Every now and then I look back through the games I’ve played and think ‘Huh, how did I never write a thing about that?’ Sometimes I really enjoy a game but just have nothing to say about it here, and sometimes – well, realistically sometimes I just forget. Prey falls into the first category – good fun game, didn’t have anything to say. I really wanted to say something about it, because it felt interesting, but – just nothing came to me. Anyway now I’ve got something so here we are.
So I’m going to talk about the opening of Prey and how it sets up the ending. I feel kinda obliged to advise that spoilers cometh, although usually I don’t bother – as far as I’m concerned, you shouldn’t go looking for analytical essays on things if you don’t want them spoiled. Buyer beware, as it were – not that I get paid for this. Anyway – so at the opening of Prey, you’re in your apartment and you fly to a lab and then you do some tests and then you go to sleep. The next day, you wake up and do it all again. One day, there’s an accident – some shape-shifting monster has escaped and starts running rampant. Wait a second… oh hey I did write on this already. That post is over here – I must’ve fucked up the initial search somehow. Never mind – it doesn’t change much for our purposes.
So there’s an escape, and you wake up, and you’re locked into your apartment. And you can pick stuff up and hiff it around, and eventually you decide to chuck a chair or something through the window to get outside and HOLY SHIT IT’S ALL A SIMULATION NONE OF THIS IS REAL WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON. You find out you were in a lab and you were being studied, and you get to go back and see how everything was a lie – the helicopter ride has this really funny simulation room where the chopper rocks back and forth like it’s on a fucking merry-go-round or something – so you kinda get behind the curtain, you discover the real reality, and then you spend your time running around solving mysteries and figuring out what to do with the Talos space station.
When I first played through Prey, I was a little bit suspicious of that opening. I’d actually watched through part of a gameplay video, stupidly, and had that whole simulation thing spoiled for me, so I knew about that. But I was also suspicious because it gave way too much attention to the simulation as a set piece. Obviously it’s all part of the fictional world, and so it makes sense to give it some degree of attention, but the way that the game just kinda gives so much emphasis to this one initial sequence – it was just too much. Something was up. Either that plot point was coming back, or it was overblown.
And to be clear, the plot point does technically feature throughout the bulk of the game. You were one of the key scientists on Talos, and you were running trials with this new technology, but you had to get your mind wiped each time before the new trials were installed because the plot said so. And this is the point that I really want to emphasise – there’s not really a super valid reason why your mind had to get wiped. They give it some explanation – it’s based on how the technology works or whatever – but the thing is, the writers could’ve avoided that plot point and just had you as a fully self-aware person who totally understands the situation they’re in. They could have written the technology to work differently, right, because it’s science fiction and that technology doesn’t actually exist. It’s not like a boat or something, where it actually exists in the real world and we kinda already have expectations about how it should or shouldn’t behave.
That said, the plot also kinda revolves around you not knowing historically what sort of person you are – this is the content I covered in my previous article, which I linked to above. So from that perspective it’s reasonable to include the mind-wipe for thematic reasons. I’m not saying that including it is unreasonable though – I’m more just saying that on my first playthrough, I figured that given how prominent it is in the main story, it probably has some deeper thematic implications for the game.
And of course it does have wider implications for the game, because – you know, that’s why I’m writing this article. At the end of the game you save the world (or you don’t) and you’re pulled out of the second simulation and your choices and decisions are analysed by the real (‘real’) Alex Yu. The whole game is a simulation – that’s Prey‘s twist. And it makes sense, right – it’s really tidy from a structural perspective. You start the game by realising that you’re living a simulation, and you end it like that too. It’s a really nice echo.
Of course, the echo is supposed to exist so that you can make a comparison or association between two things, and I’m not totally sure that Prey makes it that far. So – let’s make a real quick hypothetical story. There’s a guy, and his parents are killed in a car accident, and he’s a bit nervous around cars after that. One night he gets really drunk, decides to challenge his fear head on, jumps in the car, and crashes and dies himself. There’s a clear parallel between two events here – the two crashes. The first shapes and colours the way that the guy acts around cars – it creates the context. The second is a response to that colouring – it’s an attempt to regain control over a situation that caused trauma. But he’s not able to cope appropriately with the trauma, because he has to be drunk before he tries to deal with it, and that’s what kills him. And the echo has a purpose here, right: the story tells us that if you don’t deal with trauma appropriately, it will destroy you. In a sense, the same accident that killed his parents also killed him, because he wasn’t able to deal with the trauma in a healthy way. We can collapse the two accidents into each other, in that sense, treat them as symbolically the same crash.
But how would we apply this structure to Prey? What can we say about the parallels between the two moments? There are clear parallels, at least in plot terms – Alex is monitoring your tests while you’re in the first simulation, and when you hit the second, you find that Alex is monitoring it again. But so what? There’s not really any great statement about life or truth or – even about the characters, really. We shift into another simulation, but there’s no stakes. The second event doesn’t comment on the first or change our understanding of it in any meaningful way. It’s good that Prey has figured out how to make clever structural parallels, but I don’t quite think it’s figured out what they’re supposed to be used for.