(This review was written for one of my Patreon review requests. Since Prey has been out for a while, I wrote specifically for people who have finished the game. It contains spoilers. Lots of spoilers.)
When F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, he wasn’t talking about second chances. A guy who writes Great Gatsby obviously believes in second chances. He was instead talking about the traditional structure of a three-act story. The first act sets up the conflict, the second act develops how the characters will deal with the conflict, and the third act is the climax in which everything is resolved. Fitzgerald was deriding Americans for skipping past the important second act in which the characters develop. Americans, he implied, go straight for the payoff.
Prey, a solid entry in the tradition of Bioshock, is the opposite of American lives. It is almost all second act.
Because videogames are often stories, it’s no coincidence that the three-act structure is an ideal framework. The first act introduces the world and its challenges, the second act develops how you’re going to confront those challenges, and finally the third act provides some sort of gratifying resolution. A consistent problem with modern videogames is that there are no third acts. Instead, there is an open-ended Pavlovian cycle that owes more to a business model than a game design. That’s why narrative-focused one-and-done games from experienced developers — Prey, for example — are so exciting for me. Never mind the grinding and DLC and micropayments. Tell me a story!
Once upon a…psyche!
Prey has a grand first and second act. The setup is fascinating, assuming it hasn’t been spoiled by Bethesda’s marketing (I guarantee Arkane does a better job introducing the world of Prey than Bethesda). I knew very little about Prey going in and I was delighted to discover Talos Station, Transtar, the typhon, the Wu siblings. In fact, I was so blissfully ignorant that I briefly wondered during the opening helicopter ride whether Arkane had made an open-world game set in a futuristic city. So imagine my surprise when Morgan busts out of the testing simulation. That’s the kind of reveal that you never forget! I didn’t even realize I’d seen something about mimics turning into coffee cups until after it happened in the game. “Ah, right,” I recalled, “Bethesda was showing off some game where something can turn into a coffee cup and I thought, That’s a dumb premise.”
The joke’s on me, because this freaky creature ecology is one of the strongest parts of Prey’s writing. Typhons as interdimensional trap-door spiders, weaving beautiful golden webs, lurking in the shadows, black and heartless, without any capacity to empathize with humans. That last part seems kind of pointless. Of course they can’t empathize with humans. What sort of predator empathizes with its prey? That would ruin a perfectly good relationship. The game brings up this point obliquely, in only a couple of places, without calling attention to its inherent absurdity. But it’s important. It’s the point of the ending. The real ending, after the credits.
These creatures are the subject of a fascinating ecosystem. Prey should push players more firmly to its research write-ups, where the ecosystem is spelled out. I missed that section of the data panel for quite some time. I stumbled across it when I was trying to remember what things might be weak to a psi blast. Here are all sorts of interesting details about why the creatures do what they do. I wondered why one of the monsters was called “Alice Aiken” instead of “phantom”.
Building on the mimic, typhons are great visuals, which is a rarity in videogames. When was the last time a videogame introduced a memorable new creature design? The writhing tentacles are the stuff of latter day horror, because practical effects couldn’t do this back in the 20th century without looking ridiculous. Have you seen 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea lately? It’s not too far removed from Bela Lugosi throwing himself into a rubber octopus. But with animation and CG, this is the kind of thing that finally comes alive. If you saw Life — you probably didn’t — you’ll recognize the basic design. Small, cruel, amorphous, tending to tentacles, shifting, intrusive, maybe with something like a face in there. And if you saw Life and played Prey, you’ll realize that these creatures really need to be black. The shimmering inky effect makes them even creepier. In Life, the creature is pale white, like the dumb proto-aliens in Alien: Covenant. We’ve known since at least 1979 that the most alien and malevolent aliens are inky black, where they nestle comfortably into the shadows of a poorly lit spaceship.
Prey’s skill system is an extension of the creature design. Because the psi powers are drawn directly from the typhon abilities, Prey declares that you can’t be like a typhon until you’ve literally studied them. Imagine a fantasy game where you can’t learn a fireball spell until someone has thrown a fireball at you. Prey attempts the same thing, riffing on Bioshock’s photography system. Consider the bad guys, these games invite. Before you unload a shotgun into them, see what they can do. Behold this latest splicer or that latest typhon. See? See what they do? How they look? How they work? Take a long gander at what you’re fighting before you fight it.
