I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Prey, thirty five hours of crawling through Talos 1’s immense interior and gleefully drifting through space on its exterior, was great fun. What kept me going though, as always, was the story. While the plot was a standard aliens run amok plot, the narrative uses that cliché to explore some fascinating and profound themes. And it doesn’t explore those themes using long winded exposition, but by filling the game with some beautiful symbolism and then letting the environment and enemies tell the story.
Nothing is ever what it appears to be when playing through Prey and it encourages you to look beyond the surface. It was right on the cusp of a truly profound story, unfortunately the ending doesn’t quite go far enough and fails to deliver on its exploration of identity, empathy, and perspective.
It left me wanting more, and not in a good way. However, this isn’t going to be a All That Matters is the Ending article because even though I was disappointed by the ending, it wasn’t a terrible ending. It fails to finish exploring the themes it introduced, and it could have used another ten minutes, but the ending does resolve the story. I just wanted it to go farther.
In short, I highly recommend this game.
If you enjoyed how Bioshock used Rapture to explore the philosophy of Ayn Rand’s objectivism, then you’ll love Prey because it uses its setting of Talos 1 to explore several profound themes. However, if you’re looking for something more in the vein of Bioshock: Infinite, with a deeply personal story and stakes, then you’re going to be disappointed in Prey. There’s not a lot of character development here, but that doesn’t means it’s not a great story.
Note: I never played the original Prey, so I have no opinion on the controversy of using that game’s title to tell a separate story.
A Storytelling Review
Prey is a narrative that starts by asking us an old question: what is it that makes us human?
To answer that question I took on the role of Morgan Yu. I was a scientist about to embark on a trip to Talos 1, a space station on the far side of the moon.
Except I wasn’t.
In more ways than one…
I’d been on Talos 1 for months, testing Neuromods which allow the implantation of talents and memories directly into the human brain. Unfortunately the removal of Neuromods resets the users memories back to the moment it was installed, and I’d been getting these things installed and removed on a daily basis. I was reliving the same day over and over again.
So it was another story about a character with amnesia, but Prey tells it exceptionally well.
My first objective, after a brief introduction and tutorial, was to break out of my apartment. So naturally I checked the doors first, but all the doors in the hallway were secure. The only way left was a glass door to a balcony, but since I was on the top floor I wasn’t sure how this was going to help me. How was I supposed to get down? Well, one step at a time, I said to myself and swung my wrench at the glass.
Shattering the Looking-Glass, advanced scifi tech that essentially turns glass in high resolution monitors, to reveal that it wasn’t a window but an illusion was one of the most shocking parts of the game. The .gif really doesn’t do it justice. The narrative, by which I mean the way the environment tells the story, did such a great job making me believe that everything I was seeing was real. I wish more video game stories would take advantage of game design like this.
In a video game I take for granted that everything I’m seeing is real. I know it’s a simulated environment, obviously, but I just assume everything I see is exactly, and only, what I see. Looking out of Morgan Yu’s apartment window, I thought I was looking at just another painted backdrop; a simulated skyline to give the impression of a real city. Which it is. What I never considered was that skyline was also simulated for the character in the narrative, which is why shattering the glass to reveal a Truman Show style studio was so shocking.
Prey used a common illusion used in video games, and movies for that matter, to further its narrative. It uses this moment to frame the story for its audience. Take nothing for granted, the game tells us, because nothing is what it seems. More than that though, the Looking-Glass is symbolic of how easily our own sense of reality can be shattered. Symbolism plays a big part in how Prey tells its story.
After breaking out of my apartment and exploring Talos 1 a little, I began to see the story Prey was telling. Or at least I thought I did. For the first four or five hours I thought this was about remembering who I was, and through that the story about how memories and our perceptions shape who we are as people.
However, the deeper I went into Talos, the deeper the narrative went as well. What began as answering the old, basic question of what makes us human, turned into something far more interesting.
What can make us better humans?
That was the question that truly drew me in, and much like in Bioshock, it’s the environment and enemies that Prey uses to answer this question.
Talos 1; on the surface it is a shining example of everything humanity should be striving to achieve. It’s a harmonious home in space free of petty politics and nationalities. Yet below the surface, Talos 1 is everything humanity should leave behind: cruelty, greed, and our arrogant selfishness. Palatial suites and offices are juxtaposed against dark, forbidding laboratories where both Typhon and humans were experimented on.
