Warning: Spoilers for Prey (2017)
I’ve always been a huge fan of sci-fi horror. There are subgenres of horror that I zero interest in (Jason with the hockey mask, not my thing—but I’m not judging). The type of horror I enjoy and find the most fascinating is usually based around some chthonic or cosmic unknown; a completely foreign entity, idea, or force from that infinite ocean of emptiness that surrounds us.
Fragmented ideas for this subgenre aren’t too difficult to produce in my opinion; the real difficulty comes in when one must put the pieces together and create a compelling story that the sci-fi horror lives in.
This idea was born as I began a replay of Prey from 2017. The POV is first person, journeying the game through the eyes of the protagonist, Morgan Yu. The entire narrative—the whole of the story—never leaves Morgan’s first-person perspective, just like Gordan Freeman in Half Life. (Man, I really, truly love Half Life and Half Life 2, but there comes a certain point where it gets weird and unnerving when Gordon doesn’t talk—especially to Alex—who accompanies the player through much of the sequel. Blank slate character for self-insertion and all that, I know. Wonderful world building and details to immerse in that universe, spectacular gameplay, but the character-player bond is not there—you know, I’ll save that for another time. It’s not like Morgan Yu in Prey is especially talkative, but he has a voice and a character, even a character arc if the player so chooses.)
The story begins with Morgan still “Earthside,” preparing to join their (you can play Morgan Yu as a man or a woman) brother, Alex, on the moon-orbiting space station Talos I. Morgan must undergo some “standard” testing before being cleared to join Alex aboard the station, in which the Yu family and other unknown entities have a large financial stake. There are some expositional snippets at the very beginning to ground the player: there is literature scattered around Morgan’s apartment that you can read, introducing you to the in-game world. This type of expositional world-building continues throughout the game, as you have the option to read very short articles, brief accounts of different characters, and emails, or (often listen to) other communications. Not dissimilar from the books and tomes your character can read in Skyrim (albeit, much shorter in word count). Much of this exposition is optional, but they help with immersion into the fictional world. And some give you clues to advantageous knowledge or items.
The emails, voice recordings, and video footage that Morgan gains access to as the game progresses help tell the story once the player is fully grounded. More secrets are unearthed, and they continually get darker and darker.
And as is tradition, as it was in the Sacred Book of Half-Life, during the tests/experiment is when shit hits the fan. A black, almost shapeless creature kills the head scientist administering your tests in a gruesome fashion and causes a panic. Morgan is rendered unconscious (he was protected behind glass) and wakes back up in the original apartment as if nothing has happened. A mystery voice contacts Morgan, stating they are in extreme danger and need to escape the apartment ASAP. The friendly maintenance woman from your apartment hallway seems to have been killed just as the scientist was—looking almost as though the life was straight up drained out of her, face deformed, and frozen in a kneeling position.
The illusion that was Morgan’s life is shattered once the player heaves a piece of furniture through the apartment’s floor to ceiling windows. My first playthrough, the “looking-glass” technology struck me in its presentation: strafe to one side of the glass and see this beautiful and sunny cityscape from a high-rise apartment—what Morgan was meant to be fooled by; strafe the other to see that it’s just a plain window you can peer into the apartment with; a bit like a two-way mirror for watching a suspect under interrogation. Just beyond the looking-glass, Morgan steps into a laboratory. The entire beginning of the game was a simulation (this theme comes back) onboard the Talos I. The mystery person stays in contacts Morgan as they progress, offering advice and giving story information when necessary. There’s been an outbreak of the aliens on the station, killing nearly everyone.
The mystery contact tells you the creatures are called the “typhon,” extremely hostile to any non-typhon organisms. There is a wide variety of typhon lifeforms Morgan must sneak past or kill to survive. (As it was in The Sacred Texts of Half Life, thou shalt verily bludgeon little nasty critters into mush with a large tool at the beginning of the game, till thou equipeth a firearm.)
