After the tutorial, Prey settles into a pattern that’s going to repeat for most of the rest of the game. You need to get thing A, but to obtain that thing you need to go through obstacles B, C, D and E, and each of those obstacles has sub-obstacles and optional branching diversions to explore.
It’s Filler Time!
Here is the general flow of the first section of the game. Between each item on this list, assume that you’ll need to sneak around, fight some monsters, hack open a door, loot a room, apply some healing, and play peek-a-boo with a mimic before moving on to the next step.
- Escape your fake apartment.
- Escape the simulator, work your way through the Neuromod Wing, and reach the central hub of the space station.
- Explore the truly MASSIVE lobby area, and work your way to the top floor to reach your office.
- January has a message for you, from you. It’s a Looking Glass recording of your past self, explaining the plan to-
- Oops. The message gets cut off. Alex doesn’t want you hearing whatever this is, so he shuts down the servers that run the Looking Glass system.
- Cross the lobby and make your way to the Hardware Labs.
- Explore the labs, gain access to the second floor, then back down to reach the server.
- The door to the server room is locked. A guy named Calvino has the key. Reach the security station and search for him.
- Make your way to Calvino’s location. Oops! His room got blown open and is now exposed to space. The door is sealed and his body is floating in a hard vacuum.
- Make your way to the airlock.
- Obtain a blueprint for a jetpack for navigating in zero-G.
- Reach a fabricator and have it build the jetpack. Equip it.
- Go through the airlock. Spacewalk over to Calvino’s location. Get his key.
- Get back inside, reach the server room, and power it up.
- Now leave the Hardware Labs and head back to the Lobby. Note that the Lobby has been re-populated with Typhon.
- Reach your office and play the message.
The message explains the plan and rationale for blowing up the station. Congratulations. You have now begun the Main Quest™.
In most games, some peasant would simply give you your goal the moment you escaped the tutorial, but here in Prey you need to go through several hours of hardship just to begin your journey. Also note that the next chapter is called “Detour”, so it’s a safe guess your journey isn’t about to get any more direct.
It’s fine. I mean, assuming you enjoy the core gameplay loop of sneaking around, scrounging for resources, and trying to cheese your way through difficult fights, then this endlessly winding road is probably what you’re here for. But if the gameplay isn’t really your thing and you just want to know what happens next, then the whole game is going to be a torment of nested distractions, like the search for Dandelion in Witcher 3.
I’m not going to cover the endless digressions and door-opening quests here in this write-up. This is a retrospective, not a walkthrough, and I don’t have much to say about this endless series of broken doors, fallen bridges, missing staircases, infested vents, restricted airlocks, sealed containers, locked computers, and depressurized rooms.
Morgan’s recording gives us the quest to obtain an arming key to blow up the station. (There’s also an alternate quest from December to simply escape Talos-1. That leads to an abrupt mid-game ending, so let’s ignore it for now and focus on January’s task.) We spend a huge chunk of the game just trying to get this arming key.
For now let’s skip over the next hour or so of fights and locked doors, and jump to the part where we enter…
This is the super-classified wing of the station where people study the Typhon. This is where the player learns about the aliens and what they can do.
I love the Typhon. They feel unsettling and genuinely alien. It’s common for games to make our alien foes into gun-toting bipedal mooks. Andromeda did it with the Kett. Crysis 2 did it with the Ceph. Resistance did it with the Chimera. Halo did it with whatever you shoot in Halo games when you’re not shooting the Flood. The designer of Mass Effect 3 couldn’t figure out how to turn the Reapers into an army of space marines, so they had us fight Cerberus for most of the game.
I’m not saying it’s wrong to trade gunfire with aliens in our games about fighting aliens, I’m just saying I like that Prey is doing something different.
This isn’t an army of space-orks led by a howling despot. The Typhon are incredibly dangerous, but they’re not evil. At least, they’re not any more evil than a spider or a hawk. Yes, they kill without remorse or hesitation as a means of survival, but they’re also just a species doing what they do. They don’t have leaders, morality, or politics. As Alex says, “They don’t attack us because they’re evil. They do so because they’re incapable of doing otherwise.”
