So we’re working our way through Psychotronics. This poorly-lit maze is the oldest part of the station, and it’s also where the classified Typhon research takes place. So while we’re here and reading everyone’s mail, let’s take the time to talk about the various monster types we’ve run into so far…
Mimics are little spider-like critters that can take the shape of any small object nearby. If you come into an office and see one desk with two trash cans, then one of the trash cans is probably a mimic. It’s going to wait until you’re close and then pounce on you. Sometimes you can spot a mimic if the object twitches slightly, but sometimes you can’t. This is great for making the player paranoid.
The thing is, the designers know this. And so they love to place objects in pairs whenever they can get away with it. Two cardboard boxes. Two coffee cups. Two chairs in a room with one desk.
What ends up happening is this: The player gets ambushed by a couple of mimics early in the game. This makes them jumpy. So they run around, bashing random objects with the wrench. After twenty minutes of hammering away at harmless furniture and inert debris, they begin to feel silly. They relax and let their guard down again.
And then another mimic jumps out at them.
This is the most conventional of the enemies. A phantom is an upright biped that shoots glowing projectiles at you. The designers worked very hard to avoid the “space ork” problem I mentioned earlier. These things don’t move like humans. They don’t crouch, take cover, or sprint. And most importantly, they don’t carry guns. This isn’t really a creature with skin over muscles over a skeleton. In fact, it looks like a Phantom is actually just a huge pile of tentacles that have contorted themselves into a roughly humanoid shape.
I guess they’re shaped like humans because they’re made from humans? If a mimic feeds on you, then it makes a handful of mimics. But if a Weaver happens upon your lifeless body, it will turn your physical form into a phantom. Often the game will show names over the heads of the phantoms, indicating who was used to make it. When you kill the phantom, you can loot the items that the original person had. You obtain several keycards and other quest-specific items this way.
I think this is supposed to be the most important and powerful form of Typhon. I don’t want to say it’s the “highest” because that would imply a leadership hierarchy and they don’t really have that. Perhaps we can say the Weaver is simply the most sophisticated? The one with the most complex behavior?
The Weavers create the coral. We’ll talk about the coral later in this series. For now let’s just focus on the mechanics of fighting a Weaver.
The Weavers are supposedly tough opponents. If you damage one, it immediately hits Morgan with “fear”, making it hard to move and aim. Which makes shooting the Weaver to death a slow process. You normally have to hit it, wait five seconds for the fear to subside, then hit it again.
This is exacerbated by the shimmering yellow shield that Weavers have. They’re the only enemy type that has a shield like this, and it makes them very durable.
They also crap out handfuls of these radioactive homing blobsIf you’re curious, these things are called Cystoids. that detonate on impact. So you’ll shoot a Weaver to take a tiny chip off its health bar, then wait five seconds for the fear to go away, then spend ten seconds frantically killing blobs before they reach you. Then take another pathetic shot at the Weaver and begin the entire process again.
Which makes the Weaver the toughest and most dangerous foe.
Do you have a nullwave grenade? You should. There are several dozen in the game and less than a dozen Weavers. Just toss the grenade at the Weaver and it will disable fear, halt its ability to crap out radioactive blobs, and also remove the shield. If a Weaver is near the ground, I prefer to hit it with a nullwave, then run in and bludgeon it to death with my wrench.
We don’t actually meet a Nightmare here in psychotronics. This bastard doesn’t pop up until much later when we reach the arboretum. But we’re going to skip the arboretum in this retrospective, so let’s talk about the Nightmare now.
This 3-meter monster is very different from the other foes you’ll face. This is easily the largest foe in the game.The largest one you’re supposed to fight, anyway. I love the Nightmare for the way it breaks up the flow of the game and creates moments of intensity. You spend most of the game sneaking around in the dark or getting into brief fights with monsters. The Nightmare brings with it an abrupt mood switch from slow tension to mad panic.
The Nightmare is also responsible for one of my favorite moments in the game. This ain’t my first rodeo, and if there’s anything I’ve learned in my last 30 years of videogaming it’s that large boss monsters have horrendous pathfinding. Game designers usually hide this by trapping you in an open arena, but if you can drag a fight into narrow corridors or into a space with a low ceiling then you can usually turn the big threat into a big joke. The boss will wobble back and forth, rubbing up against the wall ineffectually as you find juuuust the right spot where you can shoot him in the calf and he can’t shoot back.
