The weird thing about Prey is that it has almost no story, but it has absolutely tons of backstory. Most of the game consists of Morgan just trying to get from A to B and running into an endless series of hazards and complications because the space station is in such disarray. Morgan’s adventure is primarily a series of door-opening exercises, but there’s a ton of worldbuilding and history leading up to that adventure.
The author shows a lot of respect for the intelligence and curiosity of the player. There’s never a scene where someone grabs the player’s camera for a brute-force info dump. Very little of the history is revealed through direct dialog, and the little bit we do get is provided out-of-order. If you want to understand the world of Prey, then you need to read bits of in-game lore, listen to optional audiologs, pay attention to environmental cues, and extrapolate the whole based on these various hints.
I love it. The knowledge is there if you care about it, and the gameworld rewards serious inspection. At the same time, the game never force-feeds you and you’re free to run around and shoot shit in blissful ignorance if that’s more your speed.Although, if that’s the case then I can’t help but think you’d be better served by some other genre.
For the sake of this retrospective, I’m going to present the important bits of historical context in order.
This is it. This is the big spoiler dump. If you’ve been thinking of playing the game yourself and you want to experience the big surprises first-hand, then set this aside until you’ve played the first two or three hours of the game.
Prey takes place in an alternate timeline. In the early days of the space race, the first cosmonauts found (and were subsequently killed by) small alien creatures that had infested an early satellite. These aliens came to be known as the Typhon.
The two major superpowers – the USA and the USSR – secretly agreed to work together to study these creatures, and thus the cold war followed a slightly different course in this timeline. John F. Kennedy survived his assassination attempt, we built a base on the moon, and we built a space station around the captured alien specimens. This space station grew in size and complexity as the years went on. Eventually it came to be known as Talos-1.
We can skip the next several decades of twists and turns and jump ahead to the mid 2020s when the space station is privatized by the TranStar corporation. Eventually Alex Yu is appointed the head of the station, and his sibling Morgan studies the Typhon.
A Brain-Sucking Spider
Part of the station is dedicated to studying the Typhon and figuring out how they work. It turns out these aren’t normal biological creatures like we see on Earth. The idea that the author is playing with here is that consciousness is a fundamental force in the universe, like gravity or magnetism. This leads to the idea that a lot of stuff like telepathy, mind control, and telekinesis are actually possible. Humans can’t do it naturally, but the Typhon can.
The Typhon are creatures that eat consciousness. Now, this idea is a little odd to me. If you’re “eating” something, then you’re absorbing the energy it’s collected. Given the idea the author has proposed, saying you “eat consciousness” is like saying you “eat gravity” or “eat electromagnetism”. That doesn’t make any sense. Forces aren’t themselves a source of energy. You can use a force to capture or store energy. When I eat a burger, I’m breaking a bunch of chemical bonds in the burger to obtain their energy. But when I do this, I’m eating the burger, I’m not “eating chemistry”.
When a Typhon eats you, it’s not eating and digesting your physical brain matter in the sense of eating a burger. Instead, it’s somehow consuming, like… your thoughts and memories? Your intelligence? I dunno. It’s eating something that harnesses the force of consciousness, and when it’s gone you die.
The problem here is that within the universe of Prey we need two different words for two things:
- The fundamental force of consciousness
- A fixed amount of consciousness as possessed by a living creature
Like, we have different words for “gravity” and “potential energy” to differentiate between the force and the energy created using that force. But in the universe of Prey we use the word “consciousness” for both ideas.
So my personal head-canon is that the scientists in Prey were speaking informally. It’s like saying a hydroelectric dam “consumes gravity”. That’s not the right way to say that and maybe the folks in this universe need to add some vocabulary to discuss these new concepts they’ve discovered, but I guess I understand what they’re getting at.
Now, a physicist might nitpick this idea and demand to know how this consciousness force works. How do you put energy into this system, how do you get energy out, and how do you measure it? Like, what’s the unit of measure for consciousness? Are we talking about intelligence? Or awareness of self? Questions like, “What is consciousness?” and “Is X conscious?” are usually things we leave to the philosophers, but here in the universe of Prey it’s apparently something that physicists have to deal with.
While it might annoy the physicists to add consciousness to the four fundamental forces, I’m more than willing to go along with the idea. This is so much more interesting than robots that kill you to prevent you from building robots that kill you.
