Prey and Setting
StoryScan: Critical hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of a individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering Prey (Bethesda, 2017), the science fiction shooter that pits players against enemies who can mimic aspects of their environment. This essay will cover the entire plot of the game. Players who have not completed Prey may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers.
2017’s Prey (Bethesda) is not the first game to bear that title, nor is it the first game to strand players in the unfriendliest corners of space. Drawing inspiration from its 2006 namesake (published by 2K Games), as well as action games System Shock (Origin Systems, 1994) and Arx Fatalis (JoWood, 2002), Prey is an exploration-driven shooter that imagines how history would have changed had mankind made contact with aliens during the 20th-century space-race. Players taking on the role of scientist Morgan Yu (gender determined by the player), whose daily testing schedule is interrupted when one of the aliens breaches the containment lab and invades the facility. It doesn’t take long for Morgan’s life to fall apart after that, as they quickly learn that they can’t trust anyone or anything—not even the world around them.
The setting of Prey (Bethesda, 2017) is a deceptive one. The Talos I space station boasts dozens of interconnected areas, taking players from cramped vents to the wide expanse of space and back again, and every area hides threats in plain sight. When a window to a sunlit bay can conceal a soundstage as easily as an alien can mimic a coffee cup, it’s up to the player to decide where to place their faith. Rather than serving as a source of frustration, the unreliable nature of the environment is one of the game’s greatest assets, as it enhances the story by working hand-in-hand with its key elements. The plot, the characters, and the themes are all connected through the setting, making the Talos I an essential narrative component.
Connecting Setting and Story
Like the space station itself, the plot of Prey possesses a full assortment of twists and turns. The premise is relatively simple: the scientist Morgan Yu has been invited to assist their brother, Alex, with a series of psychological tests at his research facility in San Francisco. One quick helicopter flight later, Morgan’s world is thrown into upheaval when an alien leaps out of a scientist’s coffee mug mid-test and attacks the facility. Morgan soon learns everything they knew about their role in the TranStar company’s research, along with their ordinary life in the city, is a fiction written by their brother and his associates. Using TranStar’s controversial NeuroMod technology, Alex has been playing with Morgan’s memory for the last three years, leaving them with no idea where they are or who they’ve become. While the latter question takes some time to resolve, the former is one Morgan can answer by escaping the soundstage they called home. As it turns out, they’re not on Earth at all, but aboard TranStar’s outer space research station, the Talos I—and so are the aliens that breached the containment lab. To overcome the alien threat and escape, Morgan must decide whether they’re willing to trust their brother or if they’re better off searching for the truth in the station’s hostile halls.
The ever-changing nature of the Talos I makes it a perfect setting for a plot that revolves around disorienting twists. Multiple plot points involve a total overhaul of the scenery, starting from Morgan’s soundstage escape. With one strike from a wrench, their beautiful view of the San Francisco bay is revealed to be nothing more than a facade, and crossing that physical threshold between fake and real coincides perfectly with the first turning point of the plot. Just as the heroes from our earliest stories stepped into the unknown to begin their journeys, so too does Morgan Yu. As the story progresses and the aliens spread throughout the ship, their influence on the environment becomes more apparent. While the earliest stages of the incursion come with the standard horror tropes of trashed facilities and dead bodies, later stages see the station transformed from a mechanical wonder into a biological marvel, as the aliens retrofit the space with their neural pathways. When Morgan is finally faced with the choice to destroy the station—the plot’s climax—they must do so knowing that it is no longer just a station but a living, feeling being. Even though the story never leaves the Talos I, the setting changes in lock-step with the plot, creating a feedback loop that enhances both elements.
The plot is not the only aspect of Prey that benefits from the distinctive setting. The characters benefit from the setting as well, both in the present and in the past. In the present, the Talos I houses a crew of dozens from different walks of life and professions, and the facility is equipped to reflect not only their different tastes but also their social status. Executives like the Yu siblings have unique, ornate offices and living spaces, whereas rank-and-file employees have smaller cabins or pods. Some of these cabins are pristine, suggesting fastidious residents; others are littered with personal items, offering insight into their occupants. Alex Yu’s character is particularly well-developed by the setting, as he played the largest role in choosing the art and architecture. Abstract sculptures serve as powerful statement pieces amidst art-deco architecture, invoking the opulence of the early 20th century while obscuring the station’s mid-century origins. Evidence of those origins is not completely missing from the facility, however, nor is the proof of its troubled past.
The history of the Talos I is one of international and interstellar conflicts, and the players in those conflicts left their mark on the station. When the station was first built, it was created as part of a joint effort between the United States and the Soviet Union to study the alien creatures they dubbed the Typhon. Evidence of the Soviet’s efforts is seen in pockets of architecture buried deep within the facility, including weathered signs written in the Russian Cyrillic script. Had the joint operation continued, the Soviet influence on the station might have been greater, but a failed assassination attempt on President John F. Kennedy led the United States to terminate the relationship. From that point forward, the U.S. had full control of the station, which comes through in the retro-futuristic interior design. That design philosophy continued until the 1980s, when the facility was abandoned after a Typhon attack. Decades later, the TranStar corporation purchased the facility for their own research, and the Yu family’s artistic philosophy drove a series of renovations to overhaul the station. As of the game’s beginning, their architectural taste dominates the facility, providing a veneer of class and stability, but evidence of the station’s complicated history still lurks beneath the surface.
Prey touches on multiple complex themes, including the value of empathy and the impermanence of memory, but its setting most heavily emphasizes the theme of deception and doubt. In Prey, players are forced to constantly question their environment, as their earliest experiences with it are based on carefully constructed lies. Their daily interactions are scripted down to a line-by-line level, and the terrestrial world as they know it exists in a tiny corner of a space station. By dismantling these lies—quite literally, with the help of a wrench—they gain valuable insight into their reality, but their ability to trust their surroundings is shaken in the process. The prevalence of hyper-realistic holographic technology only adds to the confusion, especially once Morgan learns their memories have been tampered with. It’s not just their surroundings deceiving them; it’s also their perception.
The player’s waning trust in their surroundings is further eroded by the ever-increasing amount of Typhons, some of whom can mimic objects in their surroundings. Players who attempt to pick up ordinary items may find themselves subject to a sudden and violent attack, which further breeds mistrust and doubt. By the time the story reaches its climax, the hostile setting has trained players to distrust everything they see or hear, which ties into the theme of the narrative. Ultimately, the setting and the story ask the same question of the player: if you can’t trust anything, how can you trust anyone?
Prey capitalizes on its uniquely amorphous setting to emphasize important plot points, provide insight into characters both past and present, and develop its themes of deception and doubt. By connecting each of these concepts to the environment, Prey manages to tell a story that couldn’t be set anywhere else. Writers who want their settings to have a meaningful impact on their stories can employ a similar strategy by connecting their settings to the other components of narrative, creating a tight bond that can’t be pulled apart.