In some ways, I think the Typhon do a better job of capturing the feel of “Cosmic Horror” than Mass Effect did with the Reapers. No, the designer isn’t really aiming for H. P. Lovecraft here, but they do manage to nail a lot of the attributes that make Cthulhu-style stories so appealing. They really are otherworldly spooks, and they pose an existential threat to humanity.
You Can’t Get There From Here
The storyteller presents us with a couple of interesting facts about the Typhon:
- The Typhon are incredibly invasive. If they can get their tentacles on a human mind, they can devour that mind and make a lot more Typhon. The process takes well under a minute. The assumption seems to be that if just one of them ever reached the surface of the Earth, total planetary conquest would be inevitable and rapid. Like, it would be over on the scale of hours or days. This isn’t like the Reapers walking around Earth, swatting people dead one at a time. This is like a wave of darkness moving across the surface.
- The Typhon seemed to just drift into Earth orbit like spores and grabbed onto our earliest orbital vehicles. That was either an astounding coincidence, or it was inevitable.
What are the odds that an alien drifting through the cosmos just happened to bump into the first thing we put into space? If these things are rare, then we just won the cosmic lottery in the worst possible way. However, it’s also possible that there are a lot of these things drifting around in space. Maybe every life-bearing planet has a handful of these wiggling black monsters doing laps around it?
We’re not totally sure how they get around. Here in Psychotronics, we find some hand-wavy stuff about how they can shift to another dimension and back again to skip the eons it would take to travel between the stars at sub-light speeds. That sort of explains how they would survive the journey, but from the description it sounds like the trip would actually take eons for an outside observer and the dimension-shifting is just a way for the traveler to skip the long wait. But then later in the story it becomes clear that they can actually travel instantaneously. So I don’t know. It’s possible we’re interrogating bits of the setting that the designer wants us to ignore.
Okay We’re Here. But How Do We LAND?
In any case, we can theorize that somewhere in the Great Void Beyond, there’s something making all these little space-worms. It then flings them across the cosmos. Either it aims them towards gravitational bodies, or their trajectories naturally bend that way due to [insert space magic faster-than-light mumbo-jumbo here]. In any case, you end up with space worms orbiting around habitable planets, waiting for something intelligent to show up that they can nom on.
However, we need to apply a quick lore patch if we’re going to swallow this premise. It strains credulity that there would be enough Typhon babies in orbit that our very first ship runs into them, and yet none of the Typhon wound up on the surface. It would be absurd to imagine that they all just happened to nail the razor-thin (on cosmic scales) trajectory needed to orbit the Earth, yet somehow none of them wound up falling into that great big (on local scales) gravity well. That’s like doing a few hundred free-throws in basketball, and by random chance they all land on the rim and balance there, and none of them go all the way in.
To fix this, we need to assume that while the Typhon can cross interstellar distances using unexplained science tomfoolery, they can’t survive the trip through the atmosphere. Or at least, not our atmosphere. You don’t have to accept this if you don’t want to. This is all very much fanfiction-y extra-textual wanking. But I’m going to assume this to be the case for the rest of my analysis. This topic will come up again later in this series, and I want to deal with it now while things are simple and I’m not busy juggling character, thematic, and narrative concerns. As far as this series goes, the Typhon can cross the cosmos but they can’t casually cross that last tiny little bit of distance to reach the surface of a planet.
As we’ll discover once we get some good weapons, the little bastards are indeed vulnerable to regular old fire, so it makes sense that atmospheric interface would thoroughly unmake them.
This does make procreation a huge pain in the ass for the Typhon. Actually, I don’t know if they have asses. But whatever part of their bizarre physiology is considered the least respected, that part is going to experience metaphorical pain as they work to overcome this problem.
