One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.
It’s one of the staples of premises in sci-fi games: the abandoned space station where something has gone horribly wrong. Did I say abandoned? Well, not quite… You’re not the only one creeping through the station’s corridors; there are… things barely glimpsed from the corner of your eye, things that are not your friends. So, arm yourself with a trusty wrench, hoard every medkit you can find – and survive. Because there is no escape – other than the cold, empty vacuum of space.
Abandoned space stations – or their spiritual siblings, such as the isolated research base or the abandoned underwater city – were originally created as a means of making a virtue out of the limited resources of home computers: if every human being on the station is dead, you don’t need to create conversations, animations and AI routines for them. The dead don’t require much, especially in computing terms. Some of the medium’s milestones made great use of such limitations, not least the classic System Shock and its sequel (called, you’ve guessed it, System Shock 2). Being the only surviving human on a station infested by mutants, robots, aliens or other creepy-crawlies just waiting to tear off your face, you’re also the interloper: the creatures have taken possession of the place that should be a safe haven in an inhospitable world, and you’re intruding on their turf now. Yet slowly, corridor by corridor, deck by deck, you navigate these places, you get to know them, you establish sanctuaries where you’re safe from the things that crawl, skitter and lumber about. You make these spaces your own by exploring them, by understanding and thereby mastering them.
Prey (by Arkane Studios of Dishonored fame) very much follows in the footsteps of System Shock and its progeny, although with computers and consoles being much more powerful in 2017 they throw in some actual other survivors that you cross paths with. The game’s visuals also highlight how far the medium has come in the 23 years since 1994 in technical terms:
Still, in some ways Prey is still very much the same game as System Shock: you navigate a mostly abandoned spaceborne station trying to survive while finding out what has gone wrong and how it can be undone. However, the original System Shock was a pioneer in the medium and as a result suffered from some of the clunkiness that comes with being a trailblazer ahead of its time: Citadel Station was blocky and basic and the enemies made of huge, chunky pixels, so you often had to imagine what it was the developers were aiming for, and the controls were cumbersome at best. Prey obviously looks much better, but more importantly, it controls much more smoothly, so that the core element of the game, exploring the environment, becomes a joy.
And, at least for me, it’s navigating virtual spaces that makes them real, as much as cutting-edge graphics and 3D sound. Sneaking through corridors, peeking around corners, climbing cargo containers and ducking under tables: all of these ways of navigating the environment make Prey‘s glorious art-deco-meets-2001 Talos One tangible. Your presence in this virtual space isn’t just conceptual: you bump into chairs, toppling them over, you squeeze yourself into a service duct or jump off a ledge, hurting your leg as you clumsily land one floor down on a gleaming floor slick with somebody’s blood. Prey even has a surprising sense of humour about how it lets you explore its virtual spaces: the creatures you’re up against have shapeshifting abilities that you can upgrade yourself with – the result being that once you’re a few hours into the game, you learn how you can take on the shape of objects such as, say, a Talos One-branded mug. Talk about games as power fantasies – Prey is a literal mug’s game.
While exploring the station as a mug, roll of toilet paper or lowly banana never stops being hilarious, though, Prey‘s trick that I personally enjoy most is how it allows you to explore Talos One not just from the inside; scattered about the station there are airlocks that allow you to go for spacewalks, and once outside you can float up and down the entire, majestic length of Talos One in zero gravity. This not only brings home the sheer scale of the place you’ve been exploring, it also changes your perspective radically: throughout the game, you’ve been looking out the large windows at the space outside, looking at the space junk that has accumulated and that is now floating about serenely, but from the outside you can look in at the observation decks, the station’s swimming pool, the arboretum, locations that you’ve explored and survived. Inside you’re a normal-sized human being, outside you’re a tiny, insignificant speck compared to the 700m long structure in front of you. System Shock‘s Citadel Station was a series of interlinked corridors that could only link at a real place that exists in three dimensions; Prey makes you feel the reality of Talos One by allowing you to explore it both inside and out, and in these moments the sci-fi world it creates, however much of a trope the abandoned space station has become, feels utterly believable.
It still feels real as you return to the oxygenated warmth of the station, take off your space suit – and then that coffee mug shapeshifts into a black, shimmering, spider-like mimic and tries to take off your face. Next time, you might just roll past the coffee table as a banana, eh?