I love this game. I loved it back in 2017 when I made it my GOTY. I loved it even more the following year when the Mooncrash DLC turned the game into a roguelike. Every time I come back to the game I appreciate it more.
No, this game has nothing to do with the 2006 videogame of the same name. The “Prey” branding doesn’t make a ton of sense here. The behavior of the antagonists is less predatory and more “viral infection”. Yes, they’re space-monsters who kill people so it kind of works, but we don’t usually talk about infectious agents / alien invasions in terms of predation. It’s not that the name is invalid, it’s just not a great fit. The game was still untitled when the publisher came to the developers and suggested they use the name “Prey”, since they owned the trademark for it. And we all know how much Zenimax LOVES their trademarks.
Chris Franklin has suggested that the game could have been / should have been titled “PsycoShock”, which would have been thematically appropriateIt certainly would have fit better than “Prey”. and would make it part of the informal System Shock / BioShock lineage. There’s no evidence to support this, but it’s a really interesting ideaNeuroShock would also work, IMO..
The Immersive Sim
I guess we’ve decided that we’re calling this genre “immersive sim”? This is kind of confusing. Like, isn’t the word “sim” sort of explicitly reserved for Maxis-styled high-level simulation games? I guess it’s an improvement over “Thinking Man’s Shooter”, which is what we were calling these things 20 years ago. I always found that one a little pretentious. Also “451 Games” was popular for a while, but it lacks any sort of descriptive element that people like their genre names to have.
This genre was also called “Looking Glass Games”, back when the now-defunct Looking Glass Studios was the only one making them. I’m sad that Looking Glass went under, although maybe it was ultimately good for the hobby. The former LGS staff became a sort of creative diaspora, scattered across the game industry and putting the Looking Glass DNA into other games and genres. Ken Levine went on to Irrational Games and made BioShock, Warren Spector went to ION Storm and made Deus Ex, and Doug Church also went to ION Storm and made Thief: Deadly Shadows.
What Is an Immersive Sim?
The definition of this genre was never very clear, and at this point it’s a bigger mess than “RPG” in terms of ambiguity and confusion. There’s pretty much no way to discuss this genre without getting into arguments over design philosophy, developer lineage, and genre boundaries.
Titles which may or may not qualify as Immersive Sims:
- System Shock (1994)
- Thief: The Dark Project (1998)
- System Shock 2 (1999)
- Thief 2 (2000)
- Deus Ex (2000)
- Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003)
- Thief: Deadly Shadows (2004)
- BioShock (2007)
- BioShock 2 (2010)
- Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011)
- Dishonored (2012)
- Thief (2014)
- Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (2016)
- Dishonored 2 (2016)
- Prey (2017)
Yes, I realize this list is an argument waiting to happen. Lots of people would object to including the games on this list after 2004. Some would argue that Invisible War and Thief 2014 should be omitted because they were horrible and compromised on many of the core tenets of their respective franchises. Others would insist BioShock Infinite needs to be on the list because it’s part of the *Shock lineage.
And hang on… what are the defining attributes of this genre, anyway? It turns out that nobody agrees on that either.
- Isolated, confined setting? (System Shock, BioShock, Prey)
- Non-linear (Metroidvania) level progression? (System Shock, Prey)
- Silent protagonist during gameplay? (System Shock, BioShocks, Dishonored, Prey)
- Exclusive first-person view? (System Shock, Thief, Dishonored, Prey)
- Dialog choices? (Deus Ex, Dishonored)
- RPG elements like improving skills? (System Shock, BioShock, Deus Ex, Prey)
- Modding weapons? (System Shock, BioShock, Deus Ex, Prey)
- Resource management via inventory Tetris? (System Shock, Deus Ex, Prey)
- Freely switching between combat, stealth, and hacking as a means of progression? (System Shock, Deus Ex, BioShock, Prey)
- References to the number 451? (System Shock, Deus Ex, BioShock, Dishonored, Prey)
- Audiologs as a means of exposition? (System Shock, BioShock, Prey)
- Difficult or disempowering combat that discourages “guns first” problem-solving? (System Shock, Thief, Prey)
- Spooky tone? (System Shock, Thief, Prey, and maybe the original BioShock?)
Before you jump in and “Well, actually…” me, note that I’m not going to put all the qualifying asterisks on the previous list. This thing is fractal, and to do it right we’d need a Venn Diagram, a spreadsheet, an opinion poll, and two dozen footnotes. I’m just trying to show how complex this argument is. I’m not trying to make THE definitive list of these games, I’m just trying to show how troublesome it is to try and make such a list.
Everyone has their own ideas about what things define this genre, which means they have their own ideas about what games belong on the list. Heck, even if we agree the “non-linear progression” is key, we might not agree on where to draw that line. Both Thief and System Shock feature an open, multi-path level design, but System Shock is also open in how you move between levels and allows for backtracking, while Thief limits you to a fixed linear map progression through the game.
Space Station Games
As much as I love this genre, I’m an even bigger fan of the sub-genre that lives inside it. It doesn’t have a name, but for the purposes of this article we can call them “Space Station Games”. That’s an immersive sim game set in a sealed, self-contained location where almost everyone else is dead.
Or maybe it’s incorrect to say that SSG’s are their own genre. Maybe they’re just a story concept. Like, “Murder Mystery” is a genre, but “Murder mystery on a train where the inspector must solve the crime before they reach their destination” is a story concept. I like the genre, but I’m really here for the immersive sim story concept of being trapped alone on a space station full of monsters.
An SSG is my favorite type of game. (And to be clear, it doesn’t need to be set on a space station. Any isolated locale would do.) I’ll take an SSG over any other type of game. I love this genre so much that I wrote a fanfiction novel about it. And in my thinking, there have only been three SSG’s:
- System Shock
- System Shock 2
- Prey 2017
BioShock doesn’t make the list because it’s too simplified for my taste. The level progression is much more linear; you can’t loop back and revisit the early areas of the game. The lack of an inventory system means an entire dimension of the game is missing for me. The game also makes combat a little too fun and empowering for my taste. And finally, the ultimate adversary of BioShock seemed a little pedestrian. The flawed people of Rapture were never as compelling to me as the malevolent AI of System Shock or the eldritch creatures of Prey.
I’m not trying to convince you that BioShock is a bad game, I’m just explaining why it didn’t make the above list of ultra-favorite SSG games despite the superficial similarities.
But Like, Whatever
Regardless of how we classify this thing, which genre we put it in, or how well it scored on Metacritic, this is my favorite entry in my favorite genre.
This series is going to be an anti-rant. I’m going to go through this game and pick apart why it works so well for me and my fellow immersive immersive sim-fans.
If you’re a fan of nitpicking, don’t worry. I’ll spend lots of time looking at other games and comparing them (unfavorably) to Prey, and Prey itself has a few small(ish) problems that are worth talking about.
 It certainly would have fit better than “Prey”.
 NeuroShock would also work, IMO.
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