'Prey' Might Have a Terrible Ending But That's What Makes It Great

The game that breaks itself.

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Aug 17 2017, 5:00pm

Prey screenshots courtesy Bethesda

By the end of Prey, I was an unstoppable hurricane of destruction, to the point where every aspect of the game seemed unable to cope with what my Morgan Yu had become. I'd maxed out nearly every skill tree and upgraded several of the alien powers to the point where I could stun, conscript, or annihilate anything in my path. The survival-horror tension of the early hours—where each environment was a potential death-trap—completely vanished.

It was so boring that I stopped playing for six weeks.

But I came back and embraced the fact that my character was effectively a god among men and monsters. Looking at how the game concludes, I think that's kind of the point. You're meant to transcend the challenge of Prey, and if the endgame seems broken from the perspective of level design and game balance, it's terrific at driving home Prey's themes.

Some spoilers from this point forward

To be frank, I do think Prey's last act only really works if you've explored and completed side-quests pretty extensively. Otherwise I suspect I'd have found myself in agreement with Jason Schreier's exasperated reaction on Kotaku, where he found the last few hours to be a grinding slog through endless waves of poorly-designed enemies.

Neither the promisingly named "Nightmare" nor the waves of Military Operators (effectively just laser-equipped versions of the same Medical and Engineering Operators you've battled for the whole game) really provide interesting challenges. The former is just a really big Typhon Phantom with several times the hitpoints, and the latter are only slightly more dangerous versions of the same rogue robots you've fought the entire game.

But if you've aggressively fulfilled sidequests and reaped the attendant rewards, then these two enemies barely register as roadblocks by the end. Electroshock abilities, or upgraded stun guns and EMP grenades, will devastate flocks of Operators. The Nightmare, meanwhile, is a sitting duck for an upgraded Q-beam, which is like a hand-fired Death Star cannon.

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This is what initially bothered me about this phase of the game, and is still my biggest beef with Prey. It too-soon runs out of ways to challenge the player and keep its own systems fresh. Hell, with maxed-out stealth abilities even just passing through rooms unseen becomes trivially easy.

On the other hand, it is very much Prey's intent to evoke that feeling of imperviousness and dominance. Prey's plot unfolds in parallel with your own battle for mastery of a space. In the early stages of the game you are an escaped prisoner who emerges from their dungeon to find that the castle itself has fallen. The interior of the Talos I space station is either derelict or actively hostile, an alien place whose dangers are many and whose function is obscure. You have a very limited bag of tools that can help you navigate it, which means that most of the station will remain dangerous and hard to access. You just have to make do with what little you have.

As you progress through the game, Morgan's powers expand, and you begin re-taking key parts of Talos I. More of its systems can be turned in your favor: turrets can be hacked or disabled, barricades can be broken down, and every computer terminal accessed. Even as you reconquer the station, however, you keep being pushed into more distant and dangerous parts of the station where the Typhon presence is stronger.

Time is also passing, reflected by the growing clouds of "coral" winding through the station. Initially confined to the central areas of the station, the wispy golden cobwebs steadily expand across every level. By the last stages of the game, it looks like the entire thing is taking place inside a piece of amber. It's a reminder that even as you are starting to make yourself at home inside Talos I, there's an invader that's rapidly colonizing the space station around you.

The question of where you sit in this ecosystem, whether you can cross the predator / prey divide, is the question that this entire game has been trying to answer.

Yet you are doubly advantaged because Prey and its side-quests give you a comprehensive knowledge of that space. The denouement involves a lot of back-tracking—which is probably another of Prey's major issues—as you scour old ground for the second, third, or even fourth time.

On the other hand, Prey has also made you something of a speedrunner by this point. While the environment is being flooded with enemies, it's your environment now. Everywhere I went, I found the makeshift staircases and bridges I had made with the GLOO Cannon, the open hatches and unlocked security doors left by earlier passages, the hacked security turrets ready to be reactivated. The endgame enemies were invading Talos I, yes, but it had become my station, a labyrinth in which Morgan Yu was now the Minotaur.

The problem I face when I consider the ending of Prey is that I'm not sure I could have had the good without the bad. The coolest thing about the ending of Prey, for me at least, is that the game lets me evolve my own relationship with its spaces over a period of hours. The reason I feel super-powered at the end is not just because of ability upgrades and stat increases, but also because of a knowledge and history that built-up over Prey's long and occasionally tedious quest chains.

While the game's final act might lack tension as a stealth shooter, that's not ultimately the dilemma that game is working to resolve. It's a battle between two irresistible forces for control over the station and what it represents. If those late-game adversaries feel futile, like little more than obnoxious speedbumps, then that's entirely in keeping with where you are in the "food-web" aboard Talos I.

It's why the game's title ends up being more than just an awkward tie-in to an abandoned IP. The question of where you sit in this ecosystem, whether you can cross the predator / prey divide, is the question that this entire game has been trying to answer. When Prey throws up its hands and admits the limitations of its own ability to assess player choice, and turns the answer over to you, it's the rare case where a drastic and polarizing player-choice ending actually feels like it has been earned. It's made you an apex predator.

The final question is what you will choose as your prey.

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