Prey 2017 Part 2: Tram Legacy

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Jul 14, 2021

Filed under: Retrospectives 178 comments

In Prey you play as Morgan Yu, who can be either male or female. Both are equally valid. Both voice actors give solid performances and neither option feels tacked-on. I never noticed any conversations where people used male pronouns for female Morgan. I did notice a few awkwardly worded email messages where people went out of their way to avoid using pronouns for Morgan, but it wasn’t a big deal. To avoid having to perform similar grammatical contortions, I’m going to pick a gender for this series. 

I’m going to spend a lot of time talking about Morgan, and Morgan’s older brother Alex. It’s actually super-handy if I make Morgan a female, because then I can use “she” and “he” for the siblings and you’ll know which one I mean. So I’ll be playing as female Morgan for this series. 

Good Morning Morgan

Unlike Commander Shepard where I favored Jennifer Hale's performance over Mark Meer's, I don't have a strong preference between these two. They're both good.
Unlike Commander Shepard where I favored Jennifer Hale's performance over Mark Meer's, I don't have a strong preference between these two. They're both good.

The game begins with Morgan waking up in her penthouse apartment on the morning of March 15, 2032. From there she heads to the roof and takes a private helicopter to the nearby TranStar building where she meets up with her brother Alex. Apparently the Yu siblings are executives in the TranStar corporation. Morgan is about to travel to the TranStar space station in orbit around the moon, but first she needs to run through a battery of tests.

The helicopter ride here reminds me a bit of the…

Half-Life Tram Ride

This game looked mind-blowingly good back in 1998. And now it looks extremely dated. And at launch, it didn't look NEARLY as good as you see in this 1200x675 screenshot, since you probably ran it at 800x600.
This game looked mind-blowingly good back in 1998. And now it looks extremely dated. And at launch, it didn't look NEARLY as good as you see in this 1200x675 screenshot, since you probably ran it at 800x600.

The first Half-Life game begins with a long tram ride into the Black Mesa research facility. There’s no gameplay, no dialog, no threat, and no story. The only agency the player has is in deciding where to aim their camera as the tram glides along.

The whole sequence was a showcase for graphics and worldbuilding. The game showed off lots of animated doors and machinery, which was a big deal back in 1998 when game space was usually made from static geometry.  These features also acted as foreshadowing for the future areas of the game and what sorts of things we were going to get to see, explore, and blow up in the coming gameplay. The automated tram announcer filled in a bunch of details about how the world worked and what sort of installation we were about to explore. 

The entire sequence ran for more than five minutesAnd probably a good bit more than that in 1998, since the ride carried you through multiple loading screens. They’re nearly instant now, but that wasn’t the case back then.. And since this wasn’t a cutscene, you couldn’t just skip it. 

On one hand, the entire sequence was brilliant. It was really nice to have a game take some time and establish a setting and mood before the shooting started. The world felt a little more real and alive thanks to the countless details revealed on the tram ride. 

On the other hand, this sequence broke just about every rule and guideline about how you’re supposed to construct games. You’re supposed to get the player interacting with the world as quickly as possible. At the very least, you should be teaching the player the audio and visual language of the game. Stuff like: 

  • This sound means a grenade is about to go off nearby.
  • Boxes that look like this can be broken for resources.
  • Doors like this can be opened / broken with weapon A.
  • Crouch to get under obstacles like this one.
  • These enemies are extra-vulnerable to weapon B.

And so on.

And if you’re not teaching the player the language of the game, then you should 100% be introducing characters and getting the story going in order to draw them into the world and get them engaged emotionally!

The Half-Life tram ride ignores all of that. It’s all worldbuilding and show-off art assets at a point in the game where you don’t even know who you are or what your goal is. 

How The Mighty Have Fallen

The titles appear as physical objects on top of buildings and bridges during the helicopter ride. It's sort of goofy and charming at the same time.
The titles appear as physical objects on top of buildings and bridges during the helicopter ride. It's sort of goofy and charming at the same time.

People heaped praise on the game at launch for the tram ride. I remember lots of people declaring it “The greatest intro sequence of all time”. But over the last 23 years that enthusiasm has waned. In the process of doing this write-up, I did a search for “Top X Best Game Intros of All Time!” articles. There are a lot of those sorts of lists floating around out there, but among the many lists I read, only one mentioned Half-Life. And it wasn’t even close to the top of the list. 

Sure, the people who write those lists tend to be young, and so the lists GENERALLY favor titles of the last 15 years. But even among the gaming codgers that frequent this site, I just don’t see the original Half-Life intro getting the love it used to. 

My guess is that the tram ride represented a much-needed swing towards narrative. Players really were looking for a game that would pull them in and establish a proper setting and mood before the shooting started. At the same time, I doubt anyone was actually hoping for a world where every game began with 5 minutes of unskippable narration, loading screens, and “next-gen” graphical flexing before the player needed to pick up the controller. In retrospect, the Half-Life tram ride was an over-correction. But it was indeed a correction to a real problem.  

Few AAA games could get away with five minutes of unskippable non-interactive introduction these days, but even fewer could get away with the DOOM approach of dropping you into an endless context-free fight and telling you to read a disconnected .txt file if you want to know what’s going on.

Games don’t need to tell a grand story, but they do need to create a mood and a sense of place. So I appreciate the Half-Life intro for how it contributed to that idea, even if it seems a bit self-indulgent today.

The Helicopter Ride


Link (YouTube)

I think Prey’s helicopter ride is the ideal version of what Half-Life was trying to do way back in 1998. At a minute and a half, it’s not going to test the patience of anyone besides speedrunners. It manages to show off some cool visuals without feeling like the designer is wasting your time.

The sequence has narrative utility as well. The penthouse apartment and private helicopter show that our protagonist is wealthy and powerful. The morning routine presents a comfortable status quo for us to settle into, which makes it all the more painful when it gets taken away. 

In the past I’ve criticized games like Dishonored, where the author is in such a hurry to start the conflict that they don’t allow the audience to appreciate the world before the conflict. In the end it feels like the author is trying to take away something we never had in the first place. In Prey, the sunshine and upbeat synthwave music of the helicopter ride provide a wonderful contrast to the darkness and danger we’re about to face. 

The sequence is only a minute and a half, but it really does make the upcoming disaster more potent. When we’re skulking around in the dark, patching wounds and hiding from alien horrors, we’ll be able to look back and remember what it was like to be wealthy, safe, and comfortable. 

I doubt I’ll ever make one of those “Top X Best Game Intros of All Time!” articles. But if I do, I don’t know if the original Half-Life will make the cut. But Prey 2017 will be on the list for sure.

Testing, Testing

Alex is your adversary / foil / chief instigator of problems for parts of the game. He's an interesting kind of villain. We'll talk more about him later.
Alex is your adversary / foil / chief instigator of problems for parts of the game. He's an interesting kind of villain. We'll talk more about him later.

After the helicopter ride, Morgan meets up with her brother Alex, who expresses gratitude that Morgan has decided to join whatever project Alex is working on. He also promises that the following tests are just a formality, and that the two of them will be in orbit in a couple of days.

The next section is very clever. Alex presents it as a routine test needed before you go into orbit. But the test itself feels more like a behavior test than a physical one. That discrepancy is deliberate, although it won’t make sense to the player until later. Meanwhile, the test serves the mechanical purpose of getting our basic movement tutorials out of the way.

I'm not surprised, doc. This game was published by Bethesda.
I'm not surprised, doc. This game was published by Bethesda.

The test is administered by Dr. Bellamy, who is voiced by Stephen Russell.Young folks will know him as the voice of Nick Valentine from Fallout 4. Skyrim fans might also recognize him as the voice of the general goods traders in Riverwood and Whiterun. Russell has the distinction of appearing in more “immersive sim”  games than any other performer. He’s the voice of main character Garret in the Thief series. He’s the voice of Corvo Attano in Dishonored 2. He voiced both XERXES and Captain Diego in System Shock 2. And now he’s the voice of Dr. Bellamy here in Prey. 

Bellamy gives you a bunch of basic movement tasks. No matter how you behave, his reaction indicates this isn’t the behavior he expected.

Once the test is complete, we see Dr. Bellamy is attacked by a mimic, a black spider-like creature made of tentacles that can disguise itself as small objects in order to ambush its prey. This results in a panic among the research staff. Suddenly gas pours into Morgan’s test chamber and she passes out.

Enjoy the facehugger, Belethor!
Enjoy the facehugger, Belethor!

Next she wakes up back in her bed. It’s supposedly March 15 2032 again. It’s somehow morning again. This is extremely suspicious.

Now the game has officially begun, although it’s going to be another hour or so before Morgan (and the Player) understand what’s going on.

 

Footnotes:

[1] And probably a good bit more than that in 1998, since the ride carried you through multiple loading screens. They’re nearly instant now, but that wasn’t the case back then.

[2] Young folks will know him as the voice of Nick Valentine from Fallout 4. Skyrim fans might also recognize him as the voice of the general goods traders in Riverwood and Whiterun.



From The Archives:
 

178 thoughts on “Prey 2017 Part 2: Tram Legacy

  1. Ashen says:

    To me, the tram ride felt novel because it was the first time anybody did an in-engine cutscene really well. That was during a time where narrative in FPS games was almost exclusively told through external cutscenes or just text dumps (Dark Forces 1/2, Terminator: Future Shock/Skynet). When games like the Jedi Knight expansion tried to do in-engine cutscenes it usually looked horrible with the early 3D graphics. Half-Life tram ride was just a smart way to sidestep technical limitations in a unique manner.

    1. Trevor says:

      The tram ride was also an off-speed pitch from normal FPS games. Once you get full control over your character after you hit New Game, it was a matter of seconds before you had shot your first baddie in Wolfenstein/Doom/Quake/etc. Here they wanted to really ratchet up the tension with what was probably the longest delay from New Game to first gunshot/crowbar whack in an FPS to date.

    2. John says:

      I liked the tram ride because almost all of my previous FPS experience was in Doom and to a lesser extent Quake. None of the levels in those games were ever intended to resemble actual, functional structures such as people might build. And that’s fine, really, but Half Life was the first FPS I played whose levels were (mostly) intended to be actual, functional workplaces with (mostly) recognizable purposes. It wasn’t quite a revelation but it was definitely novel. The tram ride was a big signal, right at the beginning of the game, that “hey, this game is not like those previous games”.

      Also, I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that Half Life completely ditched the Doom’s “search the level for color-coded key-cards” paradigm. I’m sure that it wasn’t the first FPS to do so, but considering that sort of thing tended to show up even in shooters where it doesn’t make much narrative sense (Descent, Outlaws) I was glad to see the back of it.

    3. Dev+Null says:

      Yeah, I think there was a lot in that intro of them showing off that _their_ engine looked so good that the cutscenes were just scripted portions of gameplay. So no wonder it didn’t age that well.

      I also liked the idea of a “tutorial” that was basically just a mostly-uninteresting gameplay area that you needed to get through. People will figure out the movement controls if they need to go somewhere and have a little time. People will figure out that they can interact with things if there is a room full of stuff – remember, before this, almost every discrete object in a game was loot.

      EDIT: Oh whoops; just realized I was thinking of the tram ride/station in HL2 this whole time…

      1. tsi says:

        It’s fine. After the tram in HL1 you also wandered around talking to npc’s which would comment how you’re late to the test and would recomend you go put your suit on. You could interact with various items and appliances such as the alarm in the lobby, the microwave oven in the rest room, vending machines etc, and pick up your first battery after you put your suit on and then take a few elevators down. the colored lines on the walls also served as helpers to navigate and find your way around. I loved spending time exploring the place before heading down to “work ” :)

    4. Steve C says:

      I agree it was novel and the first time something like that was done. Personally I hated it. I thought it looked horrible *at the time.* (I’ve previously written about how in the 90s I hated the change to these kinds of 3d graphics.) The unskippable nature pissed me off so much I was in no mood for any more BS. Then I got off the tram and hated the lasers and everything else. I never got beyond that and instantly uninstalled the game. I can completely accept that Half-Life 2 was a beautiful game for its time. Half Life 1 though? I thought everyone was nuts.

      The best intro to a game I’ve ever seen was Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers for the PS2. It takes movie footage and seamlessly transitions into gameplay. Plus it made an amazing quick tutorial. You start playing as Isildur. With pretty much all the abilities unlocked and free reign to experiment however you want without consequences for a few minutes. Eventually you proceed to a scripted win regardless of what you do. With the game transitioning a few thousand years to Aragorn.

      The amazing thing is that it is both a 1)licensed movie game and 2)made by EA. Both of which are typically the antithesis of quality.

      1. Gautsu says:

        Great game. Return of the King not as good, Demon Stone a little worse than RoTK, too bad the engine/system was abandoned

      2. Duoae says:

        Lasers? What?! I think i need to play HL1’s intro again. I remember Barney and suiting up and handing a guy some toilet roll and pushing a sample into a beam of light…

        1. beleester says:

          IIRC in the first level after the disaster there’s some lasers shooting out of broken conduits as hazards? I don’t know why you’d be so annoyed with that, though.

          1. Steve C says:

            Either the lasers were insta-death or did enough damage to kill me. I found it incredibly difficult to judge distances in 3D space. Plus the game had not taught movement controls yet. Note that this was the 90s. Games did not have standardized movement controls. Every game had their own unique control scheme.

            Back to the start! Enjoy a 2nd tram ride!
            This when the first ride was already making me seethe. Or…

            1. Duoae says:

              I guess they didn’t teach you movement controls or where the quicksave button was. ;)

  2. MerryWeathers says:

    The Helicopter Ride became cool to me in hindsight because it was all a simulation and you can just shatter the whole thing later once the game really starts.

    1. JMobius says:

      I’d just picked up the game and was eager to start playing it ahead of Shamus tonight. I know these threads are naturally going to get spoilery, but please do try to be a little more cautious with discussing the upcoming stuff. :/

      1. MerryWeathers says:

        I apologize, I just assumed that most people going into the retrospective had at least played or know what happens in the game.
        Will spoiler stuff next time.