Early in the story, Morgan finds out that they are the VP of Talos I’s operations. The Yu family/investors are attempting to perfect a technology called Neuromods: with a simple injection (into the goddamn eye, for some reason), an individual is instantaneously granted skill that would typically take a lifetime to master; or a neuromod can grant superhuman strength and reflexes. Sort of like the Matrix (“I KNOW KUNG FU”). Neuromods are sold for big bucks to rich people on Earth. Morgan eventually gets access to this tech, and later discovers the experimental version of it—which hasn’t left the station yet—which allows one to perform acts and abilities reflected by the typhon lifeforms; shooting balls of pure energy (Hydukens), resurrecting a corpse to transform it into a typhon ally, and “mimicry,” which allows Morgan to select an item within view and take on its shape. Morgan can turn into an itty-bitty teacup and roll under a broken door or turn into a lamp to blend in with the scenery, hiding in plain sight from some of the more difficult foes. I mean, it’s just plain fun to turn into a random object and bounce about merrily.
As the player learns more about the origins of the typhon and the neuromod research surrounding the species, and as you progress through the game, Morgan has these jarring “visions.” In one, Morgan watches as their arm is enveloped in typhon tendrils, consuming them. In some, his inner monologue voices cryptic, distressing ideas. I liked these visions and voices as a storytelling element, as they make the player question what is really going on underneath everything—the secret of all secrets—and it ties into the ending nicely.
It turns out that the entire space station was built around typhon lifeforms that had attached themselves to an orbital satellite many decades ago and has been a secret research facility for a long time, experimenting with the typhon. The station has changed hands several times, but the veneer of a marvel of modern engineering and a symbol of the human conquering of space was always smoke and mirrors to hide the typhon lifeform and the questionable research within (throwing prisoners dubbed “volunteers” at a random typhon lifeform in controlled environment to witness how it brutally murders the volunteer). A potential existential threat parked next door to Earth, but financially lucrative.
The base story: Morgan Yu fights his way through Talos I and ultimately decides the fate of the station and the typhons and humans inhabiting it.
The story within the story: Morgan and Alex Yu were attempting to perfect neuromods, and it just so happens the ingredients of these are typhon-based. The problem with neuromods is that if you want to “undo” a neuro-modification, it can be done, but it resets your entire memory to the moment just before you injected that purple goo into your eyeball.
Morgan apparently “volunteered” to have their memory erased day after day by testing the experimental typhon neuromods, with the goal of replicating typhon abilities (as mentioned above). After so many iterations of the “forgetting,” Morgan experienced a shift in personality. Morgan grew suspicious that he was being forced to “forget,” and that Alex was keeping Morgan trapped in a Groundhog Day-type situation for nefarious purposes. Morgan has built AIs and recorded secret videos as reminders of “being kept prisoner” (that mystery voice at the beginning of the game? That was an AI Morgan built in secret). There’s evidence to this, and to the contrary: Morgan did originally volunteer to do the experiment. Things got… complicated as Morgan scrambled his brain repeatedly, as Alex insists when he chooses to communicate with Morgan as the story moves forward. Even so, can one consent to something they cannot remember consenting to? There was the Morgan before the neuromod experiments—a cold, “ethically-flexible” scientist (just like Alex)—and there’s the Morgan after the repeated brain scrambling. The player ultimately decides who that current Morgan is, and if their moral compass has truly changed for the better.
The ending and ultimately, the real story: Morgan Yu died some time ago when the typhons escaped containment and inevitably invaded Earth. The blurred and rapid “visions” during key parts of the story are either Morgan’s real memories, or the actual setting: a small room with Alex and his AI assistants. The player is physically a typhon entity with Morgan Yu’s memories and identity rooted and anchored into its consciousness, restrained to a chair, having undergone an experimental simulation (the entirety of your time as “Morgan Yu” on Talos I). Alex Yu and his AI assistants monitor “Morgan’s” progress through the simulation, based on the real events of Talos I, to determine if typhons can feel empathy if the right human consciousness is anchored to it. Alex sees it as an angle to help save Earth from complete typhon infestation.
Alex and his assistants’ determination comes down to some key decisions that “Morgan” (the player) made during the story. Did you help others in need? Did you kill humans without reason or cause? Did you save or kill Alex? Did you choose to blow up Talos I and any trace of the typhon, or did you assist Alex in saving the station to preserve the typhon research?
