Prey 2017 Part 22: The Next Prey

By Shamus Posted Thursday Dec 9, 2021

Filed under: Retrospectives 76 comments

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…


In Mooncrash, you're once again playing through a simulation. Thankfully, the game tells you this up front this time. I don't think it would be a good idea to pull the same twist a second time.
In Mooncrash, you're once again playing through a simulation. Thankfully, the game tells you this up front this time. I don't think it would be a good idea to pull the same twist a second time.

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 LOVE the art style in this game. I love the music. I love the retro-future punchcard-punk aesthetic. I love the animated chapter introductions. Sadly, I don't care for the gameplay itself.
I LOVE the art style in this game. I love the music. I love the retro-future punchcard-punk aesthetic. I love the animated chapter introductions. Sadly, I don't care for the gameplay itself.

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.

Immersive Sims

A screenshot from the in-progress System Shock remake. It's four years overdue, but the kickstarter updates do seem to suggest the project is in the home stretch.
A screenshot from the in-progress System Shock remake. It's four years overdue, but the kickstarter updates do seem to suggest the project is in the home stretch.

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

Those first 11 were pretty surprising. But a 12th? I never saw THAT coming.
Those first 11 were pretty surprising. But a 12th? I never saw THAT coming.

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.

There's no way you could anticipate me telling the same joke a THIRD time in a row. Gotcha!
There's no way you could anticipate me telling the same joke a THIRD time in a row. Gotcha!

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.



[1] Usually audiologs.

[2] 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.

From The Archives:

76 thoughts on “Prey 2017 Part 22: The Next Prey

  1. Syal says:

    This entire game was a lie, and we’re going to assume the sequel is woven from the same cloth.

    Well, it’s possible to recover from that; The Dark Pictures had fake monsters in the first two games, and so in game 3 they emphasized the realness of the monsters by the time the prologue ended. Would be harder to rule out a simulation, but I think a combination of referring to the Morphan experiment and making the main character completely un-noteworthy could do it. (Maybe if you’re really desperate, you start in a simulation, and it ends abruptly with a power outage or something, at which point you switch to the guy who was running the simulation.)

    Morphan also gives a nice reason for new types of Typhon; they’re starting to think like humans now, so maybe they’ve got some barterers, some craftsmen, some… uh… environmentalists? I don’t know what else humans do. Maybe turn down the number of “kill humans” Typhon and increase the number of “interact with humans semi-neutrally” types. (Could add tension, too; you spot a Typhon roaming, but until it spots you, you don’t know if it’s hostile or not.)

    (“Make it Nier” is what I’m saying.)

    1. Joshua says:

      The Dark Pictures had fake monsters in the first two games, and so in game 3 they emphasized the realness of the monsters by the time the prologue ended.

      Speaking of M. Night Shyamalan….
      Twist 1: “The monsters are all fake, the villagers made them up!”
      Twist 2: “But the fake monsters WERE based upon legendary monsters, so maybe this one’s real….Psych!”
      Twist 3: Beyond the lameness of the “They were all in a simulation” (in a fashion), the audience was already agitated after the second (non)twist.

      1. Geebs says:

        If you really want to make your brain hurt remind yourself that, at the time The Village came out, M. Night Shyamalan was generally considered to be a good director.

    2. Alberek says:

      Guilt is its own monster…

  2. Mattias42 says:

    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.

    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!”

    One thing that really stuck with me with an Let’s Play of Prey I watched a few years ago…

    Was that a lot of viewers were downright BAFFLED you were even allowed to kill the civilians in this game, let alone semi-encouraged. Because in so many other games, that sort of freedom simply Does Not Work.

    Like, seriously. The player, Keith Ballard, even had to DEMONSTRATE that, no, seriously, look what this game allows you to do, by basically loading a save, and unloading the shotgun into an NPCs face at the start of an episode. Just to make the comments, if not stop, then at least turn into shocked: ‘wha~?!’s.

    And that was from the audience of a guy that has both an RPG slot AND a Puzzle Game slot in his rotation of games. An audience normally used to ‘thinking games’ with a slow pace.

    So… yeah. I’m not sure how popular this idea will be, but I think one of the things that’s holding the Immersive Sim back? Might actually be that First Person Perspective in the first place.

    People just… are so used to even the story heavy FPSs being totally on rails, that they switch their brains off. So many other games in the genera just ignore you, whenever you try to do something weird or cool, that they’ve basically stopped doing that.

