I’ve just finished last year’s Prey, which, well, yeah, is pretty fucking good. We’re going to talk about the final twist at the end, so if you haven’t played it and you don’t want it spoiled, head away now. We’re also going to be talking about the idea of playing in character – or roleplaying, if you like. One of the things about Prey is that you have a couple of different versions of your past self who’re telling you to do different things. Early on, you meet January, a robot backup of you who tells you to destroy the space station you’re on, and also December, another robot backup who tells you to just fucking run. A major question throughout the game is who to believe.
A while back I criticised QUBE for doing a similar sort of thing with its plot. QUBE has two conflicting voices who’re telling you two different things about the significance of your actions, which is a nice idea, but it all falls apart on your second playthrough, because you know which one is real. In that sense, QUBE is very much geared towards your first game. It loses a lot in replay. Prey isn’t quite the same, because there are actually two different narrative pathways (destroy Talos, the space station, or don’t), but there’s hints of that ‘what is really true’ issue.
In Prey, however, the issue has different implications because of a particular narrative device. The whole game revolves around neuromods, which implant different skills into your brain. The problem is that when a neuromod is removed, you lose all your memory from the period where it was installed. Main character Morgan Yu has a fuckload of neuromods put in and out, and so there’s a lot of short-term Morgans doing different things. There’s even a bit of personality drift, where Morgan makes different decisions and has different values with different mods. This is all a great metaphor for the gameplay process, by the way – players might act differently in different playthroughs, might align themselves with different values – so that eventually it’s less about the ‘true’ Morgan, and more about the version you want to align yourself with in the moment.
Anyway: this personality stuff all happens before the game, meaning that when you take charge of Morgan, there are different personalities backed up in robots like January and December. Importantly, you as player have to decide which personality you want to align yourself with. December’s really only around for thirty seconds – the central choice is between January and your brother, Alex Yu, who has videos of one Morgan-variant telling you to save the station and its research. But the point is the same: you can’t really ask which Morgan is the ‘true’ Morgan. It’s not a true/false question. These are just different variants of Morgan, different timelines or personality pathways. It’s not so much about which one is real as which one you want to be.
Of course, for the first-time player, this character decision isn’t necessarily clear. The true/false issue of QUBE remains: you can pick a person to believe, but how do you know that the game’s not going to punish you for it? You’re presented with two options: either blow up the station and kill all the Typhon (and everyone on board), or stun them all and preserve the research – but also possibly if the Typhon are dangerous and escape again it might be the end of human life. The second option in particular has its dangers, and you as a player can’t know whether that danger is just going to arbitrarily manifest. But you make your decisions, because you have to, and you come to the end of the game, and… it’s all a simulation. To some extent this can be expected: the game starts with you breaking out of a simulation, and realising that you’re undergoing tests on Talos, so there’s always a suspicion – for me at least – that the game’s going to do it again.
But this is where things get really interesting. It turns out that you, the player, are in fact a Typhon – the alien creatures that were running around fucking shit up on Talos. Turns out that in the modern day, Typhon and human have unified, and are working together in a future-Earth. You have been put into a simulation that depicts the first major encounter between Typhon and humans – between Typhon and Morgan, really – and you’re put in as Morgan so the humans can study how you behave. You’re judged on your capacity for empathy and human decency, and if you’re awful you’re basically put down. If you’re empathetic and nice to people throughout the game, you’re demonstrating that the Typhon might be able to work alongside humans as equals. There’s some explanation about how the Typhon don’t have mirror neurons, which supposedly means that they can’t empathise with other living creatures, and maybe your display of empathy shows that you’ve developed mirror neurons or something? Or they’ve installed them into you with neuromods? It’s a bit fuzzy how that all works out.
Anyway: the nice thing about this ending is that the whole ‘who’s the real Morgan’ thing becomes irrelevant. There’s no true Morgan that we’re aiming for. Players are punished or rewarded based on their actions, but Morgan is sort of irrelevant within that. It’s not whether you believed the right Morgan-variant, or whether you picked the correct final option, but how you behaved along the way. That’s an approach we’ve seen before from Arkane, in their Dishonored games. It suggests that the question of character, of ongoing interpersonal behaviour on a small scale, is more important than the bigger, supposedly more significant choices being made. It also makes the epistemic question – who’s telling the truth? – into a moral question – given that I can’t tell beforehand who is telling the truth, what is the best way to act? In one sense, players might feel cheated by the simulation-ending. It seems to rob the events of the game of consequence. From another angle, what you’re playing out is not a series of events but a series of character developments. It’s not about how you impact the world, but how your actions display your character.