It’s a bit disappointing that Prey’s variations just mimic (heh) Bioshock’s Houdini splicer, ice splicer, and molotov splicer. And whatever was going on with technopaths and telepaths was buried under the power curve by the time I encountered them. In fact, when I first met a technopath, I thought his corrupted turret was just bugged. Which I guess it was, in a way. Weavers, on the other hand, were consistently terrifying. I never knew what to make of them and their homing cysts. And I always thought something would come of the coral as it worked its way into the station. I kept dreading the moment when coral would slow me down or shut down my powers.
The entire skill system is good character development on a gameplay level. With all the tantalizing choices, every neuromod is an agonizing dilemma. Even more so once you discover the psi powers. Rather than dribble out skill points one at a time, Prey is bold enough to throw out crazy power spikes. You discover stashes of four, five, six, eight neuromods at a time! You find the neuromod fabricator plan and now you’re just limited by how many synthetics you can find. Or metal. But it was never exotics. I’m assuming everyone learned necropsy to cut the really juicy parts out of a dead typhon, right? But then the clever mission where you have to remove neuromod DRM slows you down. Ha, a jab at DRM! And when it’s lifted, you’re off to the races again with four, five, six, eight at a time!
Talos Station, population: 1. I mean, 2. Oops, 3.
Prey does a clever fake-out with the isolation you expect in these after-the-disaster haunted houses. These places are normally populated only with audio logs and enemies, which spares the developers from having to animate any interaction beyond making things die. But Talos Station is alive with other people who you don’t fight. At least a dozen or so, by my count. First you let Aaron Ingram out of the holding cell, then you come across “Will Mitchell” behind the impenetrable cafeteria screen, and eventually you’re in an area with about ten survivors milling around. This haunted house isn’t completely dead, after all! And of course there’s the gradual evolution of Alex Yu, from villain to maybe not villain to possible ally to, hey, he’s been a good guy all along and now here I am talking to him and even trying to put him in the escape pod to save him! Except, oops, that’s not what the game wants me to do. Okay, back you go into your panic room. Seems like a bad idea, but whatever. Scripting, man.
Of course, the main event is the main character. Morgan is a protagonist with a conspicuously gender neutral name because Prey will let you be a dude or a chick. This prevents provocative blog screeds along the lines of “Why can’t I play a woman in The Witcher?” on Tuesday, followed by “How Lara Croft objectifies women!” on Wednesday. I like to think these people wrote papers in college about how Holden Caulfield should have been a woman or Esther Greenwood should have been a man. How dare the authors of characters be so presumptuous as to make choices about other people’s gender! We choose our own Shepards!
This is only a minor issue in Prey, which is mainly a variation on the amnesia trope. Morgan wakes up as a typical videogame tabula rasa. Which gender box you tick doesn’t matter one whit, despite the romance subplot with Mikhaila. I played Morgan as a woman, but I presume the romance is just as pointless and awkward heterosexually as it was homosexually. I can see what Prey is trying to do with its human characters, but the writing is really weak compared to the writing for its aliens. Do you like isolated vignettes stuffed into the corners of your space station? A Dungeons and Dragons game, a guy who loves a piano sonata, avenging a dead father, a flirty lesbian couple, therapy session audio logs. Am I playing Prey or Tacoma? The level design makes Talos Station feel like a lived in place. The writing doesn’t.
The central idea is that Morgan is a rebooted version of her/himself. Are you true to what Morgan was, or what Morgan could become? The computer January, who does all the talking for Morgan, spells this out in case you didn’t pick up on it. This is presumably the point of the game and it will be resolved in the third act. You will discover the truth about Morgan and then you decide what happens.
But the third act of Prey, and the entire finale, is deeply disappointing. On the gameplay front, there really is no third act. It’s just a long continuation of “go here” quests with no meaningful development of enemies. I suppose if the difficulty level had been tuned better — see below — it might have made a difference whether I was fighting a technopath or a telepath. Maybe ether damage would matter. Maybe voltaic phantoms and thermal phantoms would mean different outcomes. Maybe poltergeists would actually come into play. Instead, everything is a discrete bag of hit points easily solved by your damage dealing ability/item of choice. I kept waiting for some sort of twist, like becoming a Big Daddy in Bioshock, playing as the Little Sister in Bioshock 2, or going to the infected Rickenbacker in System Shock 2. Prey has no such surprises in store. There are no narrative twists, no gameplay gimmicks, nothing but a drawn-out continuation of the middle until it’s suddenly over.