        1. Christopher Wolf says:

          I have not played the game. I don’t know the plot. And you know what. I don’t mind any spoilers due to the age of the game. If I am reading the comments I should be aware that stuff might be discussed on a 4 year old game.

      2. Echo Tango says:

        It’s a four year old game, and you’re reading articles dissecting the game from beginning to end. Hurry up and play, or wait to read them!

      3. Agammamon says:

        Its been 4 years. This is a retrospective talking about the game. And its about the ride, not the destination.

      4. Syal says:

        I think that spoiler is about three minutes ahead of where Shamus left off here. It’s a very early reveal.

      5. Chad+Miller says:

        Since there’s a bit of a pile-on, I would like to note that:

        * I don’t think it’s crazy to expect people to make some effort not to gratuitously spoil things that haven’t been covered in the series yet

        * That said, I recommend going and playing the game up to Morgan’s office before doing any further reading. It’s about an hour and a half of gameplay, and if you’re reading emails and stuff on the way there it actually gets the biggest spoilers out of the way. Between there and the end of the game there’s not much I would have been disappointed to have spoiled.

  3. Socks says:

    (Codger reporting in)

    “…don’t allow the audience to appreciate the world before the conflict.”

    Yes. The downbeats at the beginning of Prey intensified the game for me, and communicated a ‘before hell gets loose’ contrasting tone.

    Including half-life, I’m struggling to think of a third game that didn’t start guns blazing. Compare to Left for dead and 7 days to die that do downtime in loops.

    I’ve played through 3 times – the game play quality and story are wonderful.

    Really looking forward to this series!

    1. Joshua says:

      Half-Life 2? :)

      That one DOES give more agency to the protagonist and sets up important world building than the first game though.

    2. Sartharina says:

      Half-Life 2 doesn’t start guns blazing, but it’s still set only after SHTF

    3. Chris says:

      Doom 3, which everyone hated for pulling a half-life intro.
      Halo CE (on easy and normal) has a section telling you the controls and the mechanics. Then you need to go to the bridge and while there is shooting between the aliens and your human friends, you dont have a gun yourself until you report to the bridge.
      When thinking of games that started off slow HL style, i ended up remembering more non-FPS games. So maybe the people who took the message to heart aren’t in the FPS genre.

    4. Echo Tango says:

      System Shock 1 and 2 both have slow intros, released around the same time as Half Life. (Although they skew more horror than super-hero, compared to Half Life.) In fact, SS1 was before, and SS2 was the year after HL1. Deus Ex has guns, but you’re walking around and talking to bums before you even get to shoot your pistol. (And heavier weapons are rare or come later in the game.)

      1. Syal says:

        System Shock 1 actually got into combat really fast. The first room had a weapon to equip, the second room had enemies to fight. The opening cinematic was separate from starting a new game.

        1. Echo Tango says:

          Dang, I must have mis-remembered since I only played the first section of the game, and only very briefly. SS2 is the one I’ve actually re-played a couple times! :)

    5. Mousazz says:

      Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth has 2 whole levels before you even become in danger of dying. They sort of play as an investigative adventure game, in a way.

    6. Duoae says:

      Prey (the original) has you start in a bar. DOOM 3 has you explore the base before hell breaks loose. System shock 2 has you picking your career….

    7. tsi says:

      SIN maybe ? I don’t quite remember.

  4. tmtvl says:

    I might be going insane, but didn’t HL have the tutorial separate from the main game, in the Training Room/Hazard Course?

    Like that they don’t need to put any gameplay info in the main game, because players who don’t know how to play will of course do the tutorial first.

    It always irks me when games don’t separate the tutorial from the main game, although I don’t mind as much when the tutorial is easily bypassed like in SS2.

    1. Grey Rook says:

      It did, yes, it was called the Hazard Course. I can also agree with the idea that the tutorial should preferably be separate from the main game unless it’s a plot point that you don’t know how to do this stuff.

    2. Echo Tango says:

      I think the tutorial was also a large part (or the entirety) of the demo, back in the day? Maybe I’m just mis-remembering, because I was still fairly new to FPSs back then, and was re-playing it a lot. :)

      As for why games don’t separate the tutorial… They’re compensating for all the people who are too lazy to do the tutorial unless it’s forced on them, even if they are new to games. Personally, I’d rather just have optional[1] tutorials so that I don’t get slowed down by remedial lessons. It seems to be less common in indie games at least! :)

      [1] And repeatable tutorials! So few games let you go back to revisit old lessons. :S

      1. Amstrad says:

        Half-Life’s demo did include the Hazard Course tutorial, but the demo itself was the ‘Uplink’ scenario which was a non-canon vertical slice of gameplay sort of thing.

        1. Lanthanide says:

          Uplink is considered canon.

  5. Henson says:

    I didn’t really feel all that powerful in this intro section. It’s pretty clear that everyone is just yanking your chain, leading you along. I don’t fully understand what these tests are for, or even much of who I am. The tasks and questions Dr. Bellamy asks are pretty basic, but his reactions to each one imply much greater importance than they would seem to warrant. Everyone’s reassurance that ‘it’ll be fine’ and ‘you’re doing marvelous’ is pretty thick, it’s suspicious. It’s all interesting enough, but I can feel the tension, and I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    1. Awetugiw says:

      You do get from your apartment to the test site by private helicopter, though, and everyone is very deferential to you. I certainly got the impression that while Morgan didn’t fully understand what was going on, they still formally or informally outranked everyone other than Alex.

      When you essentially fail the tests, no one gets angry or annoyed at you. This does technically make sense, since it is clearly not your fault, but it does reinforce the idea that Morgan is above criticism even from Dr. Bellamy, who seems to be pretty high ranking himself.

  6. Joshua says:

    But even among the gaming codgers that frequent this site, I just don’t see the original Half-Life intro getting the love it used to.

    .

    That sounds a lot like Seinfeld Is Unfunny. (Sorry, typing this from my phone, so it’s too much a hassle to link to TV Tropes).

    1. Shufflecat says:

      Yeah, kind of.

      My strong impression has always been that the HL1 intro was very much an artifact of its time, and basically the sort of thing that can only happen once. It worked so well because it was a whole stack of new concepts delivered in one chunk at a time when the medium in general was still finding its feet with even the most basic stuff.

      You can’t break the same ground twice. No matter how good the material is, or how shiny the tech is, an HL1-style intro will never again work the way it did in HL1, because the medium and it’s audience will never again be experiencing that sort of thing under those circumstances for the first time.

      At least in a conventional game. There is the contingent that’s exploring game tech as a way to make new kinds of non-game* art/storytelling media, like “walking sims” and such. Who knows how that will evolve, but it might be the area where HL1 style sequences have the most potential going forward.

      *I know there’s big gnarly debates over whether these are “games” or not. Every example of this debate I’ve seen has actually been an embarrassingly transparent coded argument over whether or not it’s right for them to exist regardless of what they’re called. I have never seen the respective semantic arguments wielded in good faith by either side, so ironically it’s hard for me to consider this a real “debate”.

      1. Echo Tango says:

        I haven’t played HL1 since high-school, but I don’t think I’d be bothered by the intro, and would probably enjoy it as much as I did back then. Pathologic 2, Firewatch, and Half Life 2 all have lots of intro where you can’t actually do anything except walk around and maybe look at things. But they all work to get me back[1] into the worlds, which is a fine use of time – I’m not playing a shooting gallery for points here! Pathologic 2 is a depressing death- and failure-simulator, so walking around disempowered is totally fine. Even though you’re a super-star scientist-athlete, I never felt like I was in a power-fantasy in Half Life 1 at least until the later sections when you’ve gotten some firepower. Walking around disempowered fit the mood just fine, when you spend your first several hours dying to headcrabs! :)

        [1] I re-played some of HL2 and episodes a couple years ago, and started replaying Firewatch. (But then realised I wasn’t in the mood for a mid-life crisis simulator while I’m going through similar situations in real life.)

      2. Clareo Nex says:

        Naming is a general problem in philosophy. Maybe Wittgenstein talked about it.

        Definitions are arbitrary. You can define “snowcone” as “tank full of diesel” if you want. It’s a bit confusing but confusion is a rhetorical problem, not a logical problem.
        Being arbitrary, whether something is a “game” 100% depends on whether you’ve precisely defined “game” or not. If you have, the answer is trivial. If you haven’t, the answer is impossible.

        Apparently this point is super difficult, because even professional philosophers fail to take it into account more often than not.

        You can argue games “should” be defined one way or another, but this is faintly clownish too. Definitions are tools. Use the one that’s useful until another is useful, then change. Whether a definition is good depends on what’s it’s for. E.g. primarily I care about whether I will enjoy an interactive work or not. I’ve failed to enjoy many “games” and I have enjoyed many non-“games” so whether something is a game or not doesn’t seem that relevant to me. Define it however you like, and then I’ll tell you whether I enjoyed that “game” or non-“game,” as the case may be.

        “I found the collection mechanics to be unbalancing.”
        “It’s not a game, though.”
        “Okay, if you want. I found the collection mechanics in that non-game to be unbalancing.”
        ¯\_(?)_/¯

        1. The+Puzzler says:

          Wittengstein might say: “Language cannot be reduced to a set of logical definitions. Candyland is a ‘game’ even though it features no meaningful interaction, no skill tests or decision-making. It is a game because we have chosen to call it a game. It is a game because if you wanted to find it on Amazon, you would find it in the Games section. To say it is not a game because it does not match the definition of a game is to do things backwards. All that does it to show the inadequacy of your definition. Language is use.”

          1. Clareo Nex says:

            The definition is therefore: “Found in Amazon’s Games section.”

            Since, as we’ve admitted, the members of Amazon’s Games section share no attributes except that of being in said section, to say something is a “Game” tells us nothing except which links to click on when buying it. Any statement of the form, “Games are…” is going to be invalid. Especially anything of the form, “Games are supposed to be…”

            It renders the statement, “I am a gamer,” particularly meaningless. Though perhaps that’s a good thing. A hardcore “gamer”? So are you hardcore at Candyland? At Stanley Parable? At Monopoly? At Minecraft?

            However, since definition is arbitrary, if you want to use some other definition, you can. However, remember that once chosen, you can’t choose the consequences of the definition.

            1. Jennifer Snow says:

              That definitions contain gray areas does not make them essentially arbitrary, although the exact cutoff point may be. The point of the definition is that it identifies the category subsumed under the concept so that the concept may be used to refer to the category. They need to successfully unite enough similarities and identify enough differences to be unambiguous for this majority of uses.

              Many, many “first level” concepts are basically defined ostensively, by pointing and saying “that”. A first-level concept is one that directly references concretes, like, say, door or cat. Someone asks you to define a door, you can point at a door and say “that”. But, say, the glove compartment on a car may or may not be considered a “door”.

              Such gray areas can be recognised by having a new concept (glove compartment), or by descriptive phrase. You see this kind of optionality in language all the time, when one language has a word that takes a whole phrase to say in another language.

              Having options doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as a valid or invalid concept, though. When you ignore important differences and embrace trivial similarities this can happen, such as trying to include Windows Office suite and Adobe Photoshop and sex all under the concept “game” because “games are fun and people have fun with those things”. If you use that sort of scheme, then game ceases to have any meaning because it embraces pretty much the whole of all human activity at that point. It ignores that Office and Photoshop have largely practical uses and sex involves intimacy and other important factors.

              Most concepts are defined in terms of other concepts, because you don’t need the definition to distinguish between the concept and all of existence, but only between things that are a little similar but not enough similar. So a good definition of game would distinguish it from excel and reading the mail but need not distinguish it from dogs, trees, and water because those concepts are so categorically removed its not necessary to include them, they’re sort of pre included. Also, as I said, if there’s gray areas there are options on how to deal with those.

              Another important note is that the definition is not interchangeable with the concept. People violate this when they ask questions like “is the sun alive? Is a fire alive? Because they both eat and move and can die” the are focusing on the words that make up the definition and ignoring all the other information subsumed under the concept, like that life is a certain kind of biological organization and the masses of other traits living things share. Bad philosophers like to fixate on these kinds of things and pretend they call into question the entire process of conceptualization, which is complex enough. Yet they ignore the cognitive need that concepts serve and the way they accomplish that because most people aren’t deep students of epistemology and struggle to explain how many hairs make a beard or what the word “but” means.

              1. Syal says:

                Hey-o, it’s the “define game” game again! Get ready to play!

                A game involves one or more people attempting to achieve a goal with no practical value, following a set of parameters exclusive to the game. A game can be part of an effort of practical value, so long as the goal of the game itself is separate from the practicality; building a wall is practical, but a race to place more bricks in the wall than the other builders is a game, as is trying to build a more impressive wall than someone else’s.

                A game requires routine direct interaction from the players; a movie is not a game because once started, a movie will advance to its conclusion without any more user input. Candyland is a game because once started, unless the players continue drawing cards and moving their pieces, the game will freeze in place and not conclude.

                (Fire isn’t alive because living things can’t grow to adulthood then shrink back to infant sizes and then regrow to adult sizes again. Whereas fire can accordion the hell out of itself.)

                1. Clareo Nex says:

                  If I’ve read this correctly: MMORPGs are not games, because they continue even if no players are logged in. Or, equivalently, they have no conclusion regardless of what the logged-in players do. However, individual dungeons/instances within the MMORPG are games. WoW is an overly-detailed game lobby which happens to come with integrated games. Soccer probably isn’t a game, because the goal of making shots unavoidably has the practical effect of making the player more physically fit. By contrast, getting on a leaderboard builds no skills except the skill of getting video game scores.

                  If that definition works for you, by all means use it. Every definition is valid (if not self-contradictory) but you don’t get to choose the effects.

                  1. Syal says:

                    MMORPGs are not games, because they continue even if no players are logged in.

                    Citation needed. If no players take any action, what’s advancing in an MMORPG?

                    the goal of making shots unavoidably has the practical effect

                    The goal is what matters, effects are irrelevent. Kicking a ball into a net has no practical value, so despite being exercise, Soccer is a game.

                    WoW is an overly-detailed game lobby which happens to come with integrated games.