    So… that would basically explain why games like Dishonored or Bioshock actually sold quite well. They basically have that great gun play and cool powers… and a lot of intricate, cool little systems that the average player treats like garnish only. That are TOO subtle, so that the average gamer misses them completely.

    So very good if for us Immersive Sim fans sad lesson there, I think:

    TL-DR & Point:

    I think you MUST have great gun-play and/or a power-fantasy in a first-person game, or the public will simply sneer & scoff at you. Because that’s what they expect, and demand, from a game using that view-point. At least if you want to reach even AA game level sales numbers. Decades of standard FPSs might just… have simply trained people to read FPSs that way.

    And until studios besides Arcane learn that lesson? I don’t think we’ll ever see many Immersive Sims, alas.

    1. beleester says:

      Can you link to the specific episode? I’m not going to dig through a 61-episode Let’s Play to find the moment where he demonstrates that NPCs are killable.

      1. Mattias42 says:

        Sorry about that. Didn’t occur to me at time of posting.

        Episode 53, 22:33 mark, in case the link is being silly.

    2. Rho says:

      I think something similar happened with Cyberpunk 2077. Long story there however.

      1. Thomas says:

        With Cyberpunk I think the issue is that if you have guns, and an open world city, the default point of comparison is now GTA.

        I think that’s a great example of how weird humans and entertainment evaluation is. ‘The wanted system sucks and the horse sucks’ feel like minor criticisms of The Witcher 3, but major criticisms of Cyberpunk. And it’s really the setting that changed that

  3. Christopher Wolf says:

    Breaking News: several sites have actually noted the rumor that Prey 2 is actually in the works.


    For the simulation thing I would think maybe showing you starting in a simulation to train for what you are doing and including the post-credits scene as the lead in (because apparently you might play as the Typhon from the first game) might work to set the stage,

    No exactly sure how to address fixing Earth, might be one of those saving a last refuge on the planet kind of deals…

    1. ContribuTor says:

      I think you should use the full title.

      Prey 2 Colon The Third One.

    2. Gargamel Le Noir says:

      Yeah I really didn’t get the impression that humanity was gone save Alex. We’ll be probably meant to save the pockets of survivors, Doom Eternal style.

      1. RFS-81 says:

        I maybe missed the window to really talk about that here because I didn’t get around to commenting on the previous posts but… well, I think the post-credits scene is quite ambiguous about what happened to Earth. My thought when I saw the city overgrown with coral was that (some) humans modded themselves with more and more Typhon powers and hooked themselves into some coral-based hivemind.

        I don’t know, I just really like my headcanon that whatever happened on Earth is due to humans downloading Typhon space magic into their brains en masse. My flimsy justification is that Alex says “We spent years putting what you can do into us” which sounds like more than just Morgan’s mad science experiments.

        1. Chad+Miller says:

          I think the “everybody’s dead” thing is a very easily elicited kneejerk reaction even if further scrutiny would determine that, no, that doesn’t actually make sense. Which is still a fair criticism of the ending being a bit rushed and threadbare, but I agree that this doesn’t really cut off sequel space as a sequel can always flesh things out if they were accidentally left too vague in the moment.

          I still don’t particularly want a sequel, but that’s not the reason.

    3. ContribuTor says:

      Can I just say that it makes me weep that a games journalist would describe Prey as “Bioshock in space”?

      This is like calling Skyrim “Fallout 3 without guns”. Sure, it’s technically accurate. But it gets the entire history of its own reference exactly backwards.

      Bioshock was System Shock underwater.

      1. Ninety-Three says:

        “Oblivion with guns without guns”

      2. Chad+Miller says:

        Near the release of Deathloop I saw an article entitled something like “Deathloop: Finally, an Arkane immersive sim that I like.” The body of the text was entirely about Arkane’s other immersive sims: Dishonored and Dishonored 2.

        1. Mattias42 says:

          No joke? I think Deathloop is going to sweep quite a few GOTY style awards on strength of that sort of thinking alone, despite the public mostly having shrugged and moved on already.

          Again, trying not to be cynical… but that’s genuinely the vibe I’ve gotten from Deathloop: Over-correction due to stigma from earlier reviews that got a bad reception due to the players really loving Arcane’s earlier stuff. Like… those paragraphs from Shamus is literally THE most I’ve heard from a non reviewer about that game, and I found that rather telling, compared with how the press & gamers alike kept gushing about Dishonored 2 for months & months.

