Electron Dance
11Jul/1714

Prey Tell

prey_title

We've talked about the music of Prey. We've talked about exploring Prey. It's time to talk about the story of Prey.

Actually, I don't have much to talk about because Prey didn't scratch my story itch. I'm hoping you'll have a little more to share than I. So this is an invitation to spoil away in the comments, chat about what you liked, what you didn't like and do your best to keep Matt W on topic.

Let me outline a few brief thoughts to get the ball rolling. Head for the spoiler-free escape pods now if you don't want to be spoiled.

Prey isn't scary. I'm not sure exactly why this is the case but here are some theories. (a) The station is rarely dark, it's bright and colourful, even in spaaaace. (b) The Warning Orchestra. (c) Phantoms lunge at you at high speed, it leaves less time to be tense about an upcoming encounter. (d) In System Shock 2, you get to listen to the crew become part of The Many, hear them enjoy becoming something inhuman; in Prey, people just die and their flesh is used to make things which are not them. There are some nice nods to crewmembers being Phantoms but it's not like they were converted to the cause. Dead Space has a similar thing, where the dead are converted into necromorphs, but Dead Space is violently gross whereas Prey seems clean aside from that whole member-down-the-throat thing.

Morgan Who? I felt this had been done before in Planescape: Torment and better. (Yes, I know Torment writer Chris Avellone was on the good ship Prey.) I couldn't quite separate the different personalities and they all blurred into a single history. This may be due to Prey letting the player go their own way; information on different incarnations of Yu may not come together neatly. Maybe that is intentional. Then again, the ending suggests working all that out doesn't really matter.

The Evil That Corporations Do. Prey reflects on the dangers of letting corporations create their own private island in space, where rules do not apply. But Transtar goes so batshit evil I couldn't quite swallow it. They use criminals and political prisoners as an infinite supply of experimental guinea pigs. Worse still, they use them to create neuromods and, as far as I can tell, do not even bother rendering them unconscious during any of this. They choose to cover up the fact that neuromods cannot be removed without losing your memory (still not sure why Morgan was undergoing this neuromod install/remove loop, answers welcome). Somehow they're going to sell neuromods to the population, which involves stabbing yourself in the eye, without an authority doing analysis of the contents such as, oh I don't know, alien DNA? (This has always been the problem for me with games like Bioshock, where I can't believe a society quickly turns pro-drugs, in which people shoot up regularly on ADOM or poke Typhon Tea in the eye.)

The Ending. Didn't bother me that it wasn't what actually happened. Not particularly exciting. That KILL THE SHITS or SHAKE YU HAND decision at the end feels cheap. By this point, it should be obvious what kind of creature you are. It should practically cutscene instead of asking you to make a choice. Putting aside the few weird flashes into "the real world" during Prey, there was a more subtle foreshadowing near the end - I think Alex says something which also seems to turn up verbatim in Morgan's notes - a sort of déjà vu which is a glitch in the Matrix...

The Explosion. Something funny was going on with the explosion that precipitated the Typhon's escape - it felt purposefully coordinated. Did anyone here work out what happened?

Mikhaila Ilyushin. I chatted a little about Mikhaila on Twitter but I was expecting something more when my Morgan let her know exactly who killed her dad. Her physical reactions seemed out of sync with the audio she was listening to. Also, she doesn't need to sit down or anything - at learning the person she dated/loved murdered her dad for science - she just seems a bit pissed, so I'm going to walk around the office a bit more. And then later she accepts it wasn't my Morgan at all, it was before-the-game Morgan who was a different person. While I'm not exactly in love with hysterics, the emotions seemed so muted.

Calvino. I just realised I don't know why Calvino was acting weird. Can anyone enlighten me?

Blackbox Project. I cannot be the only person to have said, "Dang it, having some military operators to assist would have been sweet!" Ha ha, careful what you wish for...

That's enough for now. Surprise me in the comments.

