Prey (2017) – impressions
Well, I finished it yesterday evening after a looong time (impressively long game), here’s my quick thoughts before I forget:
+, +, – A new game in an old master style: All through the game i had this very mixed feeling, like the game takes so much from so many classics, going back against modern trends. At different times in the game I felt like it’s taking from different series such as Bioshock, System Shock, Half-Life, Dishonored, Elder Scrolls, Deus Ex… I am saying this descriptively not as a critique of its originality, as I believe human creativity is not revolutionary in general but building on past greats, and as such I admired the game for doing that. For example i loooved the way they made the audio logs available on player command, something where Bioshock was so revolutionary but then so many games came and went and stupidly never learned from that even many years later instead using weird unpleasant mechanics such as having to go into some convoluted menus to access them. The This ideology was done so consistently though that sometimes it made the game feel older even freshly released, and some of the mechanics were at times slightly clashing (for example one of “tunnel of fun” with one of “lots of backtracking exploration”). But overall i really loved that they did that and am very thankful they dared to do that, which brings me to:
+, +, + A gem, probably a tragic one: this is a game which I wouldn’t be surprised to find out it becomes a cult classic with a very long endurance in recommendations while at the same time fails commercially, the kind of game that destroys studios even while leaving consumers with a one of a kind experience that they keep wishing more were made of. This is because 1) the game is refreshingly not following cliches 2) doesn’t do a lot of player hand holding 3) goes off the beaten path and many more such reasons… which surprise and delight, but in doing so lack the predictability of a modern movie hitting lows and highs at expected moments. An example could be how the game starts somewhat underwhelmingly but then as it progresses I realized that’s a sign of moral fortitude, that it makes perfect sense within the story and the ideology of the project… yet surely a lot of people will never get past the beginning parts and rather remain with that impression
+, +, +, +, + Mind-blowing soundtrack & soundscape: I totally didn’t expect this one. So many games in the last years where i had to force myself and struggle to even notice or remember the soundtrack, all with passable and okay parts, always fitting, but never memorable or ear-mind opening. Not so with this one. This is particularly strong due to the game’s choice to be quite minimalist, with lots of moments of silent exploration. So sooo many times a new song would start up, and i just couldn’t say if it was aaaamazing choreography on the part of the devs in syncing an event with a song or just a great song fitting into the emergent gameplay my own exploration and struggles was creating. Rarely do I find a soundtrack so worthy of standalone listening. I particularly love this song: Human Elements as well as 2-3 other ones that I love.
+, +, +, -, + A PLACE just as much as an experience: This one took me by total surprise. In fact it even lead to some frustration as I refused to accept it and think accordingly. But in the end this is probably the strongest reason I’ll remember this game over the many years as unique fantastic memories: The space station, the discovery and exploration… it’s just fantastic. It’s crafted like a real place. This may sound like a plus, but can also be a minus: in that good games often guide you places with light, convenience, environmental design, story threads… and if, like I did you don’t come at it with the right attitude, this can lead to frustration. I think for 60% of the game (meaning many real life months) I just didn’t accept this, and i refused to look at the map, or reeeeally look at the environment as a real place, always assuming that like in most linear games the devs would guide me, that it’s wasted effort to try to really observe the environment, because i won’t be coming back here anymore… not so. SO NOT SO! My experience changed wonderfully after I accepted that, I started to realize that everywhere in the world, like in a real functional facility there’s labels and arrows and designations, and that all those were crucial to the lives of those there… and only when i accepted that did the game move to a different level for me. I suspect i’ll remember this PLACE for many many years, even now if i close my eyes I have a feeling for it.
-, -, + A series of frustrating being stuck moments followed by revelations: So, so many times i got stuck in this game. Often i’d start it up, be stuck for a while, and close it back down for a few weeks or even a month or two). This caused in me some resentment. BUT i now realize this was again part of the integrity of the concept and design, of the supremacy of what it is and represents over the entertainment, which I can’t help but admire. In playing this game it is not even so much that my character that changed, but **I** learned. I learned my surroundings, i learned to think and to observe, I learned to pay attention and to search for my own solutions instead of waiting for them to be pointed out. Everything changed for me when i started to view the station as a real thing, and the experience as a real Robinson Crusoe sci fi. Then i started to think about how it’s built, about the functionality, about why the solar panels from afar make it look solid but in fact hide a very clobbered together functional facility, how repair tunnels made sense, to understand how the central elevator was a spine to the whole facility branching out, to actually check the map, to see blocked areas not as the generic game “you don’t go this way” but an invitation to understand how that relates and where it could connect to. A similarly huge revelation I had about “locked doors” when i started to think about crew members, and that like in a real facility different people will hold keys to different areas, and in moments of being stuck to search for those people using the location bands and the security stations…
+, +, +, + Lengthy game with amazing endurance & surprises: Not only did this game take 60h+ not counting the loads to see different endings and the fact that I might restart it to see it all with the new eyes I now have (amazing how much they hid, with the bravery and integrity of even being badly judged for that). Multiple times i thought it would end, and then it would bloom anew. After a while I started to get the feeling of a real place in orbit, where there’s always new things happening, new emergencies followed (surprisingly) by new periods of delightfully boring calm. In the periods of calm I sometimes even proceeded to just roam around the ship, made it a personal point to fix everything, every little leak and every broken machine part I could find as I was familiarizing myself more and more with the place, all the while being encouraged by the now re-re-reconfirmed knowledge that it will pick up again later, and without any expectations I will find myself in an emergency situation, wanting to rescue somebody trapped or fix a critical problem quickly and that lead me to even more treasure the moments of quiet observance. Cathartic.