However it’s the Typhon that are the star of the game, and not just because they’re the main enemy, but because they’re also beautifully representative of humanity itself. Humans are a strange species, we’re capable of such incredible feats of compassion and creativity, and yet we’re equally prone to inflicting unimaginable acts of cruelty and destruction. Our scientific curiosity, our desire to know more about the world, is one of our best traits and yet we have also done unspeakably evil things in pursuit of that knowledge.
All of this is symbolized in the simple, yet elegant, art design of the Typhon. It’s the strange dichotomy of humanity made flesh (or shadow I guess).
On the one hand we have the coral; the strange golden webs spun by the Typhon that we later learn are made of pure consciousness that is extracted from the Typhon’s victims. It’s beautifully rendered in game, and they look like pieces of intricate artwork when you’re looking at them. The Coral represents humanity’s best features: our compassion, our thirst for knowledge, our creative spirit. It represents our greatest artwork, our advanced science, and our indomitable spirit.
Then there’s the Typhon itself, dark twisting shadows that prey on everything that moves and wantonly destroy anything in their path with no regard for anything else. They are humanity’s worst traits: our cruelty, our selfishness, and our self-destructive natures. Yet these twisted creatures of darkness weave beautiful strands of golden light. It was this symbolism that made me want to know so much more about the Typhon.
Prey also highlights humanity’s arrogant double-standard when it comes to valuing life. Anything that harms us is quickly labelled an animal, even humans that perform unspeakable crimes earn this label. But of course we then turn around and do even worse things to anything that isn’t like us, whether it be animals, or just humans who don’t conform with ever-shifting terms of normality. The narrative uses the Typhon to point out this hypocrisy.
Alex, Morgan Yu’s brother and lead researcher, at one point says:
“They have no empathy. The ability to relate to another creature’s suffering.”
Yet Alex also doesn’t see the other side of the coin: that none of the humans working on this project seem to have any empathy for the Typhon either. Talos 1 has been collecting Typhon and ripping them apart at a molecular level just so they can use pieces of them to create Neuromods. The section they do this in is even called “Materials Extraction,” as if the Typhon are nothing more than mineral ore to be processed and refined. Yet the Typhon are so unlike us, so alien, that no one considers that we might be the monsters here. They’re not human so they must not suffer right?
Yet even more hypocritical is that Alex says this while knowing his work has killed dozens of people, using prisoners and slaves to test the abilities of the Typhon. Alex would claim that it’s for the greater good, but then maybe the Typhon feel the exact same way, and how hollow is that explanation when you’re the one suffering.
Still though, as sympathetic as I was to the Typhon, I recognized them as a threat. I believe Great White Sharks have the right to exist, but that doesn’t mean I want to go swimming with one. After reaching my office my personal operator, a robot with the personality of Morgan Yu, showed me a video of myself telling me to destroy Talos 1. I was totally in favor of this. It would isolate us from the Typhon, allowing them to live peacefully in their natural habitat, and destroy the monstrous facility and all the research it had conducted.
While trying to achieve this goal I ran across survivors of Talos 1 struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Typhon invasion. I helped them when I could, despite the fact that they would all die when the station was destroyed, because even if death is inevitable, no one should have to suffer needlessly. But it was also more than that.
I helped them because I no longer wanted to be the Morgan Yu I kept seeing everywhere on the station: the one that spearheaded the monstrous experiments that caused so much suffering and death. At one point I ran across someone who’d been very important to me, an ex-girlfriend suffering from a debilitating illness. She could hardly breathe, she couldn’t feel her legs, and she was facing a slow and painful death. So I went risked the Typhon infested exterior of Talos to get the medication she needed.
Because the old Morgan Yu would have let her die. It wouldn’t be logical to waste resources saving a doomed woman.
After saving her, this woman asked me to find records of her father, a political prisoner sent to Talos 1 as a “volunteer”, the nice little euphemism TranStar labels its prisoners and slaves. When I found those records, I listened to yet another recording of myself.
And with cold, calculating cruelty, I ordered my scientists to allow the Typhon to kill a helpless old man… just to see what would happen.
If you do this, you’re killing us both.
He was right. I, or rather the Morgan Yu I was, had no empathy. Without that, without the ability to truly relate to another creature’s suffering, I was no longer human.
Which is why I spent most of the game trying to ensure that what few survivors remained on Talos 1 got to go home. It wasn’t about them, no doubt many of these scientists had performed terrible crimes themselves, it was about regaining my own humanity. And I did. Which is why, upon destroying Talos 1, instead of finding oblivion… I found myself waking up in yet another laboratory.