          1. Thomas says:

            It Takes Two won game of the year, so I think it’s just been a weak year for games generally (I’d much rather It Takes Two wins than anything worn out though)

            1. Redrock says:

              Well, I’m actually very glad it won, if only because it might bring some extra attention to the couch co-op subgenre that’s almost as rare as a decent immersive sim these days, if not more.

          2. Gethsemani says:

            Deathloop was a cool experiment that starts out really strong but fizzles out hard at the end, unless the player has been extremely lucky in how they approach the mid-game. I started out really loving pretty much all aspects of it and the drive to equip yourself for the final loop while uncovering the secrets of the island was cool. But the mid-game has a lot of spinning plates; you need to figure out how to get to each of the Visionaries and in what order, you need to get better weapons, trinkets and slabs which means doing side quests and killing Visionaries and unravel who you are and the mystery of the bunkers. Most players seem to have ended up in the same place I did around the 15-20 hour mark, in that you are essentially ready to go for the final loop but you need to clean up a few main missions to get it in place and that means doing these really brief, really uninteresting 5 minute runs where you rush in, do whatever you came to do (sabotage a computer, get an item, whatever) and then rush out only to repeat that several times. It is not interesting, it is not engaging and it is all busy work. So after 2 hours of that (in a 20-30 hour game) you finally get the finale and you are so burnt out on the meaningless busywork that you never want to play again.

            It is a shame, because Deathloop has some legitimately interesting concepts and the core conceit is really cool. It is just that compared to all of Arkane’s previous output it devolves into rote monotony too much towards the end and it spoils the entire game.

      3. Milhouse says:

        To quote the Simpsons: “It’s like Speed 2, but on a bus!”

      4. Stanislao Moulinsky says:

        “Bioshock was System Shock underwater.”

        And thus very watered down.

        1. BlueHorus says:

          That’s a deep joke. Took me a while to fathom what you were doing, but I sea it now.

          1. The+Wind+King says:

            I should be salty about those puns, but instead I’m hooked.

        2. Xeorm says:

          Don’t be such a wet blanket

      5. Pink says:

        Miniature giant space hamsters.

  4. Moridin says:

    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.

    I would just embrace that. You’re trapped in a simulation, can you find a way to escape? You “escape” the simulation, are you finally free or is it just another level…? Recurse as desired. The ending twist can be anything at all, and at least a portion of the playerbase will not have seen it coming.

    1. Thomas says:

      Start the game encouraging the player to think they’re in a simulation, have everything go wrong, and then at the end of the opening, the twist is it’s not a simulation.

    2. Alex says:

      But that’s a terrible idea. It’s an immersive sim that actively attacks the player’s immersion in the story. There is only one answer to the question “What is the highest level of simulation, and how do you escape it?” and that’s “The game, and by quitting the game.”

  5. ContribuTor says:

    Your comment on review scores reminds me of one of my favorite ads from a few decades back.

    Some people actually like bowing.

  6. Lino says:

    As someone who’s spent most of his life liking not very popular things, I totally understand your pain about immersive sims not being commercially viable. As Mattias42 said above, maybe the decades of mainstream FPS has lead to people having specific expectations from those types of games. One of the reasons I dropped the game was precisely the combat system (and the lack of meaningful progress to the main plot at one point).

  7. ContribuTor says:

    No exactly sure how to address fixing Earth, might be one of those saving a last refuge on the planet kind of deals…

    One nice thing about this setting is that it’s established that humanity is not strictly earthbound. Even if earth has been lost, the typhon aren’t per se destructive. I could imagine leading a group of colonists back from
    Mars to reclaim the planet after the typhon were defeated on earth, for example.

    The greater problem, in my view, is that “Typhon have taken over the earth!” means we have a problem of scale. We now have planet-wide conflict. Now the writers need to balance “engage in the conflict” (which seems pretty shootery and implausible for solo combat to impact – the ME3 problem) or isolate the player from that conflict and have them working on something smaller scale (which runs the risk of seeming to play for penny ante stakes while the world burns – the ME2 problem).

    With a large scale combat, it’s going the be a real
    challenge to maintain an immersive sim feel.

  8. Ninety-Three says:

    Because we’re probably never going to discuss Mooncrash proper, its story was weird and not very fleshed out overall but it had one of my all-time favorite little details. It has the standard immersive sim “get passwords for computers” thing, and when you find the facility director’s password it’s “DefectBotTakesTheJackpot”.

