This last week, I finally beat Prey 2017, and you know what…I really liked it. I really like explorative immersive sim design but rarely feel compelled to put up with the expected levels of jank and obtuseness the genre often comes tied with. Prey, however, is a very streamlined version of that formula. The mechanics are very easy to understand and satisfying to mess with. While the actual design of the enemies is somewhat uninspiring, the way they function is almost always engaging and unexpectedly challenging to deal with. The location of the game, Talos 1, is utterly captivating, revolting, and just lavishly nightmarish in its opulence. The space station feels like what a Greek god would call minimalist. Everything about Prey screams “well thought out.” At least I assume everything does, because during my playthrough of Prey, I pretty much refused to engage with its story, and that made me love it even more.
Refusing to engage with it might be a little strong, but I’m not kidding when I said I started enjoying Prey a whole lot more after I stopped caring about its plot. This doesn’t mean I don’t know what the story of the game was. I went into the game completely spoiled. I was quite aware of all the drama concerning Alex, Typhons, and even the grand twist at the end. In fact, it was hearing about the story of this game, which got me so interested in it in the first place.
However, when I first started the game – about a year or so before this playthrough where I actually finished it – the narrative, despite being well written, completely failed to grab me. This was disappointing but not very surprising for me; the delivery of an engaging narrative has been a consistent problem for Arkane Studios in the past. The studio consistently creates some of the most instantly appealing premises in AAA gaming, but in terms of the nitty-gritty details, it’s hard to care about the NPC’s populating Arkanes worlds. Especially when compared to how brilliantly engaging their gameplay typically is. This can most obviously be seen in the Dishonored games, where you can see the studio consistently struggling to capture the dark fairy tale tone they want so badly because they’re not allowing themselves to have enough fun for that to work. Well, this time, it doesn’t feel like Arkane is holding themselves back. Prey feels like they put every single idea they thought of into it. A lot of the characters are likable, the corporate dystopian science fiction concepts are interesting and the world bekins for you to uncover its mysteries. The problem is that the least interesting way to experience all that is through the narrative.
The exploration gameplay is so strong in Prey that I never wanted to stop doing it. I cannot overstate how much fun Talos 1 is to explore. The place is reeking of atmosphere, all the little diegetic sounds combined with the low key soundtrack as you hear the grunts of Typhon in the distance make for some of the most immersive gameplay I’ve experienced in years. Which is why it’s so irritating that you’re constantly hearing these doomed crewmates of yours yammer on about what you’re looking at. You can pick up a bunch of audio logs, read a ton of emails, and get a full picture of these random corpses’ final hours on the station. It makes sense given the game’s final twist, but it also can’t help but feel patronizing. Breaking the amazing atmosphere of the game to tell me a story that just says the same thing the environment was, but worse. During my hours exploring the station, I had many internal thoughts about what I was witnessing, trying to put myself in the same scenarios the characters we’re going through. It feels like the game doesn’t have confidence in its players to seriously think about the game without being begged to do so. So, it keeps spoon-feeding you the major themes of the game.
I hate criticism like this. It’s not like I’m some genius for engaging critically with the themes of the game. The only reason I played it for myself was because I saw Noah Caldwell-Gervais analysis on both Prey games. I went in biased by the several narrative breakdowns I had seen surrounding this game. Pieces that made me very interested in this game’s narrative made me excited to experience it for myself. But the presentation of it all is just too much.
A game not being subtle and wearing its ideas on its sleeve is not something to criticize. The problem here is the game is telling its story twice, one way which is fun, engaging, and natural feeling and one that kills momentum, takes you out of the game and makes the story seem worse than it is. Prey’s gameplay has you using this arsenal made up of unfinished prototype versions of crazy pulp sci-fi weapons, to fight, solve puzzles, and explore sometimes all at the same time on this lavishly detailed combination of Rapture and the USS Enterprise. The environmental design is so great that you can piece together how the station fell apart just by looking at how furniture has been turned over, how utilities meant for comfort have been changed for survival, just how lifeless Talos feels. Prey’s cutscenes feel like visiting an aunt you only kind of like. The things that happen in them might be cool or interesting to think about on a conceptual level, but outside of the beginning of the game they’re dull and sluggish feeling. It seems like Arkane might have recognized this because the DLC for Prey, Mooncrash is almost entirely driven by gameplay with a very light story element. So, let’s see how that worked.
Mooncrash is really boring, and I can’t bring myself to play it for more than 3 hours.
Okay, well, I don’t really know what the solution is then. Maybe I’m completely off mark with my criticisms. It’s possible I just wasn’t in the mood to engage with a hard sci-fi narrative but was really in the mood to turn a lot of chairs into pistol ammo. I haven’t played Arkane’s latest game, Deathloop, which seems to stray from their formula quite a bit. Using more roguelike elements like in Mooncrash, It also seems like it’s a lot more narrative focused than their previous work. I’m excited to play it and see how many of my criticisms for Prey have been addressed. Arkane is one of my favorite development houses because no matter the quality of their games there’s always interesting to talk about.