'Prey' Blends A Sci-Fi Legacy With Personal Ethics To Tell Its Story

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In Prey, by Arkane Studios, you dig into the dark secrets of Talos I and your own past, you must survive using the tools found on the station, your wits, weapons, and mind-bending abilities. Arkane Studios

Early in Arkane Studios' new game, Prey, you're subjected to a battery of tests by Transtar scientists, whose work commodifying a mysterious alien lifeform leads to the space station disaster you'll soon be tasked with fixing. It's a common tutorial trick gamers will recognize: submitting the player's avatar to tests that "incidentally" reveal controls and game mechanics to the player. Several questions are of a type that anyone with a passing interest in ethics or moral philosophy would recognize. Here's the first:

A runaway train is bearing down on five people who are tied to the track. You can cause the train to switch tracks, but there is one person tied to the second track. Switch tracks. Do nothing.

Variations on this same conundrum—a "trolley problem"—follow, offering choices like whether or not to shove a fat man on the tracks to stop the train.

Originally formulated by British philosopher Philippa Foot, responses to trolley problems can draw out the moral psychology behind people's decisions. For example, the logical utilitarian might switch to the track with one person, whereas the deontological or religious person could see throwing the switch as an unconscionable act of murder, regardless of whether or not it saves lives. Related thought experiments have been launching points for MRI brain analysis, sociological polling and debates over regulating autonomous cars (already short-circuited by car manufacturers announcing they'd protect their customers and kill the pedestrians). But what are trolley problems doing in Prey, a game pitting player-character Morgan Yu (man or woman) against the aliens infesting the Talos I space station?

Prey Creative Director Raphael Colantonio told Newsweek the problems pertain to a "third or fourth layer of the story" dealing with "identity, empathy and who you are." Colantonio articulated a common question science fiction tackles: "What does it mean to be human?"

Part of this exploration is done in contrast to the aliens of Prey, as players uncover their essential inhumanity. Known as Typhons, the Prey aliens first made contact with Soviet cosmonauts in the 1950s. After the failure of Lee Harvey Oswald's assassination attempt on John F. Kennedy, the alternate-history near-future of Prey takes on a radically different shape from our own. The United States and Soviet Union collaborate on a containment program, uniting humanity against an essentially incomprehensible alien threat.

Lead Designer Ricardo Bare compared the Typhons to the sentient planet and titular alien of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, later adapted to film by both Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker, Andrei Rublev) and America's Steven Soderbergh (Che, Magic Mike). "It really, really is alien. They just can't understand it. It's completely other. And it does weird stuff that messes with the people aboard the station," he said.

But Prey isn't ultimately about inscrutability. Its aliens have both an ecology and an agenda for Morgan Yu to uncover. A demo set in the Psychotronics section of the station pitted players against the warrior Phantoms and spider-like, shapeshifting Mimics—the kind of encounters players might expect from a shooter—but also offered a dense environment for other forms of gameplay and storytelling. Some rooms are full of floating, golden filaments, as if the Northern Lights got plated and locked inside. Computer terminals are loaded with emails and observations made by scientists (who still aren't sure why the Typhons leave behind golden webs).

It's not just the aliens that encourage players to investigate their humanity. In the Psychotronics labs players pick up the "psychoscope," which combines two Greek-derived words: "psyche" is the life, spirit or soul, while "scope" is seeing, viewing and the instrument of perception. In its appearance, the Prey psychoscope echoes occult depictions of a third eye.

Of course, that's just design. In practice, the psychoscope allows players to scan rooms for Mimics disguised as everyday objects and analyze Typhons for possible "neuromod" upgrades to Morgan Yu's mental and physical capacities. More than the psychoscope, the neuromod mechanic is where Prey integrates its gameplay, narrative and thematic components into a well-considered whole. Transtar, the company researching the Typhons aboard Talos I, made billions upgrading humanity, bringing to market transhumanist concepts that are in their real world infancy here, in 2017.

Teams of researchers are diagramming every neural connection in hundreds of human brains, compiling maps known as connectomes as part of the Human Connectome Project. Bare and other designers and writers on Prey combined the concept of connectomes with the emerging technology of optogenetics. In optogenetics, neurons in the brain (a mouse brain, for now) are genetically engineered to respond to light. Brain states can now be modified neuron-by-neuron, using laser lights to activate and deactivate specific cells, rewiring neural pathways. It's certainly a better explanation for new powers and RPG character customization than the hand-wavey magic potion "plasmids" and "vigors" found in the Bioshock series, among many, many others.

