“Breaking Out of Prey’s Glass Box,” by Chris Priestman

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Break through the glass—this is Prey’s first lesson. To escape the counterfeit reproduction of Morgan Yu’s apartment you must introduce a wrench to the windows. The glass shatters on impact to leave an irregular shape, cut in jagged lines, tearing a hole into the otherwise convincing simulation of a city held within the windows. The artifice of the false 3D space projected inside the glass—a technology called “Looking Glass”—is revealed in this sudden moment. Instead of breaching an apartment in the middle of a metropolis, we instead see that we are in a laboratory, the steel viewing platforms and false walls coming out from hiding; on the other side of the glass, we are led to believe, is reality.

But what is really on the other side of this “Looking Glass?” For Lewis Carroll, it was the place “where things are not as they should be.” The looking glass, in his case, is a mirror: stare into it and you see a mirror image, a backwards place. Carroll gave this simple observation extra dimensions and turned it into an alternate universe full of odd characters and bizarre practices. He had Alice step into it, through it, and by doing so she exited her own reality. In Prey, the looking glass is updated for the modern day—it is now an advanced electronic display that appears to record not flat images, but entire 3D rooms. It also flips around the journey that Alice went on, as when Morgan Yu breaks through the glass, she steps out of unreality and into . . .

. . . well, as we learn, it is not reality, but something closer to it. That is Prey’s final reveal at its end. You were in a computer simulation all along—gotcha! It’s an unsatisfying revelation, mostly because it works against the first lesson Prey teaches us. We have not stripped away its third layer of reality by breaking through a pane of glass as before, whether literal or figurative. We have reached this new plane of existence while staying firmly within the confines of the glass box, only this time it is the team at developer Arkane watching us from outside. But the wrench with which to shatter the boundaries does exist. It is not found within, as Arkane proposes, beating the game by walking the path laid out for us, reaching its ending as we’re expected to. The wrench exists, instead, in the transgressions of speedrunners, who stack chairs in the corners of ceilings to clip through walls, using exploits to skip locked doors and huge portions of scripted events. A 15-hour game is turned inside-out until all that’s left is a 20-minute journey through voidspaces.

By breaking the game in this way, what we do is remove yet another veil, exposing Prey for what it really is—a videogame. It seems to will us towards this violation from its beginning moments. Not just by having us punch a hole into what is essentially a skybox, but also in a statement made by Morgan’s brother, Alex, who upon meeting in the flesh for the first time, says, “Breaking convention is in our blood.” In the context of the game’s narrative, these words are supposed to push Morgan towards experimenting with alien neuromods, literally changing the programming of her brain through injections to the eye that provide her with new inhuman abilities. But it can be taken at a number of levels, and so can be interpreted as the team at Arkane telling us to see the larger world of fake walls and skyboxes they have made for us, and to push it all over.

Prey is, after all, a game about mistrust. It willingly asks us to question the ethics and motives of the corporation that runs its enormous space station. Divorced from Earth, they use the Talos I as a place to recruit “volunteers” for a deadly series of interspecies experiments. Then there are the Typhon, the alien species itself, some variations of which are capable of mimicking any object within the environment—a coffee mug, a chair, even a health kit. The Mimics use that ability to hide in plain sight and then jump out on us unexpectedly. It’s a brilliant concept for an enemy that is easily overcome too soon due to a “chipset” upgrade that lets you reveal them in hiding. But when the Mimic does arrest us in those opening hours, we are driven to delusional paranoia, encouraged to thwack every inanimate object in a newly-entered room at least once just to feel safe. Perhaps we should enact this behavior in real life, as we are, after all, surrounded now by “smart” objects—Google Home and Amazon Echo watching over us—which we trust to help run our lives more efficiently. But what is the true purpose of these devices? Our privacy is now and forever in increasing jeopardy.

The third source of mistrust in the game is ourselves—Morgan Yu, that is. When she encounters a recording of herself in the Looking Glass located in her office, Morgan sees a version of her past self that has been lost, her memory wiped so many times due to the effects of the neuromods that it’s like looking at a different person. A conflict arises: the Morgan from the past instructs us to blow up Talos I, taking ourselves and the invading Typhon aliens out completely, but our immediate instinct is to find a way to survive. It is here that we are prompted to, once again, ask ourselves whether we can trust what’s on the other side of the glass, that placeless place, the mirror image. We become like Truman Burbank, the star of The Truman Show, who picks up signals indicating he is in a world that revolves around deceiving him, a huge public performance with him unknowingly at the center. Like him, we look for ways to, shall we say, think outside of the glass box—when obvious routes through the ravaged space station are cut off, we find new ones by crawling through subspaces. When faced with a barrier made of glass, we learn to smash it, opening up an aperture to the industrial innards behind it, a wound punctured in the illusion.

The shortcoming of Prey is that it doesn’t commit wholly to its own thesis. If it wants us to question Morgan’s situation, environment, and even herself as seen in the mirror, then it follows that we should question our own presence in this equation, as a player who already knows that none of it is real, who knows they are viewing this entire world on a screen. What we would logically be led to do is to escape the boundaries of the game space entirely—to do as Truman does when sailing to the edge of the TV studio, exiting the enclosed world of artificial lights he had known until that point. Prey seems to flirt with this idea when giving Morgan a way to escape from Talos I early in a pod, but the game passes it off as an act of cowardice, and ultimately delivers a game over screen rather than an ending—or a new beginning. It feels like a non-commitment to its own idea.

If Arkane was bold enough and followed its own ideas to their natural end state, the team would have found a way to acknowledge the player who does manage to break their way out of the game. This is why, when first entering the outer space area in Prey, I flew towards the nothingness to see how far I could go—would I, perhaps, go forever “into the black,” or fall out of the game space entirely? No, I died from acute radiation exposure within seconds. This disappointment is why, from thereon, I didn’t hesitate to bypass the very fabric of the game. I had already hacked Morgan at one level with the neuromods, why stop there? And so I hacked console command functionality into the game, and then by using a “noclip” command, I had Morgan float through the walls. With this new unchained perspective, it’s possible to see that the game itself is its own greatest mimic—a patchwork of invisible walls and imitation textures, a virtual sculpture hanging in the dark. For the first time, I was drawn to look in from the outside, to become re-aware of my own body and come back into it, into my own reality, leaving Morgan behind still trapped inside the glass box. I saw it as it was, a world framed by my monitor, projected onto polarized glass.

This is a strange sensation that is often lost on us, being as we are, brought up to understand the falsities of screens and virtual spaces. But it’s possible to fool ourselves, if only for a fleeting moment, in order to experience what Michel Foucault did when studying his reflection in a mirror: “I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent.” Mirrors and videogames are both simulacra, the biggest difference being that in one of them we find ourselves in a different body, a new environment. Arkane doesn’t allow for such a Foucauldian moment to exist within the confines of Prey—that’s what it wants its twist ending to be, but it’s kidding itself. Arkane wants to keep us inside their glass box, and to remove only the inner layers, those that are safe to be without, never wanting for us to break out entirely. But the themes and messages that run throughout Prey deserve better. They lead up to this but are shut down before running to their natural conclusion. We can deliver on it, though, so long as we heed the words of the door that tells Alice she is too big to pass through:

“Why it’s simply impassible!” says the door to Alice.

“Why, don’t you mean impossible?” comes her reply.

“No, I do mean impassible. Nothing’s impossible!” says the door.

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Chris Priestman is a writer and editor interested in videogames, internet culture, and digital art. You can find his work at ChrisPriestman.com.