Like System Shock 2 and System Shock before it, I have worn this game out. I have played it to the point where it all feels too familiar. I know where the good loot is, I know which monsters I’m about to run into, and I’ve even memorized a handful of container combinations.
A big part of the appeal of this game is the suspense of not knowing what comes next. Of scrounging for resources. Or improvising when the unexpected happens. But now I always know what comes next. I know which resources I’ll need (save the nullwave grenades for Weavers) and which I can use freely (recycler grenades are plentiful, just throw them anytime there’s a big pile of furniture in your way) and when usage spikes will happen. (Need lots of disruptor rounds for dealing with the two different groups of possessed crew members in the crew quarters.)
I know how to spend my neuromods to get the most bang for my buck. (Don’t need to get the highest level of hacking until WAY late in the game, because so few worthwhile containers require it. On the other hand, Necropsy yields more Typhon tissue, which yields more exotic material, which yields more neuromods, so get that as soon as possible.) I know where the good weapons are. I know where spare turrets are stashed. I know which quests are worth doing, and which ones are worth putting off until I’m headed to the other end of the station.
The more I play, the more same-y my playthroughs get as my personal run becomes more optimized.
I wish there was DLC to randomize this stuff. Actually, I guess they sort of did that…
A year after Prey 2017 came out, we got the Mooncrash DLC. It left behind the characters and events of Talos-1 and allowed us to explore a moonbase that had been overrun with Typhon. It was a sort of roguelite-type experience. You had a handful of playable characters, and you could use them in any order.
Actions taken by one character would persist for the next. So you could have your engineer fix doors to open the way for other characters in subsequent runs. If a character died or escaped the base, you’d pick another character and have another go. This introduced a lot of interesting tradeoffs to the game: “Hey, I found a great weapon! Do I take it with me and clear out these Typhon, or should I leave the gun here for one of my weaker characters to grab when it’s their turn?” Once you’d played all the characters, the world would reset and you’d get to try again. The goal was to get a single run where everyone escaped.
The world was randomized between runs, so you couldn’t count on finding the same gun in the same location after a reset. The layout of the station was fixed, but there were random hazards that would make some routes more attractive than others. Maybe this time there’s a raging fire in Section A, and maybe next time there’s a blackout in Section B.
The Typhon got stronger over time, which meant you always needed to be moving like a speedrunner. There was no time to scrounge or sneak, because that difficulty timer was always running, always ramping up. Once the threat reached max level, you’d be up against waves of ridiculously powerful foes. It felt like trying to play through Doom 2016, except you’re Agent 47. While not strictly impossible, it was brutal enough that it took the fun out of the game. Worse, when you died you were going to have to come right back in and face this chaos with another character. Letting the Typhon threat level get too high felt like a blanket Game Over that made further attempts pointless. “The odds of getting through are so low, why bother? I might as well reset the world.”
Then after many runs you’d unlock the ability to stop the difficulty from ramping up. By that point you’d unlocked a lot of abilities and gear. So just about the time you became strong enough to stand up to a max-threat world, you also gained the ability to stop the threat from climbing. The game would then slam from “nearly impossible” to “insultingly easy” as your overpowered characters steamrolled the bottom-tier monsters.
I enjoyed the suspense and thoughtful pacing of the base game, so the constant time pressure of the DLC really broke the mood for me. The DLC had a bit of story, but it wasn’t nearly as detailed or as interesting as the story of Talos-1. The moonbase was more varied than Talos-1, but it was also much smaller.
I really liked this DLC. I gave it my #2 spot in 2018. At the same time, the whole thing felt like a prototype or a rough draft. I wanted to see the team take some of these systems, balance them, polish things up a bit, and implement them on the scale of a full-fledged game.
Which leads us to…
I wanted Prey with randomized content, and instead I got Dishonored with randomized content. I can’t really accuse the team of doing anything wrong. In terms of sales, Dishonored is the stronger property.
Deathloop was fine, I guess. Like Mooncrash, you loop through the world over and over again, gathering power and learning the maps.