                    I’ve barely played WoW, so I’ll say; yeah probably.

                    MMORPGs are not games, because they continue even if no players are logged in.

                    Citation needed. If no players take any action, what’s advancing in an MMORPG?

                    the goal of making shots unavoidably has the practical effect

                    The goal is what matters, effects are irrelevent. Kicking a ball into a net has no practical value, so despite being exercise, Soccer is a game.

                    WoW is an overly-detailed game lobby which happens to come with integrated games.

                    I’ve barely played WoW, so I’ll say; yeah probably.

                    EDIT: Ooh, missed one!

                    they have no conclusion regardless of what the logged-in players do.

                    But that’s post-game. :)

                    1. Syal says:

                      Managed to miss that the whole comment was doubled. Curse your treachery, copy-paste!

              2. Boobah says:

                Nitpickery avoiding the point:

                A glove compartment isn’t a door; it may (and often does) have a door, the door may be part of the compartment, but the compartment itself is not a door.

              3. Shufflecat says:

                This. The distinction between “definition” and “concept” is a map vs. territory problem.

        2. Shufflecat says:

          I don’t really care if the definition of “game” mutates, or what it might or might not have been in the first place, or any of that.

          What I care about is people who utilize that debate to say “this is an invalid or inferior use of these media tools, and shouldn’t exist” while hanging a dishonest fig leaf of “not that I think there’s anything wrong with that” over it. It’s part of the reason I lost respect for Yahtzee Crowshaw over time, for example.

          What I care about is people who distract themselves with this debate, and up making whether or not Gone Home or whatever is a “game” their hill to die on, when that’s completely incidental and irrelevant to what’s actually in question.

          Both sides are applying multiple mismatched concepts to the word even within their own heads. It’s a complete dumpster fire.

  7. Awetugiw says:

    With respect to the opening of Half-life, I think you are focusing a bit too much on the tram ride. While I don’t think Half-Life’s opening as a whole is quite as strong as Prey’s, I do think it holds up as a good example of the “calm before the storm” game start.

    This is in contrast to, for example, Fallout 3/4, Dishonored and Skyrim, which (in my opinion) don’t work nearly as well. Skyrim even has a cart ride that is, for several reasons, way more boring that the tram ride in Half-Life.

    1. Echo Tango says:

      That intro in Skyrim is so bad. Painfully slow, doesn’t let you experiment with the controls, then throws you into a chaotic situation where slowing down to experiment and learn feels wrong.

      1. Shufflecat says:

        Yikes, yes. It feels like ten minutes before it even gets to the character creator screen, then ten more minutes before it allows you to go 3rd person to check if what you made actually looks right in game. Huge PITA when starting a new game.

        And to add insult, it doesn’t even use that time well. The dialog on the wagon is slow and detail-sparse, so it doesn’t make good use of that time to set up the world, and the scenery is mostly just one boring snowy hillside and then generic stone walls, so it doesn’t visually showcase or intro the setting either.

        And the part of Helgen after character creation is supposed be a tutorial, but it sucks, so you end up with what was clearly designed to be the “actual” tutorial later in the form of Bleak Falls Barrow.

        That whole opening sequence just feels weirdly perfunctory as heck. Bleak Falls Barrow is the real tutorial, and the game proper starts when you leave Riverwood for Whitrun.

        1. Chad+Miller says:

          The “best” part is that for a tutorial, it ranges between poorly explaining things and even actively misleading at times. I’m one of the people who managed to miss both that Hadavar vs. Ralof was a choice and the existence of the Standing Stones (because why would you have a character say “Let’s split up” if you’re not supposed to do that? You are allowed to omit lines even after you recorded them, you know!)

          I actually didn’t play Skyrim all the way through until like 2018 because shortly after I finished Helgen I realized that my quest log was literally “Go Join the Empire” and “Help Hadavar” and I thought, “why am I specifically doing either of those things? You were just going to chop my head off!” and I wandered off to do dishes instead. The crazy thing is I would have been more receptive to “you’re in a town being attacked by a dragon, go nuts” but instead got just enough reason to reject the premise entirely.

          1. Rho says:

            I was always a bit confused as to why the AI suggested to split, when my character and his were on the same direct road with more or less the same goal. It’s just a very oddball thing to say – even if one was going to suggest it, it would be phrased, “Go on ahead to so-and-so if you like. You should give thanks to the Gods for carrying us through at the Standing Stones on the way.” Or something along those lines.

            1. Syal says:

              Maybe they were playing the reverse psychology card. It worked on me; I followed the other character just because they told me not to.

          2. Shufflecat says:

            I didn’t miss the standing stones, because they’re directly down the path from your way out. But the choice of who to follow in the chaos of the keep was REALLY badly handled. So many people, myself included, never even noticed the choice was there.

            IMO the whole into to the Empire and the Rebellion was maybe botched in that sequence on a conceptual level. I’ve seen so many people who unquestioningly joined and then STAYED LOYAL to the viking nazis being astroturfed by elf nazis as a divide-and-conquer ploy because “rebels are always good guys in these stories, and the Empire was going to execute me”. I can totally understand making that assumption at first, and I can see writer thinking it’s cool to bait-and-switch a subversion that way, but SO MANY people went the entire story without ever questioning it no matter what they found out later that I feel like it was miscalculated.

        2. Thomas says:

          Games with character creators that don’t immediately let you see your character and reload frustrate me to no end. Even worse if the game puts a long section of gameplay / cutscenes between the class choices and the character creation.

      2. The+Puzzler says:

        It’s not all bad. There is some subtle world-building where the Stormcloak gets angry at the priest who refers to the “eight divines”.

        But it fails more than it succeeds. It gave me the impression that the Empire were supposed to be the main villain, and the dragon that rescued me from them was an unlikely ally.

        Then I went off with the guy who represented the Empire anyway, because I was confused by the controls.

    2. Hal says:

      There’s a mod for Skyrim, “Live Another Life” or something like that. Basically lets you pick some generic life and the game dead drops you somewhere in Skyrim, Nothing about the main quest even initiates until you swing by Helgen, which is already destroyed, and you now get to go to Whiterun, Bleak Falls Barrow, etc.

      It’s great for skipping all of the rigamarole of the cart ride, the execution, etc. Where it falls short for me is that it doesn’t bypass all the rest of the Dragonborn stuff. That is, one of the best parts of Skyrim is having the full “Fus-Ro-Dah” power to blast people around. Except you can’t get that until you go through quite a bit of gameplay: The Intro, Bleak Falls Barrow, Whiterun, the Graybeards, Ustengrav, meeting the Blades to get the Horn, going back to see the Graybeards again. It’s a lot of game just to get the signature, game defining power. And God help you if you’re playing without fast travel or some other kind of restriction.

      1. Chad+Miller says:

        And God help you if you’re playing without fast travel or some other kind of restriction.

        By the time I beat Skyrim, I was sufficiently tired of the Standard Bethesda Formula that I could only stand to play it with survival mods and no fast travel.

        I did the entire main quest this way, and found it more entertaining, somehow.

        1. Shufflecat says:

          This.

          I always play these Bethesda-style games without fast travel. They made these huge, beautiful, well designed landscapes; maps that everyone agrees are one of the defining pillars of the genre. But if you’re fast traveling everywhere, that’s all wasted effort and empty praise. And Skyrim is not where you go if you want great combat or story or RPG mechanics. “National park simulator” is it’s actual big unique strength. Fast traveling everywhere seems… like cutting the crust off your sandwich so you can eat the crust and throw away the sandwich.

          And man, Frostfall + no fast travel is a completely different game, and REALLY gets you immersed.

  8. Chad+Miller says:

    Typo: “Mogan” in the first paragraph.

    Re: gender stuff – I did also notice the awkwardness of a few emails, thinking things like “a real person would have just used a pronoun by now” but the only time I noticed a wrong pronoun was in a loading screen, which took flavor text from that little museum in the lobby and used the masculine version while I was playing female Morgan. In the game itself, it did indeed feel natural. I get the feeling that male Morgan is supposed to be the canon one, but mainly from outside sources.

    That said, there was one difference that really surprised me: some level designer considered that the male and female versions of the starting apartment wouldn’t necessarily look the same. There are a handful of little differences depending on the gender you pick, one of which is visible in this very article. For example:

    * Lady Morgan has a couple of purses around the place, while Guy Morgan has a more unisex satchel near the door
    * There’s a pair of shoes by the door which is different depending on your own gender (I played the female option first, and this was actually what tipped me off; I saw the pair of shoes in the closet and said “There’s no way the male PC has these shoes”)
    * There’s a can of shaving cream in the bathroom, but where Guy Morgan has standard-issue men’s shaving cream on the sink, Lady Morgan has some lavender-scented stuff in the shower.
    * For the one in this article, look more closely at the character-select screen. That’s supposed to be Morgan looking into their bathroom mirror. And the apartment really does end up looking like that. You can see the end of a couch in the background, and it’s a different color depending on which Morgan you’re looking at. That difference in color scheme is actually in the game, and some other things like the area rug change to match.

    I bet a lot of people didn’t notice any of this, and certainly wouldn’t have complained if the just found a way to make everything unisex (“Why does Lady Morgan have a black and white couch?” says no one, even hypothetically). Instead they took the steps to make it feel just a bit more like our protagonist’s apartment and, on a meta level, showed that someone was thinking about things like this.

    1. Gethsemani says:

      There’s a lot of small details like that in Prey ’17 that makes it rank really high among my favorite games. Another one from the section Shamus talks about is how you can actually see the mimic sneak onto the desk and turn into a cup next to Bellamy’s cup if you’re looking for it. It is one of those things that most players miss on the first playthrough but becomes really obvious when you know to look for it. It would have been really easy to just have two cups there to begin with as to not spoil the surprise, but Arkane plays fair. Dishonored 1/2 does the same thing with all the details scattered about that really provides texture and shows you that the game really rewards being perceptive and attentive.

    2. Henson says:

      I mean, this is all neat, but…what’s the point? What difference does the choice in sex make? It’s not a roleplaying game, and the perspective is in first person. I haven’t finished the game (just started psychotronics), but it makes me wonder why they didn’t just pick a sex when the choice doesn’t seem to make any difference.

      1. RamblePak64 says:

        Does it have to?

        In fact, if the character’s gender has no impact on the narrative, doesn’t it make more sense to allow the player to choose rather than creating a confirmed gender? For example, if you could choose to play as a woman in Titanfall 2, would the narrative need to be changed in order to “make sense”?

        1. Shufflecat says:

          This does beg the question as to why either choice should be canon if it really never matters (dunno if the devs actually ever did say it, I’m just going off what Chad+Miller said).

          In Mass Effect, the only reason to make one of Shep’s genders canon was to facilitate tie-in novels (rubbish reason IMO, but merchandisers gonna merch). In Dishonored 2, the two choices are actually two different existing characters with different stories (even though the campaign is the same), with one pretty clearly being the intended canon and the other just a tack-on option.

          But with Prey, there’s absolutely no reason for either to be more official than the other. In fact, it even arguably ties into the sci-fi themes of the story on a meta level to have Morgan’s gender “canonically” a superposition state.

          1. Chad+Miller says:

            FWIW I’m not going off of any developer statement so much as the fact that virtually all promotional material, including the trailers, uses the male version. Even if Mass Effect didn’t have any novel tie-ins or whatever, the mere fact that Femshep never so much as appeared on the box until 3 made it feel like an implicit nod toward Maleshep being the “real” one. Maybe “canon” is the wrong word here but that’s all I meant by it.

            1. Shufflecat says:

              I think that’s the marketing department more than anything else. And they’re reacting to what they perceive as a male-dominated demographic.

              Doesn’t help that here is still a lot of… male weirdness in the gaming community itself for them to react to. If you look at playthroughs and tutorials and such on youtube, you see a strong trend of people playing the male option 99% of the time, even in cases where it doesn’t make sense (Dishonored 2, for example: Emily is the canon story character, and the game even gives you the option of playing her with Corvo’s powers).

              And it seems like every time a game has a fixed female protagonist these days (especially with 1st person games, for some reason) it brings all the weirdos out of the woodwork to complain about how since they’re male, women are aliens to them and they need a male protagonist to identify with the character. As a male, I know these people are projecting their personal crazy as “normal”, but it disturbs me how loud they’ve become in the gaming community over the past decade or so.

              1. Kyle Haight says:

                But isn’t that just the flip side of the long standing argument that female gamers need female protagonists to identify with? That was one of the reasons given for introducing gender choice in the first place. Surely if that argument is crazy when advanced by men then it’s equally crazy when advanced by women, or any other variant of “I must have a protagonist who shares trait X with me”.

                I’ve never found any form of that argument personally compelling. I’m a male gamer and I usually play female protagonists, and have done so pretty much from the first time I had the choice to do so, as far back as Ultima VII Part 2.

                1. Shufflecat says:

                  The issue for female gamers, as I understand it, is more with the statistical overview than the specific instances. Basically it’s not so much whether they can or can’t relate to a specific character as male or female, so much as the… pressure differential, for lack of a better term, of most player characters overall being male. It makes it feel like the industry and/or community sees women as less important or less real than men. It implies that their participation is viewed as incidental, not essential (unlike men, who are perceived as having a high minimum essentialness).

                  Having more female characters or more female options alleviates that.

                  Male gamers who backlash against this have a tendency to frame the idea of having options as appealing to a personal absolute, i.e. “I can’t relate to women, so I don’t like playing as female characters”, as opposed to “I like having the options to play whatever as my whim suits”, which is what female gamers tend to be arguing for. I’ve never seen a female gamer say she can’t relate to men so only plays female characters. Such women probably exist, but they’re not the ones out whine-ranting on Steam forums like the dude equivalents.

                  Both are arguing for “representation” and “having options” but not for the same reasons or from the same mindset.

                  Like you, I’m a male who tends to strongly preffer playing female characters in video games (in TTRPGS it’s more of a random split). I can’t say if my reasons are similar to yours, but I can say from experience that guys who have issues relating to women are expressing a personal hang-up, not a guy thing.

