Electron Dance
28Jun/178

Free to Prey

prey_coral

I find a secret route into an area that was locked down. Unusually, this feels exhilarating as I’m still not familiar with the game’s signposts. There’s a genuine sense of discovery. Can this last? Perhaps I am just enjoying a longer than usual honeymoon period, where the lack of education about the game’s design imbues it with mystery and surprise?

Of course, I consider backtracking. I’m not exactly running with a powerful character and perhaps this is not the route I’m supposed to take. There's an office ahead; I want to at least see where this leads. Ah, a few corrupted operators. Annoying but not difficult to dispatch.

I'm inside a small maintenance crawlspace and the only other exit to the office is blocked with boxes. Corrupted operators continue to stream through the open windows, so I refuse to enter the office until it's safe. God, how many more of these? Suddenly

WHOMP

all the boxes jolt forward as if something is trying to get in. I assume it’s just another operator. And again,

WHOMP

Boxes go flying and-- what… what the hell is that trying to get in? It’s as big as the door! I put up a good fight but The Thing From Beyond the Door kills me. Reload, it kills me again. I reload again. And again and again.

Just as I’m on the verge of throwing in the towel, I spy a window on the opposite side of the office. I sprint across and throw myself through it - and fall a few metres to the floor below.

I hold, staring up at the window with the gloo gun in hand. I wait.

Moments pass and it seems I am safe for now. But where has this one-way trip taken me? There’s only one thing to do: keep quicksaving and carry on.

This is Prey (Arkane Studios, 2017). Backtracking is for wimps.

*   *   *

I’m one of the precious few who enjoyed the original Prey (Human Head Studios, 2006) a first-person shooter that had been in development for, incredibly, almost a decade. Looking back, it was my Dead Space (Visceral Games, 2008) before Dead Space: a shooter invested in a wider palette of interactions - Dead Space had its zero-g sections, ‘strategic dismemberment’ and asteroid shooting, Prey had its spirit walks, portals and topsy-turvy magnetic walkways. It was nonsense but my kind of nonsense although Dead Space had the superior execution.

dead_space_intro

While I wasn’t really looking for a Prey sequel I did see Prey 2 in action at the Eurogamer Expo, although I’ve always assumed we were watching a video and not live gameplay. Nonetheless, I’m sad this promising bounty hunter in an alien city’ game never made it to reality and I’m not the only one.

I was surprised to find Bethesda had used the name to spit out another apparently generic space shooter unrelated to anything we might know by the name Prey. Oh, you’ve got powers and inventory and stuff, and missions to follow, space station fallen to alien enemy, blah blah blah I think I’ve heard this all before.

Except this new Prey turned out to be great for an explorer-player like myself.

*   *   *

I have an optional objective to look for someone’s body in the Trauma Center. I don’t actually know why but, whatever, right? Game’s gotta game. I find the Trauma Center quicker than I expected, it’s right here in the Talos I Lobby. Well, let’s tick this objective off, make a little progress.

I creep into the Trauma Center and review the stock environmental narrative scene: place in chaos, dead body on floor, lah di dah. But I can hear something from within the Centre, something… talking to itself.

It’s a guy looking like a reject from the Venom auditions, wispy black smoke and a menacing walk. I lose the fight a couple of times but with a turret I eventually take him down. Great, so---

Hang on, kitten. There’s another one of these guys in here. I’m pretty confident I can take this one down too. Better pace myself, this one can conjure jets of fire from the floor, specifically the floor beneath my feet. And this Venom reject is a lot stronger than the first one, I’m barely making a scratch. Thus: I prepare to die. A lot.

You know, Prey, I sure do remember those damn skeletons near Firelink Shrine in Dark Souls. I know what’s going on here, you’re telling me I am not yet ready for this. If you value your lives, be somewhere else.

After countless deaths, I leave the Trauma Center and lock the door, sealing inside the firestarter, twisted firestarter. But I walk out with my head held high because I know: I’ll be back.

*   *   *

Prey is plastered with the affordances of an “action role-playing game” or what you might call a shooter with extra bits. While Dead Space might have started off as System Shock 3, Prey ended up far closer to System Shock 2 than Dead Space ever did.