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  1. Despite having had Prey for over a month I’m still just in the Hardware Labs, essentially at the very beginning of the game, in part for mechanical reasons and in part for the same dissatisfaction I sense in some of what HM writes here.

    –tl;dr bitching about controls–

    As much as I like Prey overall, as much as it feels like a suitable Shock follow up, I struggle to stay “in” in for more than a few minutes at a time. A huge part of this is irritation at the laziness in the controls and mapping. I don’t know about anyone else but I like to remap “use/interact” to my middle mouse button, which you flat-out CANNOT DO in Prey. Clicking or rolling MMB triggers the radial menu whether you want it to or not; I’ve mapped “use” to a thumb button which seems like a small thing but which I find very annoying. I find it similarly annoying that any game made by a AAA studio in 2017 would have such shallow keymapping at all; not to mention keymapping so lazily and ineptly implemented as to not allow primary and alternate controls for everything.

    There’s also the fact that Prey will not play nice with the Steam Link no matter what I try (much of the frustration could be erased by slumping on the sofa, controller in hand). Prey has decided that I play with a keyboard and mouse. Some menu items work via controller/Steam Link, but most don’t. Steam Controller doesn’t work at all even when enabled; my trusty corded 360 controller works “sort of.” Attempt to actually play the game with a controller and none of the buttons do what they’re supposed to. One of the thumbsticks, in a cruel emulation of MMB’s radial-menu lust, brings up the radial menu. Rather than moving the camera.

    This is a bit like Dishonored 2’s five-minute-load-to-main-menu-despite-being-installed-on-SSD issue that made me ultimately abandon the game. Come on, Arkane. You want to play in the big pond, you have to act like a big fish.

    –END INTERLUDE–

    The story of Prey is… yeah.

    I haven’t seen a lot of the things specified here simply because I’m too early in the game, but there’s already a certain absence of passion in the experience that makes me worry.

    Why is Morgan doing the neuromod loop? A fair question. To test them? Again, why? Morgan’s a big-deal scientist and judging by the above, this company happily uses press-ganged human lab rats for basic stuff like testing. Use them. That’s what human lab rats are for! I mean come on people.

    Overall I find it a little juiceless, despite liking the setting and the general structure. I can’t quite put my finger on why I’m not getting into a story that — at worst — is a little blah, but something about it almost turns me off. It’s something I don’t look forward to spending time with, which is too bad because overall it seems like Prey has a lot going for it, but I’m strangely focused on the negatives.

  2. Hey Steerpike,

    I see you’ve gone straight through the spoilers!

    Little known fact. I complained about Prey’s controls on Twitter. I was using keyboard and mouse and you’re trained to use right-click to go back on menus. But in the game world, it means “use neuromod power”. Most of the time I had my neuromod power switched to a blast.

    So picture the scene, looking at one of the in-game interactive screens. You point and click within the window and you want to go back. What Prey wants you to do is click the back button on the screen but what your brain wants to do is right-click to go back. Suddenly you send a blast at the screen centimetres from your body. You get damaged (this can kill you if you’re in bad shape), uses up valuable PSI, and sometimes attract the attention of nearby vermin.

    I was still doing this at the end of the game.

    It’s nice to find that someone else shares my mehness. I’ve heard from a few others on Twitter (I think one of them was Andreas of MashXToMuse) that the stories within Prey are far more mundane and human that what you typically find in a game like this, which they found refreshing. I’m alright with that. But I just couldn’t get my teeth into the story at all. I wonder if it’s because the emotions across the board are so muted. Morgan never gets excited, she’s always distant even in emails, probably to give the player space to inhabit.

    And it should work on me. Surely this is my bread and butter… am I past my System Shock 2 and Half-Life days? If Lunar ever comes out, will I also reject that? (Such Half-Life tingles from that Lunar trailer.)

    Prey is a real long game, too, if you’re into exploration.

