Is the new Prey taking itself too seriously?


At E3 in June, Bethesda revealed footage of a long-awaited sequel to Prey. The teaser trailer arrived ten years after the release of the original, a game that itself was in development for nearly ten years.

But the game previewed by Bethesda isn’t actually Prey 2 at all. In fact, in a follow-up video released this week, the developers claim that “Prey is not a sequel, it’s not a remake, it has no tie with the original”. Rather, it’s a ‘reimagining’ of the first Prey – and in fact it looks like a completely different game.

In the trailer, we see footage of a man named Morgan repeatedly waking up in his apartment, and gradually looking more and more worse for wear each time. There’s the insinuation that he’s become part of some dreadful experiment, and we have gameplay footage of some eerie, black, smoke-like aliens scuttling around and looking creepy. We end with a sinister computer voice greeting Morgan and suggesting that it’s about to reveal some terrible truth.

All well and good – but I’m baffled as to how this links to the previous game in any way at all. In fact, the developers explicitly say that it doesn’t. So why is it called Prey? The cynic in me suggests it might be a case of slapping a brand on something to boost sales, a la Metroid Prime: Federation Force. But even if that isn’t the case, the footage released so far seems far distant from the spirit of the first game.

It all just feels slightly off.

The spirit of Duke

3D Realms, the makers of Duke Nukem 3D, helmed the development of the original Prey, and the mark of the Duke is all over that game. Not that it features titty bars and a cigar-chompin’ muscle museum for a lead, more in the sense that it’s surprisingly playful for a game with an outwardly grim plot.

An organic spaceship called The Sphere is harvesting life forms throughout the Galaxy to either mulch into fodder or genetically and cybernetically manipulate into becoming slaves – so a bit like Mass Effect then, except that Prey came out a year before that game. But whereas Mass Effect is all shiny spaceships and galactic politics, Prey is like a B movie horror film, complete with gags and grisly effects. Near the very beginning, for example, you discover what’s been happening to some of the kidnapped humans – an enormous steel machine spattered with blood is winching the screaming victims into position and then skewering them with ridiculously large spikes, before clamping a metal hood over them and chewing up the remains. It’s hideous and shocking… But also kind of funny. It’s funny because it’s just so ludicrously over the top. (Skip to the 5:00 mark in the video below to see what I mean.)

There are moments like that all the way through Prey. It was an astonishingly good looking game at the time of its release, a proper AAA title in terms of graphics, but it had an anarchic, OTT sensibility that gave it a real indie feel – like a genre movie made by a bunch of uni kids that ended up becoming a mega hit.

It’s also very, very silly – and it knows it. At one point early on you get shrunk down and placed on a tiny planet with its own microgravity inside a display case. Then a guard spots you and decides to give chase by shrinking himself down too, and so ensues a Benny Hill style pursuit as you circle around and around this tiny sphere. Can you imagine the same thing happening to Commander Shepherd? (Skip to the 5:30 mark in the vid below.)

Another example is the gravity walkways – white paths that let you walk up walls and across ceilings. They don’t really make any practical sense whatsoever, but they’re an awful lot of fun, especially when you’re attempting to fight enemies above and to the side of you. It leads to a pleasing sense of vertigo as you quickly lose track of which way is up.

Basically, the game embraces fun at every turn, while giving realism a sideways squinty look – and it’s all the better for it. I mean, one of the weapons is a lobbable crab.

Inflated spleens with fangs.
Inflated spleens with fangs.

Which brings me back to Duke Nukem 3D, a game that doesn’t even know the definition of realism but that probably has ‘FUN’ tattooed across its buttocks in magenta. Prey has the Duke’s DNA running right through it – even the aliens bear a passing resemblance to DN3D’s space pigs. In particular, the weird dog things that look like an inflated spleen with fangs could be right out of a Duke Nukem game.

What makes you worry?

All of which makes me worry that the new Prey sequel/remake/reimagining could be missing the point of what made the original so good. The trailer is breathtaking in its sincerity, a super-serious set-up for what looks like a space conspiracy thriller. Its enemies are dark, mysterious and scary. It doesn’t look like the sort of game that has lobbable crabs in it.

Yep, that's a tossable crab.
Yep, that’s a tossable crab.

More to the point, it doesn’t look like anything particularly new. One of the delights of the original game was the depth of ideas – the gravity walkways, the puzzles with portals (a full year before Portal made a whole game about them), the shrink ray, the fact that you could leave your body and enter the ghost realm to nip through walls and pull switches. I mean, you’ve got a bloody spirit animal – how many first person shooters do you see that in? It’s also worth mentioning that the main character Tommy was a Native American, and it’s still the only game I can think of that has a Native American in the lead. Indeed, Tommy’s voice actor, Michael Greyeyes, praised the sensitivity with which the character was conceived, comparing it with the way Hollywood regularly relegates indigenous cultures into a “single pan-Indian construct”.

In other words, the original Prey was a breath of fresh air, something noticeably different from what went before. The impression I get from the ‘reimagining’, on the other hand, is of a game that doesn’t seem to offer anything new – and that might very well be taking itself a bit too seriously.

Hey, wait! It might be good!

Of course, this is all just mere speculation based on a tiny scrap of game footage. I’m sure that Arkane Studios know what they’re doing, and judging by how well Dishonored turned out, the franchise is probably in safe hands. The trailer is just what the studio and publisher want to show us, after all – the spleen dogs and shrink rays could be just out of shot.

Next-gen coffee in the Prey trailer.
Next-gen coffee in the Prey trailer.

One point from the trailer that did make me think of the original was the loving detail that’s been put into Morgan’s apartment. It put me in mind of the ludicrously detailed bar that the original game opened with, featuring a fully working jukebox, flushing toilets, a massive mirror (something that was impressive at the time) and even a fully playable arcade machine with a reworked version of Pac Man called Rune Man. Indeed, so much work had clearly been put into that bar, which features in the game for all of five minutes, that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was one of the reasons why the original Prey took so long to make.

Seeing Morgan wake up, grab a coffee and look in the mirror (mirrors again!) got me wondering whether that toilet is flushable, whether you can play around with that coffee machine and whether there’s a fully playable version of Rune Man on his laptop, just out of sight. Perhaps there are still plenty of silly, OTT touches – we just haven’t seen them yet.

There’s nothing wrong with being serious – and in fact the original Prey had a shocking twist near the end – but it would be a shame if this remake forgot to add the fun.