But it has a crucial quirk that elevates it above your average shooter with bits, something that can’t easily be pointed at like a health bar or a teleport power.

Prey level design is initially like a tunnel bored through rock. The light at the end of the tunnel is your nav marker. The nav marker is your friend. Trust the nav marker. However, once you reach the station lobby, you’ve actually graduated from Prey academy and Prey says all these worlds are yours (except Europa). Go where you want. The objective markers are still there, but they don’t own you. Because you’re conditioned to follow the pied piper’s nav markers, players may not notice this immediately.

prey_ceilingwalk

The lobby area feels spacious and open, riddled with lots of minigoals. The teleconferencing centre. HR. The staff lounge. The trauma center. Hardened explorers will likely hang back from following nav markers until they’ve cleared the area out, but doing this with meticulous attention takes time. Further, we have a metroidvania aspect as not every area is accessible right now, with one particular part of the lobby inaccessible until late in the game. The icing on the cake is a honeymoon hours quirk where you might not even recognise an ingress because it just looks like background scenery.

Now Prey is partitioned into levels which are connected via loading screens and, eventually, the player will reach the point where they have to leave the lobby and embark on a new level. Instead of following a nav marker, my explorer instinct kicked in. Why don’t I peek in, erm, the Hardware Labs instead? Except I peeked and peeked and peeked. There was nothing to stop me exploring, nothing telling me to turn back.

Prey prefers to lock doors if it’s too dangerous to go somewhere and, in the main, eschews the Dark Souls model of using giant beasties to gate areas. Which means if a door is open, it’s an invitation.

*   *   *

A locked door in a videogame is a taunt that operates on two levels.

First there's the obvious challenge to the player to find a way through. Doorway blocked with heavy freight? Hmm, there are a few options. Need a code to unlock it? If you don’t know the the code, perhaps you can hack it. But many doors are not immediately “solveable” in the same way. For example, a door might need a keycard and that keycard may not be nearby. It may not even be on the same level.

prey_shuttlebay

That’s the second part of the taunt. The metroidvania memory game, to remember all those locked doors you still haven’t defeated. I found a locked maintenance panel early in the game and it drove me crazy knowing it remained unbeaten. Level after level fell before me but this locked panel scoffed at my progress. Hey, sweetie, I’m still locked, you don’t know what’s behind me.

Prey loves its locked doors. It knows you’ll be coming back so, behind your back, will sprinkle new, stronger enemies into areas you had previously cleared. Be seeing you.

*   *   *

Prey isn’t an open world game and surely you wouldn’t confuse it for one. But when you go outside the station, it feels, just for a moment, like all bets are off.

When I traversed my first airlock, I was reminded of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy entry on space:

“Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.”

Frankly I was overwhelmed and did only what I was asked to, then hurried back inside the airlock. Of course, it never is as open as you think: airlocks across the station can only be unlocked from the inside. The Talos I exterior is effectively a faster way to move to other levels if, and that’s kind of a big space-sized if, you know where you’re going.

prey_spacewalk

Seeing the station as a single entity from outside helps reinforce the perception of its interior as a single space, rather than the amalgamation of different levels. It never quite convinces, though. Loading screens are cruel reminders of Prey's partitioned structure, particularly with their all-too-evident constraints - just try carrying a turret from one section to another.

On subsequent spacewalks, I was more game for exploring and even though the station has plenty of recognisable bits, it was easy to get lost. Unlike corridors and rooms that have discernable connections and signs every ten paces, space doesn’t really have that. I never understood the exterior and could not claim to have found everything out there.

Space is big.

*   *   *

Sadly and somewhat inevitably, Prey narrows as you approach the end. Certain sections are strongly gated, such as Deep Storage which forces you to run around looking for parts of a “key”, so the story climax can be deployed in an orderly manner. The middle of the game, where I made my own way through the station, was over. There were few unexplored places left and a prescribed sequence to follow. Welcome back to the tunnel.

In a shooter with bits, players crave consequences. They want decisions, they want choices, they want feedback for their choices, they want big picture moments, they want the spectacle of grand player agency. If their actions are unimportant to the story, then the only decisions that seem to matter are operational in nature, like how skillful a packrat they’ve been, the best hoarder in all of space.

prey_danielle

I never found Prey gripping and have no interest in discussing its story. But it still put me through a series of interesting decisions and consequences I always chose to live with. Between the intro and the coda, Prey gave me a symphony of choice superior to any narrative decision tree. I explored the game out of sequence and experienced wonderful confusion throughout this journey.