  3. I forget things easily enough that “spoiler” is a loose term in my perspective. :)

    Every time I fire up Prey with the intention of spending serious time with it, I get frustrated with the lazily implemented controls. This stuff is not hard — robust keymapping, I mean — and most one-person-team indie games have better control mapping than Prey. I swear, man, the first rule of software design should be “Allow them use it the way they want to use it, don’t force them to use it the way you want them to use it.” Silly as it seems to be so disgruntled by such a small thing (use your thumb instead of your middle mouse button!) the fact that I have to consciously remember to do it, and deprogram myself when I play other games, is quite off-putting.

    Morgan’s coldfishedness is strangely worse than the silent nonprotagonist of System Shock. By never speaking AT ALL, that character becomes “you,” a window into the game world rather than a direct participant in it. Morgan is a character, but she doesn’t seem to care that much about what’s happening. It’s almost as though she spends the whole game still in a bit of a sedative fug leftover from the accident at the very beginning.

    It’s a beautiful game, I love the way the station looks. The idea of the GLOO Gun is really cool. But yeah, the story is just… meh. Not bad, but forgettable. Hard to get passionate about.

    I stopped playing Mass Effect Andromeda around the same time Persona 5 came out, and shortly thereafter reflected on the fact that a game about doing homework and returning DVDs (oh shit, I have to return my DVDs) is light years more engaging than a game about colonizing a distant galaxy. The parallel with Prey is… well, how can a game about what Prey about be so bland? It’s like eating flour. It’ll sustain you but there’s not much there there.

  4. I personally really enjoyed the writing and the freedom of choice in Prey. Plot-wise, maybe not too exciting or unique, but it was the first of these audio-log-laden games to actually draw me in with audio logs. For the first time, I actually read the emails and went out of my way to investigate or help these doomed npc’s, and I can only attribute this to strong writing on the character side.

    Also, regarding horror: I started the game on a harder difficulty, and the first few hours of the game were pretty tense. Mimics were actually a threat and I could not even contest a phantom for the first few encounters. The slow transition into psychic ninja power fantasy ended up feeling really satisfying as well, but the horror aspect was completely gone outside of the first few nightmare encounters. I did enjoy both sides of it, but I still preferred the Gone Home aspect over the combat.

    That said, once I mastered sliding under phantom blasts, that was a good time, too.

  5. Should have mentioned that probably the station is so light and colourful because the enemies are black, needing bright backgrounds to stand out.

    Steerpike, although I had a little pain with the controls, I don’t think it was as serious as your issues. Mine were aggravating but I lived with it – I had these moments where I would hesitate at a monitor, trying to consciously remember what I was supposed to do. I didn’t try using a controller so don’t have any experience with that.

    The Gloo gun is fun but it had one problem I found a little annoying. I could never make those upward GLOO tracks that you find pre-made all through the game. I always had to make discrete spots that I had to jump/mantle between. Whenever I tried to put them two globs next to each other, I found they would pop rather than stick together.

    Miles, hello!

    Freedom of choice is truly epic here. Again on Twitter, I was told that one of the great things about Prey is that the audio logs are primarily conversations rather than monologues which gives everything a more lively, connected feel.

    There is something to be said for playing the game on hard. I chose the normal difficulty because that’s pretty much all I do these days. The last game I played on Hard I think was Half-Life 2. Possibly also Dead Space? I wonder how that would have felt. I found the mimics skating around you really annoying in the early on, so if you can die pretty fast from those guys, it’s possibly I would have liked it less. The nightmare, however, did always give me a terrified thrill, although it’s not quite the same as finding the environment creepy.

    I was pretty powerful about halfway through and was using Leverage to throw big items at heavier phantoms (worked really well). I never really used the sliding, but that does sound kind of awesome!

  6. I’m giving credit to bullet points podcast for this, they actually had a very good episode on prey which can be found here:

    http://www.bulletpointspodcast.com/post/161359592822/episode-41-prey

    a few of their observations, the ones I agree with most:
    1. far too many emails to read, personally I stopped looking very hard for them after a certain point
    2. the exciting parts happened before you started playing the game which, combined with
    3. amnesia,
    becomes a trope which has probably worn out its welcome in games. it would be nice to experience things as they happen more often.

    what I liked were the segments where people were talking directly to my character; I wish there were more of those moments in the game.

