Prey turns ‘open-ended’ game design inside-out

Prey is a game about space. I don’t just mean that it takes place in space — on the orbiting Talos I science station — but how the game encourages you to think about space.  In the confines of that metal shell, I was constantly encouraged to drill through, sidestep, squeeze past, and sneak around its many nooks and crannies.

Those are the best moments in Prey, bar none. The combat goes from dull to flatly satisfying. The story has great potential, but falls flat on its face by the end (feel free to read about that in my full review). But what remains appealing about Prey throughout are its consistently interesting, mind-warping spatial puzzles. Luckily, they’re good enough to pull the rest of the game along — not to mention unique enough that they made me feel in control of Prey‘s world more than in any other game like it.

A typical puzzle in Prey looks something like this: a locked room promises some kind of reward, if only you can get inside. Maybe a telltale audio log or in-game email hints at the treasure within; maybe you just caught the glint of virtual gold from the corner of your eye. Whatever the case, you nearly always have multiple ways to enter.

You might, for example, stack loads of heavy-duty crates on top of each other. The room has a skylight, see, and by Lego-blocking your way up top you can enter it, no problem. Of course, you’ll need to spend skill points on strength, which lets you lift heavier objects. If that’s not your speed, you can always use a less intensive “Recycler Charge” to disintegrate the debris blocking the side entrance. But where’s the fun in that, when instead you can morph into a coffee cup and roll your newly ceramic body through a gap in the room’s only window?

Talos I schematics (via Bethesda).

Talos I schematics (via Bethesda).

First, of course, you need find those openings — those chinks in the locked room’s armor. To find the gap in the room’s window, or the door’s keycode written on a sticky note behind a cabinet, or the secret entrance above eye level, you need to twist and crane your point of view in all sorts of directions.

Open-world games, as we typically use the term, refer to large — and largely vacant — spaces to move through. A and B are connected by car and horseback rides, or leaps across rooftops. Assassin’s Creed and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild have multiple means of getting from one point to another, but the distance traveled is pretty much always the same.

Prey‘s environments are large, that’s for sure. But instead of being flat, they’re a 3D tangle of possibilities. Instead of telling me where to go and giving me the means to travel there, the game asks me to cut or sculpt my own shortcuts through that same space. The tools for doing so, like those listed in my example puzzle, are wildly different. Yet they all train my brain to see the environment as something malleable — something to bend to my will — rather than immutable boundaries to skate over.

That’s not an entirely new goal in game design. The first two Red Faction games let me gouge holes in Martian soil. Fracture, one of late-era LucasArts’ well-meaning missteps, sported terrain-deforming grenades. Both instances were gimmicky, however, rather than vital means to satisfying ends. The real objective in all three games was always just to shoot things until they stopped moving. Warping the world was just a side-effect, or occasionally convenient tactic. Prey‘s environmental puzzles, which take up a sizable chunk of the game’s 35+ hours, are only possible when you learn to see the world as something to shatter and rebuild; to poke around and look behind.

But that brain training wouldn’t work if Prey‘s rewards weren’t as analogue as the puzzles that led me to them. Again, take Breath of the Wild as a counterexample. That game’s vaunted shrine puzzle rewards are static. It’s guaranteed that every one of them will reward you with a single Spirit Orb (even when they should totally give you more for your trouble), which makes the value analysis exceedingly easy — and exceedingly easy to pass up. Do I want to take the time to snag a Spirit Orb right now, or should I tag the shrine on my map for later? Eh, I know I’ve got better, more important things to collect right now.

In Prey, there are so many more possibilities — even ones beyond the rewards the designers intentionally put inside each locked room. You might find fairly precious ammo, health packs, Neuromods which act as skill points for character progression, or grenades which exploit enemy weaknesses and can be used to solve further puzzles.

These unknowns are much more appealing. Until you open or bypass a locked door, there’s no telling what you might be missing. Even if it’s not something immediately useful, there are always the matter recyclers. These handy kiosks strewn throughout Talos I will reduce any item into its component parts. So bullets or health packs can become crafting materials for grenades, laser cannon charges, and Neuromods — or vice versa. Whatever you need, you can make. That means every scrap of junk behind every puzzle is always potentially useful, as you burn your way through resources by fighting through Talos I.

The promise of better, more consistently useful rewards gives me more incentive to solve every spatial challenge. Obviously not every locked room will have the same combination of possible answers. The only true skeleton key is to “feel out” the easiest, most efficient, or most interesting ways past security. Slowly but surely, the player starts to see Talos I not just as something they have a hand in shaping, but something they need to view from all possible angles in order to move through. That’s not possible in the wide open spaces of most open-world games.

I use the word “obviously” here, but that’s not giving Prey enough credit. The development team at Arkane Studios could have easily made every solution viable; every choice of character progression “correct.” But that would have robbed the game of its unique sense of all-around, close-up exploration.

Prey‘s combat might be milquetoast; its climax frustrating; its inspirations from games like Deus Ex and System Shock on the nose and somewhat overplayed at this point. Sometimes, though, a game just needs to make me think about one thing differently to get me to rally behind it — or even excuse its obvious faults. I won’t get sick of one new and well-implemented trick nearly as quickly as near-perfect permutations on something I’ve seen a thousand times before.

In Prey, that means opening up virtual wormholes through what should have been solid barriers to hunt for garbage. And hey, I never did get bored of it.