The Virtual Life – Learning What It Means To Be Human In Prey
This week I'm talking all about Prey. No major spoilers but some minor ones about side quests.
Talos-1, the space station Arkane's Prey takes place on, is a strikingly familiar place. If you've found yourself walking through Rapture or System Shock 2's Von Braun, a lot of Arkane's new RPG/action hybrid might feel like an old hat. All three games, after all, cover the same beats. You're being led through a fantastical environment filled with various dangers, both monstrous and environmental, collecting audio tapes along the way that help paint a clearer picture of what their respective settings were like before everything went to hell.
Perhaps what's most disappointing about Prey is that it doesn't cover a lot of new ground as far as immersive sims go, often feeling like a solid remix Deus Ex, System Shock 2, and BioShock than something that has any ideas of it own. However, there is one thing that Prey gets right that all three of those other series struggled with: characters. The inhabitants of Talos-1 are among the most fascinating people I've ever encountered in games. Yes, you interact with these people in totally predictable ways, picking up recordings that they just happen to leave around for whatever reason or snooping through their emails. However, where a lot of BioShock's audio recordings were focused on the nitty-gritty of the universe, like Bill McDonagh's tapes about the maintenance of Rapture's pipes, Prey's narrative tidbits are intensely focused on who these people were.
Take Danielle Sho, for example. Sho's a headstrong researcher whose attitude often gets the best of her. She's rude, fiercely intelligent, and also in love with fellow researcher Abigail Foy. One of the best threads I found in Prey was constantly coming across emails that revealed information about Sho's resentments toward the crew as well as cute tapes about her relationship with Foy. In time I felt like I actually got to know Sho better than the majority of video game protagonists. And that's because Prey treats its NPCs like people instead of just reducing them to the gruesome 'loot body' variation of treasure chests (though yes, that's still a main mechanic in the game).
Another thing that Prey does quite well is that it creates short stories about its people. Whereas everyone in BioShock had their own role in a dramatic play about the cross section of power, religion, choice, and freedom; Prey is quieter, taking an approach more in line with the subtle character-building of Alien. Andrew Ryan is not merely Andrew Ryan. He is a clearly telegraphed symbol. As is Fontaine. As is Tenebaum. However, Danielle Sho is just a person who's stressed out by her career ambitions and work relationships, and is someone who finds solace in the person she loves. Dayo Igwe, a neuroscientist, is an awkward man devoted to the pursuit of science who often seems lost in his own head. One of the saddest moments in the game (if you choose to explore and find out) is learning why Igwe is the way he is. Watching him have real, passionate arguments with engineer Milhalia Ilyushin about the terrible cost of scientific progress was one of the more rewarding threads I kept getting looped back into even though it's essentially just three conversations you can walk in on.
Prey might not get everything right. It's a rough, complicated game with a lot of systems that can be hard to get into. However, the level of attachment I felt to the people of Talos-1 was surprising, and I loved that a big-budget title actually took the time to give its characters room to breathe and exist as people, with their myriad flaws and virtues.