  7. On Hard, I began to find myself stretched thin on ammo, which meant scrapping every piece of metal I could find to craft bullets Luckily not too painful a process, but when I realized ammo and junk wouldn’t be respawning as I backtracked all over the station, I had to shift my combat strategy to use more psy powers and make the most of what ammo I had. Part of this involved rushing enemies to get point-blank shotgun shots off, which quickly led to me getting blasted in the face until I learned to time the slide just right. Also encouraged being sneaky and finding alternate pathways when you’re not equipped to fight the shiny phantoms yet. I found it more fun than annoying, personally, but it could have gone either way.

  8. Hello Emma,

    I will admit I didn’t go searching for deep dives into Prey, simply because I didn’t find it interesting in that capacity.

    Some interesting points raised! Too many emails to read? Do I agree? Hmm. I think I read everything I got access to. Every email, from what I recall, has some significance, if not in the larger story, but the smaller ones to make the station feel alive. I would say the emails became bothersome because: (a) interacting heavily with any screen always felt a bit wearying especially if you had to scroll and click on the up/down arrows on the right! (b) The nonlinear and open nature of the Prey exploration means you often do not get the complete story baked in these emails in a single session – it is very hard to keep track of every mail detail. When I came across the D&D group/treasure hunt, I wanted to throw the mouse at the screen. Definite “for crying out loud” moment.

    Exciting parts happening before the game? This is a general problem with this type of game. Simplicity is enforced by wiping out most human interaction and you end up with The Beautiful Dead problem. I was pleased to see we did have *some* people to interact with. (I was expecting the suggestion that the coral was holding the minds/impressions of the deceased to lead to something. Never did.)

    I think the industry likes to forget how often amnesia has been deployed :) My impression from Prey, however, was it was at least handled with some grace.

    My biggest worry is that the thing I loved about it most – the freedom to explore – was what damaged my appreciation of the story because the narrative jigsaw I had to assemble was too big to deal with.

    Miles!

    I’m a bit of packrat in these games so after I learnt about the recycler worked, I hoarded everything. This was a problem in some levels because the recycler was not in a highly connected hub location, but at some awkward spot at the entrance to the level. I don’t hold this against the game, it’s a strategy thing you have to deal with.

    As I moved into the late game, I discovered the rare commodity was metal (mineral?) so I could hardly make anything in a fabricator. At first, I was dismantling spare weapons into spare parts for turret repair, but later I begun mulching through the recycler so I could make ammunition. I recycled every spare weapon I found. Story wise, I found this mighty weird, because I had shopping trolleys full of “exotic” material, the “rare” substance found in the Typhon. However, “metal” which the station is made of… couldn’t find any!

    It’s true I wasn’t forced enough into stealth in easy mode and the game is rife with alternate paths! I tried a few times to turn into a coffee cup and slide past a phantom. They always, always saw me.

    Reminds me of how I came across technopaths before the game formally introduced them. I had to figure out they corrupt nearby operators/turrets myself and that led to some interesting situations early on when turrets I set up to take one down suddenly turned against me and I had no idea why!

  9. Wait, I forgot to respond to this blatant provocation. I just remembered that there was an IFComp game from 2012 that apparently had the exact same philosophical stuff and the exact same reveal (SPOILERS), although I’ve never actually played through this because it’s hard to drag myself through the trolley problem. Also the artificially restricted choice there (if your only son has his foot wedged in a railroad tie you try to get down the embankment to help him, it doesn’t matter if it’s too steep for a forty-year-old) reminds me of this experimental philosophy survey I took which gave philosophers a bunch of these old chestnuts, and then purported to use the results to show that philosophers are as vulnerable as anyone else to priming effects and the like (which question you read first affects the answer you give to a later one, roughly), with the upshot supposed to be that philosophers aren’t really more expert than anyone else, except while I was taking the survey I was thinking “These questions are bullshit, I have a view on a lot of these things that isn’t really captured by any of the choices you’re going to give me, I’m just going to pick one that’s kind of sloppily approximate to what I think” and then surprise! When you force someone who’s thought about a question to junk all the actual results of their thought their answers wind up showing the same patterns as people who haven’t thought about it as much. GRRRR.