I also know there are many secrets inside Talos I that remain undiscovered and I don’t care to find them all. Prey is not a game for a completionist, although you can find a stats page if you really want to ruin your enjoyment of the game.

Prey is not just a shooter with bits. It is crawlways. It is airlocks. It is corridors. It is space.

Above all, it is space.

The Alternative Take

Jess Joho thinks it's all bullshit. There's a subtle difference between our motivations though - she cares more about mechanics and powers and doing stuff. I was on Talos I for the tourism.

prey_stats

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Comments (8) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I’m playing through Arkane’s other new game at the moment, and enjoying it much more than the first Dishono[u]red. I wasn’t sure why until I read this, but I think I understand now.

    I’m doing it for the tourism.

    I played the first game trying to get the ghost and pacifist or whatever achievements, and so I agonized and reloaded and pissed about for ages trying to find the non-lethal options. It was still a good game, but not amazing.

    For the second game I’ve just been taking the game as it comes to me, poking about in the corners of the shitty buildings and listening in on conversations. I try to be stealthy and non-violent, but if some impudent traitor attempts to stab his Empress he’s getting a folding blade in the neck.

    I’m not sure why I’m taking a different approach this time, but it’s making for a far more enjoyable experience. Arkane have really made a fantastically detailed and beautiful world and I’m loving it.

    Prey sounds fantastic. Thanks for the insight as to why.

  2. Interesting read. I’m in no rush to play this at the moment but I’ve been keen to hear your thoughts. I’m a particular sucker for:

    “The metroidvania memory game, to remember all those locked doors you still haven’t defeated.”

    That’s exactly the quality I was talking about with Anachronox (extending to characters and other assorted anomalies) and it’s obviously the quality I love about metroidvanias. It feels great to finally tie up those loose ends and see what was behind them.

    “The icing on the cake is a honeymoon hours quirk where you might not even recognise an ingress because it just looks like background scenery.”

    This too!

    Alien: Isolation had its share of locked doors peppered throughout the Sevastopol, some very early on–like in the opening areas of the game that you haven’t been to since the beginning that are now uneasily quiet and very creepy to return to–but the xeno was all the motivation I needed to not go poking around for too long and to just GTFO. I love that kind of friction between slowing down to explore but being, uh, ‘encouraged’ to keep moving. In this case I didn’t want to be rubbing up against that thing any longer than I had to, exploration be damned.

  3. Kfix, perhaps surprisingly, I find the new Prey to be uninspiring. I really got into the exploration but somehow I never found the station all that interesting. The combat wasn’t all that exciting. The body horror was much more disturbing in Dead Space (it was a gross ride & all those videos death scenes) and System Shock 2 (hearing the crew succumb to The Many in their own words). I’ve had some applaud on Twitter how “mundane” much of the story is vs hyperbole – so it all depends on your reaction. It’s not my game of the year, but it was good times.

    In contrast, I found Dishonored fascinating in many ways (I wrote a lot on it at the time!). However, I think I’m getting tired of just how “evil” people can be in games and Prey has that in spades.

    Gregg, you know Prey doesn’t really have “great secrets” to offer most of the time. Usually it’s just more stuff and while stuff tends to be very handy, you adjust your expectations. It’s a bit like The Witness where the best revelation you can hope for when solving a puzzle is… more puzzles!

    There isn’t the same friction in Prey as Alien: Isolation because you can clear an area out and it will stay clear unless you trigger a scripted monster or leave. Most places I thoroughly investigated but I’m pretty sure I missed loads.

  4. I am also a fan of the original Prey, which I played through twice about 3/4 years apart. IIRC it was under development from 2, possibly 3 different studios over that time, so it may not be strictly accurate to call it the same game. But it did share a name, and the very basics of the portal concept.

    I also felt it a shame that the bounty hunter vision of Prey 2 was never realised!

    However, I had no idea about System Shock and Dead Space sharing that sort of direct lineage. Interesting stuff.