Your goal is to assassinate all of the enemy leaders in a single day. I managed to assassinate them in separate runs, so all I needed to do was take everything I’ve learned and combine it into a single perfect run. But then I lost interest in the game and wandered off. There’s nothing wrong with the game, but I didn’t find the duels with my rival assassin to be as interesting as discovering the Typhon in Prey. I much prefer the spooky horror of Prey to the gleeful badassery of Deathloop.
And so we come back to the beginning. I love these immersive sims, 451 games, Looking Glass games, Thinking Person’s Shooters, Space Station Games, or whatever it is you want to call them. This genre is my home, but the things I love seem to be very different from the things that sell well. I want a science fiction story that has you being hunted by an existential threat in an isolated location where you use obsessive looting and hoarding to gradually transition from survival horror to competency, and from competence to empowerment.
Everyone else seems to want a globetrotting adventure where you’re a heroic badass that carves your way through an army of hapless mooks using a collection of superpowers. Normally when I complain about the design of games, I’m faulting executives for blindly chasing trends instead of learning about different market segments. Or I’m criticizing a developer that doesn’t understand how their mechanics are undercutting their design.
But in this case, I think developers are just doing what makes sense. The market has spoken, and my kind of game is too niche to support a tentpole AAA title. Like I said at the end of 2017:
For years you yearn for something different. Something that just isn’t done anymore. Something very specific to your tastes. Then by some staggering miracle the lumbering machine that is the videogames industry manages to – seemingly by accident – deliver this missing element. Going against current trends, fads, and conventional wisdom, someone manages to design, pitch, finance, develop, and ship this exotic gem with your sought-after flavor still intact.
The game doesn’t run out of money during development. It doesn’t get caught in development hell. It doesn’t compromise or betray the core vision due to publisher meddling. It isn’t a confused mess of conflicting purposes due to a creative team that can’t agree. Instead this albino unicorn hits the digital shelves on the promised release date. You buy it, and it turns out to be everything you’ve always wanted.
And then the public at large immediately sets on it, bitching and whining at how it should be changed to be more like every other videogame the industry pukes out every year.
Gamespot said Prey feels “trapped in the past”. Eurogamer was fawning with praise, but lamented all the ways the combat wasn’t enough like Dishonored’s system of gleeful player empowerment. PC Gamer was supportive all the way through, but then at the end held up Dishonored as a good (better) stealth game and BioShock as an example of better combat. And then they gave this once-in-a-generation title a score of 79 because the shooting wasn’t “fun” enough.
I don’t normally get defensive about review scores, but when the critics began turning up their noses at Prey I wanted to grab them by the shoulders and shake them screaming, “That is not a flaw! That’s the entire point of the game, you uncultured whelp!”
This is a very unforgiving genre. Prey got good scores, but it didn’t set the sales charts on fire. If it had scored ten points lower, or if it had an unlucky release that put it against a stronger game, then it probably would have lost money. If you’re a publisher looking to gamble on the roulette wheel of video games, then it costs a lot to bet on an immersive sim, the odds of winning aren’t great, and even if you win the payout isn’t particularly enticing. Almost any other genre will offer you more favorable odds with a better payout.
We’re talking about a spooky first-person shooter in a persistent open world with stealth elements, complex inventory and resource management. Let’s break it down…
- Spooky – It’s a little harder to design spooky spaces, since you need to thread the needle between “it’s too bright to be scary” and “it’s so dark I can’t see what I’m doing”. Balance is harder, because it’s really hard to keep the player in the “just enough resources to get by” zone. The soundscape requires more care and attention, encounters need to be carefully paced and telegraphed, and you need to contrive some way of delivering expositionUsually audiologs. so that the player is aware that there are threats lurking in the darkness ahead. None of these things are a concern in a more straighforward shooter where the player is just going to run around shotgunning dudes while rock music plays.
- First person shooter – Some may argue, but I think to really get the “immersive” in “immersive sim” the game needs to be first person and not (say) a 2D top-down experience. But first-person worlds are expensive to build.