    The Prisoner’s Dilemma is the famous game theory problem of the form “we can both coordinate and do decently, both try to betray each other and do poorly, or if one tries to cooperate and one betrays the betrays wins big, cooperator loses”. People sometimes run Prisoner’s Dilemma tournaments where they test bots with various strategies against each other to see what does well overall. DefectBot implies the strategy of “Always defect”. Good strategies adjust themselves based on the opponent’s history of cooperating or defecting, DefectBot is terrible because it never strategizes. The only way it can do well in a tournament is if the only other competitors are the equally braindead CooperateBot and RandomBot.

    Picking a password that references game theory and programming solidly establishes the director as a nerd, and the idea of DefectBot winning implies a deeply cynical view of the world where basically everyone is either a naive idiot or a scammer who never trusts anyone. I don’t imagine more than 10% of players got the reference but it’s so good, so much characterization packed into just 24 characters.

  9. Trevor says:

    I will buy the next Arkane game, but I’d really prefer it not be a sequel to Prey. And I loved Prey, but the story feels done.

    A sequel would have to do some retconning and a bunch of other weird stuff like developing motivations for the Typhon that I don’t want. There was enough material for one game and while I was intrigued by the Typhon I don’t need them explained to death. Similarly I’m not so in love with the TranStar world that I need to spend a whole nother game’s worth of time in it.

    I understand why series and sequels are appealing, but I think it would be okay if we normalized being done with an IP after one game and moving onto developing the next one.

    1. Ninety-Three says:

      When complaining about sequelitis, “risk aversion” is something that comes up a lot, and that definitely exists, but I think people focus on the wrong half of the equation. Developers make sequels because sequels tend to sell better than new IP. Sequels sell better because people are more willing to buy them. If you want to normalize new IP you’re going to have to convince gamers to be less risk-averse in their purchasing decisions, because developers are going to continue giving them whatever they keep wanting to buy.

      1. Trevor says:

        Absolutely. You’re instantly decent at sequels of games you’ve played before because the muscle memory for the controls still exists from the first game. And humans like feeling like they’re good at things and hate feeling like they’re bad at things. Using familiar controls gets you to the place where you’re pleased with how well you’re doing a lot faster. Add this to the general brand loyalty that develops over time and you’ve got a bunch more sales than you would with a game that is totally fresh where you might not be amazing at first.

        1. Shufflecat says:

          I think one thing that can bridge that gap is developers having strong identities when it comes to game design, to the point were a new IP by a given studio can be received with the same familiarity as a sequel.

          You know what you’re getting into with a FromSoft game, a Bethesda Gamebryo RPG, a Bungee FPS, or a Quantic Dream… whatever those are, regardless of the story, setting, art style, or whatnot in play with a given title.

          On on the opposite end, even with devs who are more varied, a strong, distinctive creative identity can go a long way. Remedy games, for example, vary in their mechanics, but they still have such a distinct overall style that if you’re already familiar with them you can feel confident enough you know what you’re getting into. Hideo Kojima is maybe another example of this: Death Stranding’s mechanics feel VERY familiar to an MGS fan, despite the goals of those mechanics being substantially different.

          1. Lino says:

            Another really good example of this is SuperGiant Games – every game they’ve made is in a completely different world, and has completely different mechanics, yet all of their games are very distinctly theirs.

    2. Thomas says:

      You might be in luck with Arkane. As Microsoft have bought them, they might be open to a new prestige OP that they control rather than a sequel (although i’m sure Microsoft will want Dishonoured 3).

      The advantage of a console publisher is the publisher cares more about the games reputation than its sales.

  10. Ninety-Three says:

    My instinct on how to handle the plot of Prey 2 is to set it in between the Talos 1 breakdown and the post-credits twist. Put the Yus aside and just make a story about the Typhon invasion of Earth, “Half Life with mimics” is a solid pitch. If you want to make a story that isn’t just everyone dying hopelessly, you can make act 3 about launching a rocket to get people off the planet or something.

    You can never completely avoid it, but I think this manages to put as much distance as possible between the plot and “what if it’s all another simulation?”

    1. Geebs says:

      That’s literally Doom 2.

    2. Zekiel says:

      That might work as a story. But literally the best thing about Prey was being stuck in a closed environment that you can master, ie the space station environment. And if you set it on earth you lose what makes Prey so good.

      I’d prefer they made a spiritual successor instead.

