This week on Extra Punctuation, Yahtzee discusses why the 2017 Prey video game from Arkane Studios was so forgettable.
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Extra Punctuation Transcript
I was chatting to my fellow game journalist chums recently and the topic of Prey came up. That’s Prey the 2017 game, not the 2006 game or the concept of a living entity being hunted or seized for food. And I wondered, just as I’ve wondered every time it’s come up and on one occasion while being directly and rather pointedly asked about it by one of its developers at E3 – what was wrong with that game? That’s not a rhetorical question, I’m genuinely not sure. I can’t think of much that was wrong with it. So why doesn’t anyone talk about it? Why does it seem to have had as much lasting cultural impact as, say, Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child?
In theory, Prey was everything people like me want from a single player game. It’s a perfectly competently made game with lots of innovative ideas. It’s got organic gameplay based around exploration and player choice that evolves over time. It’s got strong visual theming and a decent enough plot. In that it’s the same plot as System Shock 2. Wake up in a contained environment with no memory and it turns out everyone who lived here turned themselves into monsters trying to give themselves superpowers with some magic alien goo they found. Wait, that’s the plot of Bioshock too. Well, that just shows it’s a proven formula.
Point is, by all the usual metrics Prey is a fine game, but that’s no grand revelation. Go looking and you’ll find plenty of reviews and video essays attesting to that. Quite a lot of video essays from the last couple of years, actually, wondering aloud much as I am right now why everyone slept on it. But it’s not just that it didn’t sell gangbusters that’s confusing. When I think back to it, I struggle to hold it in my memory or recall specifics about how it played or what happened in the story. It’s perfectly clear why the game’s good. The mystery that remains for me is, why is it so forgettable?
First theory: the title’s shit. Why would you ever give your game the exact same title as another game? Archiving’s just the first problem. It’s a stupid enough idea when a reboot does it, like Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 or Prince of Persia 2008, you’re just gonna be branding it with a scarlet parenthetical year for the rest of time, it’s even stupider when your game has no connection to and very little in common with its namesake. It’s one of those completely unfathomable creative decisions that can only be explained by multiple competing management structures rubbing up against each other.
No, Prey was a spiritual successor to System Shock and Bioshock so obviously it should’ve been called Brainshock or Aftershock or something. Incidentally, you know what they should’ve called Bioshock Infinite? They should’ve called it Culture Shock. I’m going to keep saying that whenever it comes up until everyone in the world acknowledges the obvious correctness of it.
So Prey had a shitty title, but there are plenty of decent games that have overcome that handicap. A Hat In Time springs to mind. What else could it have been?
Second theory. The ending’s bad. I guess I’d better drop a spoiler warning here but if audiences didn’t care about the game when it came out I doubt they’ll care that much now. Spoiler warning: Prey basically ends with “it was all a dream.” Always an unpleasant comedown when the story you’ve been enjoying basically tells you it’s been wasting your time for the last however many hours. And the ending is the last thing you take away, so you’re left with this disappointing sense of “Oh” at the forefront of your mind. But having said that, the ending’s not strictly “It was all a dream,” the events of the game still happened, it’s just… well. It’s complicated. Play it yourself. And in any case, Driver San Francisco also ends with “it was all a dream” and I’ll go to bat for that game anytime.
Third theory, and I hope you’ll join me as I go out on a bit of a limb. Maybe the problem was that Prey was too good. Oh come on don’t be scared this limb’ll probably hold our combined weight. As I said, Prey had perfectly fine theming and story and gameplay that mixed up and innovated wherever it was needed, I liked the zero G EVA bits particularly, all in all, nothing to complain about. But maybe that’s the problem, because complaints are what you remember. Squeaky wheels get the grease. Complaints are how conversation starts.
What’s the one quote everyone remembers from Skyrim? It’s the guard saying “I used to be an adventurer but then I took an arrow to the knee.” Why was that the breakout quote? Because it’s dumb, that’s why. It’s camp. Why does every single guard say it? Was there a mass outbreak? Did someone lose control of a swarm of knee-seeking missiles? But in being dumb, it raises questions. It’s started discussion. It’s memeable. Like that bit in the first Deus Ex where J.C. Denton goes “A BOMB?” in a stupid voice. It helps Deus Ex take up a permanent spot in one’s memory.
Maybe Prey is just so polished there’s nothing to latch onto. By the same principle that extremely pure water cannot freeze because there aren’t any impurities for the ice crystals to form around. Maybe Prey is like that one kid in high school who excelled in all classes and sports and dressed well and had nice hair and had nothing but friendly smiles and earnest conversation for all, but who no one really hung out with because there was something about their perfection that put people off.
A true masterpiece is always characterised by the flaws exposing that little spark of madness that is the hallmark of a restless creative mind. Would Half-Life have been as influential without that lurching shift of mood for the Xen levels at the end? Would Star Wars still have the cultural impact it has today if the prequel trilogy hadn’t been such dogshit? And the several novels’ worth of early internet pontificating on the worth of Jar Jar Binks? Would Stephen King’s IT have been as successful without that underage gang bang scene that all the adaptations have rather conspicuously omitted?
Actually, now that I’m laying all this out, I want to come in off this limb a little bit. It’s not just flaws that give a work something to latch onto. Portal’s a very funny comedy game, you can quote it and cut the funny bits into animated gifs to post online for the likes that will alleviate the misery of your life. When I think of Dark Souls, my memory latches onto images of Solaire of Astora and his love of jolly cooperation, or one of several gigantic monstrous pairs of buttocks I was forced to dodge roll around. When I think of Dead or Alive games, I think of titties jiggling about like two dung beetles fighting in a ziploc bag. All of these can be pivot points in our memories that give these works purchase.
What does Prey have? No jokes or quotable lines of dialogue leap to mind. Does it have iconic characters or memorable monsters to fight? The only character I remember is the protagonist’s brother, and all I remember him doing was stand there like a big sack of potatoes not displaying any strong emotions about anything. As for monsters, most of them were just mindless black smears of nonsense. Possibly artist’s shorthand for “insert memorable monster here.”
That’s where Prey fell shy of its spiritual predecessors. All niceties of gameplay and overall quality aside, they all had their latchable moments. Culture Shock had some very spicy racism. Bioshock had Big Daddies and the environments and men being entitled to the sweat of their brow and all that. System Shock had Shodan, that wonderfully memorable villain who would calmly and matter-of-factly explain that you and your species were but insects scuttling about the peripheries of her magnificence in such a way to make you uncertain whether you were frightened or turned on. You might not remember that the weapon degradation was a pain in the arse or that one fat bloke who left an audio log saying he’d set the door code to zero-four-five-one but you bloody well remembered Shodan.
I think the lesson we should all take away from Prey is that the world of creativity is like the world of office politics in that promotion rarely comes to those who simply do the job. That aforementioned kid at high school worked their buttocks off to get good grades, but did everyone call them Straight-A Steve? Nope. Their achievements on the sporting field brought them trophies galore, but did they earn the nickname Gold Medal Graham? Nope. All it took was one fateful incident when they took a football a little too hard to the groin and ended up needing major surgery to replace their ruptured testicles with plastic prosthetics, and only then would they be remembered forevermore as Captain Clacker Knackers.