    I’ve not yet finished nuPrey but I am quite far through (just hit the power plant). I’ll hold off on saying too much as I want to see the remainder of the game before I discuss it too much, but I will note that the Gloo Gun is rather good for, well, going places you ‘shouldn’t’ be able to reach. IIRC it took very little time for players of the demo to break out of the demo’s confines (until they hit harder blockers), and I also recall seeing a GDQ speedrun very soon after release in which someone had already figured out how to glitch the geometry of the starting room and escape its bounds. Excellent stuff.

    Generally I’m with you on most of what you’re saying, but I will say that some elements of the story have intrigued me – I think it’s a very well executed take on a very familiar story – but that’s something to come back to later, at least for me. :)

  5. Okay, you’ve convinced me. I’m going back to play Prey again. I’ll admit I was stunned the first time I stepped out an airlock and saw just how big the ship, never mind space, was. It’s one thing to walk down the corridors. It’s another to see the humongous, complicated structure that all of those corridors are twisting through. And I felt a wonderfully smug sense of satisfaction when I discovered that I could simply float through a hull breach to reach an objective that had looked completely inaccessible from the inside.

    I’m tempted to start again from the beginning and find the GLOO gun earlier this time. A lot earlier. Last time I walked right past it and wondered why I was having so much more trouble with the mimics than everyone else was. I cheated by googling its location and backtracking to the lobby. But I’ve got the GLOO gun now and maybe I’ll just do what you did — play it as it lays, though I may have to read all those emails again to remind myself what the story is.

    Great analysis, BTW. I’ve been a sucker for the trapped-in-a-space-station game since I played the original System Shock in 1994 and somehow it never gets old.

  6. Shaun, yes I used the Gloo Gun to get that ceiling shot in the article – and I lost my footing one second later and fell to my death. And there’s nothing up there to find, but it was fun just checking it out. There are lots of little conduits and channels that are alternative routes with no direct “reward” associated with them. Maybe I should open a thread on Prey’s story in a week or two? Just let us hammer out our communal thoughts.

    Chris, a shame you didn’t find the gloo gun because it does get dumped on you remarkably early in the game, in that corridor in Neuromod Division with all the gloo balls plastered up the wall. I disengaged from following quests most of the time, preferring to find ways into difficult places. Some of the sidequests get a little “gamey” for my liking and the “treasure hunt” one I didn’t follow, just on principle. I just couldn’t see Morgan doing that amidst the madness. Then again, my Morgan Yu liked to climb trees just for the fun of it, so I’m a complete hypocrite.

    Some of you may have heard the Prey ending is a bit crazy. It’s… alright. I think if you’re prepared for something crazy, you won’t be upset about it. I’m not saying it’s *great* or anything, just that it didn’t ruin the game. But then… I wasn’t invested in the story that much.

  7. I’m veeeeeeeerrry slowly working my way forward in Prey — I can’t even say I’m working my way “through” it because my forward progress is so slow — and I stand by what I said on the Tap forums, that aliens shouldn’t be allowed to become bananas. I don’t like bananas and avoid them as a matter of course, so aliens masquerading as bananas have an unfair advantage and can sneak right up on me. “I’m a banana,” the bananalien says. “Ignore me because you dislike my texture and flavor, except the synthetic version of me in banana popsicles. But I am not a banana popsicle, I am a banana. There you go, turn your back on me. Do not make me into a smoothie, ignore me completely, and GRRRAAAAWWWGGG*munchmunchmunch*”

    The concept of Prey 2 sounded great, though I admit I wasn’t a fan of vagina-door Prey (I liked the upside-down parts) so I had serious doubts about Human Head being the driving force behind something so ambitious as the proposed sequel. I suppose its cancellation leaves the concept free to be developed by someone else… Space Bounty Hunter? Sign me up!

    Backtracking is for wimps! I am Wimpy McWimperton, Mayor of Wimpsville, capital of Wimponia.

  8. Steerpike, I’m going to open up a thread on Prey’s story this week – maybe even later today! So avoid if you don’t want serious spoilers. You’re welcome to join if you finish quickly though!

    Aside, there’s a lot of learning done on each project so maybe Human Head might have made it work? (Vagina door, thanks for that.)


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