Morgan is still trying to reach Deep Storage so she can obtain her arming key so she can blow up the station. At some point during this ordeal, Morgan needs to visit the Crew Quarters. This is actually pretty dang far out of her way, and the reasons for it are a little convoluted. I’ll talk about them later, but first let’s talk about the amazing design of Talos-1.
Art Deco and Yesterday’s “World of Tomorrow”
The construction of Talos-1 shows an incredible attention to detail. The designer thought about how the place would work logistically and allowed the player to see how people and supplies get around the station. They thought about the technology and showed us where the power comes from, how supplies reach the station, and how the station itself protects its inhabitants from the cold radioactive vacuum of space. They thought about how the place works socially and allowed us to see where people lived, what jobs they had, and how they amused themselves when not on duty.
In terms of style, the space station leans strongly towards Art Deco. This made me a little nervous at first, worried that this game was going to end up standing in the shadow of BioShock. (Which I guess it ultimately did, but only because BioShock is so outrageously overrated. More on that in a minute.) But as the game goes on it becomes pretty clear that Prey wasn’t cribbing from BioShock when the designer embraced all of these Art Deco designs. If we want to find something similar to Prey, I think the 1998 adventure game Starship Titanic is a much closer fit. Both games seem to be aiming for a kind of “luxury cruise ship” vibe.
In BioShock, the Art Deco styling is almost sarcastic, pitting the optimism of the era against the miserable failure of Andrew Ryan’s Pipe Dream. Even in its heyday, the corridors of Rapture were generally cold, dark, narrow, and industrial. Some of that was because everyone lived in a metal box at the bottom of the ocean, and some of it was because the game engines and level designers of 2008 were often still reliant on the “corridor shooter” school of design to keep the polygon counts under control. But regardless of the reasons, the Art Deco in BioShock was mostly a surface-level decoration slapped onto the face of a brutalist industrial complex.
In contrast, the Art Deco of Prey is brighter, more open, and truer to the original optimism of the form. The Art Deco styling isn’t limited to the signage, but infuses the architecture itself. In particular, the golden walls, spectacular external view, and vast open spaces of the lobby capture the giddy “world of tomorrow” vibe that those designers in the early 20th century were so fond of.
Unlike BioShock, these golden halls don’t feel sarcastic. The designer isn’t condemning Talos-1 for its accomplishments. Yes, the world of Prey has fallen. But it didn’t fall due to decadence and selfishness, it fell because an outside enemy overpowered everyone. BioShock presented Rapture as an idea that was rotten to the core, but Talos-1 is a place where noble intent was eroded by dishonesty and reckless compromise. Talos-1 is a place where evil deeds were done, but the place was not evil in its origins or intent. With a different leadership, Talos-1 could have been the beacon of innovation and knowledge that its designers intended.
To put it another way: The fall of Rapture was presented as justice, while the fall of Talos-1 is a tragedy.
Since we’re comparing the two, I need to get something off my chest: I was never the biggest fan of BioShock to begin with, and my opinion of it has continued to go down over the years. Back in 2013 I said:
[…]we had a thread where an Objectivist weighed in on Objectivism in BioShock. It made for an interesting thread and was surprisingly civil, given the subject matter. At some point (and I can’t find it now) I said that it’s not at all clear what property anyone owns in Rapture. If Ryan owns everything, then he didn’t build an Objectivist society, he built an Objectivist house and invited a bunch of assholes to live with him.
I mean: Ryan is a totalitarian thug. If they really wanted to explore the ideas of Objectivism then they ought to have messed around with the classic conflict between individual liberty and the common good. It’s like if I wanted to make a game about (say) environmentalists, so I fill the gameworld with standard mooks who talk about trees a lot. And then their leader loves pollution because ENVIRONMENTULISM!
The further I get from this game, the more childish and sophomoric its handling of Objectivism seems. There doesn’t seem to be anything of the philosophy in the characters, in their discussions, or in how they relate to one another. The game comes off like a college senior who just got done reading Atlas Shrugged and is looking for a way to work bits of it into conversation.
I know a lot of people are going to balk at the charge of BioShock being “childish and sophomoric”. This is a celebrated and award-winning game, and so it probably seems like I’m doing some sort of performative trashing of sacred cows for the sake of being edgy.
But the real problem is that it all comes down to expectations.
I submit that both of these things are true:
- BioShock is the smartest shooter.At least, as of 2007.Perhaps you want to argue that a classic like Marathon should be named “smartest shooter”. That’s fine. But for the vast majority of young people playing games in the Xbox 360 era, the PC and Mac titles of the 90s weren’t in the running because it wasn’t part of their shared gaming experience.
- BioShock is the dumbest Immersive Sim.
So shooter fans were discovering how amazing it was to have things like characters, plot twists, atmosphere, and environmental storytelling to go along with their shooty gameplay. They discovered that puzzles and scrounging for resources offered a nice contrast to the sound and fury of combat, which made the action seem all the more intense when the shooting started again.
Remember that this was a low point in history for the PC as a platform. Big budgets and media coverage were mostly focused on titles that were either console exclusives, or console-first titles with a half-assed PC port. For an entire generation of kids, the shooter genre was born in 2001 with the release of the original Halo.