- Persistent – Linear shooters allow the designer to wipe the slate clean at the end of every level. You can just throw away the current level and load the next one. But if the world is persistent, then you need some horrendously complex system for tracking the position of every object thrown on the ground, every monster killed, and every container looted, all across the gameworld. This makes the game more complicated in terms of technology, and also more complex in terms of balance.
- Open world – An immersive sim game needs really big levels so that you can have multiple branching routes through the space. This makes the levels harder to develop. It also makes it a little harder to optimize the game. It takes a long time to pull those huge levels into memory, and it takes a lot of work to figure out what parts to render. If the player can backtrack, then you can’t just throw away a room once they move on.
- Stealth elements – Doom AI is pretty easy: Just have monsters run at the player as soon as they come into view. But stealth AI is much harder to do. You need multiple states of awareness from “oblivious” to “suspicious” to “aggressive”. You need to connect your rendering code to your AI code so that the AI can understand how dark it is where the player is standing. The AI needs to be reactive to light, sound, movement speed, and environmental changes so it doesn’t come off as comical or brain dead.
- Inventory and resource management – Being able to drop, sort, discard, upgrade, repair, and re-arrange inventory introduces a ton of UI complexity.
- Story – While not a strict rule, I’m willing to bet that people expect more challenging narrative and thematic material from immersive sims than from (say) a standard first-person shooter.
The audience is too small to comfortably support a AAA project, but the genre is too complicated for indies to tackle. So I don’t know if this genre has a future.
The Next Prey
Even if we somehow get another one of these, it’s obvious that the designer won’t be able to re-use this setting. The ending of this game pretty much closed the door on any possible sequels. The earth is gone, humanity is screwed, and Alex is the last man standing. That’s a lousy place to start a new story from, because there’s nothing to fight for. Alex is a cool character, but he’s not my best bud. I’m not looking forward to seeing him the way I look forward to seeing Tiny Tina, Jim Raynor, Johnny Gat, or Alyx Vance.
More importantly, the too-clever-by-half ending of this game has left the writer without a leg to stand on. The intro to the game was revealed to be a simulation built by a liar. Then it was revealed that the rest of the game was also a simulation, built by that same liar. Then at the end we learn the world already ended, a fact that is explained to us by the same goddamn liar.
I am reminded of the Rick & Morty episode where Rick finds himself in a simulation.Season 1, Episode 4. The title is even “M. Night Shaym-Aliens!”, dunking on ham-fisted reveals that negate the story for the sake of surprising you. Once we see that there’s a simulation-within-a-simulation, the jig is up and we know it’s going to be simulations all the way down. At that point the guy running the sims becomes the butt of the joke, congratulating himself for a gag we can see coming a mile away.
No matter where the story goes in the next game, the audience isn’t going to believe a word the storyteller says. This entire game was a lie, and we’re going to assume the sequel is woven from the same cloth. Either the writer pulls the same trick again and we all see it coming, or the writer plays it straight and we spend the whole game assuming we’re playing through yet another lie, and the big surprise reveal at the end is that… there is no twist? Either way, that sucks.
And finally, there’s the classic problem that movie monsters get less interesting every time they show up. It was a thrill to see the Typhon for the first time. It was much less thrilling to see them for the 200th time.
Just come up with a new alien and a new story. We already did that when going from Prey 2006 to Prey 2017. Just make this an anthology series defined by shared tropes, the way Final Fantasy does it. You can have all the freedom to keep or change whatever gameplay mechanics you like, without dragging any sequel baggage into the design.
So that’s ~50k words on Prey 2017. I loved it, but I doubt we’ll see another one anytime soon. In any case, I hope you enjoyed this retrospective. As always, if you’d like to support my efforts, please consider joining my Patreon. You can also make a one-time donation if you’re not into the whole commitment thing.
Thanks so much for reading.
 Usually audiologs.
 Season 1, Episode 4. The title is even “M. Night Shaym-Aliens!”, dunking on ham-fisted reveals that negate the story for the sake of surprising you.
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