So let’s revisit my first fight with the Nightmare…
The Nightmare has a timer. It will only hunt you for a few minutes and then vanish. Perhaps this is to give a fighting chance to players that have been over-investing in exploration skills and under-investing in combat skills. I’m actually one of those players and I’ve run away for the last couple of encounters. But now I figure it’s time for me to suck it up and fight this thing.
Well, I say “fight”, but really I just mean “kill”. I’m not going to run out in the open for some 1v1 action like I’m the Doom Marine facing the Cyberdemon. Morgan is slow and fragile and there’s no reason to fight the nightmare in the open and shoot it in the head when you can hide in a closet and shoot it in the ankles.
The Nightmare appears and the chase is on. I need to find a hidely-hole where he can’t follow. I’m in the open in Crew Quarters and the high ceilings of the common area give him lots of space to work with. Also, this guy is really fast! I’m used to bosses moving slow and getting caught on level geometry, but every time I look over my shoulder he’s right there. If I stop running for more than a second he can nail me. This guy hits hard, and I estimate I’m never more than 2 firm slaps away from the world of “Reload Previous Save”.
He doesn’t get caught on furniture. He doesn’t have any problem climbing stairs. He doesn’t slow down when you hit him. He can slap you up close and launch homing projectiles at a distance. This guy is an actual handful and not just a really big bounding box with a lot of hitpoints.
Finally I find a nice side-room. It’s a dead end, but I just need to get somewhere that he can’t follow. I dart through the doorway and find a quiet corner to heal and reload while I ponder my next move.
But before I can take care of business, I see the Nightmare squish and stretch himself through the doorway and then re-expand back to his normal shape on the other side. I am now trapped in a small room with the Nightmare and I am completely fucked.
It’s a strange feeling to experience both delight and terror at the same time, but that moment really did it for me.
The other thing that makes the Nightmare unique is that I don’t think it literally exists. It’s too soon to talk about the ending twist, but for now I’ll just say that I think Nightmares are a byproduct of the stuff we learn about in the ending scene and not something that literally appeared on Talos-1.
Reasons why I don’t think the Nightmare is real:
- No humans in the story discuss this creature. It’s never been studied or observed, and you never find any in-world notes or references to it. Nobody on Talos-1 seems to be aware of it besides Morgan and January.
- It’s the only monster that exists on a timer. If you can avoid the Nightmare for two minutes, it stops existing.
- It doesn’t really fit thematically with the other monsters. The rest of the Typhon all have a biological reason to exist. They all have jobs in the Typhon “hive”, as it were. They create coral, manipulate the environment, and make more Typhon. The Nightmare is just a big ball of violence with no other utility.
- It’s called a “nightmare”, which is by definition a terrifying thing that does not exist.
We’ll talk more about this when we get to the ending. But for now let’s just move on. There are several more monsters, but we’ll meet them later in our adventure.
Here in psychotronics is where the writer introduces one of the big ideas they’re going to be playing around with. So let’s talk about…
Have you ever watched a horror movie where someone got their hand chopped off, and you found yourself reflexively grabbing your own wrist? Or did you ever learn to operate a machine by watching someone else use it and then copying their actions? Both of these are examples of mirror neurons in action.
Mirror neurons are a real thing. What happens is that you’ll see someone else experience something, and the mirror neurons in your brain will fire, simulating how you would react to that experience. It’s how we can recognize the suffering of others. It’s also critical for learning.
Mirror neurons are an incredibly powerful tool. But according to Wikipedia, only primates and birds have this gift. The rest of the animal kingdom has to do stuff the hard way.
If I figure out a better way to build a nest, other birds can observe me and copy my behavior thanks to their mirror neurons. They can watch me build the nest, and in doing so they are able to visualize themselves building a nest the same way. Without mirror neurons, all of this is left to chance. I just need to have a bunch of kids and hope that some of them randomly have the same nest-building preferences that I do. And then those preferences need to propagate through the population over many, many generations. With mirror neurons, a better nest is available to everyone else, right away.
So mirror neurons are key to empathy, which allows us to cooperate. And they’re also key to imitation, which allows us to pass along knowledge and techniques not hard-coded into our DNA, which makes a creature more generally adaptable. These things are real game-changers for a species.
Mirror neurons are great, but I find it even more amusing when they fail.
