How “Prey” Reinforces its Narrative Themes
This post contains spoilers for 2017’s Prey, a game by Arkane Studios. Their Dishonored series is a favorite of mine, so I’m not sure how or why I skipped Prey. Oh wait, actually, I do know. It’s because I was absorbed by The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt at that time. Can’t really blame myself for that!
There’s a lot to like about Prey, and I’d like to reflect on one of my favorite aspects of the game in particular: the way it deeply incorporates the concept of duality. The ideas of natural opposition and contrasts are, of course, common in media, and often used to fuel conflict or drama. So what makes Prey special in this regard?
Room for Two
Early in the game, the player awakens as Morgan Yu. This is no different than most games, whether the protagonist is named or not. But Morgan has interesting traits due to the repeated installation and removal of neuromods (an ability-granting technology): memory loss and personality drift. This is the substrate for the player’s actions.
Why not just completely wipe Morgan’s memory in favor of a blank slate? Or forgo the use of a voice actor, as other games have done? By leaving Morgan partially intact, the narrative has room for both character and player. Morgan’s history gives structure to the narrative, yet the player isn’t too constrained by that history. The player’s presence and actions have an explanation because of the neuromod experimentation on Morgan. It’s a comment on the play experience that most games don’t bother to address. I think it’s safe to say most players take it for granted that they play as the main character and no further explanation is really needed. That means Prey didn’t have to take this approach, but it chooses to.
Through the Looking Glass
Morgan’s world is also a dual one, at least in the beginning. The player participates in Morgan’s Groundhog Day-esque life only a few times before the lie is revealed and they escape into the true environment of the Talos space station. The barrier – the illusion of Morgan’s apartment – is created by the Looking Glass technology which appears throughout the game. Initially, like Alice in Alice in Wonderland, Morgan steps through the Looking Glass into another world.
Later, the Looking Glass is used to view information recorded in the past, in some cases as dispatches from Morgan themselves. So the Looking Glass exposes the player to another duality, that of past and present self. Except in this case, it’s scarier than a regular mirror, because this one can show you something you don’t expect when you see yourself in it!
As the player explores the station, they must make use of materials on the station to create much-needed tools. The game system that supports this is the Recycler-Fabricator loop. Everything from banana peels to handguns can be recycled into raw materials that are used to fabricate useful items. The theme of duality is present in this constant breaking down and reconstitution; that is, a known object that can be presented as something not resembling its former self. Similarly, Morgan is the raw material for the player’s actions, which combine to form the latest version of Morgan.
At the very beginning of Morgan’s journey, the character of Alex (Morgan’s brother) delivers the line, “innovation is in our blood.” Alex is ostensibly referring to the family’s history of trailblazing and entrepreneurship, but as the story progresses, we learn that Morgan actually has alien DNA in their system that grants them amazing powers. And, at the end of the game, it’s revealed that you haven’t been playing as a version of Morgan, but as an alien with human DNA, and that your choices have created a new being.
Prey is a sci-fi action game first and foremost, but in the finest of sci-fi traditions, it’s more cerebral than it appears on the surface. I appreciate how the small details in the game were related to the game’s big questions: Who are you? Who will you be? Can you be two things at once? Do your past choices define you?
Prey takes a unique and consistent approach in gameplay to explore the fluidity and mutability of identity. Could this story only be told in a video game? Of course not. But Prey is a great example of the narrative strengths of the medium.