The Brilliance Behind the Bland Corporate Horror of 'Prey'

A far-fetched tale of technological marvels, commodified human talent, and oblivious managers.

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May 10 2017, 4:00pm

Screenshot courtesy Bethesda

There is no great vision animating the world-gone-to-hell that you find in Prey. It barely even registers as a dystopian setting, which says more about our own times than Prey's aesthetic sensibilities. While that may mean it lacks some of the megalomaniacal grandeur of BioShock's Rapture, that also gives it a poignant relevance and immediacy. Particularly for anyone still lucky enough to be making a living from their talents, skills, and education. Be careful, Prey tells us, because they're coming for you next.

The magical MacGuffin that gives you your superpowers in Prey are Neuromods that let you instantly download and receive the skills, training, and abilities of other people. Early in the game, you learn that a dying classical pianist, Gustav Leitner, came to Talos I to let the Transtar Corporation record his abilities. For Leitner, it's a form of immortality. For the people who will one day install the Neuromods with his data, it will let them at once have the talent of a generation-defining musician.

Even on its face this raises all sorts of fascinating questions about how this would change the nature of skilled arts and crafts. What would become the point of taking music lessons when one injection can give you the classical training of a Vladimir Horowitz, and another shot can augment that with Dave Brubeck's ear for jazz? What would be the point of being a competent amateur musician when expertise was a one-time purchase away? And for that matter, what value does a musician have in this world?

But there's another shoe that's yet to drop in Prey: the abilities aren't yours to keep. They're essentially licensed. If those Neuromods are ever removed or revoked, then it's Flowers for Algernon time: you lose all those skills immediately. Nothing remains of them, or any ways in which you developed them further. It's basically a hard reset, erasing all your skills, anything you did with them, and the meaning they gave your life.

Mind you, there doesn't appear to be a whole sinister plot to commodify human ability and talent. The people working on the Talos I space station love Leitner and idolize his musicianship. That's why they want to preserve it forever! And share it with the world! As for all the questions their work raises… so far there's precious little evidence that anyone has bothered to consider them. We have the technology, therefore we're doing it.

The bland, anodyne vision you find on Talos I is a far cry from Andrew Ryan's clenched-fist protest against the ideas of community and commonwealth. But it's horrific in its own way: high above earth, the corporation is ensuring its own immortality by rendering its human capital into something that is interchangeable, replicable, and IP-protected. When it encountered strange life that could seamlessly blend into the scenery and assume the shape and identity of the things around it, a corporation like Transtar didn't see seeing something horrific and alien. It saw kinship, and perhaps something to which it could aspire.

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