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'Prey' Is a Great Game, but It's Missing Great Characters

Let's talk about memorable characters in today's open thread.

by Austin Walker
May 8 2017, 3:22pm

Above: screenshot courtesy Bethesda

If you heard Friday's episode of Waypoint Radio, you won't be surprised to hear that I spent a good deal of the weekend putting time into Prey, Arkane Studio's new sci-fi "immersive sim."

When pitching people on the game, the quick comparison to make is to Bioshock. Yes, it's an immersive sim a la Deus Ex, System Shock, and Arkane's own Dishonored series, but unlike those games, open combat seems like an inevitability. Prey, like Bioshock, even has an array of combat-focused powers gained via sci-fi macguffins of questionable origin.

But as I play more and more—I'm about 20 hours in now—I've realized that there's a major Bioshock staple that isn't in Prey: memorable characters.

Just minutes into the first Bioshock, you come face to face (well, face to JPEG) with Andrew Ryan, the objectivist architect of Rapture. And then you meet everyone else: Atlas, crusading everyman; Sander Cohen, amoral artist; Tennenbaum, repentant super scientist; Suchong, unrepentant super scientist. Some of Bioshock's characters you only "meet" via audio log, but they stand out in my memory, regardless.

And striking, memorable characters are a Shock series staple. From System Shock's SHODAN and the Many, to Bioshock 2's Sophia Lamb and Minerva's Den's Charles Porter, to Bioshock Infinite's huge cast—the Lutece Twins, Elizabeth, Daisy, Comstock, and the rest. Don't get me wrong, I don't think all of these characters are brilliantly written, nuanced portrayals of humanity. In fact, when I say that the Shock series has "memorable characters" what I might mean is that it has caricatures, for better and worse.

Despite taking place in an alien filled space station, Prey is a game with little pure spectacle. The moment that Rapture is first revealed in Bioshock is breathtaking—neon and glass and steel appear all at once, and Andrew Ryan's vision comes into focus. However many times you rolled your eyes at its creator's Randian monologue, from the outside, Rapture dominates and convinces. But the reveal of Prey's Talos 1's is not a vision of its imposing shape, its blacks and golds, or its chimeric gargoyles. It's a view from inside Talos 1, of the earth and the Moon. There is no magic trick presto, there is only a striking context.

Prey is quiet. It's restrained. That feels like an active decision made by Arkane, and its one that carried over onto the sorts of characters it has, too. And this probably is why, 20 hours in, I haven't found anyone giving a halting speech about their ideology, nor a smirking survivor whose allegiance I can't quite be sure of. The characters I most often hear from in Prey are fine, but they don't light my brain up in the way that the casts of the other Shock games did. And the cast of supporting, audio-log only characters are sketches more than portraits. So far, the most memorable moment with another character has been a brief hand on glass.

I don't necessarily think this is a misstep—this all feels intentional, like Arkane was going for a more "mature" style of sci-fi story. But maybe a lifetime of shouting, idealist tyrants and hard-accented penitents has warped my expectations, because I'm just not sure that the inhabitants of Talos 1 will stick with me over the next few years. But hey, maybe the last third of the game will change all of this. We'll see.

In any case, what I want to know from you in today's open thread on the Waypoint forums is what gaming characters have been the most memorable for you over the years? Not just your favorite characters, but the ones that tower over the others in occupying brain space. The ones you can't stop thinking about even if you think they're poorly written or acted or designed. The ones that stick with you.