The Dahl house
For instance, with the arrival of Walther Dahl and a security team via shuttle, I expected Prey was going to turn into a game about fighting well-armed human opponents. This would set up three-way battles among me, Dahl’s team, and the typhon, much like when the soldiers arrive in Half-Life. I’ve already seen humans and typhons fighting each other during the battle in the cargo bay, where Morgan helps the survivors hold a doorway. This was one of the more promising set pieces, although it was over too quickly. With the arrival of Dahl, perhaps this was going to be more developed.
Instead, there is only a new version of the same floating robot I’ve seen all along. Military operators. These ones have lasers and, yes, they’re hostile to the typhon. So there are some sadly underwhelming battles between typhons and one or two little floating robots shooting laser beams. Otherwise, the military operators shot at me the same way the turrets have been shooting at me for putting too many points into psi skills. Do I hack them or shoot them? It doesn’t really matter. Instead of adding a new dimension to the gameplay ecosystem, the arrival of Dahl was little more than another “go to the waypoint” quest.
As for the finale, it consists of a new skybox graphic clamped onto the top of the station, reaching inside with tendrils that don’t seem to do anything. I thought I was a goner a few times as a tendril washed over me, only to have it dissipate and I’m none the worse for wear. January cautions against scanning them, which means I’m certainly going to scan them. But they dissipate too quickly, so I could never scan more than one. Whatever was supposed to be going on with the Alpha Typhon, as it was called, was never clear to me. Is this what the typhon were calling to? What was it supposed to do? What were the stakes other than introducing zero-G to the arboretum? If a massive skyscraper-sized monster arrives from beyond the stars, shouldn’t it make a big difference? Is it just a visual indicator that the game is pretty much over now? The most formidable opponent in Prey is the verticality of the reactor room.
The story doesn’t really hold any surprises at this point either, or at least it didn’t seem to care much about what could have been surprises. One of the details revealed with Dahl’s arrival is that William Yu has effectively ordered the murder of this own children. Where did that come from? Was it supposed to be an important moment? Was I supposed to remember much about William Yu other than the bench in the arboretum dedicated to him? A lot of the story is occupied with your shifting perspective on Alex, so why is there so little development for the reveal of your murderous father? It plays like an odd afterthought. Hey, Transtar wants you dead to cover its ass. Okay, sure, makes sense. Oh, and by the way, your dad is doing it. Shouldn’t the story have provided a better framework for this development?
The final choice was baffling. Do I destroy the typhon by blowing up the station, or do I use the magic eleventh-hour technobabble doo-dad to somehow incapacitate them so they can be studied later? In both situations, I’m saving the day and defeating the typhon, right? So is it just a question of whether I want to destroy them or study them? If I shut them down, isn’t that just as good as destroying them? It doesn’t matter. The typhons take over the world no matter what. My choices only ever determined what lines would be delivered by the robot chorus after the credits.
I did like this final post-credit scene. So the game was just a simulation running inside the head of a typhon! But it’s not very satisfying since it occupies the place of a Marvel movie teaser, and it comes out of nowhere. It’s like revealing the culprit at the end of a whodunnit was someone who wasn’t even in the story. How is that fair? If I’m wondering whodunnit, should the answer be something that I can see? Having a new solution enter from the wings feels like cheating. It does explain the idea of whether the typhon are capable of empathy. I wish this had been developed further, as a core part of the story. It certainly would have given more weight to choices like who you kill, who you save, and who you ignore. Saving the station, or even the world, is immaterial. It’s what you choose to do in all these little subquests that matters. The sequence after the credits should have been the overall point instead of just a minor “gotcha!” It certainly felt more meaningful than anything I decided during the game.
Do you wanna go harder?
The difficulty level is a huge issue by the time Prey is over. It swallows the gameplay. Any game that opens by asking me to choose a difficulty level before I’ve even started playing has failed at the fundamental task of balancing fun and frustration. That’s not my job. I showed up to play a game, not tune one. Furthermore, any game that expects me to change the difficulty level while I’m playing has failed even more. You’re making me do your job at the beginning, and you’re continuing to make me do your job as I keep playing? I’m supposed to duck into the options menu and parse whatever labels you’ve picked — easy, normal, veteran, insane, etc. — for however many hit points an enemy has, how much damage I take when I get hit, and probably how many health potions are spawned? Why is that my job?
