Thursday, 5 January 2017



Arkane Austin is crafting a sci-fi yarn that wants to say yes

Hanging on the walls of Arkane Austin’s studio are reminders of Prey’s core design tenets. Styled like motivational posters, each features a game, and details the laudable qualities Arkane intends to learn from it. One, titled ‘Say yes to the player’, shows Just Cause 2’s Rico straddling an airliner. “It’s an instinct we try to cultivate, which is an instinct almost any gamer has anyway,” Ricardo Bare, lead designer on Prey, tells us. “When you’re playing a game and you hit an obstacle, you’re just naturally like, ‘I’m gonna try this, I’m gonna try this,’ and we try to, as developers, remember that instinct and say yes to it.”

Just Cause 2 is a fun, deliberately absurd example of that instinct. But this is a trait common among immersive sims – a term first applied to Deus Ex, referring to the desire to create immersion through the simulation of items, NPCs and systems within the world. It’s a design philosophy that favours consistency over scripting; setting up the core systems and challenges, and letting the spectacle emerge from the player’s discovery and subsequent understanding of how everything interacts. Arkane has been saying yes to the player since the studio’s inception, with Arx Fatalis, and through to Dishonored 2 and now Prey.

During a hands-off presentation by Bare, we’re shown the start of a sidequest. Prey is set on Talos I, a space station that’s been overrun by extraterrestrial lifeforms. Protagonist Morgan Yu is asked by a survivor of the attack to go to the crew quarters and retrieve one of his personal items. Instead, Bare attempts to slip through the security window leading into the survivor’s hideout – the kitchen of Talos I’s cafeteria – by using an ability, learned from the aliens, that lets Yu mimic the form of any item. He fails his initial attempt, and we move on. But the suggestion is that, had he nailed the execution, it could have worked.

“If I’d managed to get in there, the objective that he gave me would have failed because he doesn’t like me any more,” Bare says. “But then I could have just done whatever I wanted in there. I could have used his recycler, taken all his stuff, and that would have just bypassed that whole section of the game.” Taking Arkane’s ‘say yes to the player’ philosophy to its logical conclusion, could we have killed him? “Absolutely,” Bare confirms. “One of the things that we decided up front was, and it’s a little bit of a throwback to some of the older games like Ultima Underworld, any time you run into a character – a main character who’s a survivor that you encounter in the station – you can kill them. We try not to make it easy for you to do that, but it’s totally possible.”


All of Arkane’s games try to offer this level of reactivity, but Prey isn’t just a sci-fithemed Dishonored 2. Where Dishonored’s lineage can be traced back to Thief and Deus Ex, Prey exists closer to the RPG end of the immersive-sim spectrum. This is Arkane returning to its roots. “When we started conceiving the kind of game we were going to make next, it was a deliberate choice to go back to something like Arx Fatalis,” Bare says, referring to Arkane’s first, Ultima-inspired game. “And of course we’re all like superinspired by games like System Shock.”

As an RPG, Prey’s combat is markedly different to that of Dishonored. It’s possible to sneak around enemies, but Prey isn’t a stealth game. The aliens have health bars, and the most dangerous ones won’t be killed by a sneak attack – not unless Yu’s build is tailored for critical melee damage. In one section of the demo, Bare encounters a Telepath. It’s a powerful, floating alien that can mind-control nearby humans. Combat doesn’t necessarily mean guns, although a shotgun proves to be useful for the opening of the fight. After a few shots, though, it starts to jam. Talos I’s weapons are manufactured cheaply, using fabricators, which makes them prone to degrading quickly. It’s just one of the ways Prey attempts to synchronise its world with its systems. While guns are unreliable, Yu is able to use the fabricator to craft more. It’s a way for you to tailor your playstyle, but those choices come at a cost. Resources are limited, so you’re pushed towards specialisation. Do you spend your crafting materials on tools and items, or on guns and ammo? Do you use your Neuromods to upgrade alien powers, or more pedestrian bonuses to learn hacking and increase your strength? Do you want to hit things with a wrench, or subvert them with your mind?

With the shotgun out of action, Bare switches to Kinetic Blast – an explosive ability that can be learned by scanning aliens. Aiming Kinetic Blast puts Yu in psi-mode, which slows time to an almost imperceptible crawl that speeds up as the player moves the targeting reticule – much like playing Superhot. “These are pauses during which you can make tactical choices and switch gears,” Bare explains, “because it can get incredibly lethal and some of the monsters are superdifficult. Having the ability to hit the targeting button, freeze everything for a second so you can go, ‘OK, what am I gonna do? I have three shotgun shells left, I’m also out of psi, but I still have plenty of health.’ And then you pick something and go.”

Scanning also reveals an enemy’s weaknesses, but takes several seconds. This is where stealth can still be useful. “Stealth is probably the easiest way to do that because you’ll want to remain unseen,” Bare says. “But that’s not the only way you can scan. You can be the guy who uses the stun gun. You can run up on the alien, shock them so that they’re disabled for ten seconds, and then scan them. Or use the Glu gun to lock them down.”


In our demo, the Telepath hits Yu with a Psychoshock, disabling his abilities. Switching to the Glu gun, Bare coats the Telepath in glue, disabling it and causing it to fall comically to the floor. This buys enough time to scan the creature, unlocking the Psychoshock ability, which lets Bare turn the tables on the Telepath, disabling its powers to make the rest of the fight much easier. Not all of the combat sequences we see are this involved, but the Telepath also isn’t the most powerful alien type on Talos I. On the one hand, combat doesn’t look as fluid or frenetic as in Dishonored, but the slower pace has its advantages. Much like in BioShock, there’s the time and space to plan through an encounter against a powerful enemy and, even based on what we’ve seen so far, it seems as if there are plenty of ways to approach such a battle depending on your character’s build. “That’s our goal,” Bare says. “Give the player all of these tools and game mechanics so that they can be super-expressive in how they solve problems.” Prey has a few extra tricks, too, such as its jetpack. Designed for zero-gravity sections, it can also be used on the station proper as a way to quickly dodge and reposition, letting you back off and reassess.

But even this relatively short combat sequence can have consequences, both short and long term. In the short term, there’s the danger of traumas – localised damage, including broken legs that cause Yu to limp across the level. Traumas require specific medical supplies, but can also be fixed via medkits if Yu has the relevant skill upgrade. In the long term, Prey tracks which humans you’ve killed – even those mind-controlled by a Telepath. “We don’t have a chaos system like in Dishonored,” Bare says. “It’s more what I would call natural consequences. If you kill this person then the thing that they would have done at the end of the game is not possible – it’s just a natural consequence because they’re not here any more.”

The demo is an encouraging look at a promising game, where every interaction offers a degree of choice, and every choice invites future consequences. As an RPG, Prey asks players to consider those choices, and apply their preferences across a simulation much more intricate than Arkane’s more action-oriented games. If Dishonored 2 and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided offer an immersive-sim experience in an FPS-style environment, Prey is reviving the slower, more measured approach of System Shock and its successors. Once again, Arkane is creating a sandbox of systems, inventing new and surprising ways to say yes to the player.