Content of the article: "Prey (2017), “the Half-Life game I’ve always wanted to play”"
I remember playing Half-Life 1 for the first time. (Though yes, I played 2 first, because in fact, the only reason I had them was to play Garry's Mod) These games still remain in a special place in my heart, and not without valid reason. Half-Life 1 may have its issues when re-played in 2020. The outdated graphics and, most important of all, the platforming puzzles – and et cetra. But the enemy AI, the numerous weapons to have fun with, and its level design – the sheer enjoyability Black Mesa offers you with its different, unique and alive areas – they're all things even new gamers today can appreciate, something perhaps we can agree is missing in modern shooters.
The "corridor shooter" type of linear FPS may be having its revival with the success of the DOOM reboot, (of which I still need to get to one day) but for Half-Life fans; who don't just want a fun railway romp of a shooting gallery, but rather the creative gameplay Half-Life provided with its shooting and running, there hasn't been much news. However, there is one other genre that is having its re-emergence, and, despite somewhat ironically seeming like everything that's against what the linear FPS is, it's in fact the only other genre filling its void: the immersive sim.
I'm not too familiar with the immersive sim myself. They weren't what I played when I was young, around when I was playing Half-Life, and most of my knowledge on their history comes from YouTube video essays. (I particularly found
helpful) I've played a bit of Deus Ex, and, probably as you've realized, the Arkane games consisting of Dishonored and Prey. Have never touched the System Shocks. But I do find the bridge between these two types of FPSes; the linear corridor shooter and the open-ended immersive sim – to be Bioshock, also one of my favorite games from childhood. Bioshock initially filled that void for me, a "Half-Life for the clever man" as I used to think as a 10 year old. In fact, Bioshock is not at all an immersive sim, and fans of the genre tend to be particularly insistent on that. But it no doubt shares its DNA, as Ken Levine is the designer also responsible for the immersive sim, System Shock 2.
Bioshock is still a fun shooter, with an impressively memorable storyline. Though in retrospect, personally speaking, it's somewhat lacking in the thematic department. (To keep it brief, it could've explored its criticism of Objectivism further, instead of divulging into a seemingly irrelevant meta tangent about free will in video games, even if said tangent resulted in one of the most iconic video game moments of its decade) It was Bioshock 2 for me that fully fleshed out its gameplay formula, each area a greatly entertaining shooting gallery with better flow and speed to its mechanics. Infinite will obligatorily not be mentioned.
If you're looking for immersive sims with numerous problem solving moments, these games won't fit to your taste at all. But for the Half-Life fan in me who simply wanted a slightly more sophisticated railway shooter with more to do than just aiming and shooting projectiles, they truly lived up to every expectation. Or, well, they should have, and they did for many people, but as you can tell, it didn't quite happen for me. I still wanted something more – I wanted the world to feel more real, not just in the audio logs and the supplementary material, but through the gameplay – I wanted these characters to feel alive, not through philosophical monologues, but through how they interacted with me as the player. I wanted Rapture to react to me, as Black Mesa seemed to did as you shot and ran your way through its facilities.
This finally brings us to Prey. Which, when I started writing this post, was going to be the main topic. I'm really sorry if you are a fan of the game like I am and expected some great analysis of it. But I realized I actually want the purpose of this post to get other people to play Prey, (pun missing intended) which requires me to not talk much about it, because almost everything you could say about Prey is a spoiler. Discussing its story not withstanding, but discussing Prey's gameplay or level design in any detail would be the biggest sin of all. My point so far has been, basically – if you, like me, love Half-Life and Bioshock, Prey is most likely the game you want to be playing next, even if that progression somehow doesn't come to you as naturally as it should. (This bolded section is the TL;DR for anyone just skimming through)
To bring my ramblings into a coherent point though, Prey is perhaps the only video game in existence that have finally fully filled that lambda-shaped hole in my heart. In my mind, the true successor to the Half-Life brand of FPS games. And it essentially accomplished this by fulfilling a wish I never even thought I had but certainly was in the back of my mind ever since I was a kid – what if you could roam the entirety of the Black Mesa Research Facility to your will, and it would react to you according to the kind of Gordon Freeman you were?
Well, I'm not arguing Half-Life 3 be an immersive sim where Gordon Freeman can do parkour and fire electro bolts from his hand. (Though the possibility has always enticed me! Oh, the crossover fanfiction that I used to write…) Making Black Mesa an open world essentially defeats the point of Half-Life, and would completely demolish its pacing. Half-Life IS its corridors, the chapter title flashes, the loading screens, (though it shares this with Prey, haha) and its meticulously designed set pieces. Then how is Prey's setting, an open-ended, sprawling space station with respawning enemies and literally dozens of different possible entrances to each area and each room, live up to the kind of carefully crafted experience that Half Life's Black Mesa was?
Maybe David Speyrer, Valve designer since Half-Life 1, can put it best. The DNA of Half-Life, is as thus: "
". And it can certainly be argued that Prey has the best execution of this cadence out of any shooters in recent memory.
I don't really know how the gents over at Arkane did it, but what they've essentially done, is put the same level of detail and attention that you would put into singular set pieces in standalone levels and chapters of Half-Life, into every single area that is up for you to explore in Prey, with all of those levels feeling alive and reacting to you, live, according to the kind of Morgan Yu that you craft yourself to be. Talos-1 is a modern day Black Mesa; a modern day Rapture, even. This is the kind of game that puzzles me, not in its baffling design choices, but rather in how much design choices there even is at all. This is the Half-Life game I've always wanted to play, and it's not even in the form that I expected it to be in. (Perhaps Half-Life: Alyx will also end up being that game. If I ever get to play it, that is. I've only heard good things about it. On this note, I have also heard Titanfall 2 has a quite exquisite singleplayer campaign)
One of the most exciting "movements", so to speak, in gaming right now are the Arkane immersive sims. (I haven't even talked about the Dishonored games at all, oh my god! Dishonored literally has the same art designer as Half-Life 2 which is why I know about Arkane Studios at all. That said, I recognize Dishonored has a far different gameplay appeal than the sort of games we’ve been talking about) Creative problem solving in video games aren't mainstream simply because of a risk and reward mentality every creator must think in. And I would know this, I'm a musician. When I make a song, I have to think: "Will the level of effort I put into this one section of my song, be worth it in the final outcome? Or will nobody hear it at all and I just wasted 2 hours fixing a synth sound?"
Game designers surely must think the same way. "Do I spend the next week designing more options for this one level in the game that about 15% of players will even get to, and some of those options won't even be used by more than 1% of them?" The answer is no, cut that shit out, put that guy to work in an area that's more impending, we aren't made of time. This is not some cruel reality, it's just how we make art. We sacrifice parts of it to ship the final product. (If you're an artist and is not good at this, it might be worth seriously thinking about. A habit of giving up is the worst habit a creator can develop) But somehow, Arkane is out here, making games where a designer get to have their week designing a section of the game only 1% will ever play, and that one of those 1% will go out and write a giant Reddit post about how fucking amazing they are. When all they're doing is just making real what they think are cool ideas for games. I can't help but be immensely proud and also glad that it's commercially viable for them. Because I don't think a game like Prey would have existed otherwise. It's special for me now, not in a way video games have been for the last half a decade or so.
- As my entry point to immersive sims, Prey feels like a true contemporary game, comprising some of the best elements of multiple mature genres.
- [10/25] Prey (2017) – An atmosphere like none other
- I like Prey’s backtracking system a lot
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