[Game Awards 2016] So What Is Prey?

Like usual I pretty much skipped this year’s Game Awards and just caught the trailers as they appeared. I thought they looked pretty great. I’m hyped for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’m not sure yet what to think of Mass Effect: Andromeda, I’d really like to get a better sense of that game’s scale. I’m not going to say anything about Death Stranding until I see an actual game being played. The one game I actually have something to say on though is Prey.

Based on Game Informer’s nine-minute demo, Prey looks like it could be a terrific game of a type we haven’t seen in a long time, but it might be tough for some people to figure out why.

I’ve already heard Prey being called “Bioshock in space” which is going to infuriate people who know that Bioshock is really just System Shock under the sea. Prey really just looks like the closest thing to System Shock anyone has tried to make since System Shock 2, and that includes Bioshock. But people are going to describe things through the lens with which they are familiar. The distinction is an important one though when discussing why anyone should play the upcoming Prey.

In 2013 I did a post on why fans of games like Bioshock or Skyrim should try SS2. The first Bioshock is almost the same game as SS2 when you look at its overall structure and main game systems. In both you explore maze-like but lived-in areas completing objectives and fighting enemies with a variety of tools like elemental powers, various guns, regeneration chambers, and hacking equipment while upgrading your character. The difference is SS2 feels a lot more like an RPG because its upgrade system is deeper, and SS2 generally gives you a lot more options for how to handle situations. Rapture in Bioshock feels like a series of video game levels whereas the Von Braun in SS2 feels more like sandbox world.

Games like the System Shock series, the original Deus Ex, or the Ultima Underworld games had a certain philosophy to their gameplay their modern descendants mostly lack. They let you do things — mess with your environment, to a degree the modern Deus Ex games or Bioshock don’t. I’m still in the middle of Deus Ex:  Mankind Divided as of this writing, and I see it more as a really good action RPG where you can toss random objects and break most doors, and not really an immersive sim which is what Prey looks like. Dishonored at least is more willing to let players use its super powers to mess with the game in potentially unexpected ways. From the perspective of someone who has only played the modern games, Prey looks like it wants to be the sandbox foundation of Skyrim combined with the smaller and more focused world of a Bioshock.

Several details in the Game Informer video point to this. The big thing developer Arkane Studios has pointed out is how you can camouflage yourself as just about any mundane object. Being a coffee cup in itself doesn’t mean much, but it’s a clue that players can take advantage of just about anything in the environment (again, like in Bethesda’s RPGs). Every object in Prey apparently can also be broken down into base elements and potentially re-crafted. Combined with being able to lift mundane objects this speaks to the range of gameplay possibilities Arkane is trying to give players, as well as to the tangibility of the world in Prey.

In the video Arkane mentioned off-hand that it modeled the whole exterior of the game’s setting — the Talos 1 station. I don’t know if you’ll be able to visit and re-visit every piece of it, but right now I’m willing to bet on it. This would give Prey a feeling closer to SS2’s Von Braun in which you could freely explore the various decks that each seemed to serve a believable purpose, rather than Rapture or Dead Space’s USG Ishimura, the latter of which was inspired by the Von Braun but locked players into each successive deck. If Prey gives players a whole station to freely explore, it would feel much more like a place and less like a set of levels.

At this point the main concern I have with Prey is that it might not catch on because the game doesn’t seem to have an immediately identifiable selling point to the general public. At an quick glance nothing about it really jumps out. Furthermore, it’s another purely singleplayer offline game in an age where those seem to be less successful. “Bioshock in space” might be what gets some people to try it, but the reason I and many others are interested in Prey is more because of Arkane’s pedigree and is allusions to System Shock. It’s like one of those indie games where the main selling point is it’s inspired by this one classic game, except Arkane isn’t directly saying that and it’s supposed to be successful in the mainstream market.

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4 thoughts on “[Game Awards 2016] So What Is Prey?

