I spent the last week playing Prey (2017). I haven’t been playing too many big releases in the past couple of years, but with Covid-19 forcing a lot more time I can’t spend playing board games or Magic with friends, I am playing more video games and I found this game great. If you haven’t played it, you definitely should. But to talk about this game at length I need to spoil large chunks of it so be warned.
While I had played Bioshock and Bioshock infinite, I was never deep into the System Shock lineage of “Immersive Sims” and the two games I mentioned have some aspects of them, but are definitely a lot more linear shooters, never having played a Deus Ex or Dishonored game. I came to Prey after binging a ton of episodes of Game Maker’s Toolkit on YouTube where this game showed up repeatedly and seemed promising.
The initial attraction that had me was the “signature weapon”. Whereas Half-Life 2 had the Gravity Gun that let you pick up and fling various objects, Prey has the GLOO Cannon, which throws out white blobs of a sticky, hardening substance. This gun can do a bunch of things. It can freeze enemies in place for a moment so you can hit them easier, and destroys some small enemies directly. You can also shoot blobs on walls as footholds to climb, and you can use it to disable environmental hazards like insulating a broken electical switchboard so you can repair it, or plug up gas leaks that are on fire.
You use this gun (and an assortment of other, more conventional weapons) to fight an alien species that has overrun a space station. One type of alien you encounter is called a “mimic” and by now you should know that this name for an enemy is never a good thing. This enemy has the ability to turn into any physics object in the world. This gives the game a constant atmosphere of dread, but also facilitates a lot of jump-scares which I am less of a fan of. There is a certain element of horror throughout the game, particularly existential horror later on, as well.
Another mechanical aspect is the strong systametization of things. The gamespace has various systems that rub on each other, such as enemies, the space stations defenses, the physics system, etc. Which you can use to manipulate the world and play off each other, if that is your desire. You can also take on abilities of your enemies which have different ways to manipulate these systems. In my playthrough I did not utilize this very much but it is something I would like to explore a bit more in the future.
The game space is also relatively open. The space station has several different systems and modules you can move between freely for a large part, revisit and explore as you chose, though for narrative reasons there are large stretches of the game where you are confined to or from certain modules for some time.
After stating to play the game, what intrigued me more however was the narrative aspect of the game. And thus consider this a spoiler warning. I still highly recommend playing the game through on your own, sight unseen.
The game opens with you waking up in your apartment. After taking a short helicopter ride you meet your brother who tells you that you have to undergo a few tests but are going to join him to travel to a space station afterward. You do the tests, which has you answer some psycholog questions such as Trolley problems, and some physical tests which seem a bit odd. During the tests one of the mimics attacks the person administering the test and you are knocked out. You then wake up again in your apartment but things are off. Your computer has a bunch of messages that you should flee, the maintenance person in the hallway is dead, and the elevator to the helipad isn’t working. You try to get onto the balcony only to find out the balcony doesn’t exist. It is simulated by a video screen you just broke and you are in a recording studio like you are the main character of the Truman show, and that is a huge flash to my brain.
You find out that you are already on the space station, and that you have had your memory wiped several times before. You meet a robot that you built in the past and that helps you and gives you instructions. He wants you to destroy the whole space station and kill everyone involved, arguing that the alien race will otherwise destroy the earth. You are also contacted by your brother who has an arming key for the nuclear reactor that you need, but he is opposed, arguing that the reasearch is too valuable and he has another plan to stop the aliens.
Over the course of the game you do several tasks on the space station, trying to stop the aliens and find out what happened to you and what is going on, as well as giving some side tasks that involve other crewmembers that you can save (but don’t have to save). At the end of the game you have to choose which plan you follow, destroy the space station or put faith in your brother’s plan, but the two characters who give you the options physically get in the way, necessitating you to kill the person who is opposed.
But here comes the even bigger brain-flash. After the credits roll, you find that the entire game was a simulation, and you are not the main character, but a human-alien hybrid who was undergoing a test and all the choices you made in the game was a series of Trolley problems. Your “brother” and several other characters you meet in the game judge on how you did, reveal to you that the world is already overrun by the alien threat, and then decide whether you showed actual humanity.
Maybe I am a little bit too impressed with this considering similar things have been presented before, i.e. The Matrix, but the fact that you actually play through the game which does a pretty good job at making you emotionally invest into things and has you act out the actions rather than simply press A or B had me well hooked and not see through how this was testing my morals. There were several points in the game where I chose to do some bad things for the sake of self-preservation, but I did save people when I could despite the fact that I was supposed to kill them in the end anyhow by destroying the space station.
Let’s just say, I was impressed by how these moral questions were persented by the game.