On Talos-1, Morgan gets to work studying the Typhon. Some of this research involves sticking human test subjects into a cell with a live Typhon and letting nature run its course. The Typhon are really good at replicating by consuming human minds. This process is 100% fatal to the humans in question. TranStar uses death row inmates for this purpose, and nobody gets too worked up about it because the testing victims are supposedly all murderers and psychos. But then the Soviet Union (which still exists in the 2030s in this timeline) decides this program is a good way to get rid of various political prisoners. Morgan Yu heads up this research and is happy to feed these “criminals” to the Typhon without asking too many questions.
The major breakthrough is the development of neuromod technology – a device that makes it possible to capture / record the skills and knowledge of one person and copy them to someone else. The possibilities for humanity are tremendous. Why spend a decade mastering the piano when you can just buy a mod to absorb those skills in one go? Why spend years in grad school when the knowledge is just one good eye-poke away?
There are three little caveats with neuromods:
- If you uninstall a neuromod for some reason, then your brain loses access to all the memories acquired since you installed the mod. So if you absorb a mod to play the piano, enjoy it for three months, and then get rid of it, then you’ll lose those three months of memories.
- Most people don’t know this, but neuromods are based on the Typhon. Like, when you install a mod, you’re literally sticking Typhon cells into your brain. Since the Typhon are creeping tentacled nightmare fuel, this fact has some scary implications.
- The only way to get more Typhon cells is to allow them to reproduce, and the only way to do that is to feed them a living human. So on top of the safety concerns, there are some rather alarming ethical concerns as well.
Fact #1 wouldn’t normally be a problem. You can just tell customers that neuromods are permanent. That’s fine once you have a product fit for public consumption. The problem is that the technology is still in the early stages where you need lots of trial-and-error testing to get everything working properly.
The obvious question here is, “Why don’t we feed animals to the Typhon? Just give them some cows or pigs or whatever, so we don’t need to sacrifice humans.” The story never explains this directly, and we don’t know if anyone attempted feeding animals to the Typhon. Perhaps they require prey above a certain level of intelligence or sophistication? I’d be willing to buy the idea that it just wouldn’t work, but I’d like it if we got to see some emails from people who tried it and what the result was.
Having said that…
What Did I Miss?
Maybe this is addressed in the game and I missed it. I’ve been through Prey several times now. I’ve spent a lot of time on the wiki and up until last week I thought I’d read every scrap of in-game lore. I thought I had a really good handle on the particulars of the setting. And then I began publishing this series and through the comments I discovered a ton of stuff that I’d missed.
I’m not sure how I missed these details. Is there a particular cluster of rooms I’ve somehow never visited? Or did I ignore a bunch of the in-universe magazine articles because I assumed all the magazines contained the same material? Or did I miss a few scattered computer terminals, thinking I’d read them already?
I don’t know. But I do know that I’ve seen several comments from people that contained information that’s new to me. I suppose I could put this series on hiatus and play through the game two or three more times in a search for fresh lore items. Or maybe we’ll just have to live with what I’ve written and accept that I’ve somehow missed a handful of details.
I’ll let you guess which one of those two options I chose.
At any rate: To the best of my knowledge, nobody in the world of Prey attempted to feed a bunch of lab rats to the Typhon, and I’m curious if it was ever suggested. I’m also curious what the result of that would have been. I’m totally willing to believe that it wouldn’t work, based on what the game shows us about consciousness. But like, how would it not work? Would the Typhon eat a rat and then make worthless dumb-dumb mimics? Or would it eat the rat but then not reproduce? Or would it ignore the rat?
Shrug. I’m just curious.
How Did Yu Get Here?
If you’re going to test a neuromod, then you need a smart and cooperative test subject. You need to install a neuromod and then appraise how well the subject is able to utilize the absorbed information. This means you need a steady baseline subject with known capabilities. This isn’t something you can study with an army of random anonymous conscripted prisoners.
Morgan volunteers to be the main test subject. This means that all of her existing neuromods need to be removed. This resets her memories back to March 15, 2032, just before her first neuromod – and just before she left Earth.
So Morgan enters a very chaotic period of her life. She wakes up thinking it’s March 15, 2032. Then Alex has to explain that no, it’s actually a few years later. He brings her up to speed. Then they install the latest neuromod. Then Morgan hangs around for a few days or weeks while the team appraises the neuromod performance.
During this time, Morgan often makes friends, has conversations, and pursues hobbies. And then the testing ends and the neuromod is removed. Morgan is once again reset to March 15, 2032 and the process begins again.
The New Yu
As the testing goes on, Alex notices that his sister’s personality is changing. The story doesn’t say how, because it’s actually up to the player how the “new” Morgan thinks, feels, and behaves. But to Alex, his sister is slowly becoming someone else.