                  1. Dotec says:

                    Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve ever personally encountered any argument from those “weirdos” where they claim they’re unable able to relate or identify with female characters. At least not in anything more involved than a single-sentence shitpost. That’s not to say this complaint doesn’t exist, just that it doesn’t seem representative of the actual grievances.

                    I’ve certainly read a lot griping about the kinds of statements, accusations, and signals that generally orbit this particular topic. But I don’t perceive an actual issue with female protagonists themselves, per se. It doesn’t seem that outrage correlates with the presence of female characters so much as the amount grandstanding and moralizing that accompanies it.

                    1. Shufflecat says:

                      I don’t think it represents any kind of majority either, but it is something I’ve seen often enough. I can think of at least three games off the top of my head where I’ve seen those kinds of threads crop up repeatedly on their steam forums. I’ve seen it come into play every time discussions of “what gender do you play and why” occur, going all the way back to ye olde escapist forum days.

                      My impression has been that it’s mostly people who’ve let themselves get too radicalized over GG and/or “identity wars” stuff. People who maybe wouldn’t ordinarily think that way, but they fell too far down a bad internet hole, and now they’ve convinced themselves they can’t relate to women as part of their ideology support system. And trolls too, inevitably.

                      If you haven’t encountered it much yourself, that’s lucky. I don’t think it’ll actually amount to much in the long run, but it does feel weird and creepy whenever I see it.

              2. Ninety-Three says:

                I think that’s the marketing department more than anything else. And they’re reacting to what they perceive as a male-dominated demographic.

                It’s the marketing department reacting to player choice: Around 80% of players picked maleshep and a trend that strong is probably not just a self-fulfilling prophecy because of what they put on the box. Maleshep is what the market actually prefers.

                1. Shufflecat says:

                  Looking only at an individual game in isolation, yes, but seen in the context of decades of industry building itself up around the idea of games as an inherantly male-coded hobby, due to the attitudes inherited from toy marketing strategies and stricter gender-role culture in the 80’s… it is a self-fulfilling marketing prophecy.

                  1. Ninety-Three says:

                    How do you know it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy? We can see the marketing campaigns exist but how do you know they caused the industry to end up this way?

                    1. Shufflecat says:

                      Because we literally have decades of paper trail on it.

                      Because artificially segregating boys and girls products in order to most efficiently make the most money off each is a marking strategy used by toy companies since almost the founding of marketing, but became especially codified in the 80’s around the same time Atari and Nintendo were making the first real consoles. Products would be designated for the male or female market, and if it was noticed that kids of one gender like a product marketed to the other, steps would be taken to deliberately drive them away in order to keep the demographic streams pure. Not in a “we suspect” sense, but in a “there are marketing industry documents, books, and seminars about this” sense. This strategy is still heavily used today, BTW, probably most famously in how it effects children’s cartoons. Again: not in theory, we literally have interviews with writers and producers about having to fight with corporate management about this.

                      Because since the 80’s through the 90’s, and 00’s on up, both the marketing for games and the development was almost exclusively coded for boys and young adult males (for boys, not for separate “girl games” and “boy games”, because “tech related”= “boy stuff” was a dominating cultural assumption that didn’t properly crack until the internet boom of the mid-00s allowed women to be more widely seen competing with that narrative), meaning that as a matter of standard industry strategy, they were deliberately dump-statting the female market in order to maximally exploit the male one.

                      Because we now have the numbers going back decades showing that despite all this, women and girls still represent a non-trivial segment of the gamer population, and always have. If that’s what happens when the marketing strategy is to deliberately drive them away (and when culture in general was doing it’s damnedest for a long time to browbeat both girls and boys into believing “tech stuff is deterministically not girl stuff”), that means there is and always has been a huge unserved market in women.

                      And because the developers and marketers of today were raised and trained in the “games are deterministically boy stuff” era, marketing departments are only sloooowwwwwlyyy groaning to adjust, and dev studios are still laced with boys club psychology. It’s only in the last 15 years that the industry has started to wake up to the idea of a female market (mobile caught on way faster because it was starting fresh compared to the console and PC industries), and only in the last 5 years or so that that’s started to actually gather noticeable momentum.

                    2. Ninety-Three says:

                      I asked “We can see the marketing campaigns exist but how do you know they caused the industry to end up this way?” and you said that marketing campaigns tried to make it that way. That does not establish causality.

                      Currently the M-F ratio of minutes spent gaming is around 1.75-1, how do you know that a world without these marketing campaigns would have a substantially different ratio and not, say, 1.7-1?

                    3. Shufflecat says:

                      Because that would assume that a 40-year parade of marketing departments in umpteen competing companies spread out across the globe all managed to randomly nail a percentage they were deliberately trying to avoid measuring, much less exploiting, purely by coincidence. Over and over and over again, independently, over 40 years. Those are unicorn odds.

                      Or, that women are indeed deterministically disinclined to not like video games, regardless of how they’re made or marketed, and the ones who do are rare aberrations. This would require some extra justification for why this would be any more true of video games than other media. Even the “tech is boy stuff” stereotype stopped being applicable literally the moment consoles became a thing, because the whole point of a console is to make the tech plug-and-play so you don’t have to think about it and can get straight to media. It’s like claiming women don’t like movies because projectors and VCRs and disc players are tech. To say nothing of how the stereotype itself falls apart if you interrogate the relevant definition of “tech”.

                      It is far far more likely that if you’re actively trying to keep people out of your market, the ones who actually make it in are only representative of the most determined members of the overall demand. You’ve created a survivorship bias proportional to the degree of marketing and cultural pressure in play. That is the most direct and parsimonious interpretation.

                      This follows even if you define the women who like games as an aberration. I.e., even if they are an aberration, you’re still aggressively filtering even that sub-population, so the numbers still only represent a survivorship bias.

                      It’s true that we don’t have numbers for how things would be otherwise, but that cuts both ways. Insisting that the lowest possible number is the most parsimonious interpretation of an unknown number isn’t logical. Occam’s razor doesn’t work that way. That’s like trying to streamline a math equation by simply omitting any operation that includes a variable instead of a number.

                  2. Ninety-Three says:

                    Or, that women are indeed deterministically disinclined to not like video games, regardless of how they’re made or marketed, and the ones who do are rare aberrations. This would require some extra justification for why this would be any more true of video games than other media.

                    “Girls prefer dolls, boys prefer trucks” is a phenomenon so biologically inherent that it shows up in monkeys, where marketing campaigns can’t possibly be blamed. If you want to talk parsimony, all it takes to explain a male-dominated gaming industry is that a trend present in physical toys also be true of digital ones. That is why it’s not sufficient to point at the existence of pressure: there are other pressures we could just as easily assume to be the primary cause.

                    So I ask a third time: how do you know they caused the industry to end up this way? Why should we assume your issue is the main driver of this effect and not some other plausible candidate?

        2. Ninety-Three says:

          The game builds pronounless sentences that are willing to be awkward in exchange for the goal of erasing the player’s sex and it raises the question of why they let you choose this thing if they’re going to go out of their way to never acknowledge it past the intro purse and shoes. If a game lets you choose your blood type, star sign and country of origin but none of that info ever comes up, that’s weird. The question is not “Why didn’t it come up?” but “Why did the game prompt me to choose if it was going to be irrelevant?”

          1. Ninety-Three says:

            To elaborate a bit, Prey isn’t the kind of game that lets you customize your hair and eye colour because that’s not what the game is about, it’d only even be noticeable the few times you see yourself in a recording. If they’re going to make sex as cosmetic as eye colour, why customize it at all?

          2. aitrus says:

            It’s not irrelevant. It changes your character’s voice, your robot assistants’ voices, and your appearance in cutscenes. And it changes how the player might relate to their character. Some people (a lot of people) strongly prefer playing characters of their own gender. And within those kinds of people, women have been historically underserved. So why not give people a choice?

          3. It’s to aid the character’s role as a cipher for the player- they wanted to reduce the distance between the player’s identity and the character’s identity as much as possible, something this is very appropriate for this genre.

            Also, you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of small details. People often focus too much on when suspension of disbelief breaks and not enough on how it’s created in the first place. Getting all of the small things right in the beginning pays big dividends later. Immersion isn’t created with a sledgehammer.

            1. Syal says:

              Going to add, the more time someone spends on something, the more invested in its outcome they become. Picking a gender may have no mechanical benefit, but it’s a choice the player makes even before the game begins, meaning they’ve already invested some thought into your setting. It’s an easy psychological hook. Instead of “This is the main character”, it’s “This is my character.”

          4. bobbert says:

            The usual answer to questions like that is, “It looks good on the back of the box.”

            A lot of games let you name the main character, then turn around and say, “Just kidding!”

        3. Echo Tango says:

          They expended time and effort on two voice actors and character models that could have been spent elsewhere, and some of the text in the game suffers by awkward wording. The question isn’t “why doesn’t this make a difference?” but “why are they wasting resources here instead of picking a character?”

          1. Sleeping Dragon says:

            Even leaving aside the fact that inclusion is a noble goal in and of itself I’m going to argue along some of the other people in this thread that this is for the sake of immersion. This is important for Prey in particular because it’s not just about surviving the way, say, System Shock 2 is. Prey also explores the theme of identity. I don’t want to get into spoilers since this is something that is woven into the entire game and we’re at the very start, and I’m hoping Shamus might devote at least one post in the series to exploring this specifically, but while Morgan is a cipher for the player they are also more than that, or perhaps it might be more accurate to say the game recontextualizes that concept.

          2. Sartharina says:

            Because people generally come in two genders, and if you make your protagonist one gender, you have people shrieking about it not being the other for reasons of various validity.

            If you make the character male, you’re falling into “default maleness”. If you make it female, you have an internet shitstorm.

            1. Henson says:

              If you make it female, you have an internet shitstorm.

              Do you? I can’t recall any backlash from Horizon: Zero Dawn. Seems to me the shitstorm would just be a tempest in a teapot.

              1. Syal says:

                Aloy was godawful. A horrible bratty child the entire setting bent to breaking to show in a good light. She was pure political grandstanding and by far the worst part of the game.

                1. Prismatic says:

                  I don’t agree with this statement, but even if I did, it’s completely non-material. Aloy’s quality (or lack thereof) of characterization has nothing to do with her sex.

                  Horizon made the decision to have a named, voiced female protagonist with a distinctive personality. This is HIGHLY UNCOMMON in Triple A. Almost every other game of this scope where you play as a woman is either a “choose your own genitalia adventure” like Prey or Mass Effect. The exception is Tomb Raider. The publisher was worried this would backfire on the game’s sales. Instead it moved ten million units.

                  It may be the highest-grossing game with a female protagonist (and no male option) ever.

      2. ydant says:

        I have no actual idea why the game was developed with two gender options, but my assumption is it was done out of a sense of idealism – a goal toward inclusion to an under-represented class of people. And probably also almost as much a business decision – exclude one gender – exclude some sales for people who care strongly.

        In re-reading what I wrote below, most of this probably doesn’t apply specifically to Prey and is just more a broader discussion on why including gender and non-white-males in games Matters.
        —-

        It’s not a role-playing game as such, but it’s a (mostly?) silent-protagonist story game, and for a lot of people those are a form of role-playing games in the sense that they play the game as if they were the character identified and have the same motivations and responses as that character would. People will impose restrictions on their play-through because certain actions aren’t things “their character” would do – even on non RPG games this is extremely prevalent. It’s a form of escapism – just like reading a first-person book – you might imagine the story is about yourself and become even more immersed in the story.

        So, while it doesn’t make a difference to the story, it makes a difference to a lot of players.

        For the under-represented, challenging the default assumptions and defaults of being marginalized can be very powerful. Having someone that feels like yourself be represented in the game can be very powerful. It’s a sense of inclusion and a sense of value in the world that sometimes can be hard to find. It can be a very powerful moment to be able to play a game in a character that looks / reminds you of yourself.

        Generally strong female characters are underrepresented in games, so it’s good they are bringing in the female option. So if they were going to pick a single gender, the most impactful gender would be female. But then a lot of male players don’t really like the idea of playing a female, or at least from a potential sales impact perspective this could be the case, so include both genders. It’s a fairly minimal cost for the studio to make to a) do what they think is morally right, and b) boost sales as much as possible.

        For more perspective on this, I recommend the Netflix show High Score – it has a good view of the perspective of the LGBT community and video games and inclusion – https://www.netflix.com/title/81019087

        For the female perspective – and how having female characters can be really impactful to kids – specifically why Spelunky 2’s developer/designer Derek Yu made an effort to make a variety of female characters in the game (because of his daughter), see this great interview https://checkthewire.libsyn.com/derek-yu-creator-of-spelunky-2-in-depth-interview

        Both of these are long time investments to watch/listen to – and have way more than just the point I’m making, but both are really good content I highly recommend.

        This idea of inclusion is also why games like Overcooked 2 and similar include some characters in wheelchairs.

        This is just a smaller-scale version of how life changing it can be to finally see someone with your own skin color or your gender being president – after growing up with never seeing anyone *like you* in power / control. These are small moments that can be incredibly impactful to people – both young and old.

        I think a lot of people who work on video games deeply understand feeling like a marginalized group, so they are sensitive to the feelings of wanting to be represented in gaming. Video gaming has historically drawn a crowd of people who are looking for a world of escape and to avoid the feeling of being an outcast.

        Of course there’s a question of – where do you draw the line? Why not include more complexity than just 2 genders? Why not include more representation from the queer/LGBTQ spectrum? Prey made a choice to go beyond the binary and stopped way short of the full ideal of inclusion – and I’m sure that’ll just make some people more frustrated than satisfied. It’s always a trade-off between costs / complexity / totally obscuring the work of art (the game) in order to be inclusive. I think it’s good Prey did this, and I hope it had a deeper meaning for at least one person who played the game.

  9. Mr. Wolf says:

    I literally started playing two days ago, so still catching up.

