Morgan Yu has a tough job. Her goal is to blow up the Talos-1 space station, and optionally find some way to escape the blast, and even more optionally find some way for everyone else to also escape.
To blow up the station, she needs her arming key. To get her arming key, she needs to reach Deep Storage. To reach Deep Storage, she needs to go on a half dozen detours through the malfunctioning, infested, haunted guts of the station.
While she’s working on that, let’s stop and talk about…
The Face of a First-Person Character
In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about “amplification through simplification”. The idea is that as you simplify a cartoon character down to the essential details, they become more generalized. As their details become so broad that they could represent anyone, they effectively come to represent everyone. When you strip away age, gender, body type, ethnicity, race, and that stupid haircut you really need to change, all we’re left with is the humanity of the character. And wouldn’t you know it, we have that in common! We’re more able to identify with this kind of simple design. We can see ourselves in them. As a face becomes more stylized, it gradually becomes a mask representing either people in general or ourselves in particular.
But the one thing it doesn’t do – indeed, the one thing comics can’t do – is get you to take the final step and put the mask on. At that point the transition is complete. You can no longer see the mask at all. The character becomes you, specifically. Only videogames can do this.
Sure, movie scenes are occasionally presented in first person. There was even one that did the whole movie that way. That’s pretty close, but it’s not quite the same as controlling the camera yourself. You don’t have to extrapolate in order to see the world through the eyes of your character because you literally have the same eyes. You aren’t aware of the mask because you can’t see it. This makes you the main character in the most immediate, intimate, and yes immersive way possible. The game designer has left a you-shaped hole in their story, and all the player has to do is drop themselves in.
And then some dingbat comes along and demands the designer give the character a face and a voice and third-person cutscenes and a strong personality the entire effect is ruined.
I can inhabit Gordon Freeman. I get to decide what he’s thinking and feeling at any given moment. I decide if he likes Dr. Mossman. I decide if he thinks of Alyx in a romantic sense or if he sees her as a buddy / little sister. I decide if he thinks Dr. Kleiner is annoying or endearing. If he thinks Dr. Breen is more Neville Chamberlain or Adolph Hitler. It’s a bit like the old RPGs where the designer left a text box on your character sheet where you could fill in your character bio. Sure, it doesn’t really impact the gameplay, but it does leave a little room for you to take authorship over your character. The experience becomes a collaboration between designer and player. If I’m having a great time mowing down Combine soldiers, then so is Dr. Freeman. We’re always in sync.
But what if he had a voice? In the middle of my gleeful killing spree using the gravity gun to pulverize troopers with toilets and radiators, suddenly Gordon’s voice floats out of my head, “Damn it Alyx! Hurry up and get that gate open! I can’t hold these guys off forever!” Or conversely, maybe I’m enraged at the soldiers and wiping them out with teeth-gnashing fury when suddenly Gordon chimes in with a lame dad-joke level pun.
In either case, my character and I are abruptly at odds. I don’t like how he’s talking to Alyx, I don’t agree that the situation is dire, and his tone of voice is dissonant with my mood. That sense of effortless immersion is gone and I’m suddenly annoyed that I’ve been booted out of the experience to make room for the game designer’s puppet.
This is not to say that silent first-person protagonists are superior to other types of viewpoints or that voiced protagonists are somehow wrong. The point I’m making is that this is an experience you can only get from games. It’s not done often, and even when it is done it’s often not done properly.
But What About My Cutscenes?!
On the other hand, I’ve written about this often enough to know that there are some people that just can’t connect with the silent protagonist. It turns out they expect the game to provide a distinct personality for their character, and the game feels empty without it. I’m sure this difference comes down to a difference in the personality of the playerI blame extroverts. But then, I blame extroverts for lots of things..
Going by prevailing design trends, I’m willing to bet that the fans of silent protagonists are hopelessly outnumbered by people who want a fleshed-out character. That sucks, but that’s pretty much par for the course when it comes to immersive sims. It feels like this genre is an island of misfit games that happen to give me exactly what I’m looking for. When an immersive sim comes out, the mainstream audience shows up and says, “This is nice and all, but why can’t it be more like all the other games?” Or someone will ask “Do Silent Protagonists Still have a place in modern videogames?” and I’ll get so mad that I’ll argue with my screen out loud like a crazy old man.Actually, the article is pretty reasonable, despite the slightly provocative title.
I can’t escape the sensation that my particular design preferences are besieged by an industry of talkative, PvP-focused, gregarious, cutscene-loving jerks.
Prey has a very interesting approach to this problem. In the game, Morgan has no lines during gameplay, but is characterized in audiologs and Looking Glass videos. I’m not sure how well it worked for the fans of voiced protagonists, but it let me get my silent protagonist fix without ejecting me from the game with spontaneous dialog that was dissonant from what I was feeling in the moment, so I’m mostly a fan of how this was handled.
Then again, silent protagonists only work well if you never need to speak to anyone. The whole thing falls apart if the player finds themselves unable to tell people important things or ask reasonable questions. Later on we’re going to run into some situations where this becomes a problem.
Build Your Own Morgan
Like most immersive sim games, Prey has a lot going on in terms of mechanics. This is a complicated game. You’ve got common combat elements like firearms, stealth, and magic powers, but you’ve also got a ton of non-combat can openers. There are a lot of different ways to approach the game.
