Last week I admitted that – much to my embarrassment – there were a bunch of details in the game that I’d missed. Then in the comments I discovered that I am not alone in this. Everyone seems to have gaps in their knowledge. Even more interesting is that everyone’s gaps are unique. We all know 90% of the backstory, but the missing 10% is different for everyone.
The terrible thing is that it’s really hard to fill in these gaps. If I claim that X, then someone else will respond with, “Hey. I never saw X. Are you sure about that? Can you cite your source?” And of course I can’t. We’re all just reading emails on hacked computers and fragments of magazine articles found in locked rooms. There are hundreds of these kinds of messages in the game, and it’s easier to remember what you read than where you read it.
But I think there’s one misconception I should be able to clear up. Last week several people had the impression that in order to make a neuromod with skill X, a Typhon needs to consume the mind of a human being with skill X.
Based on what the game tells us, this is extremely unlikely.
A connectome is a collection of knowledge acquired from an individual. When people talk about acquiring new connectomes, they talk about it in terms of “scanning”. It would be really weird if they were actually feeding people to the space-monsters but they talked about it in terms of being a scan.
Moreover, TranStar has hundreds of neuromods. It strains credulity to think that they all came from murdered people. Sure, Alex and Morgan can make a few death row inmates vanish without too much fuss, but there’s no way they’re casually luring hundreds of skilled professionals out to Talos-1 and then quietly feeding them to the monsters. Even if this were somehow the case, then we’d see tons of emails talking about running this grand conspiracy of mass murder.
One example is Gustav Leitner, a famous concert pianist. The team actually captured a connectome of his skills. You can see a piano next to some technical equipment in the Neuromod Division. There would be no reason to have that setup if the process was nothing more than “toss the victim into a cage with some mimics”. From the wiki:
During his visit, the medical staff discovered that [Leitner] tested positive for Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer, though whether he knew this or not is unknown. He would have been sent immediately to the Trauma Center, although he took the shuttle Advent back to Earth on February 22nd.
Also, Dayo Igwe (we’ll meet him later) is a huge fan of Leitner. He’s delighted to have the piano-playing connectome. He arranged to spend time with Leitner so he could fanboy over Leitner’s skills. He wouldn’t be nearly so excited or eager to talk about it if the team had lured Leitner out here to murder him.
The backstory of Talos-1 is a patchwork of one-sided email conversations, magazine clippings, and overheard answering machine messages. It’s natural for us to all have a few gaps here and there. It comes with the territory. But this business with scanning connectomes is an important detail and I thought we should clear it up before I go any further.
With that out of the way, let’s get this plot rolling…
Good Morning Morgan
For years I’ve been half-heartedly pushing for TV Tropes to add a new trope to the index. I think we need a descriptor for stories that begin with the main character waking up to some sort of chaos or disaster in progress. I suggest “Good Morning Disaster”Good Morning Chaos works too. as a counterpoint to the trope Good Morning, Crono.
Having the main character wake up to a sudden problem is the most literal way of putting the main character in the same shoes as the audience: They just got here and they have no idea what’s going on. This allows us to skip the usual exposition and start the story off with a bang. We can then backfill the why, where, and how once we’ve established the gameplay and gotten the plot rolling.
Knights of the Old Republic – You wake up on the Endar Spire, and the ship is being attacked.
System Shock – You wake up from your healing coma to discover that the space station’s AI has gone mad and killed everyone.
System Shock 2 – Basically the same as System Shock, except this time you’re on a spaceship instead of a space station.
Alpha Protocol – You wake up in some sort of medical facility. You’ve been kidnapped by your soon-to-be employer and the ensuing attack is actually them attempting to test your skills.
Mass Effect 2 – You wake up in a Cerberus base. All of the robots have gone mad and are slaughtering the staff.
Prey 2017 – You wake up – supposedly in your apartment but actually not – and need to escape the alien creeps now infesting the station.
In movies, 28 Days Later has a similar setup. The protagonist wakes up in the hospital to find a zombie apocalypse has happened.
Please leave a comment if you can think of any other examples.
Through the Looking Glass
Morgan wakes up after the attack that killed Dr. Bellamy. It’s supposedly March 15 again.
Morgan doesn’t know it yet, but this isn’t her second time living through March 15. In fact, it’s not clear how many times Morgan has done this. Possibly hundreds. The only difference this time is that she didn’t have any neuromods installed, and thus Alex didn’t have any way to wipe her memory. The best Alex could do is toss Morgan back in bed and hope she concludes the entire mess with Dr. Bellamy was just a bad dream.
But Alex has bigger problems to worry about. The Typhon have broken free and are currently tearing through the station. This chaos is going to keep him too distracted to worry about what Morgan is going to do when she wakes up.
What nobody knows is that the January and December robots have been activated and are now working to free Morgan from the simulation.
January messages Morgan and tells her that she needs to escape her apartment. (I’m not sure why December doesn’t message you here. The game hints that January is an overall smarter and more sophisticated device, while December seems to be a bit dodgy. I guess it takes December a little longer to realize the station is in trouble. Or maybe the two robots had different thresholds for how bad things need to get before they’ll activate.)
The player needs to shatter the window of their apartment. Although, instead of allowing them access to the balcony, it reveals that the balcony itself is an illusion. They’re not actually in a penthouse apartment, they’re in a simulator. The windows are special screens using “Looking Glass” technology. This technology is a double reference. It’s a nod towards the now-defunct developer Looking Glass Studios that created this genre almost 30 years ago, and also a reference to Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, a story about traveling through a looking glass to an alien world. And it fits: The player needs to walk through this “looking glass” to escape their apartment. When they do, they’re travelling to a different world. They’re leaving behind the fake world of the simulation and finally seeing the reality of the Talos-1 space station.
