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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.
 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.
The product of fandom run unchecked, this novel began as a short story and grew into something of a cult hit.
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