  1. Machocruz says:

    “players can take advantage of just about anything in the environment (again, like in Bethesda’s RPGs)”

    Not sure what you mean.
    I’m trying to think of any examples in the ES games where this is the case. You can pick up and interact with various objects, but I’m hard pressed to think of how they can be put to good use. There’s the infamous pot-on-head trick, but I can’t think of much else. Can’t use anything as a weapon that isn’t already a weapon, or use them to circumnavigate the environment, or set up any kind of system/device (like a trap or primitive alarm system). The worlds of the ES games are more static and nailed down than people make them out to be.

    Anyway, I’m skeptical of the “immersive sim” qualities of this game. I see enemy health bars on screen and directional threat icons on screen. You will probably be able to turn them off, but why are they there by default in the first place if immersion is supposed to be a key design goal? This shows me lack of conviction. I have yet to see evidence that this helps sales in any way, or that more casual/unseasoned players have trouble without these things. I once joked that if a modern AAA game comes out where people have to turn on the “hand holding” systems instead of the other way around, I would buy 3 copies at launch.

    • RedSwirl says:

      Being able to pick up and throw a coffee cup or a cheese cake or whatever might not practically improve the gameplay that much, but for a lot of people it helps sell the idea that the virtual world works, that the items you see laying everywhere have presence and aren’t just set dressing. Immersive sims are filled with objects, geography, and other elements that don’t actually have much to do with the normal gameplay but help sell the idea of a functional world. That’s what the “immersive” part of “immersive sim” refers to. I just used Skyrim as an example because it probably does this the most out of any AAA game your common modern console gamer is aware of. The “real” immersive sims like System Shock or the original Deus Ex or old Thief are almost nonexistent on consoles.

      As for the HUD stuff on the screen in Prey, I don’t think any AAA game will dare turn that stuff off by default. The best we’re gonna get is games like Mankind Divided that are designed so if you do turn that stuff off the world itself still provides all the necessary information. Bioshock 1 actually does this but you can’t really turn off enough of the HUD stuff. In these cases (and I hope Prey is one such case) the publisher will probably assume the player willing to poke around without assistance options will be more willing to go into the options menu to turn them off. Having the HUD stuff on by default accommodates the player who just wants to press start and get through everything a quickly as possible.

      And I think some numbers somewhere have convinced publishers and developers that casual players are having problems without waypoints and stuff. Early last gen we saw developers complaining that only five percent of players finished their games or something. You’ve got this article from Gamasutra that I keep referencing (http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/FelipePepe/20160412/270100/The_history_of_the_Quest_Compass__its_dreadful_convenience.php) showing how many people couldn’t complete an early quest in Morrowind because the instructions were too complicated. For whatever reason, a lot of people today want to keep waypoints in. And I don’t even mind health bars and directional threat icons. System Shock had health bars. All the immersive sims had health bars.

  2. Machocruz says:

    In the Prey footage, enemy health bars appear at the top of the screen when you engage them in combat. None of the Looking Glass games had that. Bioshock didn’t even have that. And what happened to using sound to suss the position of enemies in games? It seems (some) modern games have solutions to problems that didn’t exist. There is also a lot of unstudied monkey-see-monkey-do going on in game development with these tools. It’s all looking the same. Hitman has a threat ring, AC: Syndicate has a ring (And a minimap, wall hack, on screen icons. Overkill?). Because MGS4 had a ring or something

    And I’m highly skeptical of the correlation between players not finishing games and the lack of “hand holding” systems in games. The Morrowind example is not a good one: the instructions for locating the NPC were inaccurate. The answer isn’t immersion breaking on screen arrows, but better instructions. I suspect it’s easier and less ego-killing to blame lack of direction than it is to admit that maybe their games aren’t engaging for more than a few hours, or that they are too focused on other areas to implement more sophisticated, immersive solutions. A threat ring is easier to implement than varying levels of sound propagation ala Thief.

    • Machocruz says:

      That being said, I’m interested in this game. The setting more than Dishonored or Arx Fatalis. I get a strong Metroid Prime vibe. Arkane are the closest heirs to the level design of the classic immersive sims we have.

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