After allowing the Typhon to feast on all those test subjects, the alien creatures have grown in numbers and complexity. The creatures themselves are apparently inscrutable and unapproachable. They have no language and no perceptible means of communication. On the surface they seem like insects – creatures with largely mechanical behavior. They just do whatever it is they do and don’t seem to understand or regard humans as anything but possible food. At the same time, they also show flashes of intelligence, natural curiosity, and the capacity for figuring out machines.
In December, Morgan starts worrying about what happens if the Typhon figure out how to break containment. She comes up with a plan to hijack an escape pod and flee the facility if something goes wrong. But she also knows that she’s going to lose access to this plan the next time her neuromods are stripped out. So she programs an operator – an autonomous robot – to remember the plan for her. It will hang out in her office, remaining dormant until an emergency. If the Typhon escape, the December operator will find her and walk her through the steps of her own plan.
Morgan’s memories are wiped again, and her testing continues. At this point, literally nobody knows about December.
In January, Morgan asks herself the same question: What happens if the Typhon break containment? This time she concludes that the only safe thing to do is to nuke the entire station. If a single Typhon somehow reaches Earth, then it would be effortless for them to consume the entire human race. As before, she decides to build an operator to remember the plan and walk her future self through it should the need arise. She has no idea she’s already built a different robot with a different plan.
Alex Betrays Morgan
I’ve never found an explicit explanation for what Alex does next: Alex stops bringing Morgan up to speed after a memory wipe.
The space station has a perfect replica of Morgan’s old apartment back on Earth. This was created so that Morgan won’t freak out after a memory wipe. She can wake up in her old bed, and then Alex can break the news to her gently.
TranStar has this VR display technology called “Looking Glass” that can make display screens act like windows. Alex has a fake simulation set up so that Morgan can wake up in her fake apartment, think she’s riding a helicopter across town, arrive at a replica of the TranStar building on Earth, and undergo some personality tests so Alex can see how she’s changed this time. Then he gives her the latest neuromod. Once he has the information he needs, he knocks her out and strips the neuromods. This resets Morgan back to zero without her ever realizing the truth. She thinks she’s still on Earth and getting ready for a journey into space.
While the game doesn’t explain why Alex does this,Again, the comments on the last couple of entries have made me paranoid that I’ve missed things. it’s easy to come up with a few guesses.
It would be maddening to have the same exact conversation with Morgan every time she wakes up. It’s probably annoying to spend a couple of hours explaining the entire setup to Morgan every time, answering the same questions, and enduring the same reactions. The whole time Alex would know that she’s going to forget the entire exchange the next time another neuromod enters beta. Also, her interactions with the crew – who didn’t know anything about the secret memory-wipe testing – were causing confusion for other people and generating a bunch of complaints about Morgan’s behavior. Having Morgan constantly forget people, forget conversations, and inadvertently break promises was creating a bunch of gossip and offense on among the employees, and Alex probably felt that reflected poorly on the rest of the company leadership.
To Alex, it was probably for the best to keep Morgan sequestered in the simulation. It created fewer problems, and (to his thinking) when it was all over Morgan wouldn’t know the difference anyway.
This all worked fine until the Typhon escaped their cage. At that point both of Morgan’s sleeper robots activated and began seeking her in order to enact their conflicting plans. They helped Morgan escape the simulation, leaving her wondering what was going on, how she got into space, and why she’d been trapped in a simulation to begin with.
So that’s the setup for Prey 2017. Well, that’s the bare-bones explanation anyway. I’ve left out more than I included, but this should be enough to follow the retrospective even if you haven’t played the game. (Or if it’s been a few years and you’ve forgotten the details.)
The slow reveal of all of this information is a fun experience. The game feels confusing and incomprehensible at first, and it’s really satisfying as the pieces fall into place during your adventure.
Next time we’ll get started on the game proper.
 Although, if that’s the case then I can’t help but think you’d be better served by some other genre.
 Again, the comments on the last couple of entries have made me paranoid that I’ve missed things.
Game at the Bottom
Why spend millions on visuals that are just a distraction from the REAL game of hotbar-watching?
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.
Project Button Masher
I teach myself music composition by imitating the style of various videogame soundtracks. How did it turn out? Listen for yourself.
A look at the main Borderlands games. What works, what doesn't, and where the series can go from here.
A Lack of Vision and Leadership
People fault EA for being greedy, but their real sin is just how terrible they are at it.