“The Stifling Order of Prey’s Messy Space Station,” by Reid McCarter

Prey_20170509202907

Prey’s Talos I, often dimly lit and always littered with danger and debris, is the latest iteration of one of videogames’ favourite settings: the derelict space station. Floating about halfway between Earth and its moon, Talos I is an enormous monument to human science. It hangs in space like a declaration of intent—a massively intricate and distinctly high-tech version of the skyscrapers that loom over our biggest cities, it imposes a similar sense of corporate power onto the natural beauty of space. Talos I is the implicit value systems of the modern world writ large. It is a livable settlement in the harshest possible environment. It demonstrates the staggering possibilities of wealth in its opulent design. It shows that the twin ambitions of science and capitalist greed can achieve anything.

It’s also, remember, a complete mess inside.

As Morgan Yu, Prey’s main character, players are trapped in Talos I. An alien force called the Typhon has overrun the station, leading to the sort of rote sci-fi panic that causes electricity to spark from broken control panels, robotic assistants to turn their weapons on civilians, and bits of furniture to inconveniently block doorways. Morgan has to destroy Talos I to stop the aliens from spreading further. Doing so makes up the game’s sole mission. Of course, since Prey is a few dozen hours long, nothing is as simple as activating a self destruct program. Instead, obstacles pop up with sitcom-style regularity, Morgan stymied by power failures, locked cargo bay doors, and the need to run errands for Talos I’s crew.

Drawn out to the breaking point, Prey’s story is little more than a thin framework to justify mapping every centimeter of its laboratories and corporate workspaces. From overarching plot down to moment to moment tasks, it’s a game intent on constantly displaying the supposedly ruined husk of a once glorious technological accomplishment. Players are meant to think always of Talos I as a fallen giant. We’re supposed to see the station as having been reduced from the glorious efficiency of scientific order to a disorienting mess.

Dilapidated spaces are one of gaming’s favourite motifs, but, ironically, they’re also something the medium’s mainstream studios, always intent on gratifying players, are ill-suited to properly tackle. A broken down space station infested by aliens is meant to be a chaotic place, difficult to move through and unpredictably deadly. But Talos I is only cosmetically messy. A blocked or locked passage can always be opened with the proper keycard, climbed over with help from the game’s foam-spraying GLOO gun, or sneaked past with the help of omnipresent maintenance shafts and the ability to turn into small objects that can fit through tiny gaps. Nothing is ever going to truly impede the progress of a determined player.

Big-budget games do everything possible to give players freedom to explore and interact, afraid to impose narrative-appropriate restrictions. Prey is the apex of such design. It offers multiple solutions through its apparent disorder. Instead of simply riding a properly functioning elevator up a floor, Morgan can invest upgrade points to hack a terminal that restores its stopped power, create a stairway out of GLOO platforms, or bypass the problem entirely by searching for another path forward. On the surface, this reinforces the creativity inherent to a destroyed environment. Disaster breeds invention, and an improperly functioning world inspires new ways of thinking about navigation. Underneath, though, it’s apparent that every solution has been accounted for, regardless of how clever the player may feel for coming up with a seemingly non-obvious one. Prey’s designers have not made impassable obstacles, of course. (Actually interfering with player agency is verboten in the majority of commercial games.) They’ve just engineered a handful of ways to approach new situations. A hallway might look impassable because its filled with scraps of metal too high to jump over, but it’s really just a slightly abstracted lock the player can crack with the set of keys—several different unlockable powers—Prey makes available. Its designers have accounted for every variable. Despite the game’s story and level layout feigning otherwise, everything is very clean and orderly on Talos I—not like a wrecked structure at all.

That impression may be fine for some genres, but it’s anathema to games that want to communicate the kind of disorder that Prey’s space station is supposed to represent. Talos I, in theory, is a dangerous place that can no longer provide a suitable home for space-faring humans. But, apart from taking too many hits from an alien or standing in place beneath the constant flames of a broken fuel pipe, there’s really no reason that Morgan couldn’t renovate the place with a few days’ hard work. Nothing is unfixable. Nothing is truly unpredictable either.

More than the disappointment of seeing just how structured a supposedly chaotic game environment is to move through, Prey’s design ends up subverting its own narrative. If the science fiction concept of scientific and capitalist hubris is meant to turn Talos I into a doomed symbol, undermining its destruction with turnkey solutions refutes, too, any criticism it may be attempting to level at the impulses that saw the station built. This is important subtext in a game intending to indict its greedy characters for reaching too far—for ignoring the consequences of blind scientific ambition. Arriving at its post-credits finale, which reveals that the entirety of Morgan’s decision-making was actually a kind of moral test for an alien/human hybrid, the player is meant to be shocked by the way her choices (largely, whether or not to take the time to save crewmates through side objectives) have impacted the future of Prey’s fictional world. Instead, the last minute twist reveals itself to be as logical an accounting of complicated emotionality as the entire, Lego-constructed “ruins” of Talos I itself. Nothing in the game is allowed to be so disordered that it can’t be neatly quantifed. Everything implicitly endorses the dispassionate calculations of the avaricious corporation that created the game’s life-threatening situation in the first place.

Prey takes no risks, preferring instead to hope that its players opt to consider only what it communicates on the surface and not what it says through its systems or the message underlying its clever-for-clever’s sake surprise ending. Opulent, of a style recalling the 20th century, Talos I floats between our planet and moon. A literal bridge to outer space, its familiar facade invites Earth’s people to walk into the unknown. The ruin of its interior is meant to show how much human potential blind ambition and corporate greed can destroy. But, without any real chance for the sort of frustration and despair that comes from a truly destroyed vision of the future, it supports the same ideology it wants to condemn. If Prey was a bit more daring—a bit more willing to follow through on its skin-deep fascination with chaos—its message might resound. Instead, it shirks the allegorical power of its genre to present a brand of safe, referential sci-fi that only gestures at making points it’s too timid to follow through on.

***

Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.