If Alex and the AIs agree that you “passed” the simulation test, he takes a chance. Alex releases the bindings on Typhon-Morgan and asks for their help. Here, at the very end of the game, the player can either morph their typhon tendril into a human hand to shake Alex’s and solidify collaboration, or choose to massacre him and his AI assistants—likely dooming Earth.
I personally don’t like when stories end with something like this: It was all a simulation. It was all a dream; it just seems like a copout—my struggle, my story, my time spent on Talos I didn’t even happen? Did the writers back themselves into a corner they couldn’t write out of?
I’ll give Prey a bit of a pass on this one, as the story was told well, and it was a fun ride. The ending was in theme with the merging of consciousnesses, but this time a typhon was subject to a human’s interpretation and perception of what a mind should do. Alex is attempting to apply morality—ultimately, humanity—onto a blank slate, onto something he doesn’t fully comprehend: the player and their choices are the wild card.
That being said, I’m still not a huge fan of the ending. It undermines some of the largest stakes in the story—they weren’t reality. Morgan’s actions, all the player’s actions; they were fake/virtual in the story canon. Everything you did amounted to nothing (aside from Alex’s decision at the end). I haven’t reached the end of this playthrough yet, so I forget exactly what Alex says regarding the accuracy of the events of Talos I portrayed in the simulation. After I’m taken out of the simulation, I have no grounding in the core world, and just have to trust that Alex is who he portrays himself as, and most interactions with him were in the simulation (in a somewhat negative manner, which seems it would invite mistrust from Typhon-Morgan). Now that I’ve had a chance to type it out, I think I’m gonna bash Alex when the time comes. Ending any story in this manner has the likelihood of annoying the player/viewer/reader by “waving off” the journey and experience as a side note. There were no danger or stakes or… aliens attacking you. Did Alex also compose an OST for his simulation? At least he did a good job with that. The dynamic and unsettling soundtracks are great for the setting.
Okay, enough about the ending.
The Typhon lifeforms are imaginative in their concepts and variety. They are ultimately meant to be disturbing, unsettling and once they get you in their sights, they are relentless; I think the artists and devs did a good job with their design. The way the “phantoms” appear to weakly mimic human voices and sounds is eerie. The advanced typhon are challenging as foes until you are farther along in the game; even then, they can still surprise you, startle you, or gang up on you to the point where you must flee. (And as it was written in the sacred texts of Half Life, Morgan Yu dons the same form of plot armor as Gordan Freeman, whereas typhon mimics cannot insta-kill Morgan as they do non-player characters, just as it was written in the sacred texts that headcrabs cannot insta-kill Gordan as they do the NPCs in Half Life.)
Typhon kill indiscriminately to harvest human consciousness. While playing as Morgan, you begin to see this golden webbing; it’s been dubbed “coral.” They’ve harvested enough human consciousness to construct enough coral to act as a beacon for a leviathan Typhon that ends up bearing down on Talos I (previous to this, the typhon research team couldn’t figure out the purpose of coral). The webbing begins appearing all over the station as the story progresses.
Are these people who were killed still conscious in some manner against their will… a reaping of minds? Morgan encounters many mind-controlled humans in the story. Advanced typhon behavior involves forcing human behavior to serve their needs, while keeping the human consciousness intact. Nasty stuff and a great sci-fi horror story concept.
And as I stated before, the OST is cool. For example, the first time you encounter a “poltergeist” typhon, the music is perfect; this invisible creature is attacking you in a dark room, leaving you fairly disoriented, and the discordant music adds to the dread.
I’m out of stuff to say. Although I prefer Dead Space, Prey is great. Fun gameplay, and a cool story.
Thanks for reading!
Wait, I can’t not mention the Nightmare typhon. At a certain point in the game, this thing will show up randomly for the sole purpose of hunting down and killing you. It’s a fun gameplay mechanic that keeps you on your toes, and you can choose to fight or flee—the thing is a badass. The first time you see this thing, it’s a big NOPE, I’m not fucking with that thing. I remember ducking into an office, running away from it, thinking it was too far too large to get past the door. I watched as it squeezed through that little doorway as if it were nothing—morphing its anatomy to force its way in—then it stomped the ever-living shit out of me. (Eventually you figure out ways to deal with the nightmare, but the first few encounters are the best.)