Arkane Studios “Re-Imagining” of the 2006 Xbox 360 title looks good, but does it deserve the “Prey” title?
Among the games Bethesda teased at their E3 conference this year was an anomaly. A game no one had seen or heard of before. The two minute teaser trailer showed what CNET’s Seamus Byrne described as, “a space horror version of Groundhog Day.” It was disorienting, exciting, fresh compared to Call of Duty or even Battlefield. Then the title flashed: “Prey.” And that’s when the confusion really began.
The original Prey was a 2006 sci-fi first person shooter developed by Human Head Studios. Published by 2K Games, it released to moderate critical and commercial success. Success enough, it seemed, to justify a sequel. Prey 2 was announced shortly after Prey’s release. It subsequently disappeared from public eye, before reemerging at E3 2011. Promising an alien open world setting and amnesiac bounty hunter protagonist, it looked like a hit in the making. Then the floor fell out. Mistakes were made. The game sank into development hell. Bethesda, whom acquired franchise rights in 2009, confirmed the game was cancelled in October 2014.
Now, like the phoenix, Prey is reborn. It’s not a sequel or reboot. It’s a “re-imagining of the IP,” according to Bethesda VP Peter Hines. Development has been contracted out to Arkane Studios, known for the fantastic Dishonored. Gone are the setting and story of the original game and its abortive sequel. The question is: is that a bad thing? Was the old Prey really that special? And should the title apply to this new “re-imagining” of the franchise?
What was Prey?
For a series that contains only one title, Prey has a storied history. Development originated in 1995 with 3D Realms. It was envisioned as a game to rival the upcoming Unreal, using untested game engine technology. Portals and gravity puzzles would be a core feature. The protagonist would be a Native American battling aliens. This Prey received critical acclaim at E3 1997 and E3 1998. Problems with technology and the creative team, however, ultimately terminated this version of the game.
The Prey that was released in 2006 began development in 2001. 3D Realms licensed portal technology instead of developing it in-house, and contracted Human Head to develop the game. The emphasis on portal and gravity-based puzzles was retained. A year before Portal set the standard for sci-fi platform puzzlers, Prey took the first stab at it, using concepts dating to the late 1990s.
More unique, perhaps, was the game’s emphasis on cultural identity. The protagonist was no bald, grizzled space marine or faceless Ubermensch. He is Domasi “Tommy” Tawodi, a modern-day Cherokee, an American Indian. He is torn between his girlfriend and grandfather on the reservation, and a desire to see the world. His culture is tied directly into gameplay. Players could enter a “spirit walk” to navigate puzzles or fight enemies. Instead of a game over screen upon death, Tommy would enter a mini game to escape the afterlife. His spirit animal provided a way point marker throughout each level. More than culture, though, Tommy is human. There is no cheesy caricature, no Tonto a la The Lone Ranger. He expresses the full range of human emotions. His lines usually manage to skirt cliche, and are delivered with conviction. You as the player genuinely sympathize with him, especially in some of the game’s darkest moments. Prey’s story is as much about Tommy escaping the hostile alien world as it is about embracing his identity. In the climax, he defiantly proclaims before a crowd of powerful aliens, “I am Cherokee.” It’s a metaphoric proclamation, defying video game convention and cultural stereotypes alike.
If you can’t already tell, I nurse a soft spot for the original Prey. When I first got my Xbox 360 in 2007, I had two titles to play. Prey was the second, a Christmas gift. I was lucky; my dad wanted to get me the Transformers movie game. I sank dozens of hours into Prey. The puzzles were annoying but a thrill to solve. The weapons were truly alien. There was a palpable feeling of loneliness, navigating each level full of hostile aliens alone. I spent a long, dark night playing through the game on its hardest difficulty. When the credits finally rolled, to the mournful synthesized beats of “Take Me Home,” by After Midnight Project, I got goosebumps. That was the effect the game had on me. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate Prey’s unique sci fi world and mix of Cherokee culture. But that emotional pathos was what started it all.
What IS Prey?
So now we come to this. The “re-imagining” of the franchise. I won’t worry the question of whether the game will be released. The eerie parallels between Prey 2017’s development and Prey 2006’s development can’t be ignored. If 2006 saw release, then I am confident 2017 will too. Arkane is a hot studio right now, with a sequel to Dishonored also on the horizon. With Bethesda backing them, and with their track record, the new Prey may very well be a dark horse in the glutted FPS market.
Will it be any good? Having only a cinematic trailer to go by, I can’t comment on the objective quality of this new game. But I can objectively say it’s not MY Prey, the Prey I grew up with. The world seems to be a near-future quasi-utopia, some sort of space station. Tommy has been replaced by the generic-looking/sounding Morgan. Portals and puzzles may still play a role, if there’s any truth to that quip about sci-fi horror meets Groundhog Day. It has already been confirmed that the game will not be open world. However, Arkane Studios do plan for levels to be open ended, similar to Dishonored. Knowing Arkane, player choice will likely play a significant role in the final game, again, similar to Dishonored. What, then, keeps this new game from becoming “Dishonored in Space?” Or “Bioshock in Space,” for that matter? That influence from either of these franchises isn’t a problem; they’re both great games to emulate. But they should not define a new (or “re-imagined”) IP’s identity.
If Bethesda wanted to make a new sci fi game, why apply a dead franchise’s title to it? It’s clear that none of the assets that went into Prey 2’s abortive development are present here. Are they trying to attract fans of the original game? It’s possible, though unlikely, since the title is now ten years old. Most fans have probably grown up or moved on. Some, like me, probably regard this new game with a healthy skepticism. Not whether it will be a bad game, but whether it will live up to its title’s legacy. The question to ask is this: what defines a game? The core mechanics? The story? The world it builds? Something else? Arkane and Bethesda ought to ask themselves this. Because in absence of Prey’s portal and gravity-based gameplay and Cherokee cultural influence, this “re-imagining” currently lacks an identity of its own. And that can make or break a game more than any amount of imagination can fix.