    Anyway how about a game about the Sleeping Beauty problem?

  10. This is the problem, Matt, I have with lots of “ethical dilemmas” in games. That is, they’re bullshit. They make for interesting drama that I can passively watch, but when the game is trying to make it a statement about me, well, I just see the game as a test that I don’t care for.

    Oh God Matt, I’d never heard of the Sleeping Beauty problem before. And it looks like I’d have to spend a lot more time trying to understand it. (I don’t think this counts as an ethical dilemma…)

  11. Yeah, if I have a substantive comment about games in that rant it’s that games should not try to read the player’s motivations from their choices, because there can be lots of reasons for the yes-no choices you get to make. One of many problems with the Ethical Swingometer approach to in-game morality. But having people react to your choices might be interesting, because that doesn’t depend on the game psychoanalyzing you, and you do have to deal with the consequences of your actions no matter how you intended them. CLEMENTINE WILL REMEMBER THIS. (Did I get that right? I don’t play those games either.)

    About Sleeping Beauty (which is indeed not an ethical dilemma), all I will say is that halfers be tripping. Double halfers be double tripping.

  12. Prey’s story isn’t innovative in any significant area, and the larger brush strokes are derivative, but I did think it was a highly engaging and well-delivered narrative with no major mis-steps. I’ll take that from a AAA game. Yeah, I enjoyed the story and thought it meshed nicely with the game’s constituent parts, major events and themes.

    Fear Factory: I found Prey scary largely thanks to the Mimics and, early on, due to a successful feeling of vulnerability. Unfortunately both factors were mitigated by around a third of the way into the game: the Mimics thanks to Scope chipsets, and the sense of vulnerability due to power creep in Morgan’s abilities. After that point any sense of fear was entirely a product of my sense of narrative and environmental immersion, which for me always works very well, but again this was mitigated as soon as I had fully explored an area and moving through it became trivial.

    Use of the chipsets was optional and I considered not using them, although I ultimately opted to use the tool the game offered. My reasoning was that throwing furniture around every room would ultimately get dull, and sooner or later the game was going to start throwing more dangerous enemies my way. Still…

    Nah. I should have just played on hard.

    Identity Crisis: Morgan didn’t have that many ‘incarnations’! January is a steady presence and represents rejection of the Typhon experiment. December is a brief presence and represents the option of selfish flight. October is admittedly an odd one, being in my experience represented only in a single audio log. Other than that there are only the messages left behind by Morgan, which predate the simulation and represent engagement with the Typhon experiment – as does Alex Yu.

    Why is Morgan in the simulation in the first place? Er… I can’t remember. There is a reason; I remember reading it. Perhaps it seemed plausible but uninteresting so I forgot it.

    Morgan is a cold fish because this gives the player space and agency to impose on her their own variant of Morgan. You are role-playing Morgan Yu, but exactly what that means – within defined parameters – is up to you. The game openly if only to a limited extent explores ideas around the fluidity of identity, rejecting the idea that there is any single authoritative identity. It does not, of course, take a macguffin to make peoples’ identities change dramatically.

    Murder Death Corporations: I’m not sure to what extent anyone will have noticed, as it was largely conveyed via secondary and environmental narrative sources, but Prey’s story unfolds in an alternate timeline. As far as I can tell in this timeline the Cold War persists but USA and the USSR work together to a limited extent – a relationship largely prompted by the first Typhon encounter but not exactly a smooth one.

    It was not unknown for either superpower during the actual Cold War era to use their own citizens as test subjects, let alone – as in this instance – using Soviet political prisoners as “volunteers” in an offworld private test facility. It’s also worth noting that, and again this is only revealed via emails and logs, and I think only once explicitly, that periodically everyone on the station has their neuromods ‘reset’ and their memory flushed. This helps explain for me the bigger question: why no one seemed to notice that the volunteers didn’t leave.

