When watching a horror movie, you often find yourself shouting at the screen for the characters to not go into the basement, or judging them afterward for not picking up the ax before going down the hallway. Much of the thrill of playing a horror game is putting you in control of that panicking character, letting you decide how to survive. The problem with some video games though is that they can have a limited set of verbs, not allowing you to do what feels natural. The immersive sim genre, exemplified by games like Deus Ex and System Shock 2, is all about creating a specific set of systems and allowing players to mess around with them in nearly any way they can think of. Five years after its release, Arkane Austin’s Prey remains one of the finest combinations of immersive sim and survival horror, creating a unique experience that’s unmatched to this day.
Prey takes place on the space station Talos I, which has been overrun by a sinister force. It’s a picturesque monument to corporate life, both the clean exterior and the morally gray underbelly, that’s under attack from shapeshifting aliens known as Typhon. The density of the spaces in Talos I is absolutely staggering, and so much more impressive to me than a giant open world. As you explore, you find Neuromods, tools that remap your brain, allowing you to upgrade your character in a wide variety of ways, allowing you to create a build that caters to your playstyle. Upgrading your hacking prowess can allow you to access areas and equipment that are usually locked up, while enhancing your stealth gives you the ability to carefully avoid combat encounters. You even can program yourself with powers taken directly from the various enemies you fight.
The Typhon is not only a formidable enemy, but also a well-thought-out one. They all share a base look of ‘weird black energy cloud,’ but find different ways to make that idea unique. Some are human-shaped and have a specific elemental power. Others are floating blobs that can take over machines or human NPCs. But the most fun is the signature enemy of the game, the Mimic, a smaller spider-like enemy that shapeshifts and hides among everyday objects. It’s a perfect enemy for an immersive sim. So much of your time is spent scavenging for resources or looking for lore notes, which sets you up perfectly for Mimic-related jump scares. It’s easy to be casually vacuuming up items in an office when a coffee cup suddenly turns into a Mimic and leaps directly at your face. It keeps a nice background of tension to even the most mundane of tasks, creating an oppressive atmosphere throughout.
Anytime you find yourself confronted with enemies in Prey, it feels you really have to consider all your options. There are so many different ways to spec out your character, and all of them feel equally viable. I never felt like I was locking myself out of specific areas because of my playstyle, as there are always multiple ways of unlocking your progress, whether it be hacking a door or simply using your enhanced strength to lift an obstacle out of the way. My first time through, I did not put any points into the Typhon powers, instead focusing on making myself more effective at standard gun-based combat, with a focus on fixing up and utilizing turrets found throughout the station.
I thought this would only have implications for how I played, but my aversion to Typhon powers actually ended up having a big impact on the ending I received in the game’s wrap-up. I’m so used to games that have a score that tells you if you’re good or evil, or games that notify you that a character will remember your actions, so it’s refreshing to see Prey quietly judging you on your actions both in how you build your character and how you treat NPCs during the various side quests.
Even though its narrative is always engrossing, the stories I most remember are the ones that emerge from the interactions of systems within the game. Immersive sims excel at creating micro-narratives out of each encounter that feels like they are completely unique to you. The level design of Prey is strong enough that multiple options are made apparent, but are still subtle enough to make you feel like you’re stumbling on something the devs didn’t intend for you to find. Mimicking a coffee cup to fit through a small hole or using a foam dart gun to hit an out-of-reach button all feel like you’re breaking the game, but they’re perfect examples of how Arkane wants you to play with the tools they’ve given. It’s even more satisfying in combat, when you find ways to perfectly synergize your abilities and weapons. In one encounter, you can find yourself spawning a friendly Typhon Phantom, running across the room while the enemy is distracted to hack a turret, then freezing your enemies in place with a Gloo Gun while they are torn apart from multiple angles. It’s fun to see chaos like this go exactly as planned, but equally fun when you don’t account for everything and it spins wildly out of control.
Despite having so many options available to you, throughout most of the game you’re still not truly overpowered. This is largely in part of a smart resource economy that’s backed by one of the most satisfying crafting systems in video games. Any junk you collect is broken down into basic crafting materials, which allows you to be selective with what you’re searching for. If you’re in need of bullets, you’ll need to be looking for mineral-based objects to recycle, but if you’re trying to craft Neuromods you’ll need to harvest exotic materials directly from Typhons. It’s another way that the game encourages you to become intimately acquainted with the environment and search every nook and cranny. If you’re in desperate need of organic materials, you’ll know it’s best to go to the arboretum because you’ve spent hours getting to know this place like the back of your hand. It’s immensely satisfying and really adds some survival to the horror of the game.
The immersive sim seems to be a genre that isn’t represented a ton in mainstream games anymore. I’d be hard-pressed to think of another studio the size of Arkane that consistently works in the genre. It’s a shame, because immersive sims are such an easy fit to go with a horror setting. Desperately trying to improvise your way through dangerous encounters in meticulously crafted areas is what both horror and immersive sims are all about. Even after five years, every once in a while I see Prey on my shelf and think to myself, “maybe it’s time for another quick playthrough” and end up being pulled back into its grasp.