Prey just got a 60fps update on Xbox Series X/S, and it’s also on Game Pass. It’s one of the most underrated games in recent memory and I hope this essay explains why it’s worth your time.
Video games like Prey are hard to explain, and as media, we often get caught up in contextualising them as “like other games”. These “other games” are mostly from a specific era of PC gaming, and not everyone had access to a gaming-capable computer growing up. I certainly didn’t. Not only that, but some of our readers are simply from another generation. Hell, I work with a man who thinks Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is retro. I hate that guy!
“Oh, Prey is an immersive sim – an 0451 game,” we say, expecting the audience to immediately know what we’re talking about. I’ve been guilty of it myself, and I think there’s been a near-universal failure to explain what these games are and what makes them good.
When Prey was first announced, we did the usual gaming press thing of zooming in on the weirdest, most attention-grabbing moment from the trailer. Google the words “Prey turn into cup” and you will see endless headlines about how the game lets you transform into a mug. But that’s not what makes Prey special or good, it’s just one ability that I personally rarely even used in my first playthrough. To make a clickable headline, though, that’s how we all boiled it down: this is a game that lets you be a mug – grab destiny by the handle and embrace your true self.
The thing is, nobody gives a crap about being able to turn into a drinking receptacle, and there’s so much more to Prey than meets the eye – and I’m not just talking about the ability to imbue yourself with alien powers by literally jamming an injector needle through your eyeball either. Ouch!
Prey takes place in an alternate history where Russia and the US made an alliance after encountering shape-shifting aliens during the Cold War’s space race. The game is set entirely on a space station called Talos 1 – an interconnected map where your only fast travel system is the ability to open an airlock and spacewalk around this hulking obelisk (by the way, the lightning-quick load times on Xbox Series X/S have improved this by about 20 times). Prey’s developers call Talos 1 the “space dungeon” because you’re always locked in and you can only ever dive deeper, even though the concept of depth itself is turned on its head by the setting. It’s a single, coherent location, and you learn how it all fits together as you play. You’re alone and you push on, dealing with obstacles in creative ways as you go.
Talos 1 feels dead for the most part, but there’s more life in most of its corpses than there is in many games’ living characters. Every single body you find has a name and a background. While it’s not key to the main story, you can piece together an entire history of the world by paying attention to environmental cues.
Take the catcher mitts littered around the space station. Originally, these were just a prop designed by environment artist Eric Beyhl, but they ended up scattered all over Talos 1 during development. Prey’s spider-like Mimic enemies need plenty of physics objects to be able to morph into, so the space station of Prey has a bit of a litter problem (luckily, you can clean that litter up with a gadget called the recycler charge, which sucks objects in, condenses them down into crafting materials, and spits them out in an extremely satisfying way). While most studios would be fine with there being no narrative justification for a space station full of baseball gloves, that’s just not how Arkane rolls. One of the TranStar employees on Talos 1 was created to explain this – a former baseball player who’s now a washed up salesman. When he joined the company, he brought cases full of signed catching mitts with him and gave them out to his colleagues. If you dig deep enough, you might find some notes where he explains how sad he is that nobody is excited about his gifts.
There are computer terminals that you can interact with to bring up the employee register of Talos 1, and you can even mark their corpse on your HUD. While you need to do this a couple of times for story reasons, you’re also free to just do it for fun – to connect all the dots, to piece together the stories and relationships of the unfortunate crew. It’s like raiding an art-deco tomb – the place has a real history.
Every single part of Prey is built like this; it begs you to investigate the systems as much as the story, world, and characters. There’s a song in Prey called Mind Games that features a simple, repeating chorus: “And now it’s time to beat the mind game.” This works on multiple levels because it’s a story that messes with your perception of reality, and it’s also literally a game that asks you to engage your mind. It’s anything but a repeating chorus.
It’s a game that constantly says yes. Those computers – can you fire the foam dart gun at the touchscreens to trigger them from a distance? Yes. Can you use the recycler charge to recycle enemies? Yep. Can you use the foam-spewing GLOO cannon to create makeshift steps and reach somewhere up high? Of course! And yes, you can, in fact, turn into a mug. Listen, it sounds stupid, but it’s a good way to hide from aliens and post yourself through tiny holes to reach locked rooms. Mug life.
There’s a secret ending in Prey that you can unlock about halfway through the game. The idea is to reach a thing that I won’t spoil, but reaching the thing requires you to extend a bridge. Only, I didn’t do that. Instead, I upgraded my alien powers in a specific way and simply leaped and glided across. Like an absolute legend. Prey is full of stuff like this – your playthrough will be unique to you, and you will constantly feel like you’ve outsmarted the game, even though it’s by design. That’s what makes it special. Once you’re past the linear opening, it turns into a complex mechanism, like a digital Antikythera mechanism – a meticulously-detailed clockwork piece, where you can pull out the tiny gears and slot them back in wherever you like and, somehow, it still keeps working.
Even that linear opening is incredible, though. It’s one of the best openings in any video game ever made – a Truman Show-style work of genius that completely sells you on its story from the start. The fact this game didn’t sell 20 million copies is a travesty, and it sends signals to publishers that people don’t want games that ask you to use your brain. I hope its inclusion on Game Pass smashes through the one-way mirror of that perception and proves that there’s an audience peering in from the other side.
Next: Deathloop Will Remain A PS5 Exclusive Despite Microsoft’s Acquisition Of Bethesda
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Kirk is the Editor-in-Chief at TheGamer. He likes Arkane games a little too much.
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