    I may have been meta-gaming, but I found Prey’s into to be awfully suspicious. I knew this game is set entirely in and around a space station but the intro involves a helicopter ride around a terrestrial city? If it weren’t for the twist at the end, I would’ve called it an absolutely terrible intro as it completely misrepresents the game.
    Also I got annoyed with the developers for cheating by not letting me look strait down to street level. And for making a helicopter with such a tiny pilot’s cabin. And for having a computer that says it’s 10pm when it’s clearly morning. I guess the joke is on me.

    1. Shufflecat says:

      The helicopter doesn’t have a tiny pilot’s cabin: it has no pilot’s cabin. It’s either self-driving or remote-piloted (IIRC the only indication it might be the latter instead of the former is what seems like a live pilot’s voice speaking to you).

      I.e. I didn’t see that as a clue (or a developer “cheat”), but rather as part of establishing the sci-fi setting in general.

  10. M says:

    “Few AAA games could get away with five minutes of unskippable non-interactive introduction these days, but even fewer could get away with the DOOM approach of dropping you into an endless context-free fight and telling you to read a disconnected .txt file if you want to know what’s going on.”

    Red Dead Redemption. Yes, the intro is interactive after a while, but it’s “follow this guy”. I gave up on it 20 minutes in, which did not get to the point where I was doing anything else.

    Or there’s X-Com the Bureau, where the tutorial mission is at least 90 minutes long (from what I hear it’s about 10% of the entire game) and you can’t save if you have something else to do – you have to start again.

    Admittedly those are examples of poor choices in introductions and you are talking about good choices.

    1. Addie says:

      I wish that Wolfenstein: New Colossus only started with a five-minute cutscene, it’s more of a visual novel than it is an FPS.

      X-Com the Bureau, though? Man, that’s a blast from the past, and by a blast, I mean an indifferent shooter with the stylings of a beloved isometric strategy game slapped on the top of it. Featuring such beloved characters as Captain Swears-a-lot as the protagonist, and a really irritating and never-used-again aimed shot thing at the end of the long tutorial. Can’t remember anything else about it. At least XCom is back to being a strategy game again; Syndicate wasn’t so lucky.

    2. beleester says:

      Deus Ex: Human Revolution opens with a pretty lengthy walk-and-talk cutscene (you can look around but your character walks on their own) before you start shooting. It’s sort of a tour of Sarif Industries as various characters come in and out to talk with Megan and Adam about various plot points. It mostly gets away with it, because Deus Ex is an RPG at heart so the story is what you’re there for.

  11. Ninety-Three says:

    In the end it feels like the author is trying to take away something we never had in the first place.

    Funny you say this about Dishonored, I had exactly the same feeling about Prey. The big reveal of the intro (which you haven’t gotten to yet) is a twist, and it’s really weird to reveal a twist like this when the player hasn’t had time to get invested in the fake life they’ve been given. You don’t get the full picture of why you were being lied to for a little while but the basic “All that was an elaborate lie, here’s the reality” premise comes really quickly.

    It’d be like if Sixth Sense pulled the “actually he’s dead” reveal at the fifteen minute mark. I can’t imagine an author intending this, it feels like the first draft of Prey put this further in, but things got edited and cut down until we ended up here.

  12. Chris says:

    I did notice a few awkwardly worded email messages where people went out of their way to avoid using pronouns for Morgan, but it wasn’t a big deal

    Wouldn’t this be easy in emails? In all text where you use he/she just put a piece of code that gets replaced based on whether you picked male or female.

    1. Chad+Miller says:

      Yes, and there are some emails that actually do this, which makes the exceptions stand out even harder. I suspect that the people writing the emails had some control over whether to vary pronouns or not and some had different standards for what would sound natural. Where pronouns can vary (including in voiced lines!) I didn’t see a single mistake.

      Like, here’s an actual example I just pulled from one of my own saves:

      Your sibling is indeed…different. I’ve sent the comparisons to you and Bellamy for evaluation. As you’ll see, there’s noticeable personality drift, more than I’d expect from heavy Neuromod cycling. It’s even more prominent because of the duration in which these behavior shifts have developed. As requested, I did not discuss this with Morgan. Interestingly, Morgan seems unaware of these shifts.

      “sibling” there is especially clunky, although I suppose it’s also possible that couldn’t be helped (believe it or not, I have seen an actual level editor for a different game where dialogue writers could substitute pronouns but not arbitrary words)

      For comparison, here’s another one from the same save:

      Set up a reoccurring task for setting Morgan’s keypad. We’re getting code change requests every month. It’s the same pattern – Morgan asks us what the current code is, asks if it was requested or if we chose it, then asks for a new one. It’s unusual. Last time she asked, I was right there – so I told her the code and she gave me a blank look – a code we’d set less than a week ago. Maybe she’s testing our response time?

      1. bobbert says:

        Yeah, using ‘sibling’ there is super weird and, even knowing better, just screams ‘Hastily translated out of Korean’.

        There is something incredibly pound-foolish about a multi-million dollar project not being willing to spring for a dozen control-codes.

        Control-code wildcards are like ’80’s tech.

        If I had to guess, writing said ‘Hey, I just realized we need more codes.’ and programing said ‘that part of the program was locked a month ago. Get bent.’

        1. Chad+Miller says:

          Thinking on it some more, I wonder if the answer is “the ability to vary the text was added mid-development and the writers found the time to change some, but not all, of their previously-written text (or didn’t change anything but took note of their new ability to vary things moving forward)”

          I mean even if we assume that they can vary he/she pronouns and nothing else, I think we can remove the awkwardness from that first sample like so (changes in bold):

          Morgan is indeed…different. I’ve sent the comparisons to you and Bellamy for evaluation. As you’ll see, there’s noticeable personality drift, more than I’d expect from heavy Neuromod cycling. It’s even more prominent because of the duration in which these behavior shifts have developed. As requested, I did not discuss this with Morgan. Interestingly, she seems unaware of these shifts.

          Remove “your sibling” and stop using Morgan’s name in multiple back-to-back sentences, and it sounds a lot more like something people would actually say.

      2. Boobah says:

        Really? ‘Sibling’ gives you a problem? Guess that’s another point on the “I’m weird” track. The only point that scans oddly to me is ‘Morgan’ bookending ‘interestingly.’

        It also seems that the more distant ‘sibling’ would get used when you’re talking about Morgan-as-test-subject. Unless I’m going out of my way for a weird search-and-replace brag.

        1. Chad+Miller says:

          In this context, “sibling” has the same problem as the suggestion to use singular “they” in this circumstance; it’s a gender-neutral construct that is unnatural when used on people whose gender is known (and male or female).

          It’s similar to “parent” in that regard. In fact, Order of the Stick used this as a gag; one character’s gender was never explicitly revealed, and the art style makes it hard to say one way or the other. When this character visits home and talks to the kids, they address this character as “parent”. That this is such an unnatural thing to do, making it feel like the characters are trolling the audience on purpose, is part of the gag.

          The interpretation of a test subject is interesting but ultimately doesn’t land for me. If we were looking at experimental notes meant to dehumanize Morgan, I would expect them to use a term like “Subject” or even something like a number. We see exactly this sort of thing in memos regarding the “volunteers” later in the game. But here “your sibling” is still too personal for that to work; it is specifically drawing attention to the fact that we are talking about an immediate family member of the highest-ranking person in the building. It’s that level of specificity, being too specific for someone detached but also not specific enough for someone who knows Morgan personally, that makes it weird.

    2. Echo Tango says:

      Or you could use “they” and “their”. Those are both acceptable in English[1], and would work fine in a game. :)

      [1] And my personal choices for people I don’t know closely.

      1. Chad+Miller says:

        Singular “they” for an indefinite person is well-established, more so than most people think, but using “they” for a specific person of a known gender who doesn’t specifically prefer “they/them” pronouns is still pretty weird. The Outer Wilds could get away with it because they were all aliens, but in this near-future world of English-speaking humans it would have stood out even more.

        1. RamblePak64 says:

          This makes me wonder if there might also be localization concerns as well. There are a lot of languages where identification of an individual is asexual, but then there are languages where gender determines how something is phrased, spelled, or spoken far more than in English. Granted, this would be more of an issue for the localization team rather than development, but I’m curious if it would impact how a game is developed or written.

          1. Chad+Miller says:

            Yes, I doubt it was a concern here for English (since it was developed in Austin) but it’s famously a problem when translating between Japanese and English. The odd thing is that it’s not so much that Japanese cares more or less about gender than English; it’s that it cares more and less depending on context. So on the one hand you get things like English Final Fantasy VI accidentally calling Shadow “her” because of a line that was supposed to work for both Shadow and Relm, vs. Japanese Fallout 4 where players think female Sole Survivor talks like a dude.

      2. Chris says:

        That works if you don’t know the person. But if you know someone is a man/woman still using they is a bit weird.

      3. bobbert says:

        Using singular ‘they’ is a political statement and will alienate some people.

    3. Thomas says:

      This might be harder in the translations – my assumption is a lot of translation falls over with female / male options.

      In Magic the Gathering they run into issues with languages where gender is always explicit. You might have a card which is ‘Simple Farmer’ in English but ‘Simpler Farmer [Female]’ in German. For the first printing the German version might try to match the card art, but the next time the English version might be printed with a male in the card art, which the German is stuck referring to as female.

  13. RamblePak64 says:

    I expected you to spend a bit more time on this section. When I played the game’s demo back in 2017, this is what had me sitting up and saying “Oh… oh, these guys know what they’re doing”. Others have already mentioned the attention to detail in the apartment based on what gender you choose to play as, but there are all sorts of other little details peppered in to clue you in to something being not quite right. Keep talking to the custodian and she’ll suggest she’ll get in trouble if you don’t keep standing there, chatting. When I stepped out of the helicopter, I took a careful look at its interior versus the exterior, noting there was no room for a pilot in the “cockpit”, assuming it even had one. According to a buddy, you can even jump before hopping into the helicopter, and… well, the game acknowledges a potential meaning to the term “chopper”.

    For me, however, it really did come down to that “tutorial”. I’ve gotten so used to such locations in games congratulating the player for completing even the most basic tasks – including Half-Life 1 and 2 – as if treating a grown adult no differently than a baby taking its first steps, that I was completely caught off guard by Bellamy’s less-than impressed response to my actions. In the first chamber, I was wondering if there was something I missed. In the second, I began to suspect that the game was acknowledging the silliness of it all. By the third, I knew the game was simultaneously hinting towards something while also having a laugh at the nature of tutorials to praise the player for performing the most basic tasks.

    Any game can try to have such a laugh by outright stating “Hey, aren’t tutorials silly? They’re so silly“, but Prey had me sitting up because it knocks on the fourth wall without fully breaking through like the Kool-Aid man. It acknowledges the trope, but the manner in which it is toyed with still makes sense within the context of the game’s universe. To me, this put the game on my radar as something I really wanted to try.

    Then I got to the gameplay and everything just felt… off. Picking it back up on Xbox Game Pass, I think it might be due to a whole assortment of issues. However, I might save those thoughts for your next post. You went through this segment faster than I anticipated, so I’ll need to squeeze more time into the game this week(end). I still haven’t caught up with where the demo ended.

    1. Chad+Miller says:

      This brings up something funny I’ve noticed about this game.

      Certain games start slow or non-representative (often because of overlong tutorial sections), and end up attracting a lot of apologist arguments about how it gets better later, that if you don’t like it you haven’t seen the real game yet, etc. Prey is the exact opposite. Fans, and even some people who aren’t fans agree the intro is fantastic but also that the rest of the game didn’t quite live up to it. Where the spell is broken seems to vary and I’m interested to see when Shamus’ nitpicks start.

      (and to anyone reading this who hasn’t played the game; it’s included in Game Pass right now, or maybe you picked it up cheap in a sale or whatever. If you have easy access to this game, go play up until you get to Morgan’s office. That’s like an hour and a half of gameplay. Then decide if you want to play the rest of the game or come back and read this series. Seriously.)

      I actually have a similar story about starting and stopping this game, and for me it was the existence of a crafting system. My first two goes at this game went like this:

      HOLY SHIT, this is seriously one of the best openings to any video game I’ve ever played! Oh, there’s a crafting system. Hm. This feels like a game that’s going to constrain my resources and I’m not in a frame of mind to make those kinds of decisions right now. Maybe later.

      (months or years pass)

      Oh, this is just as good as I remember it. Oh, the crafting system. I’m not in the mood. Maybe later

      (it was, literally, another year or two before I would be in the mood, at which point I blew through the rest of the game like it was my job)

      1. Trevor says:

        I don’t have Game Pass because my schedule means I don’t have as much time for video gaming as I used to and so the price doesn’t justify itself. So when I buy a game I’ve done a certain amount of research on it and am pretty invested in playing it through. It would take a real bear of a crafting system to stop me.

        But things like Game Pass mean that there’s a great market pressure for games to hook you early because it’s easy to drop a game and pick up something else. And so games that take longer to get you hooked need the apologists to say “it gets better later!” It’s like how streaming services mean that quite a few TV shows now come with the proviso “It gets really good in Season 2!”

        I, also, am interested in where the spell is broken. For me I think the issue is that Prey burns through a lot of its reveals quite quickly. Like you say, the hour-and-a-half to Morgan’s office is a tremendous roller coaster. But then the plot pace slackens after that. It couldn’t keep that pace up all game without having a really convoluted plot. I only really felt bogged down when the military shows up though and at that point I was close enough that I just pushed through.

        1. Gethsemani says:

          For me Prey really got good after Morgan’s Office because that’s when the Immersive Sim part of it kicked off. Everything up to that point is mostly tutorial and introduction and is terrific on its own, but when the game finally lets up and trusts the player to set their own pace is when I find that it becomes really good. You can rush through Prey to keep the pace up or you can take your time to really immerse yourself, look at all the tiny details and try to find all the secrets and both options seem equally valid to me, depending on what you prefer.

    2. Chad+Miller says:

      Oh, another funny thing your comment just reminded me of re: winking at tutorial conventions.

      One of the tests in the tutorial is “hide in this room”. The room is fully lit and the only thing that can possibly block line of sight is a chair in the center. Players who haven’t figured out how to crouch will just look around confused, while players who have will probably crouch behind the chair (which leads to one of the scientists muttering about how you’re trying to hide behind that chair, a scene that would probably be comical from the other end)

      Then, later you run into your first mimic. It darts into the same room and transforms itself into a copy of the chair, effortlessly showing you up at the same task you just failed at before.