    Also, I can run with evil corporate bad guys in a video game. The corporate shits in Prey clearly put a lot of effort into hiding it, which I appreciated because most of gaming’s Umbrella Corporations really don’t seem to pretend they are anything other than what they are, which makes their continued existence – and constant stream of new employees – difficult to accept.

    But yeah, I’m with you on the improbability of a late capitalist consumerist society getting onboard with alien DNA-infused eyejabs! Although, on the other hand, standards concerning product labelling vary around the world – for example, concerning GMO components in foodstuffs. And on the gripping hand: botox.

    Beginning In An Ending: yeah that binary choice was awful. I assume the intention behind it was to give the player a final moment of agency after the big reveal, in case they felt cheated that it was all fake (lol). If so, I can understand the decision. Imagine: you enjoyed the agency you had throughout the game, didn’t anticipate the reveal, and were genuinely outraged at having been lied to and manipulated – but the game insisted you wouldn’t lash out because in your fake identity you weren’t like that. You’d be pissed – right at the end of the game! Even so, if it had been up to me I wouldn’t have included that very flippant binary option.

    I expected the reveal, which is foreshadowed throughout – largely during contact with the Coral – but also because the books you can read throughout made recurrent references to The Evacuation. One of the later books eventually reveals this is a reference to a traumatic major event in the Middle East but as the earlier books aren’t specific about the location or ‘the enemy’, it put the idea in my head that something could already have gone very wrong on Earth.

    Explosions In The Sky: Gotta admit I’ve got nothing here. I remember reading and hearing stuff around all this event and tying it to the containment break, but the nature and origins of it escape me. I could speculate but it wouldn’t be based on anything much.

    Broken Social Scene: Like Andreas of MashXToMuse (and others) I liked the human stories of the ancillary cast of Prey. There are lots of fun and sad little human stories in there.

    Take, for example, the endless baseball gloves you find aboard the station and recycle for materials. Turns out that those are there because a star player suffered a major injury early on in his career and ended up working in the Sales team on Talos. He brought scores of signed gloves with him but found that most people aboard the station just weren’t interested. This sad little note, laden with regret about the turn his life took, is recorded in his diary, found on a 2nd tier bunk in the non-exposed bunk room.

    See also the not terribly popular security person who was assigned to Deep Storage. Assigned there because his superiors didn’t like him, he didn’t get on with most of the people who worked there either. You can find his sad little desk in the stairwell, and emails discussing him between Abigail Foy and another character. One of them is bitching about the guy, and the other is saying cut him some slack, he’s not that bad. I forget which was which but I suspect it was Foy because, as is evident from most of her records throughout the game, she’s kind of a sweetheart and her eventual fate is tragic, even when set against that of Sho, who never gives up on her.

    And then there was the guy who was fired and went missing. There’s no great story around him, just the mystery of where he vanished to, but the place he actually turns up is pretty great. I wonder why he ended up where he did.

    I found that the way all these tiny little slice-of-station-life stories unfolded was handled well, in that I largely came across the relevant pieces of these stories in a sequence and with a closeness that allowed me to piece them together. This is great environmental and narrative design, to me, and helped make Talos feel like a place in which people lived (although I’m not convinced it actually had enough beds for everyone, and certainly didn’t have enough toilets). I concede this would not have worked as well for those who, unlike me, did not slowly and thoroughly creep through each area, exploring every nook and cranny before moving on.

    (Great point about the audio logs and other dripfed narrative tidbits largely being conversations rather than monologues – this is one of those so-obvious-you-kick-yourself observations.)

    Everybody’s Dead Dave: not everyone was dead when you arrived! There were living people to interact with! This already puts Prey above System Shock, System Shock 2 and the first two BioShock games. In those games the disaster has pretty much already unfolded. In Prey, you’re almost there from the beginning.


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