“Prey and the Failure of ‘Play Your Way’ Games,” by Jess Joho

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From the very start of its rote, winky face opening, Prey did nothing to ingratiate me to its bland amalgam of design principles. Half a dozen other games have already done them better—and did them back when they were still original and relevant. But the minute Prey really lost me came early on, when it first introduced the main selling point that has many critics fawning. About 30 minutes in, you’re rummaging and throwing shit around the office of Dr. Bellamy (one of the game’s many forgettable characters). When it’s time to continue onto the next room, a “tutorial message” pops up: You can get past the locked door by a) searching for the keycard or b) finding an alternate path. The depth of instruction and detail included in this tutorial does nothing to incite the audience of an ostensibly open-world, “play your way” videogame to use their imagination or find an alternate path. And once the message goes away, there’s the keycard on Bellamy’s desk, right in front of your goddamn face.

Prey isn’t always so contrived or uninteresting. After the initial slog of the early game, one might come around to its Dark Souls-esque commitment to challenge and non-linear player paths, presented often without explicit instruction. But such a comparison only sounds reasonable on paper—in practice, Prey fails in each way Dark Souls triumphs. Granted, the moment previously described belongs to a didactic opening sequence. But it’s nevertheless indicative of the flaws fundamental to a “play your way” videogame, insofar as they often force us to play in ways not our own, but which the game decided should be our way of playing. Whether through poor communication, a lack of narrative incentives, or generally lackluster execution, Prey’s devils are in its details.

This isn’t exclusively Prey’s fault. Most, if not every “play your way” game fails to deliver on its basic promise. Whether in Prey or Dishonored (though one is unequivocally more compelling than the other), designers still implement arbitrary limitations on player freedom through both mechanical and narrative interference. In Dishonored, and to an extent Prey (though, like everything else, in a much less clear way), the player’s supposed freedom to choose between either “low” or “high” chaos play styles comes with consequences. Consequences which make it hard to believe the creators didn’t have in mind a specific way their game should be played, and that that way was stealth. Everything about Dishonored encourages a sneaky approach, from its characters, who openly admonish us for playing aggressively, to its city, which becomes increasingly difficult to explore should we choose to act destructively. Dishonored is designed, like any overtly linear and narrative game, to back us into a certain style of play. The only difference is that “play your way” designers pretend they’re doing something different.

Prey suffers from this same problem, but also lacks the clarity of Dishonored’s story and moral quandary. (Which, don’t get me wrong, was still far from perfect itself.) But at least Dishonored makes a commendable attempt to tie the concept of player choice to the game’s world, their actions either making the plague better or worse for the city. Prey even fails at this, though, letting the player make decisions about play style and character abilities without revealing any of their implications until the end. So, for example, you can gain too many Typhon abilities (including the game’s most redeeming ability, which allows you to become empty bottles of wine at will) and it’ll come back to bite you. Apparently, that’s a moral choice. But it isn’t a moral choice, is it? Because the game frames abilities as a strategic decision. The only way for a player to understand this act as a “moral choice” is by spoiling themselves before reaching the end.

To make matters worse, Prey fundamentally lacks the narrative intrigue, overarching vision, or level design coherence of a game like Dishonored—all the things which compelled me to keep with the latter game despite the false conceit of “playing your way.” Some reviewers have taken the Prey designers’ laissez-faire approach of not giving players any semblance of useful information (beyond, of course, the helpful tutorial interruption that “alternative paths” exist) as empowering player freedom. But with literally nothing to compel you forward—those same glowing reviews repeatedly describing the game’s combat, guns, controls, and quests as “chores”—Prey just doesn’t inspire any sense of imagination or desire to figure out how to “play your way” through its myriad of unoriginal, interchangeable, repetitive environments.

For a game seemingly determined to not tell you anything about its world (unless you’re a big fan of reading reams of work emails on a clunky computer interface) so you may figure it out on your own, Prey does a bad job of committing to this design choice. It telegraphs its exposition and intentions in the most ineffective ways imaginable. It still includes tutorials, however useless. It still relies on the convention of waypoints, though it’s even bad at making waypoints helpful, because good luck keeping track of which [insert bullshit videogame spaceship alien invasion side quest here] said waypoint corresponds to.

As some might argue, Prey tells you nothing on purpose. but unlike an open-world masterpiece like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it walks back on everything that is meaningful about not telling a player what to do. Aside from lacking the intuitive systems and clear intention of a well-designed, non-linear, open-world experience like Breath of the Wild, Prey also fails at yet another aspect of its “play your way” conceit. Say you like using guns—well, Prey will chastise you for doing that too much. One might claim this is an attempt to not allow the player to settle into one form of playing. But there remains the logical fallacy of cornering players to not play the way they want in a “play your way” game. And, for what it’s worth, Breath of the Wild also includes a mechanic to encourage players to keep trying new weapons and armor. The difference: Breath of the Wild is an environment perfectly designed to inspire a desire to discover, making it a delight to find alternative weapons and paths forward. Prey, on the other hand, fills its world with an ill-defined anxiety that, when finally met through enemies like the Mimics or Phantoms, inspires more annoyances than terror.

Fundamentally, Prey (and to a much lesser extent, Dishonored) might feign at respecting player agency above all else. It might even prove fun at times when the facade holds. But every minor high point is over too quickly, and I am reminded yet again of how every other aspect of the game’s systems, virtual environments, story, and underlying design principles discourage those high points from recurring. Doing a shitty job of telling players the various ways in which they can “play their own way” does not a Dark Souls make. Again and again, Prey falls into the traps of genre conventions with poorly executed inaccessibility and constraints that it conflates with player freedom and moral choice. There’s a way to challenge your player, tell them nothing about how to conquer said challenge, and then leave them alone to forge their own path in an open-world game. Unfortunately for Prey, the many titles it borrows from—Breath of the Wild, Dark Souls, System Shock, and more—has already done that, and done it better.

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Jess is a freelance writer who covers internet culture, games, and intimacy in the digital age. Find her words on Vice, Polygon, Glixel, Paste, and Kill Screen or on Twitter.