    3. Shufflecat says:

      I’m a bit puzzled about the multiple people here who apparently thought the lack of pilot in the chopper was something “off” or a clue.

      The game was made at a time when self-driving cars were all over the news, and when military drone aircraft had not only the new norm for over a decade, but were slowly in the process of becoming semi-autonomous.

      The chopper being pilotless wasn’t strange at all. It was a near-future science-fiction setting detail, blatantly inspired directly by real world tech trends. Ripped from the headlines, as it were.

      I mean, I’m assuming you guys at least already knew this was a science-fiction game going in, right?

      1. Trevor says:

        I think a lot of people got spoiled that there was “a twist” in the game. Not what the twist was necessarily, but that one existed. Or they knew of the Bioshock lineage and so suspected one. As a result their approach to the game was to be on the lookout for inconsistencies. So things like the chopper not having a pilot strikes them as being off, whereas I filed it away into “an autonomous helicopter for transport is a reasonable thing rich people in 2032 would have.” No one nitpicks the intro area in Witcher 3 although I’m sure there are minor inconsistencies and things off there, but when you’re aware there’s a twist coming you become hyper-aware.

        I also rather liked how mundane your apartment is. I appreciate that you have a can of shaving cream that looks like a can of shaving cream you can buy today. It’s a minor irritant to me when near-future movies/games have futuristic versions of things like toiletries that we wouldn’t innovate on in the next decade or so.

        1. Chris says:

          Well you do have shaving gel which changes from a gel into foam once its out of the can. Or you have shaving cream which breaks down hair, so you put it on your face, leave it for a bit, and then you wash it away, together with the broken down hair. So I can imagine you have new toiletries in 2032, whether its gillette managing to put 10 razors on top of eachother or more outlandish stuff.

          1. Shufflecat says:

            Counterpoint is that gel and foam are just a more or less an identical can on a shelf when not in use, so how would you know? Some brands haven’t changed their look in like half a century for branding purposes, even if the recipe has advanced.

            And today there’s still a market for “old fashioned” shaving stuff. It’s a minority market, but it’s not entirely weird to find a soap puck and a double edge in a guys bathroom rather than an aerosol can and a cartridge razor.

      2. RamblePak64 says:

        See, I thought to mention it but didn’t, but during the entire helicopter ride the “pilot” is speaking to you. And, sure, that’s something that they might do if it’s someone piloting the helicopter via drone, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing you’d actually do. It’s something your pilot or chauffeur would do, right? Or like a taxi driver? But if the helicopter was piloting itself, what would the need be? If it was being flown by someone via drone, then why would they comment about the view out the window of the vehicle?

        These are things that make it seem like the pilot is being flown by someone, not some automated vehicle. Thus it helps sell the illusion that there’s a pilot in the cockpit.

      3. Jabrwock says:

        “The game was made at a time when self-driving cars were all over the news, and when military drone aircraft had not only the new norm for over a decade, but were slowly in the process of becoming semi-autonomous.”

        I think it was the fact that the pilot was chatting at you. So is someone piloting remotely, or is it an AI with a Genuine People Personality? Later on when you meet the robot helpers it feels perfectly plausible in-universe, but in the moment, first playthrough, it feels weird.

    4. Jabrwock says:

      The custodian conversation didn’t feel *too* out of place though. In a lot of places and cultures, you’re supposed to ignore the “help”, or let them get on with their job. She could get into trouble with her supervisor, as they’re certainly not going to blame Morgan for chit-chatting. The reveal later gives the awkwardness new context, but it didn’t feel unnatural considering the luxury of the apartment and Morgan’s status within the company.

  14. RamblePak64 says:

    Apologies to do double the comments. I tend to post novels and I figured for the sake of others reading and easier commenting (should anyone wish to) it’d be easier to split into two separate posts.

    Regarding the Tram Ride and introductions, I think part of it also depends on how you differentiate “intro” and what I’ll call the “prologue”. This also likely depends on what platform you primarily grew up playing, including which games you were exposed to.

    The first introduction to a game for me that really made an impact was Final Fantasy IV (released as II on the SNES in America). I was only about 6 or 7, and we had just gotten the Super Nintendo. Even though we got to experience the “next-gen” wonder of games like Super Mario World and I think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, they still followed the same general design model of the NES and arcade games that preceded. Any narrative was in the instruction manual, and the game just plunked you down into the first level. Final Fantasy on the NES wasn’t much different. You chose your four character classes and then got dropped outside of a castle, no equipment and no clue where to go. When we rented FF4 to give a try – a game we never expected to see a sequel of (I don’t know why, guess because no one else at our school knew about the original?) – we expected to choose our classes and be dropped right in. Instead, after just admiring how good the prelude sounded on 16-bit hardware, we were treated to a cinematic, epic opening that conveyed a Dark Knight ridden with guilt for his actions, yet whose loyalty to his king led him to rationalize the actions to maintain the morale of his men. It all seems quaint and poorly written/translated now, but holy cow did it make an impact on me as a kid. Not only could games have a story, but it wasn’t condescending to me like most of the cartoons on television were. It was so impactful that the Redwings of Baron theme is to me what the Imperial March is to Star Wars fans.

    The intro to Final Fantasy VII is probably on a bunch of those lists, but I think it continues to be an excellent introduction for reasons unlisted by many and even unnoticed by Tetsuya Nomura, who even found a way to screw up a perfect opening with FFVII Remake. The opening shot of the stars is indicative of where the game’s primary threat, the Meteor, will emerge from. Simultaneously, the blanket of white noise could simultaneously be used to represent the “crying planet” before going quiet, dissolving into a shot of Aeris, the one that will save the planet from Meteor, listening to the planet via a Mako leak, perhaps escaping the noise of Midgar. It’s possible that was the reason for the noise to suddenly turn to silence. The camera then pulls back further and further, slowly introducing more of the surroundings before a sudden pair of vehicles to cross in front of the screen, the smoke from the machines prominent in the player’s vision. Not only do we get to see a world unlike any we’d seen in a Final Fantasy (and to many, in a video game) up to that point, we’re being told that this technology is unclean through swift visuals. Aeris is the brightest figure in this dark, dirty city. The music gives this interesting sound of triumph when seeing Midgar in full, but turns to something more sinister as we zoom back in. This is, in part, due to speeding head-first into the raid on the reactor, but also suggests that there’s something sinister going on beneath all of this technological advancement.

    For a lot of players, it was a great intro because it was this new, mind-blowing moment we hadn’t before witnessed. I think, however, that it’s also so great because there’s so much meaning packed into such little time, and all without bludgeoning the player’s face with it.

    Of course, the PlayStation was all about those cinematic opening cut-scenes. Metal Gear Solid, Xenogears, Final Fantasy Tactics, Parasite Eve, and many more were loaded with ’em. Heck, I still remember the cinematic screens for MechWarrior 2 and Master of Orion 2, though those weren’t exactly “intros”. However, does FF7’s intro end after the cut-scene? Or does it continue throughout the whole of the first reactor? Is the downtime after when the game “begins”?

    I suppose this is one of the reasons I prefer the term “prologue”, because it can last for different periods of time and can be longer. I’d consider Half-Life’s prologue to include wandering the environment and pushing the cart into the Doom Science, for example. For a lot of well-constructed games, it’s hard to separate prologue from first chapter because they blend seamlessly into one another (for example, does Prey’s prologue end after those tests, or some time later?)

    I think this, however, is where Dishonored’s real weakness lies. They rushed through the prologue, which gave the player no time to really learn about the people surrounding them. It was only on my second playthrough that I realized nearly everyone I encountered on that walk up to the queen would later become a target or someone I worked with. I’m wondering if this is, in part, due to a certain camp of game design/writing philosophy that believes you need to get to the grit of the narrative as swiftly as possible.

    I love the opening couple of hours of Xenoblade Chronicles because it takes its time. You get your in media res opening that takes place before the events of the game proper, giving you barely a handle on the mechanics before starting out as plucky JRPG protagonist killing oversized bugs and rabbits. Do some easy side quests, go through your first dungeon, and then suffer the gratuitous “hometown invaded by overwhelming enemy force”. However, that invasion concludes in a surprising fashion, breaking at least one expectation and setting our protagonist’s motivation up to leave town and go on a journey. Moreover, rather than force the protagonist to be pure of heart, he is filled with hatred and a desire for genocidal vengeance. Sure, his heart will change by the game’s conclusion, but allowing the player to take anywhere between one to two or even three hours just to complete the game’s prologue is something that not many Western developers in particular seem willing to do. Perhaps this is also one of the reasons I’ve found a lot of such games to kind of overstay their welcome, I wonder?

    I’d also like to shout out Breath of Fire 3 here. The “intro” has the player controlling a baby dragon murdering a bunch of miners that sort of panicked and tried to kill it upon discovery. The “prologue” involves that baby dragon becoming a humanoid kid, banding together with a pair of misfits, and learning that tough times sometimes call for tough, difficult decisions. They help the town, but feel awful for doing it. It’s a great prologue, though you could argue the prologue keeps going since after that, feeling like the town heroes, they try to play Robin Hood and instead wind up way, way in over their heads and… now I want to play Breath of Fire 3 again.

    I guess it says a lot that most of my examples of good intros/prologues come from (J)RPG’s, where the story takes higher precedence. To switch it up, I’d also offer up Halo: Combat Evolved. It opens with a cut-scene, but one written in a manner that the characters sound natural despite throwing out a bunch of terms nonsensical to first-time players. Rather than a tram ride, the player has to run through the corridors of the Pillar of Autumn while enemy forces in the shadows shoot fellow soldiers and explosions send engineers flying. Dying troops litter the sides of the hall and, finally, you make it to the ship commander and get your first gun.

    I dunno if it’s a great intro – especially since on Normal or lower difficulty you have to do the “Look up here, great! Look down here, great!” tutorial before things get exciting. But it’s certainly not a boring opening.

    1. tmtvl says:

      BoF3 has amazing storytelling, the way the Nue storyline transitions into the main story reminds me of how the prologue transitions into the Guardia storyline in Chrono Trigger.

  15. Shufflecat says:

    I played the game for the first time after the ending had been spoiled for me. I had heard A LOT of people complaining about the ending feeling unsatisfyingly tacked on.

    BUT, when I played, with full foreknowledge of the ending twist, I was spotting all kinds of clues buried throughout the game, from little surface details, to stuff deeply woven into the dialog or plot themes. It was super obvious that it wasn’t tacked on, and I thought that maybe the only reason people thought it was was because the devs were maybe a bit too subtle for an audience trained by other games to never expect subtlety.

    I finished with the impression that, instead of ruining the game, foreknowledge of the ending had actually made it better, if not saved it entirely. Spotting all the forshadowing and themes made the ending work for me in a way it might not have if I hadn’t. Without that forknowledge I might not have been able to frame the details I was spotting, so it would have just looked like regular “too many cooks” jank video game writing, or I wouldn’t have noticed them at all.

    After that, I went around encouraging people who hadn’t liked it to play it a second time (to see how much was actually there when you know what’s coming), and recommending to new players that they actively seek out ending spoilers before playing.

    It’s interesting to read some other folks here who apparently cottoned on earlier in the game without foreknowledge of the ending. That gives me hope.

    1. aitrus says:

      I had a similar experience. I knew that there was a huge twist ending that people thought undercut the game, but I didn’t know the details. It’s not hard to imagine what the twist might be once you know that much, and about half way into the game I had guessed it successfully because of the clues you mentioned.

      The ending seemed fine. It wasn’t mindblowing nor disappointing. I will say it’s a mystifying decision to put it after the credits, though.

      1. Chad+Miller says:

        Yeah, the most obvious clues there are practically all the dang emails in Psychotronics. In fact 100%ing Psychotronics in general should all but tell you what the ending is

        The other, major, early-game twist is also foreshadowed in some perhaps surprising ways. The simulation is actually implemented in the game, to the point that you can switch it on if you find the control panel. This means you can drop objects and have them show up elsewhere when they “shouldn’t”. Also, check the scuff marks on the floor in the testing facility, before and after the elevator ride.

        This actually ties into something I really like about how this game did its twists; it doesn’t think of plot twists as something that must be saved for the MIND-BLOWING reveal. It’s happy to just drop increasingly obvious hints knowing that some players will figure it out earlier than others. It’s certainly not just throwing surprising twists whose ONLY purpose is surprise.

    2. Ninety-Three says:

      At one (I think unavoidable) point the game gives you a flashback to lying on a medical bed sprouting mimic tentacles and that pretty much gives the whole thing away on its own. I’m surprised by your implication that most people didn’t figure it out because it was not subtle. The other half of the twist is spelled out almost explicitly if you do some clever platforming to take the escape pod before the plot makes it an option: you get a nonstandard game over with narration making it clear the whole thing is in virtual reality and they’re going to try again.

      So the game telegraphs the twist hard enough that you can figure it out less than halfway through, and I still hated it. It’s an “It was all a dream” ending and being told that nothing you did affected the world is always unsatisfying. It tears down the entire world you got invested in, then ends before it can build up much else to replace what was lost.

      1. Shufflecat says:

        I’m surprised by your implication that most people didn’t figure it out because it was not subtle

        I already fully knew what was going on, so I lacked a frame of reference for how it would seem if experienced cold. The complaints I’d seen from others seemed to focus on the twist feeling “tacked on”, so my suspicion that it was too subtle was me trying to speculate why those people apparently hadn’t picked up on any of the stuff that’d been layered literally throughout the game, rather than on how it felt to me.

        I still hated it. It’s an “It was all a dream” ending and being told that nothing you did affected the world is always unsatisfying.

        Except it did. What you do in the simulation literally saves the world or doesn’t… just not in the way you thought. That was the hat trick. Normally you’re totally right: “it was all a dream” endings render everything meaningless. But here they found a way to subvert that.