+, – Okay graphics, but not great: Both in art direction and in tech. That’s too bad, as all the moments when it reminded me of Dishonored made me hope even more for beautiful decorative furniture/design/architecture. I guess it makes sense given the realistic scifi direction, yet I think it would’ve been better had this been pushed further like Bioshock or Dishonored was. There were some nice touches, but nowhere near awe inspiring levels. The tech was similarly good and functional but not mind-blowing
+, +, +, +, + Great Story with Depth & Twists: Again, something I didn’t expect. From the small things like the articles and the alternate timeline political commentary to the big structure story, characters and woow, mindblowing endgame twists that put everything in a new light to the point where it changes all.
-, – Long loading times & iffy guidance: If there’s one thing I think would hugely change the experience of this game would be if it managed to get rid of the loading times. Not just because they’re particularly long, but because it is SUCH a major part of the experience how all the places connect. Think of that moment you realized in Dark Souls 1 that everything is interconnected and that started to matter to you, similarly this station is so packed in a way that makes a lot of sense, unfortunately the loading times can obscure this. This is made worse by the direction pointers, which are not the best, sometimes having trouble in staying consistent in the path, at times they pointed me back to the place I just came back from.
Overall I’d see this game as a memorable gem for the ages, unfortunately one that I’d bet most people will miss or experience late, partly due to its little problems and partly due to the integrity of the vision which, like a strong willed person with beautiful character hides the best parts for the few who are willing to look behind harder less flashy surface. I’d give this game accordingly a 3.5 (on a -5 to 5 scale), it’s an excellent game, but i wouldn’t call it “easy to digest”… still, to anybody who plays it I’m pretty sure they’ll remain with a very powerful memory. I can fully understand those of my friends who were put off by the mixed reviews and will only get this on a sale and/or might take a long time to get around to playing it. One thing though that wouldn’t surprise me also though: that many such people will then finish it and be deeply impressed, and wish they could go back in time and get it at full price to encourage the development of such nonstandard yet deep games, even while fearing it may be too late. I went through a similar customer satisfaction roller-coaster, with fist weeks of delight at the game and then frustration and wondering why I got it on release since I’m not playing it but then turning back into great joy of playing and satisfaction that I encouraged in my own tiny way the developers of such a remarkable and unique masterpiece. I really hope they’ll be able to make more games like this, even as I fear they will fail but I rest confident in the optimistic knowledge that even if many years should pass others impressed by this greatness will try again and again, even at the risk of sacrificing themselves in the same way… and we players will be all the more blessed for all of this. Super thankful for such different games and I can only wish the best to those who dare make them!
PS: If anybody wants to start this game, I’d like to leave you with some advice that I wish I had gotten when i started it: look around. REEALLLY look around. Understand where you are, look at the signs, read the texts, take the time to open the map, not the local one but the big one, understand what connects to what, and every place you go to, don’t look at it like eye candy you’ll never see again, but like a place you’ll come back to and grow to love more and more with every visit as it becomes “your own”. It reminds me of the programming thing with leaving comments: some don’t want to, but I once read the advice of doing it because you’ll be reading the code many more times than you wrote it. Similarly in this game, don’t do like what I did: it’ll save you lots of frustration (and loading screens) if you take the time to read things and observe & understand. Also, the quest indicator text, take the time to read it. It often contains crucial hints. If you do these things I believe you’ll have an even better experience than the awesome one that I did overall even while stubbornly fighting the game for the first half.
PS2: i played the old Prey and i couldn’t feel a single connection, which makes it a bit weird/confusing with the naming, however if this helped the devs in getting just a few more sales of this great gem I can accept it. It’s a shame that so many will probably miss this one, and indeed all through the game I was looking at the achievements even those from the main story and saw how many were lost along the way. Too bad. This was aaaamazing.