prey1.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch opinion column by Tom Cross focusing game narratives and the ways that play, gaming, and narrative mix. This week, Tom gets a bit lost in Prey for the wrong reasons.]

Human Head Studios’ Prey is an unusual game. It’s also incredibly old-fashioned. Its mechanics, narrative, and systems all reek of age, even in 2006 when it was released. It certainly isn’t unique because of its general plot: its tale of alien invasion and abduction is a well-trodden one, especially among video games.

However, the hero of this tale is Domasi, a Cherokee Native American struggling to save his girlfriend Jen from the alien invaders. The fact that Domasi isn’t a bald white space marine (though he was in the Army) is already a huge departure from most video games, but the blatant symbolism apparent in the game’s plot (Domasi is fighting an overwhelming, destructive group of invaders who capture his friends and family and kill his elders…) further distances it from most space shooters, and most video games, for that matter.

What Prey can’t lay claim to is a gripping play experience. Domasi’s life and friends are important in a nominal way: he wants to save Jen, but the only reason the story requires this of him is so it can turn him from the reluctant hero he starts the game as into the true believer he’ll become.

Domasi, you see, never believed in or thought much of the traditions and culture of his people, especially the specifically spiritual approach his grandfather Enisi always took when talking to Domasi. When Enisi is murdered by the aliens, Domasi adds revenge to his to-do list, but it takes a while for Enisi to convince Domasi of the spirit world’s existence.

Enisi does this by (yes) spiriting Domasi off, introducing the younger man to powers conferred on him by his ancestors and their spirits, and then plopping him back onto the alien spaceship with these new powers. These powers basically let Domasi walk through force fields, but they also allow him to use a spiritual bow in combat. These powers form one part of Prey’s two-pronged assault on traditional FPSs. The other prong is made up of portals and gravity puzzles.

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Years before Valve’s titular portals bowled gamers over, Prey employed the reality-piercing devices in its own alien corridors and puzzles. Prey isn’t a puzzle game: its portals can’t be placed or used in a dynamic way. Prey’s portals tend to serve as unconventional doorways, simple puzzles, and sadly, prettied-up monster closets.

This isn’t a game concerned with momentum, angles of flight, or other exciting (for a game) concepts, as Portal is. It’s concerned with having boxes fall over to reveal secret portals in the sides of those boxes. It’s quite sure that portals in boxes are kind of amazing. What it can’t see its way toward is any kind of interesting, genuinely puzzling use of these portals.

The other bits of pseudo-puzzles proffered by Prey are provided by gravity. In various controlled spaces, gravity can be manipulated. Shoot one glowing glyph, and everything in the room will hit that glyph’s corresponding wall. Thus, players have to engage in a simple kind of platforming, getting to hard-to-reach locations by flipping the gravity on and off on various walls.

When first encountered, these rooms seem to promise devious puzzles to come. In tandem with the gravity walkways (used to walk on any surface, regardless of orientation), they turn regular shooting arenas into slightly more complicated shooting arenas. These methods of environmental manipulation (however static or controlled) seem to be representative of themes important to both the game’s plot and its mechanics: disorientation, unknown paths and places, confusion, and uncertain destinations. They’re nothing of the sort, sadly, though they can be accidentally annoying.

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Domasi is quite different from the average video game protagonist in this respect. While he, like all avatars, must have a clear goal (for him, it’s killing aliens and saving Jen), his sense of self and his place in the world (or out of it) are uncertain at best.

Even after seeing the ancestral powers bequeathed to him by his grandfather, he still treats the traditions and people from which those powers came with a utilitarian respect. Unsurprisingly, he ultimately comes to terms with his heritage, his powers, and the deaths of those he loves. While the end of the game opens up a new chapter in Domasi’s adventures, it’s clear to that he’s put his uncertainties and doubts behind him. He’ll meet his deceased loved ones in the next world: he has business yet in this one.

It would immensely benefit Prey if its level design, enemy placement, and play flow helped to enhance and highlight these narrative themes. They do not, even when they strive to do so. For all of the gravity switching, wall-walking, portal-opening antics the aliens (and sometimes Domasi) get up to, and for all the Doom 3 engine’s look-alike corridors, Prey is a surprisingly straightforward play experience.

It’s an extremely old-school shooter where weapons, enemies, and combat are involved. Enemies walk or float, and either circle, charge, or stand their ground and fire. Guns are sci-fi versions of classic shooter weapons, each with their own secondary fire. The game is almost entirely set on the giant alien ship, and most fights and “exploration” take place in corridors or multi-tiered rooms.

What’s both amusing and frustrating is that the times when Prey does confuse and frustrate are completely unintentional. Despite the fact that its portals are dressed-up doors and its gravity puzzles are quite simple, the game’s dark, enclosed spaces can sometimes be extremely frustrating. When every pulsating mixture of alien flesh and hard metal looks the same, it’s hard to tell where to direct Domasi next. At these times, I felt like Domasi, and in the worst way possible.

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Exploring new locations and figuring out how to proceed past mysterious obstacles is part and parcel of many video games. It gives players a sense of accomplishment, knowing they’ve solved the problem before them yet again. Getting stuck in a room because I’ve forgotten to look in the one specific place the level designers hid the gravity switch makes me feel like nothing more than a moron.

Whenever the ship seems on the verge of opening up or mixing things up, things quickly revert to normal. Vast, open chambers and bits of alien machinery are almost always just window dressing: you can’t ever explore these areas or get lost in their hidden recesses. Likewise, the game’s one proper maze gives way on either side to corridors and rooms. This isn’t to say that a game set during an alien invasion should necessarily concern itself with the player’s path finding skills. The Half Life games have never been about this: their story isn’t about an individual lost in his own thoughts and in the world. They’re about someone whose purpose is always perfectly clear, as are his motives and goals (unless Valve is playing a decades-long trick on us).

Prey is quite a simple game to understand, and to master. It’s admittedly hammily-told (and acted) story isn’t terribly engrossing, and that’s unfortunate. Its hero and his companions are certainly a bit different from what we’re used to seeing in games. I’d be willing to forgive these narrative shortcomings if the game could connect its play and its story in a convincing way. As it is, Domasi’s intentions and motivations become entirely unimportant for long stretches of play.  Most areas are dull shooting galleries dolled up to be “interesting.” As I travel through what used to be bits and pieces of a school (back on Earth), the appearance of ghostly children elicits nothing but a resigned snort.

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Most games don’t even bother to relate their play to their stories (or to any of their systems, really). Prey actually does, a bit. Its minimal puzzles may seem like clever but ineffectual additions to a tired corridor shooter, but they also hint at the kind of synergy that few games aspire to. I wish Human Head were making Prey 2 (or that they'd confirm they were working on it). Maybe they’d be able to make good on the promises made by the story and play of Prey, and maybe those promises would have been related in some kind of meaningful way.

As it is, Prey is probably commonly remembered as the Doom 3 Engine game that tried and failed to pull a Portal. That’s not entirely correct, but it does bring up a game that does marry its play and story in a satisfying, interesting way. I wish Prey had done the same, because sans the dripping alien corridors and silly guns, there was a story that was (both obviously and more subtly) about interesting things, be they issues of identity or American Imperialism. Really, I just wish that the game had been about something, as it so obviously wanted to be.

[Tom Cross is a managing editor at Rules of the Game, writes for Popmatters, and blogs about games at Delayed Responsibility. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]