Pity Tommy. He’s a bored loser living on a reservation for Native Americans (Cherokee; what else, right?), his girlfriend doesn’t want to go anywhere with him, and now they’ve been whisked away onto a giant spaceship filled with aliens and human-mincing machines. Also, Tommy just fell 50 feet and died.
He wakes up in a gorgeous southwestern canyon, greeted by his grandfather who had only just moments earlier been squashed by the aliens. Turns out all of grandfather’s nattering has been true: all that mystic hoodoo does add up to something. Tommy is given a spirit guide (a bird; what else, right?) and is granted Spiritwalk: the ability to leave his body at will, walk through certain walls as a spirit, and use a bow and arrow at the cost of “spirit points”. He’s then resurrected, properly equipped to save the world in all of Prey‘s first-person grisly glory.
The game was built using the Doom 3 engine, which is pretty much known for only three things: abominate aliens, creepy steel corridors, and places resembling the inside of a congested nose. It gets a little old, everything looking either sterile or gross, so portals placed throughout the ship at least speed up the process. Some portals come in the form of holes torn through space (which aliens jump out of), leaving the gap free for you to use later. Others are Twilight Zoney doorframes, where walking through one side does nothing and walking through the other puts you on a balcony miles away.
The portals are, at their worst, a cheap shortcut to jump around the mother ship without having to design more hallways, and, at their best, they’re total mindblowers. Take this example from early in the game: Tommy walks into a tiny room where he finds a glob of dirt within a glass case. Going into a portal to the left tosses Tommy onto a tiny brown planet. An enormous monster comes over to observe and you realize (along with Tommy, cursing out loud) that it’s not the creatures that have gotten large; it’s Tommy who’s shrunken down to the size of a pinhead, trapped inside the glass case. Prey is relentless in its pursuit for perception alteration. Tracks that let you walk on every side of the room, switches that reorder a room’s polarity, sending Tommy and all unbolted things crashing up/down/sideways; from here on you’re never safe from its mischief and tricks.
(Of course, like a lot of other things in the game, it begs the question: why was this part even there in the first place? The answer: it’s an alien ship. Nothing has to be explained. It just has to look very awesome.)
Prey‘s interpretation of life and death, its major innovation, shuns the game over screen. While we’re used to being tossed back to checkpoints or throwing the controller whenever we die, Tommy instead gets thrown into a purgatory called Deathwalk. Essentially a 3D version of that hunting minigame in Oregon Trail, Tommy is stuck on this rock as flying eels whiz around him. Shooting red eels with an arrow replenishes life, blue replenishes spirit points. After a short stay, Tommy is sent back into the action. Deathwalk avoids the show-stopping number of death, upholding the pace and rhythm of the game even if you are terrible at it.
The concern is that Deathwalk is trivializing. Hypothetically, immortality erodes tension and challenge. And is dying something that really needs reinventing? There’s nothing wrong with dying and erasing a few minutes of effort. All good games know how to space out its checkpoints, and all good players know to use repetition as an opportunity to improve. Regarding Prey, you can also save anywhere, so were this a normal shooter, only the most careless player would be frustrated in dying.
Yet, Deathwalk actually does work, though perhaps not how the designers wanted. Even with that net, you dread watching your life drain away. While not outright terrible, Deathwalk is so middling and boring, I’d rather flail around in desperation, emptying clip after clip, than be banished into it. Prey is an edgy and nerve-wracking experience, if only because the designers dangle over us a fate worse than death.