Why Prey Is The Best Game I’ve Played In A Year

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 0.603% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So here’s the moment when I knew I loved Prey:

I had just retrieved a plot-specific piece of data from deep within a gravity-free core, fighting my way out of a computerized library overtaken by alien horrors.  I emerged from the library into an open space, then braced myself for the inevitable boss fight that had been triggered when I got the plot-specific piece of data –

– and there was nothing.

And that’s when I realized: This game did not give a shit about my existence.  It was not here to provide me with a roller-coaster thrill ride of canned events driven by my magnificent activity – if I’d wanted to, I could have broken sequence to slip into this data core at any time and grab the information before the plot asked me to.  There were no artificial walls stopping me from coming here, no implacable monsters placed to block me from coming here – this library was merely one of many locations on the ship for me to explore, to survive, to investigate.

The monsters were there, sure, but they didn’t really care about me.

The ship clearly had had its own existence before I arrived, judging from the crew logs and the named dead and the very specific agendas each ship section was designed to carry out – and if I didn’t propel the plot forward, it would deteriorate without me.

I was not central here.  I was, literally, dropped into the middle of a living breathing environment, where I could affect it, but the ship was not revolving around my presence.

There would be no boss fights because that wasn’t the point of this. Boss fights only exist when the narrative agrees that the player is important that they need a challenge here.  And Prey was indifferent to me.

Which was so goddamned satisfying.

I can see why Prey struggled in terms of sales, because most games these days are power fantasies – even if you’re skulking about as a thief, you’re a legendary thief.  The whole point is to make you the center of everyone’s existence, and as you progress through the competency curve you become increasingly renowned.

Prey, however, has a vast and well-designed ship that feels like it was designed for a crew of scientists – the cafeterias, the air filtration systems, the gyms, the cargo bays.  And unlike most games, which covertly design their levels to suit your powers, Prey’s levels support a genuine variety of approaches – if you’ve put your points into being super-strong you can lift that fridge and enter the room, or you if you’ve chosen electronics then you can hack the door on the opposite side, or if you’ve chosen alien powers you can turn into a coffee cup and roll under the door, or you can use the GLOO gun to make a walkway up to the top…

Prey is one of those games where it’s almost impossible to write a walkthrough, because it’s been out for a year and players are still finding new ways to access areas.   There’s not a way to get to a place, there’s usually at least ten ways – because the game is genuinely open-ended.

It’s also really, really fatal.

In the beginning, you’ll die and die a lot, because again, the game is indifferent to your existence.  There are monsters, and if you try to take them on without strategies, they will kill you.  As you gain more powers and skill you learn to handle them better, but that’s entirely up to you – the monsters stay pretty much the same.  (Though the one nod is that as you progress the plot, worse monsters do arrive.)

Prey is, if anything, the opposite of a power trip.  The plot tells you that you’re important, but the game itself informs you repeatedly that nothing you do is that special – if you feel the flush of triumph of getting somewhere, well, there was another way to get there.  Beat a monster?  Well, it wasn’t there for you to beat.  Accidentally nabbed a plot-specific piece of data before the game asked you to get it?  Well, the plot isn’t going to collapse if you sequence break.

Which, if you’re of my mindset, makes Prey awesome.

Because when you win, it wasn’t because you figured out what the game wanted you to do.  There’s so many boss battles where the solution is “align yourself with the designers’ way of thinking” – which can get frustrating if you don’t think like them, leading to eventually looking the solution up on the Internet because there’s one way to do it and you don’t know.

Prey is nigh-infinite flexibility.  When you discover a solution, maybe that’s not the only way to do it but it’s the way you thought of it, and it’s equally valid.  Your triumph is solely due to you.

And Prey is also a game that rewards paying attention to its environment – mandates it, in fact, because one of the mainstay enemies is The Mimic, a small creature which sneaks away when you’re not looking and morphs into a copy of something nearby.  Hey, that’s a single-person table, there are two chairs there, that’s odd and WHOOMP a mimic is eating your face.

The more you go through Prey, the more you start to realize that everything fits together.  Yes, the security office certainly should have a few spare rounds cached somewhere, and in fact it does.  The lab center where they store precious materials should have a few loose materials that rolled underneath the platform, and it does.  The safe’s combination has been erased from the whiteboard, but if you look at the old security tapes you should see it, and you do.

The point is not to beat the monsters, but to understand how people lived here.

Which, in turn, makes it feel like people lived here.

Which, in turn, makes it feel like increasingly more of a tragedy as you come across the corpses, each named, each destroyed by this alien infestation.

So for me, Prey felt like I was creeping through two great clashing forces, genuinely trying to survive.  There wasn’t hand-holding, there wasn’t a significant difficulty curve – a monster is a monster is a monster – there weren’t boss fights to test my mettle.  There was merely scavenging and being wise and feeling genuinely smart because I could think “Hey, what if I try this?” and generally if it was reasonable there was a way to do it.

I loved Prey.  I wish it had done better.  But that’s the tragedy of fandoms, sometimes: you find something that feels custom-made for you, and it turns out there’s not enough of you out there to make it a profitable franchise.

Still.  If Prey sounded good to you, maybe it’s made for you too.  Check it out.

 

 

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