In Prey, this technology allows players to rewrite and upgrade themselves, jabbing very unpleasant-looking needles straight into Yu's eye. But beyond its technological soundness and gameplay utility, neuromods complicate one of the central mysteries of Prey. "Part of your emphasis is trying to figure out 'who is Morgan Yu?'" Bare said. The answer to this question can evolve and change depending on the choices you make while playing Prey. If you start using some of Transtar's new, experimental neuromods based on Typhon physiology, reprogramming Yu's human brain into non-human forms, then at what point is human identity compromised? (This isn't just a philosophical musing either, use too many neuromods and robots will stop treating you like a human.)

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In Prey, by Arkane Studios, the space station has been overrun by hostile aliens and you are now being hunted. Arkane Studios

After explaining the voluminous research that went into Prey (and repeating the words "optogenetics" and "connectomes" a few times for my benefit), Bare swept it all aside. "The inspiration-y science-y bits makes the world feel believable and real, but nobody has to understand any of that," Bare said. "You can play it as a science- fiction action game. It's super fun; the aliens are super deadly."

Having only played a few hours of Prey, it's hard to say whether its narrative will offer satisfying answers to the game's core questions. Between neuromods, aliens and an alternate-history space race, Prey feels a little like a science fiction kitchen sink. You even meet what Bare described as "an A.I. named January, who seems to be a facsimile of you, or like an imprint of you," introducing yet another complex futurist concept.

But whether or not Prey offers up narrative revelations to match the ambition of its premise and environment may be beside the point. Instead, by focusing on an expansive vision, simulated to the smallest detail, Prey grounds itself in strengths of the gaming medium unavailable to other contemporary science fiction stories.

In becoming the most dominant storytelling mode (including both 2016's bestselling game Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and biggest movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), science fiction has taken on enough permutations to insinuate itself into most of pop culture. Rather than a genre with succinct—if hotly contested—definitions and aims, science fiction has expanded into a nebulous cloud of aesthetic space matter, through which all of our favorite conflicts, parables, adventures and cautionary tales are enacted. This tends to manifest in medium-specific forms.

Our movies reappropriate sci-fi novel dystopias as heroic playgrounds. Nearly half of every movie that grossed over $100 million at U.S. theaters in 2016 was science fiction, half of those superhero movies. While the wish fulfillment of superhero narratives is apparent, the same reduction is central to mainstream sci-fi cinema's conception of progress and change. Whether it's Jyn Erso's courage, Dr. Louise Banks' genius or the endless parade of precocious, post-apocalyptic teens, the future can always be encompassed and changed by a single person, typically someone narratively designed for us to identify with on a personal level.

Novels, with the leeway to describe a world and the interior subjectivity of persons within it, operate on a wider band than movies, which punch in on a single causal chain and the people enacting it. Still, both media are excellent at delivering clear messages and articulable ideas. Video games have radically different traits that complicate the straightforward delivery of intended concepts. So if novels nurture dark futures and movies the heroes that overcome them, what medium-specific narratives do video games like Prey create?

Setting aside the personal history and differences readers bring to the work, books have the advantage of building upon their own ideas successively. There's an in-built assumption that the reader has followed the complete chain of reasoning or narrative. Bare, who also writes fantasy novels, contrasted writing prose to video game design. "It's a static narrative," Bare said of his novels. "It happens the same way every time, no matter who is reading it."

Rather than a static chain of events, presented to the viewer or reader, video games offer an interactive playground, particularly in wide open games like Prey. Players of Arkane's Dishonored games will see in Prey the same exhaustive attention to detail in worldbuilding, this time aboard the Talos I. "Prey is not a mission-based game," Bare said. "The player can roam about station wherever they want at any time as long as they have the means to get there."

