Welcome to Waypoint's Pantheon of Games, a celebration of our favorite games, a re-imagining of the year's best characters, and an exploration of the 2017's most significant trends.
The Realm of the Gods: Talos One (Prey)
Light spoilers for Prey ahead.
The Talos 1 space station—where Prey takes place—is a giant, interconnected series of puzzle-like spaces, packed into one coherent whole. The trick is that last part—not only do its many rooms, corridors, and outside areas offer you many options for problem solving, but they feel like part of an actual place, constructed logically. So much so, that you can go outside the station and float around it, physically seeing how the spaces are constructed in the same fashion they are on any map you encounter inside. The result is an immersive sim that outdoes the BioShock series, with level design that supports not one or three or even five possible “paths through a level,” but dozens of possibilities.
I call it puzzle-like, because all of these spaces are filled with obstacles, and much, much more than meets the eye in terms of solutions and tools for clever players. In Joseph Anderson’s (excellent) critique of the game, he goes through a few of the more and less obvious ways to solve particular obstacles.
You aren’t just speccing yourself as a hacker, or a buff soldier, or stealth specialist, or whatever else. You can mix and match abilities, weapons, powers, and frankly, the tiniest items in any room and use them to your advantage, in many—sometimes unexpected—ways. Yes, you can hack or move heavy boxes with a strength upgrade. But you can also turn into a coffee cup and bounce through a hole. Or shoot an oxygen tank and move through a small space. Or shoot your little dart gun at a computer screen to access an unlock code. Or use the GLOO gun to climb over it.
You could develop a favorite method and stick to it. But this sort of experimentation is key, I think, to a great immersive sim. All those systems interlock, they build on one another and interact in fun, surprising ways. My favorite way to play BioShock (and its direct sequel) involved not shooting much, instead setting death traps and using the environment creatively—hacking drones and big daddies to fight for me, luring splicers to water and electrocuting the water, etc.. Prey takes this several steps farther.
It’s a great pleasure to discover, for example, that you can use well-placed oxygen tanks to blow away obstacles. To notice that you can GLOO your way around sections, and watch enemies pace. At one point, I spent close to an hour making a bananas GLOO stairway around a massive room crawling with enemies and broken panels spurting electricity. In another,
Being space-McGuyver is satisfying, because the game will often let you do that weird “what if?”
The level design robustly supports and encourages this kind of exploration, and provides a series of coherent, aesthetically interesting spaces. There’s the golden 80s-meets-art deco of the lobby and office areas, which look like corporate bullshit (supporting the theme) and also encourage you to get creative with your GLOO gun and jetpack. The funky, clinical labs of psychotronics, where you start to become attuned to the combat using a scanner, and pick up clues about the station’s secret past as a Soviet satellite that had an alien encounter. The arboretum, a park with trees and grass and rocky outcroppings, with secret nooks where lovers found a moment of privacy (or… baseball).
Prey would have been fun for me even if the environments were sterile puzzle rooms full of mechanical possibility. But that would’ve been a different game, not this particularly cyberpunk tale about the Transtar corporation (which run Talos I) and the Yu family.
Prey’s story works for me on several levels. It’s a critique of corporate ass-covering and scientific ambition gone haywire, and a series of personal tragedies and triumphs. It all starts strong: You are Morgan Yu, a hotshot scientist studying alien-assisted brain transplants who awakens to find that she’s been living the same day over and over again for three weeks, then, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: all hell has broken loose on a spaceship), and evolves into a story about identity, taking responsibility for others, and committing to the best version of yourself.
It tells a story that resonates on several levels, especially the personal. The game invites you to know the people who lived and worked here, through emails, props and voice logs at first, and later, through actually meeting and aiding survivors. This place—and its people—have a past. They fell in and out of love, they played RPGs. They worked out in a gym and ate in an opulent cafeteria. They had workplace feuds. Some of them worked in the offices or labs, others in the maintenance areas.
And there is a clear divide between the haves and the have nots. In the crew quarters, high-level officers enjoy luxurious cabins, while lower-level workers are crammed into bunks, and prisoners—selected as so much human meat for your experiments—exist in their own grim little glass cells. It’s not necessarily subtle, but it sure bolsters the themes and informs the grim political ideology of the Transtar corporation.
Importantly, it introduces many of the people here like other games in the Shock lineage—after the fact—then, largely in its final third, actually introduces you to them in realtime.
This is upping the ante considerably. In the Shock games, you are typically an outsider trapped in the chaos. You might feel for the people here, in picking up pieces of their lives, but you aren’t one of them. And the people themselves are caricatures, useful for fleshing out philosophical ideas and having a whole lot of theatrical fun, but they rarely connected on a human level.
In Prey, Talos I is your home and your workplace. This is where Morgan sleeps, where she tinkers with machines, where she’s set to executing her life’s work, where she has gone to therapy and had her medical appointments. The people here mean something to her, even if she was something of a terrible boss to many of them. And then there are the folks in Morgan’s inner circle: her ex girlfriend. Her brother. Her closest staff. Importantly, Prey uses the way you treat people organically, and makes it a big part of the endgame (which I think is strong, but I won’t spoil it here).
In Prey, Talos I is your home and your workplace.
This is what Prey does so well. It works cohesively: level design, systems design, story, architecture, and this overwhelming encouragement to try new things—all work in concert.
It isn’t just a fun immersive sim with cool levels—it features a massive space station that you can traverse, from head to toe, and go outside and float the same route back. It isn’t just a cool narrative space to walk around, with well-written emails and journals that detail what went wrong here—many survivors offer you the choice to assist, the danger is very much happening in the present and you can do something about it. It isn’t just a first person shooter, with an approach to combat that favors a puzzle-solving approach, rather than a boring bullet storm.
Prey isn’t just a very good game. It’s a masterpiece, and one of the finest, if, possibly, one of the last, big-budget immersive sims in our era.
Everything: Everything (Everything)
I didn’t start having real fun with Everything until I stopped playing it. That sounds like a really horrible thing to say but, truly, setting that controller down and looking away for a few minutes lead to some of the most memorable experiences I’ve had with a game in a very, very long time.
In Everything you can be just about everything, and when you get tired of being everything you can let the game itself be everything instead. It will hop from being to being, size itself up or down, and skip and roam around the world at will. And that’s how I found myself watching a banana the size of a pine tree wandering through the snow-blanketed countryside, leading a herd of deer.
God Of Redemption: Oralech (Pyre)
Light Spoilers for Pyre below!
The demon Oralech leads his team through the Downside, hung up on his failed attempt to escape the purgatorial land of exile. While introduced to the player’s Nightwings as a villain, it becomes clear throughout the game that Oralech is a man haunted his own mistakes, and underneath his anger and frustration is a genuine desire for mutual care and respect. A doctor before he was banished, his steely gaze looks ever upward, toward the lost future he believes he deserves.
God of Secrets: The Janitor (Night in the Woods)
In many ways, Night in the Woods is a straightforward slice-of-life, Twin Peaks-inspired, small-town drama with supernatural undertones. You can certainly read it at face value. But once the Janitor at the bus station gets involved, things get complicated. How does he know Mae’s name? How much does he know about what’s going on in Possum Springs? And when you start thinking about him, the rabbit hole that is Night in the Woods only expands. Is he God? Is he another benevolent spirit? The sheer fact of his existence brings up so many questions that can’t be answered.
Goddess of Time: Sader Fiasco (Heat Signature)
It is a magnificent thing to make nine seconds last fifteen minutes.