        The point of the simulation experiment was to inception a typhon (you) into empathizing with humanity, with the goal of releasing that into the coral to “infect” the rest of the typhon so they’d want to stop eating everyone. It’s a last-ditch hail-Mary pass, so everything is riding on whether you play Morgan humanely or psychopathically. The game audits the role play choices you made throughout the game to judge if the project was successful.

        You’re lead to believe you’re saving the world by shooting all the aliens like in a normal game, when it was actually your “moral” choices that mattered. You save the world, mechanically and in-story, by helping and/or not killing human NPCs. Or more accurately you determine whether there’s hope for the world to be saved. If you don’t behave sympathetically, the experiment fails, and the world is definitively doomed.

        There’s some interesting things about this. On the one hand, it could be dissatisfying because whether you “win” has nothing to do with player skill (or feeling like an alien-killing badass). The question of whether you save the world is paint-by-numbers once you know what it’s really about, and thus has little replay value.

        On the other hand, it creates a theme about the value of empathy which breaks the fourth wall. The game is sort of doing the same thing as Spec Ops: The Line (asking the player to examine what kind of person they enjoy playing as and why), only without forcing your hand then judging you for what it made you do like in SO:TL.

        If your goal is feeling like a badass alien-killer, with saving humanity just being the trophy for that, the ending is going to thwart you. If you’re more motivated by the saving people part than the badass part, the ending is more interesting.

        Don’t get me wrong: the execution was still off IMO. I didn’t dislike the ending, but I didn’t feel emotionally engaged by it either. It definitely needed more to land with proper “oomf” (I think part of it is the no-budget TV show feeling one-room presentation). I just think its detractors are wrong about why/how it fails… which could also be taken as an argument that it communicates it’s intent poorly.

        1. Ninety-Three says:

          What you do in the simulation literally saves the world or doesn’t… just not in the way you thought […]
          You’re lead to believe you’re saving the world by shooting all the aliens like in a normal game, when it was actually your “moral” choices that mattered. You save the world, mechanically and in-story, by helping and/or not killing human NPCs. Or more accurately you determine whether there’s hope for the world to be saved. If you don’t behave sympathetically, the experiment fails, and the world is definitively doomed.

          No it isn’t. If you push the “kill him” button at the end the experiment fails and the choice to do that is independent of whether or not you saved any NPCs. The decisions you make before that point do not matter, you can pick Good Ending or Evil Ending either way.

          I was pissed off precisely because I was motivated by the saving people part: the ending says that all those people I interacted with weren’t actually saved. My efforts had no impact on whether anyone lived or died and incidentally would I like to save the world: yes/no? All of the saving you worked for is undone in an instant and then it offers you the classically boring Hitler vs Mother Teresa buttons. “Is saving these people worth the risk of sending mimics to Earth?” is an infinitely more interesting question than “Would you like to destroy all humans?”

          I just think its detractors are wrong about why/how it fails

          I’m sure some people did enjoy it, there’s no cosmic sense in which it objectively fails or succeeds, but a lot of people did not like it for simple reasons you are missing. Not everyone is inclined to play along with the “actually you were roleplaying all along” gimmick and without player buy-in on totally changing the nature of the game at the last minute, it all falls flat. Imagine if the final moments of Dark Souls tried to assign deep narrative significance to your weapon choice and you’re just sitting there having picked the Zweihander because you liked the THUNK sound it makes.

          It fails for me and others because the game sets you up to care about the world, then the premise of the ending is that nothing you achieved was real and everything you spent 30 hours getting invested in has already been blown up by space aliens, by the way do you want to help save the postapocalyptic ruins of Earth? If you have a bunch of stuff the audience cares about, it’s bad storytelling to throw it all away and give them two minutes to start caring about some totally new problem introduced so late that it’s literally post-credits.

          1. Shufflecat says:

            If you push the “kill him” button at the end the experiment fails and the choice to do that is independent of whether or not you saved any NPCs. The decisions you make before that point do not matter, you can pick Good Ending or Evil Ending either way.

            This is something I didn’t remember, and yes, that’s very bad design which renders everything that was done before pointless.

            …but a lot of people did not like it for simple reasons you are missing. Not everyone is inclined to play along with the “actually you were roleplaying all along” gimmick and without player buy-in on totally changing the nature of the game at the last minute, it all falls flat…

            I do consider that a good reason. It’s one I’ve not seen expressed before, which is why I failed to address it.

            Like I say: I’m not arguing that the ending was actually great. If it was, people wouldn’t be complaining, so clearly it dropped the ball somehow. And while I personally didn’t hate it, it didn’t have any emotional resonance for me, so at the very least it failed for me by being limp. Your reasons for your reaction are different than mine, but your reasons make sense to me, and I can understand and agree that they’re a design problem even if they didn’t impact me the same way.

            In this regard, I think we’ve been talking past each other.

            1. RFS-81 says:

              I think I understand how you got mixed up. If you roleplay a psychopath during the game, they decide to kill you before you can do anything and move on to another test subject. If not, you get the button prompt.

              I thought the post-credit sequence was decent. I guess the reasons are

              1) I expected it to be way more bland. Back-handed compliment, I know, but it’s the truth.

              2) The game tells a complete story without the post-credit sequence, so I viewed it mainly as a recap of your playthrough with some foreshadowing for a sequel that will never come. (Well, ignoring that the visions go nowhere without the post-credit scene.)

              3) The world it shows is really interesting! To me, the dialogue seems to imply that humans have been using Typhon neuromods for some time, so the Typhons moving on directly from Talos I to Earth was not what happened. So, did (some) humans become like Typhons through the mods?

              1. Shufflecat says:

                I played sympathetically rather than psychopathically, so would have gotten the prompt. It’s just been long enough since I played that I forgot about it (since I didn’t have a strong emotional reaction to it at the time, it didn’t stick in my memory).

                Since the simulation is based on Morgan’s memory of what happened, modified though your choices, I felt comfortable assuming the original Morgan had also been mostly to fully successful in areas where I had agency. So I didn’t feel like my successes had been contradicted, even though they weren’t “real”. But I can see how it would feel like one’s success overall had been invalidated if the Typhon just ended up on earth anyway through other means.

                The neuromods are made from Typhon material, but they’re not whole, live typhon themselves (like how a leather jacket is not a cow), and the neural data they carry is human neural data, not Typhon, so I don’t think neuromods slowly convert people into Typhon. But there’s all kinds of opportunities for live typhon to have escaped though. Given what the mimics can do, the security/quarantine measures we saw are actually terrifyingly porous. The amount of stuff drifting free outside Talos 1 alone (the cargo containers, and especially that one derelict shuttle) to me implied that the barn door had probably already been open for way too long by the time you woke up.

                I’ve been trained by experience not to expect game writers/designers to think about implications like that, so I wasn’t like I was thinking it was deliberate or would actually amount to anything. But it did contribute to my lack of betrayed surprise. The simulationist part of my brain already believed I was playing out a tragedy.

                1. RFS-81 says:

                  In my spoilered text, I was referring to neuromods that carry Typhon abilities. Phantom Genesis literally lets people create Typhons, so I don’t think my idea is that farfetched. Also, January really doesn’t want you to return to Earth if you have too many Typhon abilities.

    3. RFS-81 says:

      I knew that there was going to be a twist ending and I assumed that it was all a simulation because given the genre, it is even more cliche than it was all a dream. I was wrong about the specifics, though.

      The funny thing is, I picked up the clues in Psychotronics, but they looked like just more random flavor text and I had forgotten about them by the end. It didn’t help that I had long breaks between play sessions. I finished the December quest line early and my conclusion from the cutscene was that someone’s running a simulation to figure out what went down on Talos 1. When you escape, they realize that they’ve been following the wrong person (“this is not the one”) and have to “start over”. So basically, the story of Mooncrash, I guess.

  16. Chad Kreutzer says:

    I’ve been looking for something to scratch my itch since finishing Cyberpunk (rather than re-playing Skyrim or Fallout 4 again). AC Valhalla didn’t do it, and it’ll be a minute before Starfield or Forbidden West so I just started downloading Prey. I guess I’ll be taking a break from reading the latest Shamus article for a little bit until I either finish Prey or decide it isn’t my jam.

    1. Gautsu says:

      I wish I could finish Cyberpunk. 300 hours in on 3 playthroughs crushed by quest bugs

  17. Mattias42 says:

    I know this is nerd sacrilege to a lot of people, but I never got why Jennifer Hale’s Shepard is so loved. Like, she just… snarls. For a couple of hundred hours. I tried running a Fem! Shep once, and I got to the Citadel before I just… gave up. It’s a pretty good performance, sure, but it’s SO~ freaking one note. Snarl, snarl, occasional sarcasm, snarl…

    Mark Meer’s a lot subtler, but you can actually buy that Male Shep’s an actual human, with some genuine flashes of humanity, dry wit, and even boredom at times. Like I actually buy that I’m listening to a person doing his best with suddenly being the one true champion of the galaxy when I hear Male Shep.

    Just my two cents, though. Do fully agree that both male & female Morgan was far more close in quality in this game, though.

    1. Henson says:

      I feel like I’m witnessing the mirror universe…

      Madness!

      1. Mattias42 says:

        Honestly, I get that A LOT when I talk about how I feel about about Jennifer Hale’s Shepard.

        I like her a lot in plenty of other stuff, like her recent role as Rivet in the new Ratchet & Clank was freakin’ excellent, or her voice work as Samus in the Prime series, but I genuinely don’t GET why people are so freakin’ rabid about Fem! Shep. It’s just… at freakin’ eleven ALL the time, and it’s exhausting.

        1. Christopher says:

          I’m with you on this one. I did the femshep playthrough ’cause of its online reputation as the best voiced one, and it’s not like I universally dislike Hale’s voice, but in this case it’s like she’s playing someone always putting on a voice. I expect the idea is she’s putting on professional front, but I also don’t remember any moments where she wasn’t and sounded more regular.

    2. tmtvl says:

      I kinda like Mark’s performance as Shepard, though I don’t really have strong feelings on Fem!Shep. While I usually play female protagonists in RPG’s, I mainly go Man!Shep in ME.

    3. Gautsu says:

      I completely agree. I love Jennifer Hale, she is especially gracious in person. Listening to some of the shit she went through in the industry is complete bull shit. But, for me FemShep only ever works as renegade, paragon or even a middle kind of run feels off.

  18. BlueHorus says:

    A game beginning I remember as good was Bioshock. You’re on a plane, it’s implied that you caused it to crash, then as you’re still wondering what the hell just happened you get taken underwater and treated to Andrew Ryan’s creed on the way down.
    You combine the tutorial all of the above and with meeting some crazy splicers and getting situated in Rapture. Very good memories of that opening.

    And of course the game’s big twist implies that at least some of it simply didn’t happened.

  19. Fluffy boy says:

    The intro to Prey is genuinely amazing, one of the best intros to any videogame I’ve ever played. Unfortunately, it was the only part of Prey I enjoyed. The gameplay fell a little flat to me, and the story didn’t resonate with me at all

    The thing that made the story fall flat for me is that you barely meet any other person at all until the last 2 hours of the game, and by then it’s too little, too late. And to make things worse, the ending reveals it was *all a simulation* made to test your empathy. But if that’s the case, why did I barely interact with anyone for most of the game? I’m a human being capable of empathy and I didn’t feel anything for the world of Prey. The experiment would have made more sense if they had the mimic play Telltale’s The Walking Dead or something like that

  20. Dreadjaws says:

    I actually still like Half-Life’s tram ride intro quite a bit. It’s nice to have some time to appreciate the worldbuilding without having to do anything yourself. You’re literally just along for the ride but still get something from it.

    There was this game I played months ago whose title I can’t remember (just checked my Steam library in the “Not touching this again” section, it’s called 35MM), but it had you walk on a forest next to a road. It was just that, for at least 10 straight minutes. You got a small shed to “explore” at the start and then it was all walking and walking in a samey environment with no sense of direction and no worldbuilding at all. Had it been an abandoned town or something like that, anything that told me what the world was about and what was my place in it, I would have been interested. But no, just walking through a boring forest for 10 minutes. It was likely more, but I shut off the game at that mark, never to come back.

    I honestly don’t know what the intention was here. You can build a sense of isolation without forcing you to go through a boring, repetitive environment without any kind of action and worldbuilding for, again, 10 straight minutes. There are 4 minutes in that Half-Life intro but you learn a lot about this world in that time. What did I learn in 35MM? That forests are a thing and that people can walk? I don’t know anything about this game’s world 10 minutes in. I don’t know if this is the present or the future. I don’t know what society is like. I don’t know why am I walking, where from and where to (I guess you have a note or something like that, I don’t remember, but it was certainly not something memorable or interesting). I had to go to the game’s store page to know this is a post-apocalyptic future after a pandemic.

    Now, I know people might say that 10 minutes is too little to give an accurate impression of a game, except that
    a) first impressions are important, and this game’s first impression is one of boredom and
    b) time is relative, and it always feels longer when you’re bored and nothing is building your interest

    Again, I know that “walking simulators” are a thing, but games that fall into that definition usually have something more to go on. A story that starts interesting or intriguing, characters to talk to, a visually appealing game world with clear, visible and enticing goals. I didn’t care for The Witness, but at the 10 minute mark I had already been presented with a mystery, puzzles, varied environments, colorful visuals and a clear sense of direction. It just wasn’t my thing, but it wasn’t a lack of effort from the game’s part. It wasn’t only walking.

  21. Coming Second says:

    The intro to Prey is potentially the best of any game I’ve ever played – the only thing that might disqualify it is the slightly tedious helicopter ride and the rather dorky title reveal at the end of it. Rug pulls are easy to feel duped or cheated by, but the one here leaves you appropriately unsettled whilst consciously and unconsciously informed about so much about the story’s world and themes. It doesn’t feel rushed and leaves plenty of agency in the hands of the player, such that they can figure out for themselves that something’s off before they reach Bellamy (which in itself feels like something straight out of the Stanley Parable). It’s telling you to keep your eyes peeled, this game is willing to reward you for doing so – and punish you for not.