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In Prey, by Arkane Studios, you awaken aboard Talos I, a space station orbiting the moon in the year 2032. You are the key subject of an experiment meant to alter humanity forever – but things have gone terribly wrong. Arkane Studios

Built up over decades, reaching back to the Soviet era and into a corporate future, different zones of the station reflect different eras in their architecture. Lab areas might look like the inside of the Large Hadron Collider and executive quarters like a private resort. It's even possible to get outside (preferably with a spacesuit) and circumnavigate the full exterior of the station, which Bare described as "one big, open world."

Disparate elements, even whole systems, brought together into a working whole makes Prey more of a simulation than a narrative. "A space station fully realized and rendered right in front of me," Bare said, "you can just forget the real world for a second."

Far more than a technical achievement, simulation has the possibility of birthing cause and effect scenarios—the heart of narrative—that were never scripted or written at all. Bare offers the Mimics as an example. The shapeshifting Mimics can pop out of anything: a box, a coffee cup, a chair (later players can steal this power and become coffee cups themselves). There are narrative layers in Prey scripted around this knowledge, such as one room where someone has laboriously affixed yellow sticky notes reading "Not a Mimic" to every object (someone much better at interviews than me asked Colantonio if you could turn into a sticky note). There's an authorial voice in that moment, written by a human hand just as surely as the famous blood test was written into The Thing. But most of the Mimic behavior isn't like that at all.

"That's just a rule," Bare said, describing the Mimics' behavior. "It's not scripted. It never happens the same way twice." Like a simple mathematical function spiraling outward into a fractal, there comes unanticipated, emergent narrative and gameplay possibilities. A player could, as Bare suggests, remove every physical object from a room, depriving a pursuing Mimic of camouflage.

In moments like this, players may not be engaging with a grand narrative, instead creating narrative-like fragments of their own. "When they start interacting with the rule and the creature and then something they do does something new, that feeling is magical," Bare said.

This level of agency simply isn't within reach in book or movie storytelling. But it comes with some pitfalls. For one, character is crowded out by the chief agent: the player. This is why so many games, Prey included, start with an amnesiac protagonist. Particularly in a first-person game, the players will always be themselves. You are inescapably yourself. No suspension of disbelief is necessary to play a video game, because the act of playing isn't definitively a narrative experience. Roleplaying is always an option, but never a necessity. Players can always choose to shutter their experiences. Even with something as richly detailed and stuffed with story as Prey, it's easy to imagine players adopting a sort of tunnel vision, putting on blinders to everything except those game mechanics that provide a way forward.

In this light, Prey's kitchen-sink narrative approach makes more sense. Colantonio, Bare and the other designers and writers populate Prey with eye-catching sci-fi doodads for the player to interact with on the level of meaning they prefer. Bare describes the game's GLOO Cannon, which sprays a hardening foam, in exactly this framework. "We try to come up with things that have multiple purposes," Bare said. "If it can do just three other things unrelated to directly attacking someone it becomes a more interesting idea-space for the player." Not only can the GLOO Cannon freeze enemies, it can create platforms, suppress electricity and smother fires.

Bare, Colantonio and the Arkane team imbue much of Prey with that same multiplicity of intent. "We love to really link everything together so you can learn about the world through playing and through actions," Colantonio said. "As opposed to showing you a cinematic." Rather than trying to implant movie's narrative strengths into Prey, the focus on simulation, cohesion and variability offers players something entirely different.

Shortly after trolley questions primed me to consider Prey gameplay decisions in an ethical light, I found myself locked in a lab aboard the Talos 1, unable to leave until shutting down or completing the experiment someone left behind. A man was imprisoned in a giant glass box and a computer panel gave me the option of setting a Mimic upon him. I knew that, given the chance, the Mimic would kill the test subject and turn him in a spectral alien warrior—a Phantom. I could've set him loose, but worried there'd be unintended consequences. So I did the only prudent thing and bashed the man to death with a wrench, bludgeoning through the moral quandary Prey placed in my way.

Even with ethical ramifications in mind, my gaming instincts almost immediately defaulted to barbarism. Even so, this didn't seem to be in opposition to the ethical and narrative landscape Prey works so hard to establish. "What is to be ethical in fact?" Prey asks, according to Colantonio. Were Prey a movie or a novel, it might even have an answer. But Prey doesn't pull sentence-length lessons from a possible future. Rather than message science fiction, it's exploration science fiction. And by placing moral decision-making within its purview, Prey leaves the answers to us.