But Shamus, what if some planets have a thinner atmosphere? Wouldn’t that make it easier for the Typhon to land?
You’re thinking about it backwards. Whether you’re a Typhon space-spider or Neil Armstrong, the problem you need to solve is that you’re moving SUPER DUPER fast relative to the ground. If you’re orbiting Earth, then you are moving at least thirty kilometers every second relative to the ground. And to be fair, you could be moving a lot faster than that. You need to get rid of that speed, one way or another.
Slamming into the atmosphere is actually the nice way of slowing down. If the atmosphere is thinner, then yes, you won’t burn up on the way in. Instead you’ll lose all that speed at the last moment when you hit the ground. Atmospheric friction burns like the dickens, but it’s nothing compared to the sting of kissing the ground at 30km a second. (For comparison, your average bullet travels at something like 0.7km a second.)
The point is that the Typhon just crossed the impossible vastness of space, and now they find themselves floating just a couple thousand kilometers above the surface of a planet with no way to reach the ground without getting vaporized. Which means they can only prey on a species that’s advanced enough to get into orbit themselves. The Typhon need to ambush a local spacecraft and then hide in some darkened corner until the thing de-orbits and carries them safely through the atmosphere.
In 1999, System Shock 2 introduced the idea of doing “research” during the course of the game. You’d pick up some exotic gear or some monster parts. Then you’d need to gather up two different chemicals from the various chemistry closets spread out all over the station.Inevitably, you’d need to visit two different decks to get both chemicals. The game designer must have spent a lot of time making sure the various closets had everything except the thing you needed. Then you’d be able to kick off a research project for the supercomputer in your noggin to work on. Some minutes later the project would complete. You’d have access to a new weapon or a bit of combat intel, along with some cool flavor text.
It was a tremendously fun little side-activity and my only complaint was that there weren’t more research projects to do.
BioShock brought the idea back, only this time you were taking pictures of stuff with a magical science camera. Still, it gave the same basic rewards: Combat advantages and flavor text.
Psychotronics is where we pick up our psychoscope, which is this game’s version of BioShock’s camera. If you’re lucky, you can scan your foes in secret before you get into a tussle with them. If you’re not lucky, you’ll end up trying to scan them while they try to gnaw your face off. (Not recommended.)
This is yet another thing I love about these games set in haunted space stations. I love mechanics that highlight the player’s role as a scientist / engineer. I appreciate that I’m not playing as omni-badass ex-Navy SEAL #573. I’ve played a lot of those guys over the years, and I usually spend some part of the game stepping over the corpses of hapless scientists that all died six seconds into the disaster. After this happens enough times I can’t help but look down at all of those labcoat-wearing cadavers and think, “Come on guys. You can do better than this! Don’t you live here? Aren’t we in your element? Aren’t you supposed to be a lot smarter than the heavily-armed dunce I’m playing right now?”
So I love it when I get to embody a hero from Team Nerd who relies more on knowledge and planning and less on muscle and one-liners.
Gordon Freeman is an interesting edge case. He’s arguably the original scientist hero of the first-person genre, but he didn’t really use his science knowledge all that often. His status as a supernerd wasn’t really supported by any of the gameplay systems.Which, fine. It’s a shooter. To fix this you’d probably have to make a lateral move into a neighboring genre. In fact, it was something of a running joke how little need there was for his alleged science skills. (And no, solving all those see-saw puzzles does not count as “using his degree in physics”. You smartass.) I’ll always love ol’ Gordo for breaking the mold with regards to FPS protagonists, even if he was pretty similar to his more military-oriented counterparts in terms of gameplay mechanics.
 Inevitably, you’d need to visit two different decks to get both chemicals. The game designer must have spent a lot of time making sure the various closets had everything except the thing you needed.
 Which, fine. It’s a shooter. To fix this you’d probably have to make a lateral move into a neighboring genre.
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The true story of three strange days in 1989, when the last months of my adolescence ran out and the first few sparks of adulthood appeared.