon, it doesn’t start off all that exciting, as you mainly use it to freeze pesky Mimics. You may even find the whimsical white GLOO globules that it fires undermine the glossy architecture of the space station. The scientists working aboard Talos-1 certainly had fun with it…
Prey is hands-off about pushing the player along its narrative path. It’s one step short of plonking you in the lobby and saying ‘Right, I’m off. Enjoy’. That may be offputting to some, but those ambling first hours of Prey invite more curious players to explore the place, and start experimenting with the GLOO Cannon: throw a few balls at the wall, and see how they stick.
It’s an eye-opener when you first use your GLOO ledges to scale to an area you thought was only reachable by a Grav Shaft, or reach a balcony leading to a room that you’d otherwise have needed a key code for. It’s a dream for speedrunners, who use the GLOO Cannon in combination with glitches in the world geometry to skip to whichever parts of the story and space station they please, ultimately completing the game in a matter of minutes.
What all this demonstrates is that Prey’s world is there from the off, exposed and waiting to be explored (and exploited). It ties Prey into a rich gaming lineage beyond the obvious one of the System Shock/Bioshock games that it quietly champions. It’s equally related to Morrowind, where the raw systems-based world is instantly explorable and big bad Dagoth Ur in his mountain awaits any player with the audacity to go right for him. It’s Dark Souls for how your progress is marked by interconnecting the world through shortcuts. It’s Super Metroid for its sequence-breaking, the GLOO Cannon a pseudo-scientific successor to Samus’ wall-jumping.
Arkane was bold to force so little structure on the player in a setting that offers a rather niche, nosey kind of freedom: namely rummaging through corporate offices, rubbish bins and emails, and listening to audiologs that tell touching stories between the station’s largely deceased staff. It’s like a voyeuristic version of the similarly exploitable, wonderful systems of its unlikely 2017 peers, Breath of the Wild or Divinity: Original Sin 2 (and they did OK); immersive yet at the same time infinitely breakable and gamey. Perhaps people are just more drawn to exploring dungeons and mysterious fantasy realms than desk drawers and personal computers.
Traversing Talos-1 is a lonely, paranoid experience, but nevertheless filled with a humanity that's mostly expressed through games and geek culture. You’ll find games consoles in every common room and sleeping bay, and copies of a trashy sci-fi comic saga, the Starbender series, scattered around the station. You also find remnants of a game of tabletop D&D (called Fatal Fortress, in reference to early Arkane game Arx Fatalis), complete with character sheets filled out with endearingly messy handwriting (presumably belonging to Arkane devs), and a treasure hunt you can embark on.
The D&D tribute is fitting because Prey, while not an RPG, shares with the tabletop game an open, improvisational approach to encounters. Confrontations with larger Typhon-like Telepaths, Technopaths and the formidable Nightmares are rarely head-on affairs unless you’ve piled Neuromods into your weapon skills. Each enemy has its elemental strengths and weaknesses, so you need to assess your environment beforehand and search for things that can be used to your advantage: a wall, perhaps, that you can scale with your GLOO Gun to a higher vantage point, a burst pipe spitting fire that you can lure a Typhon into, or an alternative, unexpected entrance to a room (and no, I’m not talking about bleedin’ vents Jensen).
One unexpected Nightmare encounter in the Arboretum sticks in my mind, where the beast was blocking my path into the main area. I inched up when its back was turned and transformed the lumpy husk of a nearby corpse into a friendly Phantom. While my pal kept the big bastard busy, I morphed myself into a nearby turret and peppered the Nightmare as it Benny-Hilled the Phantom around the area. Another time I outwitted a telepath patrolling a swimming pool (after it had already killed me a couple of times, admittedly) by heading to the gym area overlooking the pool, smashing through the glass, then bounding around between the large light fixture platforms where it struggled to zero in on me. All these years after Turok and Half-life, Prey shows that first-person platforming can work after all...
The Typhon may be a homogeneous bunch, but encounters with them are unique and circumstantial, shaped by a potent mix of systems and environments that conjure unexpected scenarios.
Prey is nearly as much a museum of gaming and game design as it is an actual video game. Perhaps that was part of its problem all along: Arkane was so enamoured with clever systems, environmental design and game references that there isn’t enough narrative drive. The game’s pace does sag for the kind of player that just wants to surge on with the story. But I see Prey and Talos 1 more as a playful place to be than a game that needs completing. I’d quite happily have spent more time exploring rooms, unearthing audiologs and geeky scientist pastimes, and resolving enemy encounters with the seemingly endless array of skill combos.
That seems like wishful thinking now. Around the time of Prey’s release Arkane said that we’d be getting DLC, but it looks like below-par sales put paid to that idea. Prey has the hallmarks of a game that will get eulogised years down the line, but it deserves better here and now.