You can make Morgan more directly powerful in combat by improving her skills with firearms. You can make Morgan indirectly stronger by boosting her health and stamina, which help you consume fewer resources over the long haul. You can make Morgan stronger by investing in engineering, allowing her to build more powerful weapons. You can make Morgan better at opening doors and containers so you can collect more resources. You can invest in psi powers, which give you tons of additional options in combat, from blasting foes with your mind to mind-controlling Typhon to fight on your behalf. On top of all of this are a handful of random nice-to-have bonuses like inventory expansion or improved sneaking.
The trick is that all of these upgrades draw from the same pool. Prey doesn’t have traditional skill points or a leveling system. Instead, you buy upgrades using neuromods you find in the environment.
I can’t say if any of these branches are overpowered or underpowered. As someone who is pathologically incapable of walking away from locked containers, I have a terrible habit of putting my points into the many various can openers the game has to offer. This means my Morgan is usually physically frail but swimming in resources. I’ve tried to do runs through the game where I focus on combat, but then my Looting Anxiety kicks in and I end up dumping all my neuromods into repairing stuff, hacking computers, and circumventing blockadesThe Leverage skills let you move heavy stuff out of the way, and the athletic bonus allows you to jump like an NBA player. Both are useful for getting into hard-to-reach areas. because I can’t tolerate leaving behind locked rooms and containers. This is true even when I’ve played the game often enough that I know I don’t technically need the resources in a given container. It’s not that I’m afraid of running out, it’s that I can’t bear to leave anything behind. By the time I’ve satisfied my need to Loot All The Things, the game is nearly over. I can’t help it. The incentives to loot are too strong for me to resist.
This is probably because of the way the looting ties into the leveling…
The Machine Shops
Prey has these machines called Recyclers. If you have resources you don’t care about, then you throw them in a recycler and it will break the objects down into their component substances like plastic, metal, and organics. Then you can take those resources to a Fabricator machine and use them to build resources you do care about. So if you’ve decided you want to focus on the pistol and you don’t want to lug the shotgun around, you can break down the shotgun shells you find and turn them into pistol bullets instead. You can turn food into medkits, grenades into bullets, bullets into weapons, or whatever else you need. The conversion isn’t 100% efficient but it’s still enormously helpful.
One of the happiest moments in the game is when you find yourself in a room with both a recycler and a fabricator, since it means you can clear your inventory of junk, and at the same time turn all of the junk into resources.
The Recycler is effectively a place to “sell” items, while a Fabricator allows you to “buy”. This is a great way of creating what is effectively a traditional RPG “shop” without needing to contrive literal shopkeepers looking to engage in commerce mid-disaster.
The interesting thing is that you can fabricate additional neuromods. You need to acquire the recipe, and then you need to disable the in-world DRM to allow you to make an unlimited number of them. I love it. TranStar really is the sort of obnoxious company that would put DRM on their physical goods. Since neuromods are your primary way of gaining power, this means you never “outgrow” the economy. In a more traditional RPG, you’ll often reach a point where you have the best gear in the game. At that point there’s nothing left to buy, which means you can safely stop collecting junk to sell in town. For some players this represents a point where they feel liberated from the tedious trash-picker loot cycle. For other players this is where the game gets boring, because there’s no longer anything left to strive for.
Regardless of which kind of player you are, Prey never has this moment where the economy becomes irrelevant to you. The economy yields neuromods, neuromods unlock skills, and skills are your primary way of gaining power. You’ll eventually have all the gear you’ll want, but it’s unlikely most players will ever fill in the entire skill tree.Having said that: I did. I spent ages farming Typhon in order to build neuromods. I did manage to fill in all of the non-Typhon abilities in all three skill trees in a single run.
This is a great system for keeping the scavenging relevant, although it has the side effect of making me a slave to the resource collection gameplay.
I’m a big fan of inventory tetris. That’s where you get a big ol’ grid to represent your inventory and you can shuffle items around to make room as needed. The Diablo games popularized it. System Shock 2 had it. All of the “real” Deus Ex gamesMeaning, all the games except Invisible War. had it.
For years the conventional wisdom was that this was a lame, boring, dumb way to do things and only those boring spreadsheet-loving PC nerds would tolerate that sort of thing. The hip young kids in console land were too cool for that nonsense.
And then Resident Evil 4 gave console players an inventory grid to play with and many players embraced it as the Greatest Thing Ever. I actually saw people call it an “innovation”. And I suppose that’s what it felt like if you’d never seen it before. It turns out console players like making complex decisions regarding resource allocation, just like PC players. Go figure.
 I blame extroverts. But then, I blame extroverts for lots of things.
 Actually, the article is pretty reasonable, despite the slightly provocative title.
 The Leverage skills let you move heavy stuff out of the way, and the athletic bonus allows you to jump like an NBA player. Both are useful for getting into hard-to-reach areas.
 You need to acquire the recipe, and then you need to disable the in-world DRM to allow you to make an unlimited number of them. I love it. TranStar really is the sort of obnoxious company that would put DRM on their physical goods.
 Having said that: I did. I spent ages farming Typhon in order to build neuromods. I did manage to fill in all of the non-Typhon abilities in all three skill trees in a single run.
 Meaning, all the games except Invisible War.
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