There are two ways to interpret Prey. The first, is in isolation. We can talk about the impressive design of the Talos I space-station, or the tiresome combat, or the amount of time spent looking at the ground to pick up some new piece of garbage. But it is the second way, in context with the games which explicitly inform not only Prey’s design but also its thematic failures, which is both more interesting and honest.
Prey, from Arkane Studios, has the quality of a passion project. It adheres extremely closely to the design of Bioshock and even more so, System Shock, to the point it could easily be mistaken from afar as the next game in either franchise. This is not inherently an issue, as both franchises have been asleep for several years and their design remains unique in an industry so quick to borrow ideas and features. But it becomes clear rather early on that Prey hasn’t been able to pick and choose its points of inspiration. While the games it lifts from are mechanically engaging, their thematic tensions have not held up as well, leaving Prey an inconsistent jumble of competing philosophies and narrative styles as it tries to recontextualize plot points which, in hindsight, were not as clever as we made them out to be.
Prey’s biggest weakness is its inability to commit to its main moral predicament: that scientific progress under capitalism, groundbreaking as it may be, exerts a human cost which cannot be dismissed. Prey is eager to show you the horrors of its experiments, littering audio diaries of the deceased and populating email accounts with viciously jealous coworkers and threats from the corporate overlords to sell you on just how little the powers-that-be care about those below them (loading screens go as far as referencing a board of shadow directors who have hidden themselves from the public for reasons its easy to discern). The scientists and the science of Prey is plainly evil, but, it’s also kind of cool.
Take a relatively harmless example: the GLOO cannon. It can plug holes in the ship’s hull, extinguish oil fires, and provide a sturdy platform for crossing gaps. The cannon is also able to freeze enemies and imprison people behind a wall of foam. It’s dual purpose like that.
This is Prey in its most idealistic, presenting an exciting invention and letting you decide if it will be used for good or evil. But Prey cannot and does not adhere to this standard for most of its other utilities, because far more than an ethical experiment (of which there are many left lying about the station, as if Prey was worried you’d think it hadn’t read Phillipa Foot or Richard Routley), Prey is a game about systems. Really interesting systems colliding with one another in unexpected ways. But those systems become muddled when cast beneath a narrative that wants you to Feel Things about your actions and the station’s history.
Arkane seems to have realized their strength is not in ethically compromising narrative design and shifted wholly towards system interactions with Prey’s major DLC “Mooncrash,” but that still leaves us with a massive game at war with its own aspirations. Here another example: Prey wants to recognize the dignity and ingenuity of humanity with its Neuromod system - genetic samples from gifted individuals which can then be grafted onto the brains of others, granting them those same gifts. Theoretically, this should mean that each Neuromod you inject gives you a specific skill unique to the individual it was created from. Outside of quest objectives, however, every Neuromod becomes an identical skill point which you can use to upgrade your spacesuit or learn Hacking Level 4. Prey is a video game, sure, but it wants to be more complex than that. It creates contextual justifications for all its mechanics, but assumes it is enough to show how something came to be without actually engaging with what it means that the thing exists.
This is epitomized by the game’s pseudo-surprise post-credits ending, wherein major forks in the games plot are repeated to you and then weighed on an arbitrary empathy scale. See! Prey was paying attention. It saw when you killed Named Character, and kind of cared that you killed six unnamed characters. You’re a good person, and you still get to make things explode with your mind.
Prey is not dreadful, but it is confused. Confused to the point where it is difficult to ever completely engage or reject the game, leaving the player in a kind of ludic purgatory. Like Bioshock, Prey desperately wants to be about Themes and Philosophy and the cost of power, but in the same way a freshman humanities major considers nihilism the only rational theory and holds The Matrix as a foundational text. Prey is bloated and impressive and frustrating and breathtaking all at once, which would seem impossible if it wasn’t the sum of parts lifted from a dozen more cohesive games held together by an untenable amount of gloo.