  11. The Rocketeer says:

    The biggest problem I had with this game is that Morgan didn’t have an “EAT, PREY, LOVE” decoration in the apartment at the beginning.

  12. David D. says:

    Thanks for this series. Your earlier “best of 2017” mention of Prey made me want to play it, but I hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

    When you started this long-form analysis, I took the opportunity to buy a copy of Prey and play through it before encountering any spoilers. It was entirely worth the time and money, and belongs up there with SS2 and Deus Ex. Thanks again for providing me with a nudge to hurry up and check it out for myself!

    1. Zekiel says:

      Echoing the thanks for the analysis. I really enjoyed it and there were some illuminating discussions in the comments too.

  13. Mye says:

    I think with game creation tools getting cheaper and more powerful we’ll eventually get to the point where indie can actually make immersive sim on resonable budget. I’d compare it to metroidvania where the genre almost died but has now come back in full force with game like hollow knight not only being successful indie but actually managing to do decent with the public at large. Plus didn’t Deus Ex human revolution do reasonably well? Even mankind divided did okay (despite being truncated and having some pretty heavy issues) and was only shuttered because of the publisher crazy high expectation.

    As for the genre doing poorly overall, I think we quickly forget that most people only play game a few hours a week and for them a game being simple, linear with a cliche story and mostly made up of big cutscene/setpiece is a big plus. But at the same time the souls franchise managed to carve a pretty big niche for itself despite being the exact opposite of all this, so I think part of the answer is just managing expectation and some clever marketing. I don’t know what the immersive equivalent of “prepare to die” and “git gud”, maybe “don’t miss a thing” or something?

    As for arkane next game, I dunno, despite really liking prey and dishonored I have 0 interest in deathloop and I’m guessing it sold very poorly (it’s already getting 50%+ discount). I don’t think any of their games actually sold well either, so I’m guessing they’ll be forced to really change their style.

    1. RFS-81 says:

      Yeah, I’m optimistic that an indie studio could do it, especially if immersive sim fans can lower their standards for graphics somewhat. After all, the studios that made the classic games in the genre would be small indies by today’s standard.

      I don’t know what the immersive equivalent of “prepare to die” and “git gud”, maybe “don’t miss a thing” or something?

      How about, “Actually, that’s explained by an audiolog in Psychotronics”?

      1. Fizban says:

        “Dig up the truth?”

        1. Syal says:

          “That was the bad outcome.”

    2. Redrock says:

      The problem with immersive sims is that even with the indie approach it’s hard to justify the resource expenditure. So let’s say we’re going for some relatively lo-fi graphics, but you still need to do some really, really good 3D level design. You need complicated spaces with lots of hidey-holes and secret passages and loops and details and hidden switches and all that stuff. You need decent AI, like Shamus said. You need a combat system that feels somewhat satisfying – it doesn’t have to be Doom, but it does need some meaty sneak attacks at the very least. You’ll probably need traversal abilities and physics.

      And the thing is, if you’re making a lo-fi indie game and you’re willing to design some complex levels, well, you’re probably better off making a metroidvania. It’s cheaper, it’s easier in so many ways, and it’s easily marketable to gamers young and old on all platforms. Souls, by the way, is basically a 3D metroidvania in most ways, although one that is more focused on combat than traversal.

      1. Mye says:

        That’s what I mean when I say tools are getting better and cheaper, I wouldn’t be surprised if soonish you’ll be able to buy some ready to use enemy AI with some decent tool to tweak their behavior. Same with 3D design/environment.

        And part of the issue with metroidvania being easily marketable is that the market is over saturated at this point, not one week goes by without one being release and every month there’s at least one that seems decent enough.

    3. Vect says:

      Well, as far as “Immersive Sims on a Budget” game goes, there’s a game called Gloomwood being published by New Blood Interactive (the publishers of Dusk, Amid Evil and ULTRAKILL) that’s explicitly advertised as “Thief with Guns”. As in, is the link to the Steam Page.

  14. Kaspar says:

    Shamus, have you played ‘Sir, you are being hunted’ by the way?

    1. Matt` says:

      I thought of the same game, right around the time of “a science fiction story that has you being hunted by an existential threat in an isolated location where you use obsessive looting and hoarding”

      Although that said, the science fiction of Sir, You Are Being Hunted is fairly minimal – there are robots of course, but they could just as well be replaced with a squad of human hunters/gameskeepers and it wouldn’t change much except possibly removing the sense that you don’t need to feel conflicted about killing them.