I understand why developers do this, but they need to do it better. At the very least, difficulty levels need to be incentivized. If I’m going to make the game more challenging because you couldn’t tune your game properly, I need some sort of gameplay reward, or at least recognition.
Prey is an all too common example of doing this wrong. I started on the normal difficulty level and left it there for the duration. It did not go well. By the time I got into what should have been third act territory, where the gameplay systems are resolving the challenges, I couldn’t have cared less about the eight neuromods in my inventory, not to mention the twenty armor repair kits, five weapon upgrade kits, twelve recycling grenades, fifteen EMP grenades, and seven typhon lures. The only tool I needed was the shotgun, with the pistol as a backup in case something was standing more than a few feet away. All those Q-beam charges and disruptor charges were just sitting there. All those consumables stocked up for a rainy day that never came. All those skills unused because there was no point using them.
I don’t know how common dynamic difficulty was when Bioshock did it, but I know it tricked me. I never touched the difficulty setting while playing. The Vita-Chambers did an end run around the hassle of reloading after dying. It didn’t occur to me how often a had a sliver of health left after suffering what I was sure should have been a killing blow. But even when that stuff was outed, Bioshock has always had an achievement for playing at the harder difficulty levels. In fact, Bioshock 2 has an achievement for not using the Vita-Chambers, which means you have to reload any time you die. In other words, play it like the typical game with no answer for how to make dying less frustrating other than “stop dying”. But what a punishingly fantastic way to instill the action with a powerful sense of stakes; to flex every single gameplay system; to appreciate the interaction among enemies, weapons, plasmids, and the environment; to turn the Big Sister sequences into challenging tactical puzzles in which every tool in the game was useful. I never had twenty armor repair kits, five weapon upgrade kits, twelve recycling grenades, fifteen EMP grenades, and seven typhon lures, and not just because those things didn’t exist in the game. My second and third playthroughs of Bioshock 2 were glorious. All it took was a simple achievement. The equivalent of a merit badge. I’m that easy.
It’s astonishing to me that Prey doesn’t do a single blessed thing to encourage flexing its combat systems by raising the difficulty level. There’s probably a smartly designed combat system in here. It certainly seems that way. But it’s not my job to implement it. When a developer throws its job into my lap, I’ll just leave the difficulty on normal to see what happens. In the case of Prey, not much. What should have been a glorious third act where all the elements come together in a thrilling synergy of gameplay is instead just a slurry of shotgun blasts. At a certain point, I didn’t even bother with hacking because why take the time scooching around a little puck when I could just fire a shotgun?
I’ve always felt that storytellers dreaming up their stories should start with the end. Where do you want to leave your audience? Shouldn’t the last thing you tell them be the best thing you tell them? Shouldn’t it be the most memorable? The ultimate, in both senses of the word? So he thinks she’s dead and he kills himself, at which point she wakes up and finds him dead and kills herself. The prisoners and the citizens don’t blow up each other’s boat. The outlaw’s son grows up and tracks down his father’s murderers. A millionaire bludgeons religion to death with a bowling pin. A space station the size of a planet explodes. He’s tangled up in rope and sinks with the whale’s corpse. Asgard is actually destroyed. A mother leads a pack of crazed women to tear her son apart. A man buries his dog. A story is a support structure for a conclusion.
This is Prey’s problem overall. Many of its elements never quite come together, so there’s no payoff. The clumsy human stories, the botched difficulty curve, the dangling gameplay threads, the pointless decisions, the cool 3D printer scavenging economy, the coral, the hunters, the various survivors who need saving. If I never had fewer than a dozen mana potions, what did it matter whether I did the quest to put mana healing into the water supply? All that hassle to figure out Emmanuella’s reward is in the ceiling gets me two neuromods when I’m already sitting on eleven skill points that I don’t have anything to spend on? Do I care whether I incapacitate the typhon or destroy the typhon, and like so many of my other choices, does it make any difference? Prey is all set-up with nowhere to go. It is a drawn-out second act amassing the tools you need to resolve a climax that never mattered.