    Something not mentioned by another commenter so far is that it has the sense to introduce you to Alex in it – in fact he’s the first person you meet I believe. He’ll just be a voice for most of the game, but the fact you met him straight away and it’s established you have a caring relationship with him makes a very important impression.

    1. tmtvl says:

      I think the best opening to any game I ever played is Breath of Fire II: it starts off very peacefully and happily, then you get into an unwinnable battle and are saved by your father. You take a nap and then everything changes. It really makes you wonder what is going on… if you can get over the dodgy translation.

      1. Christopher says:

        It’s very memorable. I was never able to play through BoF2, I got a used Game Boy Advance copy(probably a bootleg) which wouldn’t let me save the game. But I still remember parts of that intro.

    2. Zekiel says:

      I love the intro and I love the insertion of the opening credits into the world, even though it’s dorky.

      Bellamy’s dialogue is hilarious in hindsight, since it becomes clear that they are expecting you to use typhoon powers to deal with each test. There’s even an achievement for coming back to this lab and using the typhoon powers!

      1. Coming Second says:

        There’s so many great layers to it, because if you recall it once you find that lab you think “Oh I get it now, he didn’t understand why I wasn’t using typhon powers to turn into the chair”, but if you recall it at the end of the game you think “Oh I get it now, he didn’t understand why I didn’t turn into the chair because I AM a typhon”.

        1. Chad+Miller says:

          I don’t think that quite makes sense; the simulation is still based on what happened to Morgan, and they fully explain why the real Morgan went through all this in that Typhon neuromods were the entire point of the test. The reason for that particular day’s failure is because January replaced that testing batch with blank neuromods. This is also why Morgan was able to remember that day after the installation; nothing was changed when the mods went in, so the reversal didn’t remove any memories.

          Of course the fact that this is a simulation means that parts of it could be faked, but I don’t think this particular instance is supported by anything in the story and that just raises the question of why Alex or whoever would bother to make that up.

          1. Zekiel says:

            Huh, I knew about the January thing but I never thought about that explaining you retaining your memories of the day. Clever.

            1. Chad+Miller says:

              Arguably that one should have been made clearer; I actually completely missed it on my first playthrough because I didn’t know that you could talk to NPCs repeatedly and the game will stop giving you prompts when they run out of things to say. The blank neuromods thing is something I only found deep in January’s dialogue and maybe I wouldn’t have made that final leap to “oh, that’s why Morgan failed the tests and remembered it!” without all the rooting around I’d already done.

              This isn’t helped by the fact that neuromods in particular work differently in gameplay than they do in the narrative. I’m kind of hoping there’s a nitpicking section about those coming up in this series.

  22. Christopher says:

    That intro is very chill and mellow. Definitely an improvement to the Dishonored intros in my book.

    I kinda wanna make my own top video game intro list in this comment, but it’s such a small section of most games I’m sure I’d forget the best ones. In general, at this point in life, what I appreciate most is the ability to skip them. I wouldn’t on a first playthrough, but not wasting my time is pretty vital for me when I’m going through a game with a lot of story I’ve already experienced once. Skipping is often not an option for these in-game glorified first person cutscenes, so that’s a bit of a bummer. But at least being brief minimizes the problem.

  23. Lino says:

    I actually really liked the intro to the original Half-Life. Both the tram ride, and the much longer walk around Black Mesa. What I don’t like about Prey (and all other modern games, for that matter) is that they try to integrate the tutorial with the gameplay.

    By contrast, games like Half-Life had an option at the start of the game – you can either start playing, OR do a tutorial, which might as well take place in a different universe. But it brings you up to speed with what is going to be required of you later on in the game. More importantly, not having a basic tutorial at the start lets you take in the actual game fully. You can immerse yourself in the world, because thanks to the tutorial you’ve had before the game proper, you already know how to interact with the world around you.

    What I don’t like about the modern way of doing things is that the tutorial always yanks me away from the experience. Imagine watching the movie Casino, by Martin Scorsese. You’ve just seen the opening sequence with the credits coming out of the fire. Robert De Niro has just started introducing us to his world – how money is made, who controls it, what that means for him…

    And then suddenly, an announcer comes on and tells us: “Hey, folks! You like the movie? Good! We put a lot of work into it! Look, there’s gonna be some kinda heavy scenes later on, but don’t worry! It’s just a movie :) Anyway, carry on!” Once the movie resumes, you might be able to get back into the mood. But it’s definitely going to take some time (if you could do it at all).

    This is how modern games feel to me. The devs spend all this time trying to get me immersed into the world, only to then undermine all that work with a stupid tutorial. Can this ruin a game for me? No, thankfully. After all, games take hours upon hours to beat, and there are plenty of opportunities to engage a player after the intro. But having a tutorial made the way it’s done here in Prey definitely leaves me with a bad first impression. I definitely can’t say the same thing about Half-Life, which I still occasionally replay…

    1. Coming Second says:

      Agree with a lot of this. Most AAA games in particular are darkly hilarious because they’re usually trying to sell you on the premise that something dramatic and urgent is going on that threatens the player’s life, at the same time they’re going “Hey, so you look around with your mouse… go forward with W…”

      Don’t know why more games don’t go down the separate tutorial route.

      1. Shufflecat says:

        I think its a combo of 2 things.

        On the artistic side, the idea of rolling multiple purposes together into one element tends to be viewed as a more elegant solution than delivering those purposes separately. And to be fair, usually that’s correct.

        On the business end, it’s probably way less work to just stick some tutorial prompts over the starting scene you were already building anyway than it is to build a whole extra scene solely to house those prompts.

        For my part, I don’t mind integrated tutorials that are just low-impact button prompts the very first time you do a thing.
        The things that make me aggravated are:
        -Prompts that pause the game to make sure you see them. Bonus points if the pause comes super abruptly while you’re already immersed and bracing to react to something.
        -Prompts that blink in the middle of the screen instead of just discreetly fading in and out somewhere lower down.
        -Sprite-based prompts mounted to the thing you’re meant to interact with, when you’re more than arms’ length away. It’s the same kind of obnoxious as blinking in the middle of the screen, only you can tell the devs legitimately think it’s cute and clever.
        -Tutorials that spread shit out across too much time/real estate, so ten minutes after you think you’re out of tutorial land, another tutorial bit shows up. Repeatedly.
        -Tutorials that never go away. The game throws the same tutorial prompts at you over and over and over and over no matter how many hours you’ve played. Once is enough. If I ever actually need a refresher, I can check the keybinding screen m’goddamn self.

        1. Gethsemani says:

          It is also about player laziness and wanting to “start the real game”. A lot of players if given the option to Start New Game and Play Tutorial will go straight for the first because they’ve played games before, right? They know how to crouch and jump and all that stuff. So what if your game has stuff like double jumps or crouch jumps? What if your sprinting system doesn’t work like it does in Call of Honor: Shoot Guy? They’ll get frustrated because they can’t figure out how to get out of that trash compactor where they need to double jump and then crouch jump from the ledge into the vent. Best case scenario the player figures it out or finds out online, worst case scenario they quit the game and bad mouths it to all their friends for being stupid.

  24. kikito says:

    The tram ride was a great videogame door showroom.

    How rudimentary videogame doors were before Half Life! But Half Life has doors with structural security bars. Tunnel doors which open like an upside-down mouth. Eye-control security doors.

    Now we are used to that kind of thing, but by that time it was magnificent.

  25. Hal says:

    Of course, I think the best solution to the long, world-building intro is to give players the choice to jump past it to whatever place might be the “real” start of the game (whatever that is, depending on the game.) Other people have mentioned putting your tutorial stuff in a separate section, which seems like one of those long lost habits.

    In any case, the issue of “taking away something you never had” is a real problem. I wonder if there’s a way to slow roll that sort of opening without dragging a game down too much. That is, let the player have control, do your worldbuilding, but make it interesting enough that the player isn’t bored to tears and wondering when they get to fire a gun/kill a monster/etc. Basically, an intro where the core gameplay loop isn’t present yet but still is interesting enough to keep players invested. Seems like a tough needle to thread.

    Of course, you can always wait to “take away” from the main character until the game has been established for a while. Sony’s Spider-Man game didn’t introduce the plague and the city-wide lockdown until the last quarter or so of the game. Those transitions definitely make a bigger impact when they happen later in the game rather than immediately, but I understand that’s really dependent on the story being told, so sometimes that isn’t an option.

    1. Syal says:

      There’s the added complication that guys like me hold it against the story when it takes stuff away, and the longer in we are the more grudge is generated.

      Don’t think there’s any kind of sweet spot, everyone’s got different amounts of patience for openings. Best chance for success is probably to introduce some main mechanics for the opening, then the rest later. For something like Prey, you could… I don’t actually know. Maybe there’s a fire and you have to Gloo Gun the walls to block it spreading, or there’s a stuck door and you have to build a path around it. Maybe bust open a grate with the wrench. And then everything goes to hell and you add the real gun.

  26. tomato says:

    It’s TranStar, not TransStar.

  27. Corvair says:

    When I thought about how I experienced the Half-Life intro for the first time, my mind bumbled into Unreal. It released weeks before Half-Life, and it also used its first level purely to build the world and atmosphere as well as to show off its technical chops (like the mirror room with the Kevlar armor, or the vent with volumetric fog). Even in the second level, enemies are rather sparse, and it’s the environment that is more of a star.

    It kind of does what Half-Life does, but grants more control to the player. Instead of being confined to a tram cart, you can move along at your own pace. You pick up items that you can use (e.g. flares to light dark places), and you can read “apocalyptic logs”.

    All in all, I have to say: I think Unreal did its introduction better. Shame it went the “Tournament” route instead of capitalizing on the rich world they built – I really enjoyed the fusion of varying “alien medieval” styles with high tech.

    1. tmtvl says:

      I really like Unreal, and despise Unreal 2. Such a waste of good material.

  28. Chiller says:

    After going through the game proper so I could appreciate the context of it, I found the tutorial/testing sequence in Prey to be possibly the best setpiece in gaming during at least the last decade or so.

  29. Rariow says:

    I liked the intro to Prey, arguably too much. It’s this thick piece of atmospheric unease that ends in a really solid twist still reveal. Then the rest of the game is just being stuck on a space station with aliens. This introduction does something really, really well, and then the game proceeds to never even dip its toes into that same type of thing.

  30. Jay says:

    Are we not supposed to figure out that (rot13 for spoilers) Zbetna jnf ercynprq ol n zvzvp? Because I know nothing about this game but I figured it out immediately, and Wikipedia tells me I’m right.

    1. Kincajou says:

      there’s a “spoiler” tag you can use which makes reading stuff easier than having to decript what you wrote when using a phone!

    2. RFS-81 says:

      If you thought that’s the twist at the very end, you would be kind-of right. You’re a mimic (well, a “Typhon”, of which the mimic is a subspecies) experiencing a VR simulation of being Morgan, who was not a mimic.

      If you thought that it’s the twist coming up now, you’d be wrong.

  31. Luka says:

    My first time playing a game in tandem with reading the long-form analysis, and it’s quite fun.

    In playing the opening, I echo a critique from Yahtzee that, while Prey’s inciting incident of realising it’s all simulation is better set up than Dishonoured’s almost immediate assassination of tje queen, it STILL feels a little bit too rushed. I think the first day should be completely “normal”, with maybe one or two odd details. Then the second day starts much the same to reinforce the nornality, but ultimately sees the scientist chowed by the typhon and you knocked out. Then the third day sees you subvert the simulation by seeing the hallway engineer chowed as well and breaking out. It’s a pretty standard dramatic technique, but it works.

    On the subject, I’ve played Half-Life several times over the years since first experiencing it as a high-schooler in 2013, and even with my super futuristic crticial lense and hindsight, I think it’s introductory sequence is fantastic in setting the scene and establishing the world before chaos ensues.

  32. Ninety-Three says:

    There’s an important detail in the opening sequence that will become relevant when we get to the very end of the game. In your apartment is a computer terminal where you can log in and check your email. You log in using a password that the game types automatically for you: Morgan is for most purposes an amnesiac cipher, but here we get one tiny piece of information: Morgan knows her password.

    And that’s kind of weird given the twist ending that you’re not Morgan at all, but a mimic stuck in a VR recreation of Morgan. Why does the mimic know Morgan’s password? Did it get Morgan’s memories uploaded to it? If so, is it still really a mimic or it it just Morgan’s mind inside a purple tentacled body? The ending doesn’t address these questions, and I’m guessing that if the writer even noticed the implications of this tiny detail, he simply hoped the player wouldn’t.

    1. Kincajou says:

      The spoiler tag, it doesn’t take a lot of time to use!

    2. Chad+Miller says:

      The ending doesn’t address these questions, and I’m guessing that if the writer even noticed the implications of this tiny detail, he simply hoped the player wouldn’t.

      It’s pretty explicitly mentioned that Unaltered Typhon are biologically incapable of the empathy the experiment was trying to cultivate. It’s also stated that memory loss from neuromod removal only applies to memories generated after the first neuromod installation; it would explain why Morgan forgot things before transferring to Talos I, but not things before that. It’s not much of a stretch to assume that the neuromods injected into the Typhon would also include making it have at least enough of Morgan’s memories to maintain the illusion that it’s Morgan.

    3. RFS-81 says:

      Did it get Morgan’s memories uploaded to it?

      It needs to know at least how to walk (and generally, how to human), to understand English, to know how computers, transcribes, guns, etc. work. Slipping in some important memories of Morgan (or even all of them) doesn’t seem crazy at that point. Also, I thought that the main point of the experiment, as far as Alex is concerned, is to recreate Morgan anyway, no matter what he says. That’s also why he kills you if you escape the station early. Morgan wouldn’t have quit!

      1. Ninety-Three says:

        My point (this also functions as a reply to Chad above) is that once you start assuming Alex did upload Morgan’s memories, that brings up important unanswered questions. Are you literally Morgan in a mimic body or are you a mimic with the minimum viable amount of human skills injected into it? The game doesn’t make it clear. Given that the ending is all about recontextualizing the game as roleplaying, the player shouldn’t be left wondering “Wait, what am I roleplaying exactly?”

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