The first example of Mirror Neuron failure is when children observe adults. A kid will watch an adult perform a dance, do martial arts, or masterfully play a musical instrument. The kid will observe the rapid movements and some of the broad gestures involved in the activity, and innocently assume they have fully absorbed the knowledge. They will then attempt to copy the adult behavior and wind up failing horribly. It’s adorable how the little runt thought that playing a guitar was as easy as picking one up and randomly tickling the strings while caterwauling at the top of their lungs. At least, it’s adorable once you get the guitar away from them and the crying stops.
But for me the really great tragicomedy of mirror neurons manifests itself in the form of…
You can see the disastrous reasoning at work. “Hm. I’m a horny twenty-something male. I would really appreciate it if my interlocutor would send me some pictures of her naughty bits. So it stands to reason that she would be equally appreciative of similar pictures of my naughty bits. Therefore… (unzips and gets out phone)“
The mirror neurons in this case are leading our young man astray. They allow you to project yourself into the other person’s shoes. This is immensely useful when coming up with words of comfort, or in guiding you to be thoughtful. But in the case of unsolicited boner broadcasts, the young man is counting on a symmetry that doesn’t typically exist in this particular context. This results in the continued proliferation of schlong sharings, despite the obvious and well-documented failure of the things to achieve their intended goal.
It’s not that these guys are dumb.I would say their problem is a lack of wisdom rather than intelligence. It’s just that we’re so used to trusting our mirror neurons to guide us through our daily interactions with other people. Who are you going to believe: Millions of women on social media, or your own mirror neurons?
Space Bugs Don’t Have Politics
The problem with the Typhon is that they do not have mirror neurons. They are literally incapable of remorse and pity. Their species evidently has some system that allows them to cooperate with each other without needing constructs like language, family, government, or other social hierarchies. Like a hive of wasps, they’re able to coordinate extremely complex activities without experiencing constant infighting or power struggles.
Even if we found some way to communicate with them, it wouldn’t do any good because they have no interest in our point of view. They are fundamentally incurious and unapproachable when it comes to other species.
This makes them a lot more difficult to deal with than (say) the Sith, the Borg, or the Reapers. Those classic sci-fi villains are capable of communication. If you bring enough guns to the table, you can get them to back off due to their general desire for self-preservation. But the Typhon? They just do what they do. You can’t talk with them, which means you can’t plead, stall, bluff, threaten, or reason with them. You can’t weaken their resolve, undermine their morale, or threaten them with mutually assured destruction. They don’t care. They just keep doing what they do, because – as Alex says – they’re incapable of doing otherwise.
While we’re talking about fighting these critters, let’s talk about…
In terms of gameplay, what Prey is trying to do is incredibly hard. It needs to present a system where combat is difficult and expensive, in an industry where gleeful self-indulgent empowerment is the norm and the expectation. Games have gotten very good at making combat feel rewarding, and if you try to take that reward away then some people are going to complain that the gameplay “feels bad”.
And so the various reviews faulted the game: It feels stiff. It’s awkward. It feels dated. It’s clumsy. Unpolished. One reviewer even complained that the combat was “Not as fun as Dishonored”. Which… duh. It would be a pretty horrendous screwup to make Morgan feel as powerful and capable as Corvo. It would make no sense, and it would completely undercut the tense atmosphere if Morgan ran around drop-kicking Typhon, flinging them over railings, and shanking them with impunity from the shadows. This is a game about a scientist trying to survive encounters with a powerful alien species, not a game about an assassin plowing her way through an army of hapless mooks. The player should not feel excitement when they encounter an alien. Oh boy! I get to ambush another toothless space-monster!
Given that the combat needed to be “not empowering”, I think the designers did an amazing job. Combat isn’t “fun”. Instead it’s tense, panicky, unwieldy, and abrupt. But most importantly, it’s not a chore.
The brute-force way of disempowering the player is to make foes bullet sponges, which makes combat slow, repetitive, and unpleasant. Prey (mostly) avoids this. Instead of making the foes unreasonably durable, it makes Morgan relatively fragile. Ammunition and healing supplies are scarce. This means fights are tense and expensive. You’re not supposed to rip and tear through these guys like the Doom marine. You’re supposed to plan ahead, use the environment to help, and maybe avoid some fights when possible.
So that’s it for Psychotronics. I will say that if it was my job to study these freaks all day, I’d have way more lights around my office. This is the darkest area of the station, and I don’t think that’s doing the personnel any good, mental health-wise.
Next time we’ll return to Morgan’s task of trying to blow this place up.
 If you’re curious, these things are called Cystoids.
 The largest one you’re supposed to fight, anyway.
 I would say their problem is a lack of wisdom rather than intelligence.
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