The ending, the true ending post-credits, reveals that I wasn’t Morgan Yu at all but a Typhon reliving the memories of Morgan Yu. I was an experiment by Alex: an attempt to teach a Typhon empathy. Now I love this ending, or rather I love the idea of it. The problem is that I felt like the ending didn’t quite go far enough, didn’t take the time to conclude the exploration of the themes it introduced. Mostly this felt like a glorified stat screen, it’s only purpose to tell the player how they acted throughout the game (in case we have short term memory loss I guess.) It could have gone so much further though.
This was a chance to see the world from a Typhon perspective.
“I need to know you see us. Really see us. Take my hand if you do.” Alex asked me.
I took his hand, but at the same time I wanted to ask Alex:
“Do you see us?” I wanted to know if Alex saw the Typhon as anything more than just monsters, or worse, raw materials. He didn’t seem to. Even after all these years, Alex saw the Typhon as nothing more than animals, a galactic pest destroying his world. I wanted to show Alex that I, that we, were something more. I wanted Prey to show me that the Typhon were more than just bad guys doing bad things, or if they were that it wasn’t just mindless violence, that there was a method behind the madness.
Throughout the game, both Alex and Morgan call Neuromods the path of the future, that they could make mankind “immortal.” Yet perhaps that is exactly what the Typhon were granting us in their own way. After all, the scans of the Coral indicated that it was made of the psyche of their victims. Neuromods worked by copying the neural patterns of people with special talents and then transplanting them into another human mind. The Typhon could presumably copy an entire person’s mind, perhaps even their very consciousness.
Perhaps the golden strands of Coral are a vast tapestry of human minds all woven together, preserving the essence of what we are and leaving behind our fragile and tragically short-lived bodies. Maybe the Typhon were making us immortal, but in a way we just couldn’t comprehend.
Or maybe it could have been something completely different. The point is that Prey needed to take another ten or fifteen minutes at the end of the game to let the player to come to terms with his role as a Typhon. We could have had a truly beautiful ending if given a bit more time, an ending that would complete the theme Prey was building towards:
That empathy is a learned behavior.
It can be taught and nurtured, or it can be shunned and ignored. Throughout the game you’re given the opportunity to either show compassion for the surviving members of Talos 1, or ignore them. Helping them often means putting yourself at risk for them, and the rewards are negligible, but at the same time you’re surrounded by a monument built by a lack of empathy. Talos 1 was built for the sole purpose of trapping a race of aliens, extracting their useful components, and then using those components to create technology to sell to the highest bidder. Meanwhile human prisoners were being used in medical experimentation, often dying in the process.
And all because the members of Talos 1 couldn’t see the suffering they were causing. Part of me thinks that’s why Morgan Yu agreed to become a test subject: he wanted to forget what he’d done.
So when the game asked me: do I want to make the same mistakes as the old Morgan Yu? I said no. Absolutely not.
And it was this sentiment that I wish had been more fully explored in the ending, not a simple handshake with Alex, but something more. Such as using my Typhon abilities to show Alex what lay inside the coral, or perhaps make him understand how he’d made the Typhon suffer. To take the first steps in building a relationship built on mutual respect for each other’s right to exist.
As it is though, Prey leaves us with a few too many unanswered questions and too little time to explore the themes that made the rest of the game such a memorable experience. All that said, it’s still a remarkably fun game and the reason this article isn’t an All that Matters is the Ending series is because while I was personally disappointed by the ending, it also wasn’t terrible. I just felt like it could have done so much more.
All that said, Prey is a story that is told through the journey it takes you on, and it’s a journey worth taking.
Request for Feedback: This article experimented with a few new ideas. One I put myself in a first person perspective when talking about the story. I thought this might be more engaging to read than a second-person “you”, or a generic “the audience.” But I’m also aware that it might seem weird. So let me know on which side of the line I landed.
This is also a much longer article than usual, clocking in at a little under 3000 words. I tried dividing it into a more manageable “listicle”, but found that I couldn’t neatly fit my thoughts into “top 3” style categories. It’s not the first time I’ve done just a straight article, but this one of the longer ones. So I’m curious if it was too free-flowing, not organized enough, or just too freaking long to bother reading. So if you have any thoughts or criticisms, I’d be eager to hear them.