[This presupposes that you have played and beaten Prey. Spoiler Alert]
You are going to die. Not in some video game about shooting aliens in space, but here – in the meatspace. If you put some real thought into it, I’d wager you could approximate how and when your bell will ring. This is an affront on the human psyche – an offending specter that we quietly ignore – and it is the thematic lynchpin of Prey.
But Prey doesn’t platform the specter – it placates it. Prey lays down nihilism like a blanket, to cover and comfort. Its story is built to invoke the empathy found swaddled in mortality, and generate deeper examination than traditional ludo-moral boundaries. It does so with its tricks and its characters, who all build towards the game’s moral thesis – everything you do matters.
Everyone must die. They are all doomed. You tell yourself this – literally. Via looking glass recording, Morgan Yu demands that Morgan Yu (Are you there Morgan? It’s me, Morgan) destroy the space station Talos I, and everyone on it. It is the only way, you say. A grand gesture – hardly subtle – but Prey is a game that trades in both the big and the small. This is its broad brush – its sweeping misdirection. Their lives are worthless, it seems to say. Until Prey drags us back down to the small. To the human.
Consider Danielle Sho, floating out into endless space. She breathes heavy, laboured – her chest weak from the loss of her partner and her dwindling oxygen supply. A dead woman drifting, and she knows it. Danielle even deduces Morgan’s plan to destroy Talos I. She has nothing left to lose, and nothing left to live for. Futility pounds on her door with its inviting percussion.
And yet, she persists. Danielle uses her remaining time to aid – not to grieve. Her last act, before her brain shuts down from oxygen deprivation, is one of altruism. She sends you the plans to your arming key, as well as a kind, typo-riddled email message. She has no reason to help. No plans for escape. Audio recordings confirm that, frankly, Danielle doesn’t even like you. But rather than relish in the peace and quiet of her final moments, she takes a long shot on a half-baked plan cooked up by an awful person.
Recall one of Prey’s other prominent side characters – Mikhalia Ilyushin, and her degenerative nerve disorder. Even before the events of the game, she is aware of her condition. She knows that, one day, her body will shut down. She will die slowly, in total paralysis. In quiet, restful misery. But she has a purpose. She seeks a dead man – her father, whose life reached its conclusion in a lab aboard Talos I.
Think on that. This woman – doomed to die – does not seek a tangible reward from her remaining life. Her intent is not to take down a corporation, nor enact some sort of measurable change in her world. She simply seeks closure. What she wants is to discover the fate of a man she knows is almost certainly dead. There is no great purpose to her quest. No outcome, no physical reward. What she wants is to come to a dead end – she will find meaning in it.
Mikhalia is one of the lucky ones. Should you be honest with her, her narrative thread blossoms into something bigger – something with real consequence. She is granted the opportunity to take down a morally bankrupt corporation with the recording of her father’s death. What was once closure becomes resolution.
You are not so fortunate.
The dual arming keys turn in their locks. You move up to the bridge, and sit in the captain’s seat to die in the shell of Talos I. Every choice I made was real, you tell yourself. They mattered. Talos I explodes, and then darkness.
And then you wake up.
It was all a test – all a simulation. Prey’s ending seems to confound its moral thesis. It was all a dream. Nothing you did mattered, it says. None of the choices were “real,” and neither were the people who made them. But that’s been the point all along. All these characters – hurtling towards death – act in comfort of their mortality. They aren’t defiant – rather, content. They don’t get to wake up, but act as if they do. They found peace within the nihilism, and Prey asks you if you can do the same.
This is a video game. Every emotion you have is a reaction of an abstract digital concept, realized via aesthetic, voice acting, and play. Does that mean that your choices don’t matter? Does that make it any less real?
Death is real.
We all live under our looming deaths. While playing Prey, I thought about every cigarette I’ve ever smoked, every drug I’ve ever done, and the 3 and a half years I spent drinking every single day. I thought about my family’s history with alcoholism, addiction, and cancer. It was impossible not to. I’ve got a pretty good handle on how – and probably when – I’m going to die. If you dig deep enough into your lifestyle and family history, I bet you do too.
Death is real.
So are the things we do in life. So are the things we do in game. At least, Prey thinks so. This is a game that demands you treat its characters as real, because it does so itself. It doesn’t matter if they were just constructs of a simulation. Their being – and your relationships – count for something, even if the end result is a zero sum game – a video game about a simulation. Prey has the G.U.T.S. to look you in the face and ask you: this DOESN’T matter – so what are you going to do about it?
Everyone has their own answer, I’m sure. But whenever I ponder that question, I always come back to this one line, spoken by Security Chief Sarah Elazar:
“I don’t know what you’re planning… but just remember – the only thing that matters is how you treat the people that are still alive.”