If yu were one of these console-focused consumers in 2007, then BioShock would have been absolutely mind blowing. Think about the titles that preceded it. Take a look at this footage from Black in 2006. Or this footage from Resistance: Fall of Man from the same year. I find that footage exhausting to watch. It’s just a steady roar of gunfire with brief intervals of people shouting. The game F.E.A.R. from 2005 fares slightly better in terms of pacing because the combat often slows down to allow for some haunted house style flashing lights and spooky noises. That’s nice, but mechanically it’s still pretty one-note.And to be clear: I’m a pretty big fan of FEAR. I think it did some really interesting stuff with AI that STILL hasn’t been replicated 16 years later.
Those games were also pretty dull in terms of visuals. This was during the Brown Age when game developers thought “realism” was making everything the color of mud and concrete dust.
Imagine you’re a young person that’s been on a steady diet of mid-aughts console shooters and you suddenly find yourself in the haunted hallways of Rapture, dodging splicers, solving puzzles, and connecting with characters that do more than just shout directions at you over the radio. Of course that’s going to feel deep and smart in comparison.
Now imagine you’re a 30-something PC gamer and you’ve played through the late 90s classics from Looking Glass and ION Storm. BioShock probably isn’t going to seem so explosively innovative in comparison. Thief did a better job of scaring the player. System Shock 2 had deeper systems, a more open design, and a more coherent take on the solipsism vs. collectivism debate. Deus Ex featured a bigger world, more varied environments, and a larger and more colorful cast of memorable characters. If those games from Looking Glass and ION Storm were your jam, then BioShock would probably come off like a slightly shallower Immersive Sim with better graphics.
I admit that I’m trading in broad stereotypes here. I’m not saying that the only people who liked BioShock were 90s kids who never played an immersive sim before. And I’m not saying that BioShock critics like me are all Gen-X PC gamers. But it is true that BioShock is the first cross-platform immersive sim, and the gaming landscape of 2007 was very different from the one that existed when System Shock was on store shelves. BioShock reached a lot of people those earlier titles never could, and that had a huge impact on its reception.
But fine. BioShock became a beloved classic. That’s probably a good thing. It showed the big publishers that the audience was eager for something more enriching than one-note shooters. It was a step down for fans of immersive sims, but it was a step up for literally everyone else. And for that, we should all be grateful towards BioShock.
But what really makes me resent BioShock is how Prey was treated by the critical press. Prey beats BioShock in nearly every way that can be measured, and yet critics appraised it significantly lower than BioShock.
Prey was nominated for a lot of stuff yet won very little, while BioShock won “Game of the Year” from numerous outlets, along with a lot of other awards. Prey’s systems are deeper, its world is more coherently constructed, its audiologs are less clumsily contrived, the environments are more varied and interesting, the enemy types are more diverse, and the various twists feel more earned and less like an ass-pull. Prey’s leveling system allows for a greater variety of playstyles and the world of Talos-1 is more open and non-linear compared to Rapture.
Critics pissed all over the gameplay of Prey, but for whatever reason the mind-numbing one-note empowerment of BioShock was given a free pass. Worried that the player might need to explore the systems and discover strategies on their own, the designer has Atlas yell the strategy guide at the player. “Remember, the one-two punch!” he says, speaking of the process of using a plasmid to soften up a foe and then shoot them with your conventional firearm. That’s not bad as far as gameplay systems go, but that’s pretty much everything the game has to offer. The plasmids give you a half dozen ways to stunlock someone, and the guns give you a half dozen ways to murder them afterward.
Most importantly, Prey has a very firm hold on its themes and has some interesting ideas to play with. This is vastly superior to BioShock‘s sloppy takedown of strawman Randian Objectivism that ended in a farcical brawl with a chatterbox cartoon character. BioShock is a poseur, strutting around with pretensions of being clever and deep, but in the end it shrugged and delivered a DOOM monster to fight. Prey ended not with a fight against a giant monster, but instead with several crucial moments of player agency, followed by a conversation that paid off seeds planted throughout the story. Neither ending is perfect, but Prey at least had the courage to commit to being a sci-fi story and didn’t feel the need to end with the Typhon version of a Cyberdemon.
I guess I’ll grudgingly give BioShock credit for having a couple of really amazing scenes. I love Prey’s antagonist Alex Yu, but Prey doesn’t have anything as remotely as powerful as the final confrontation with Andrew Ryan. As much as I resent BioShock‘s ongoing critical adoration and Prey‘s relative snub, I have to admit that scene is an amazing moment that really sticks with you.
I’m bitter about this because BioShock is the runt of the immersive sim litter, and yet it’s also the one that won all the awards. Once again, I feel like reviewers have let us down.
 At least, as of 2007.
 Perhaps you want to argue that a classic like Marathon should be named “smartest shooter”. That’s fine. But for the vast majority of young people playing games in the Xbox 360 era, the PC and Mac titles of the 90s weren’t in the running because it wasn’t part of their shared gaming experience.
 And to be clear: I’m a pretty big fan of FEAR. I think it did some really interesting stuff with AI that STILL hasn’t been replicated 16 years later.
The Best of 2014
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2014.
Silver Sable Sucks
This version of Silver Sable is poorly designed, horribly written, and placed in the game for all the wrong reasons.
Mass Effect Retrospective
A novel-sized analysis of the Mass Effect series that explains where it all went wrong. Spoiler: It was long before the ending.
Bethesda NEVER Understood Fallout
Let's count up the ways in which Bethesda has misunderstood and misused the Fallout property.
Resident Evil 4
Who is this imbecile and why is he wandering around Europe unsupervised?