  15. MelfinatheBlue says:

    Honestly, you might have to hit mods to get good 451 stuff. I vaguely remember Half-Life 1 having a couple, and my guess is that if you went digging through say, Fallout mods, you might find a couple decent ones. They’re not really my cup of tea, but I do like watching you or Spoiler Warning play through them. I like ESO and Pokemon Go, so my niche is more of a corner of the room, but I sympathize.

    And when I have extra cash, you’re first in line for it (and Spoiler Warning second). You have given me so many awesome years of entertainment, I just wish I could appreciate you with cash, not just words.

  16. Damiac says:

    Speaking of both the simulation within a simulation, and the general idea of twist endings, I thought it was a HUGE wasted opportunity that X-COM 2 (NuCom) didn’t end with the reveal that the commander was still with the aliens. They even had the doctor at first appearing as a thin man, if I recall correctly. It would have made such perfect sense.

    Better yet, have the beginning of the game play out as is, only early on it looks like you’re going to win. Then, suddenly, after you “win”, there’s another mission. To rescue the commander. Then you realize in those first few missions you were fighting against X-Com, which is the entire backstory of why the commander was taken in the first place.

    I was so sure that was going to be revealed, but it wasn’t. Just felt like a wasted opportunity to me.

    As far as prey 2, you’d have to reframe things, I think, to have a workable plot. But there’s an easy out of of “Oh no these things that we thought were chasing us are actually on the run from an even worse thing! But now we can work with the first things against our mutual enemy! Also Alex was a crazy liar and the typhon getting to earth wasn’t actually a big deal for some reason.

    Make the player play through the game with a voiced character, then at the end you reveal they were a phantom the whole time! Since phantoms are already kind of the human/typhon hybrid. Or, hell, transform the player into a phantom in an early mission, like in that quake game. Will you help the humans, or work for the typhon? Or do things the really hard way that somehow helps both?

  17. Dreadjaws says:

    Considering how graphics are generally the more costly part of game development, I’m sure indie developers wouldn’t have such a hard time creating one of these games with an art style more focused on ambience than photorrealism. Granted, you’ll have to wait until someone wants to. Sadly, many indie developers are as much of trend followers as AAA devs, which is why you see the indie market flooded with roguelikes and metroidvanias these days. All it takes is one to make the plunge successfully and many will follow suit.

    Granted, they’ll probably have more luck marketing the game from a horror perspective. You can get away with a lot that way. Resident Evil, for instance, famously made bank with clunky controls just because they were justified as part of the experience. All you need is a selling point. Prey seems to have been unfortunately sold as an FPS, whether the developers intended it or not, and that influenced the audience’s expectations in a negative way for the game.

    Now Weird West is coming out next year (from ex Arcane devs, including those working on Prey), and trying to do the immersive sim on a different perspective. We’ll have to see how that one does.

    1. Thomas says:

      Are there that many big indie 3D open world titles? I’m thinking of things like Greedfall and Plague Tale, but both are a level of complexity below an immersive sim.

      EDIT: Reading the comments below, the answer is clearly ‘Yes, there are’ I just need to tone my expectations for graphics down a notch.

    2. CloverMan-88 says:

      SEVEN was kind of an immersive sim in isometric view (so more action-oriented CRPG?) and I though it worked pretty well.

  18. Exasperation says:

    I feel like somebody needs to link to “Harvet Ismuth’s 42 Essential 3rd Act Twists” by Dresden Codak. In particular, check out the “Horror/Shyamalan” and “Horror/Double Shyamalan” entries.

    1. Syal says:

      Aw, no category for “the villain was slightly offscreen the whole time”?

      1. BespectacledGentleman says:

        Thanks Zero Escape!

  19. RFS-81 says:

    Sort of immersive-sim related: Today I learned that Terry Pratchett was a huge fan of the Thief series and active in the Thief usenet groups.

    The Guardian article
    Google archive

  20. Sleeping Dragon says:

    I think you’re grossly overestimating audience assumptions about the sequel. Yes, the simulation was the big reveal for this game but I don’t think it’s pervasive enough that it defines the setting. I mean, it’s definitely something that will spring to people’s minds quicker than it would if the first game didn’t happen but if nothing points to a simulation early on and the game does a good enough job of pulling the player in (which successful immersive sims are usually good at) I doubt that many players are going to stick to this particular idea. If anything the writers are free to use the original simulation twist to retcon some things.

