It’s been a shockingly packed year for great new video games. Over the course of the last 12 months, it seemed like there was never really a pause, or a moment when there wasn’t something interesting to play. To celebrate, this week Verge staff will be publishing essays on their favorite releases of the year, the games that spoke to us personally. Expect to see a new one each morning, culminating in a list of our collective 15 favorite games of 2017 on Friday. You can keep up with it all right here.
It took me a long time to get to know Prey.
Sure, I liked the game from the start. It was a competent example of what’s often called the “immersive sim” genre: a first-person shooter set in an art deco space station called Talos-1, with weapons and powers that let players mix straightforward fighting with exotic subterfuge. But especially under the constraints of writing a review, I felt so constantly endangered that the experience could slip from survival horror to simple frustration. When the credits rolled, I stretched my cramped body and put the game aside. Then, curious what I might find on a second playthrough, I picked it up again. And with endless time for wandering, Prey truly opened up.
Prey is an action game about obsessively cataloging information. In an alternate-future 2035, protagonist Morgan Yu is part of a team researching aliens called the Typhon, which were secretly discovered during the US-Soviet space race. The game starts with Typhon escaping the Talos-1 lab, while Morgan spars with her (or his, since the player can choose Morgan’s gender) brother Alex over how to handle the outbreak. And the best way to survive is to learn everything you can about the station.
Near the beginning of Prey, you can find a terminal listing every single employee on Talos-1, complete with an option to activate their geolocation bracelet and track them down. One of the first quests sends you after a “psychoscope,” a techno-magic helmet that lets you scan the aliens, acquiring their powers in the process. A recycler can break nearly any object into raw materials; you could theoretically calculate the total mass of, say, every Talos-1 banana to two decimal places.
Some challenges initially seemed insurmountable without specific upgrades, but as I went through a second and third run, these assumptions were repeatedly proven wrong. Prey creator Arkane Studios is following a tradition pioneered by System Shock developer Looking Glass Studios, and the game especially evokes System Shock 2, which is set in a spaceship in the aftermath of a similar alien attack. You get the feeling that its creators really have thought of everything, quietly opening up different paths to the same destination. It’s not a new idea, but it’s one that’s deployed particularly well here, and that becomes increasingly clear the more you play.
While Prey is about a rapacious corporation that performs inhumane experiments on unwilling volunteers, Arkane also has a keen eye for innocent low-key absurdity. What other first-person shooter lets you evade obstacles by turning into an ambulatory coffee cup, using the game’s mimicry power? Side quests introduce you to mad scientists who meddle with nature, but also a lot of bored office workers who hold tabletop role-playing games in off-hours, use a high-tech gun that shoots glue-like balls to build a snowman named “Glooey McGlooface,” and write obsessive documentation for a top-secret Nerf crossbow design.
Each playthrough adds a bit to your existing knowledge of the station’s layout and possibilities, until you feel like a seasoned master of Talos-1, capable of taking on any threat the Typhon can muster. Once you experiment enough with different combinations of powers and weapons, you can start feeling very capable indeed. The first time I saw a two-story-tall creature dubbed simply “Nightmare,” I cowered. When I tried for a more assertive playthrough, I figured out exactly why it was appearing, when to run from it, and when to stand and fight. And the more you learn about little station mini-dramas, the better you understand yourself — or at least understand Morgan, whose family runs Talos-1.
But even as Prey rewards absorbing knowledge, you can’t trust anything the game tells you. This often happens on a small scale, since one type of enemy mimics objects in your surroundings, including weapons and health items. But it’s also a larger theme. Morgan spends the game being ordered around by multiple personality backups with memories that are more or less up to date, named after the months in which they were created. As the game progresses, she has to answer for actions taken in a past she can’t remember. The more you explore the station, the more its glitzy design feels like a facade. Eventually, Prey calls into question everything you’ve taken for granted about its world.
Prey’s spiritual predecessor System Shock 2 features one of the best-known twists in video game history: a scientist who’s been helping you survive turns out to be a malign artificial intelligence, using you for her own ends. This twist was reworked in BioShock to comment on the way that games pretend to offer self-determination, while guiding players down a predetermined path. Prey takes an even more direct tack. Without getting too specific, it opens up the possibility that you’re looking at a moralistically skewed version of Talos-1 and its inhabitants, and that everything video game-y about Prey is there by design.
Earlier this year, I actually spoke to one of Prey’s creative leads about this idea, and he seemed a little surprised at my interpretation. But that’s what’s fun about the game. It’s flexible enough to support a player like me, who wants to indulge in hyper-paranoid fan theories — or somebody who just wants to shoot monsters with a glue (sorry, “GLOO”) gun.