If I were to draw a Venn diagram of the artistic inspirations of the new video game Prey, there’d be a big blue circle marked “Bioshock” and a big red circle marked “Dead Space 2” and where they overlapped, all that purple space would be marked Prey. Now, I’m not saying Prey is ripped off from Bioshock…
…wait, yes I am. I am exactly saying that Prey is a big old ripoff of Bioshock, right down to the psychic powers, wrench-as-a-weapon, and the late-game reveal that All Is Not What You Thought It Was. It’s just like Bioshock, but even more convoluted.
Prey has a twist beginning, then a series of misleading-yet-not-misleading clues that suggest something astonishing, then a double twist ending that both does and doesn’t negate all the previous clues. (And the final twist is only a surprise because there’s ABSOLUTELY NO FORESHADOWING WHATSOEVER. It’s an out-of-the-blue ending, without a bit of groundwork having been laid for it, which I believe professional writers refer to as “pulling it out of your ass”.) Arkane Studios, the developer, is baldly and nakedly aiming for a surprise on par with Bioshock’s shocking reveal, but none of it reaches the level of “Would you kindly?” (Then again, what has? Ever?)
BUT HOLD YOUR HORSES THERE, PARDNER! You might assume that because Prey gratuitously rips off two previous great games, it must therefore suck like the infinite vacuum of space. YOU WOULD BE WRONG. Prey is actually a pretty great game. It’s fun, tense, and varied, with puzzles, combat, and cool 3-D space maneuvering that only cheats the physics a little bit.
Plus, it has an old-school RPG in it.
You see, several of the denizens of the space station (look, as soon as I said Dead Space 2, you should have realized there was a space station) played a D&D-ish game called Fatal Fortress. The great thing is, the GM of the game handed her four players four different treasure maps, which if decoded and used in concert would lead the players to treasure. You, as the protagonist of Prey, then have to DECODE THE MAPS TO FIND THE TREASURE, and the quest to do so has you running your ass off all over the station, all the while monsters try to eat it.
That’s right, for one side mission they turned their survival-horror-in-space First Person Shooter into an old-school-style puzzle-and-monster dungeon crawl RPG.
In fact, the entire game might be considered a dungeon-crawl, and GM’s looking to find out what a dungeoncrawl feels like could do worse than to play this game. ESPECIALLY as it completely eschews the concept of “clearing out the dungeon”. Yes, you can kill all the monsters in an area, but sooner or later they WILL come back, often when you least expect. It keeps you on your toes.
Another thing that Prey does right, that GM’s can learn from, is ambiance. Bioshock is set in a fabulous city deep beneath the ocean waves (called Rapture, pictured above), and the designers of the game made sure that every room had some visceral reminder that the player was under the ocean. Windows peering out on the ocean depths, pools of water on the floor, or rivulets running down the wall from an unseen leak—the player was always reminded that this was no ordinary city.
Whereas Rapture felt like an undersea city, and the USG Ishimura from the original Dead Space felt like a blue-collar interstellar factory ship, the Talos 1 station from Prey feels like a space station custom-designed to make inhabitants forget they’re floating in the deep darkness of outer space. Many areas of the station come across like sections of an amusement park: there’s a wood-paneled and brass-fitted false front that gives people the illusion of luxury, but hidden behind this are crawl ways, exposed piping, and blank concrete. The contrast is stark.
The player gets to experience both the apparent luxury and the hidden utilitarian underpinnings of the station, and the dichotomy makes the station feel real, like you’re exploring an actual place. It’s verisimilitude gold. Gamemasters should shoot for the same goal in their own campaigns—use description to make the game world feel real by reminding players of unique aspects of the setting.
Good artists borrow; great artists steal. The only defense against accusations of ripping something off is to make something so good, the point is moot. Quality justifies its own existence, and in the end—despite some glitches and the occasional rough spot—Prey is a quality game.