    Also, the angle of “humanity is already dead” isn’t doing it for me either. Ninetry-Three above suggested putting the game during the invasion. ContribuTor pointed out there are humans outside Earth in the setting. Also, just because there’s a lot of coral doesn’t mean all humans on Earth are dead (though human civilization as we know might have been destroyed or at least took a major blow), especially outside of major population centers which would be natural breeding/hunting grounds for Typhon. Heck, not all humans in those big cities need to be dead. Talos 1 was chock full of the stuff by lategame and a not-insignificant percentage of its population survived until that point. Furthemore we still don’t know that much about Typhon and their lifecycle (and what we do know may not be entirely true due to the simulation thing). The possibilities are maybe not endless but aplenty.

  21. Balesirion says:

    The audience is too small to comfortably support a AAA project, but the genre is too complicated for indies to tackle.

    I know of at least two indie immersive sims in active development right now, both from the retro-indie publisher New Blood Interactive: Gloomwood and Fallen Aces. They both have demos currently available.

    1. Higher Peanut says:

      I’d agree with Gloomwood, hence the “thief with guns” URL. Fallen Aces probably wouldn’t fit the bill for Shamus. You can go full stealth, but the rest of the imsim doesn’t really fit into it. There’s very little inventory management and no feeling powerless, you can always fall back on violent brawling pretty easily.

  22. bobbert says:

    Now that it is over, did being able to play as a man or a woman wind up making more of a difference for the story than it did in Honey-Pop?

    1. Chad+Miller says:

      It’s mostly just a change in voice actor and character model (with the minor exception that the sham apartment in the beginning actually has a number of subtle differences based on gender as that’s supposed to be your living space)

      1. bobbert says:

        So, “They probably planned to do something clever with it, but never got around to it in the main game.” is a fair assessment?

        1. Chad+Miller says:

          Eh, it could also just be that they always intended it to be cosmetic but the beginning of the game is one of the few places where you’d expect that to be a big deal. It makes a lot more sense for lady-Morgan’s apartment to have lady-specific stuff in it than you would expect to see in, say, her office (not to mention the many spaces that aren’t specifically hers in any way). I elaborated on some of these differences in an earlier post:

  23. Lino says:

    On the topic of indie Immersive Sims, here are a couple of upcoming ones:

    Graven – kind of reminds me of Dark Messiah, but with a darker aesthetic.
    Here’s a video with a bunch of upcoming ones. Some highlights for me:

    Gloomhaven. Very heavy Thief influence, but with a heavier horror bent. Also, you can use guns!
    Core Decay. Seems like a classic Space Station Imm Sim. And it’s made by 3D Realms!
    Shadows of Doubt. You’re a detective in a sci-fi noir setting, with a fully simulated city. The aesthetic, while kind of blocky, looks a bit like if Blade Runner was made in the ’90s
    Synther. A bit like Shadows of Doubt, but with a bit higher production values (although it seems less ambitious in its scope).
    Project Exhibitited. This actually came out last year. It looks really nice, and seems to take a lot of cues from Thief. It’s only got 115 reviews on Steam, but most of them are positive.

    1. Mersadeon says:

      On the topic of Dark Messiah – I’ve re-installed it last year after having some vivid memories of playing it as a teen and man, you know what? Sure, the story is absurd and badly written, but the game itself really holds up, it’s got a feeling pretty much no other game has. Really digging that weird mechanically janky space it inhabited.

  24. Christopher says:

    I’m happy you did this series, I don’t think a lot of other people would be able to. Even in the Youtube Video Game Critic circles or whatever that I watch, Prey hasn’t gotten a lot of time in the sun.

    Arkane seem pretty passionate about these kinds of games, so I don’t think it’s impossible to get a second Prey someday as long as those creators are still around making games. They’ve become a bigger and bigger name over time, so at some point another game like this will probably do better just because it has a bigger public presence.

  25. Smosh says:

    If you want DLC that randomizes the game for you, here you go:

    Randomizers have gotten rather big in speedrunning, starting from Zelda LTTP, then Super Metroid, and now we have them for a ton of metroidvania-like games, such as Hollow Knight, Metroid Prime Echoes (yes, it’s a modded Gamecube game) and many more, including Prey.

    I believe the mod I linked is the relevant one, but maybe some googling will supply you with a more updated version. I haven’t played it myself, this is just what I quickly found.

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