At the beginning of Prey, oblivious to analysts and benefactors observing through a one way mirror, we stand in a facsimile of an apartment, surrounded by objects that we may pick up, manipulate, and throw. Everything shines—the makers of Prey anticipate we behave like crows, attracted by glimmering—and for each artefact we handle, in the form of either a gained resource or a gleaned story beat, we are given tacit reward. Ten years since BioShock and almost 20 since System Shock 2, that the makers of Prey frame object collection as part of an in-game experiment betrays a low opinion of their audience.
Despite its philosophical posturing and occasionally convincing, violent spectacle, what the creators of this game expect us to find truly fascinating is the opportunity, once again, to touch things. Our character, Morgan, has an urgent meeting and is told she must leave her “apartment” immediately. Simultaneously, Prey enwreathes us with objects and makes no complaint about our standing around meddling with them. This doesn’t epitomise “play,” or any grand concept, merely a game-maker terrified of its audience’s petulance. Insomuch as it provides innumerable, frivolous toys, Prey seems to regard us as splenetic children, who must receive an expected amount of stuff lest we be dissatisfied. In turn, by duly waiting whilst we tinker, the game spoils us rotten. It gives us as much cosmetic material as we could ask for then tells us our plucking, tossing, ingesting, and disposing of it is more important—truer to the experience—than its own dramatic momentum. Prey appears a timid parent, we its bratty offspring.
Such a dynamic might be parodied by the Mimic, an enemy in Prey able to disguise itself as any object. Particularly in regards to emails, journals, and audio logs, item collection cynically implies we may understand characters, and by extension people, without meeting or talking to them. In its direst form, it says a person’s life can be adequately described by her material possessions. The Mimic, however, wrongfoots our assumption that items in games are straightforwardly provided for handling and playing; affirming that objects are not as they seem, it might also impress, by proxy, that found audio tapes and collected written notes do not exactly represent their authors. But one of Prey’s power-ups, quickly acquired, allows us to identify the Mimic while it’s in disguise, not only abolishing its satirical quality but allowing us in turn to feel more powerful. Originally, the Mimic suggests we cannot take for granted our first impressions. Later, when Prey permits us to automatically see through the Mimic’s veneer, it assures us we have the abilities of perception and knowledge. It agrees that what we derive from looking at or interacting with objects is correct. Thus, it lends credibility to its own weak writing. As players in Prey we’re defined, very literally, as insightful. Our facile appreciation of its characters— the only appreciation the game allows—is legitimised by association.
Because it ends with a plot twist, which via more ostentatious language summarises our character’s experience as “all a dream,” Prey arguably wants its fiction and the way it’s presented to be questioned. If by its use of items and diaries it advocates that people can be concretely understood, at its conclusion, Prey accedes that everything it’s told us shouldn’t be trusted.
But a game so formulaic, which outright copies previous commercial and critical successes, is hard to credit with a taste for ambiguity. A wrench as a weapon, a camera for researching enemies, a level in an arboretum; hacking mini-games, destroyed thought experiments, the “0451” door code; customisable abilities, characters giving direction via radio, references to famous books, multiple endings. Despite finishing on a narrative u-turn, the makers of Prey are such ruthless plagiarists—of Deus Ex, Dishonored, Dead Space, Borderlands, and the aforementioned BioShock and System Shock games—that one can’t help but suspect they have a dim view of their audience. They seem to assume we will be gratified by familiar, rote videogames—if its memos, diaries, and emails imply people can be easily quantified, Prey‘s derivativeness reflects a similar cynicism, a belief we will be fulfilled by something unchallenging and plain. The game’s ending only makes it seem more condescending: treating us like spoiled children, then amnesiac consumers, Prey expects to regain our goodwill with a predictable, intellectual exercise. But having played the games from which it so indiscreetly steals, most of which bear the same conceit, we anticipate both its plot twist and self-justifying casuistry. We are not surprised by Prey‘s big, narrative reveal. That it supposes we will be characterises its patronage of us and of people—a patronage mirrored in how it gifts us meaningless, shiny objects to play with, and regards such objects as adequate substitute for on-screen characters.
Ed Smith contributes to Vice, The Observer, Edge, Play Magazine, and Kill Screen. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.