If you’re currently in the same position as me, in that all you do each night is Prey, you’ll no doubt be at least somewhat enthralled in the long meaningful journey developer Arkane Studios has placed ahead of you.
A frequent thought that keeps coming to my head while playing however, is how much better the game’s sci-fi aspects could be enjoyed were it not for the unnecessary undercurrents of horror.
Video games have been doing this for a while now. Ever since the genre-blending framework laid down by Ridley Scott’s Alien, big-budget AAA experiences have sought to do the same in the hope of achieving the same heights of critical and commercial success. Gears of War, System Shock, Dead Space – all have entered the upper industry pantheon to be regarded as some of the best sci-fi/horror games ever to be inserted into consoles, thanks in part due to their tendency to lean on one of the two while incorporating some of the other. Prey however, bites off more than it can chew in this regard.
Since when has it been a pre-requisite for video games that centre around a sci-fi to also include horror? You’ll be hard pressed to find games that dabble with pure sci-fi and only sci-fi, while the horror genre has an entire suite of unmixed experiences to try. One thinks of Amnesia, PT, and the Silent Hill franchise to name just a few, and while most games of any kind typically incorporate some sense of action, I was hoping that Prey would at least be a kind of “thinking man’s sci-fi game”. One that was confident enough to explore its own critiques and ideas about free will, determinism and identity without the need to unnecessarily wedge in a few scares. Prey, to me was marketed as Blade Runner, when what we got instead was Event Horizon (that’s not as good by the way).
That’s not to say that I’m not liking the core experience Prey has to offer; it’s just that whenever I do feel the immense sensation to explore and discover something new when travelling through Talos I, it’s always undercut by fear. The nature of an enemy that can unexpectedly jump out of nowhere always ensures that I’m rarely given a moment to breathe. It makes it a little harder enjoy the act of digging deeper into the world that Arkane has created.
Whereas terror had already hit the likes of Dead Space’s USG Ishimura and Alien Isolation’s Sevastopol station, Prey’s Talos I is simply too goddamn gorgeous; it makes no sense to tread carefully. The game’s mishandling of horror and scares in general can be seen when analysing how it handles its music cues. As any slasher film aficionado will tell you, there’s a modern tendency for creators to make supposedly scary moments seem more chilling than they actually are simply by blasting a spike of high-pitched noise. This happens whenever a mimic appears, and the more it keeps happening, the less effect this already-cheap scare tactic has.
It might just be that Prey as a game is an experience that’s something other than what I’d originally thought it was (and initially wanted it to be). After all, the term “prey” insists that some form of ulterior danger will always be present, but that doesn’t mean it needs to draw upon horror game tropes in order to fulfil this danger. The way Prey handles it just feels empty.
Odds are the game might prove me wrong the more it develops, but Bioshock this is not. While the city of Rapture was interwoven with stories of what could have been, backing up its body and gruesome horror with the horrific realisation of how the splicers came to be, Prey’s enemies and world can’t decide which of the two genres they want to fall on. The result is a game that proves that that sci-fi shouldn’t always melded with horror, and sometimes, just pure science fiction would offer a much stronger experience.