The player doesn’t know what this technology is called at this point. If the game told you the name of the technology and then had you walk through it, then I would have rolled my eyes and complained that the whole thing was too on-the-nose. But as it stands, you don’t actually discover the name for another half hour or so, and you probably won’t notice the “through the looking glass” reference until you replay the sequence later.
I will say that the power output of these LG panels must be astounding. They need to crank out enough photons to simulate direct sunlight. Which means that if this technology existed, there would be some rather interesting safety concerns. These screens are capable of putting out orders on magnitude more light than a typical display. I wonder if they also heat up the room the way sunlight does.
Alex is a Lousy Brother
It’s amazing how much space is given over to this apartment simulation. The backside of Looking Glass screens act as simple windows, which means that anyone outside the simulation can look in and see Morgan at any time. There’s an entire control room outside dedicated to monitoring her behavior. She has zero privacy. Actually, it’s worse than zero privacy, it’s the illusion of privacy. There are lots of things people will only do if they think nobody is watching!
Outside of the apartment there are signs directing people to be quiet, stay out of the simulation when not in costume, and stick to the approved scripts. A lot of thought and effort went into keeping Morgan helpless and clueless.
Alex evidently endorsed – and perhaps even personally orchestrated – this creepy setup for his own sister. I have to imagine that she was never supposed to learn the truth, even after the testing was over. There’s no way she would gracefully accept how she’d been treated. If I was assigned to the “spy on Morgan” detail I’d be terrified of the day she got out. She’s a company executive the same as Alex, and so it would be easy for her to end my career. The only way this can work is if she gets one last memory-wipe before the program ends. Otherwise, this is career suicide for everyone involved. And possibly literal suicide. Pre-gameplay Morgan was a stone-cold killer.
The First Container
In System Shock, the first locked door in the game has the code 451. In System Shock 2, the first locked door is unlocked with 45100, which you learn from an audiolog. In Deus Ex, there’s a supply cache in the first level of the game that can be accessed with 451. Deus Ex Invisible War was simplified and didn’t have codes you could type in, so instead your character begins the game in room 451. In Dishonored, 451 is the combination to the first safe you encounter. In Deus Ex Human Revolution, 451 is the code to the elevator leading to the tutorial level.
My point is that 451 is traditionally used in the tutorial / first level of an immersive sim game, and so I expected the same would be the case here in Prey.
Just outside of Morgan’s fake apartment, you encounter a safe that requires a 4-digit code to unlock. My first time through the game, I nodded sagely. It’s our first keycode, so it’s obviously time for the 451 reference!
But no. 0451 doesn’t open the safe. Neither does 4510. 0451 actually the code to Morgan’s office, which you reach a few minutes later.Or much later, depending on how long it takes you to cross the lobby. The lobby is huge. This safe is actually… 5150?
(Don’t worry. I’m not going to cover every single stupid locked container in this game. In fact, this retrospective is going to skip an awful lot. But this particular container is our first one, and “first containers” seem to be important in this genre.)
Near the safe is a dry-erase board. The code to the safe was clearly written on the board at some point in the past, but by the time we get here it’s been erased. After a few hours of hardship and screwing around, we eventually obtain a recording made by Morgan back in January. If the player pays attention to the background details in that video, they’ll see the code on the dry-erase board was 5150. If they don’t mind a little detour, then they can now backtrack to open the safe.
Being an aging Gen-Xer, I immediately recognized 5150 as a Van Halen album. But that doesn’t feel like a good fit. I suppose it’s possible that the designer was making an 80s rock band reference, but this doesn’t feel like the time or place for that kind of thing. In particular, that would be a really weird thing to do with your “first container”. It’s not like this game has anything to do with 80s culture.
But the Van Halen album is named after 5150 Studios, where Van Halen did their recording. And the studios were named after police code 5150, which at the time was used in California to denote a mentally disturbed person that has been involuntarily taken into custody. Or perhaps it was named after the Peavey 5150 amplifier. Or maybe it’s a reference to the IBM 5150, arguably the first in a long line of computers that came to be known as the “PC platform”.
You could make a pretty good case for more than one of these. Morgan – with her scrambled memories and drifting personality – arguably qualifies as “disturbed” according to police code 5150. We find recordings of past versions of Morgan who were belligerent, suspicious, and difficult. The Morgan we see in this recording is talking about nuking the entire station, killing herself and everyone on board. Maybe that’s a prudent course of action by a scientist who’s done the calculations, or maybe this is the plan of a disturbed and paranoid individual. It’s up to the player to decide for themselves.
Furthermore, Morgan’s time trapped in Alex’s simulation certainly qualifies as “involuntary imprisonment”. Maybe Alex trapped her in here because he’s a control freak, or maybe he trapped her in the March 15 loop because she’s not herself and he doesn’t want her causing problems for the rest of the crew. I imagine the player would disagree with the notion that Morgan is disturbed. But Alex is the one who chose the code, and this might reflect his view of things.
Or maybe the developers wanted to give a nod to the IBM 5150 as the progenitor of the PC gaming platform where Looking Glass Games, first-person shooters, and Immersive Sims all began.
Or maybe they just really like Van Halen. I dunno.
 Good Morning Chaos works too.
 And possibly literal suicide. Pre-gameplay Morgan was a stone-cold killer.
 Or much later, depending on how long it takes you to cross the lobby. The lobby is huge.
Internet News is All Wrong
Why is internet news so bad, why do people prefer celebrity fluff, and how could it be made better?
Programming Language for Games
Game developer Jon Blow is making a programming language just for games. Why is he doing this, and what will it mean for game development?
Why Google sucks, and what made me switch to crowdfunding for this site.
Raytracing is coming. Slowly. Eventually. What is it and what will it mean for game development?
The Best of 2013
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2013.