Throwback Thursday: Prey (2006)

A year before Portal captured the hearts and minds of gamers around the world, a less popular game called Prey hit store shelves. While both games offered similar “portal” mechanics, it was Portal that seared itself into the annals of gaming culture with its sterile environments, dearth of characters, and streamlined gameplay. Conversely, Prey was a dense, playable action movie with so many mechanics and characters that very little of it made an impact.

It's a shame Prey didn't make more of a splash, because now that Prey (2017) is out and I have occasion to recall Prey (2006), I realize that the first game really did deserve recognition for everything it attempted and what it introduced to the FPS genre.

Strengths and Shortcomings

In Prey (2006), the player takes on the role of a Native American man of Cherokee heritage named Tommy. When the game begins, he’s talking to himself in the mirror of a dirty restroom in a small dive bar located on a reservation where his girlfriend, Jen, works. Tommy desperately wants to move to a different part of the world, but finds it difficult to leave Jen, who wants to stay. They get into an argument, but before they can resolve it aliens descend to abduct everyone – including the bar. Soon, Tommy finds himself and others on a conveyer in an alien spacecraft, but Tommy is freed by a mysterious human and sets off to save Jen.

Prey (2006) used a modified version of the id Tech 4 game engine, which is the same engine that powered Doom 3. Despite having some of the same shortcomings, like no soft shadows which made every character look like they were standing beneath a spotlight, the game looked great for its time. I personally appreciated manipulating in-game screens without having the game zoom in and pausing the world around me; it added that much more immersion to the experience. The alien ship was no less detailed, with its slimy organic walls and cold metal walkways. Unfortunately, the game did suffer from cramped environments, which sometimes made the game feel like a corridor shooter, but its other gameplay mechanics heavily mitigated the claustrophobia.

Clever Mechanics Bolster Gameplay

The developers at Human Head Studios went all out when they designed this game, and it’s easy to see how much freedom they had to bring their ideas to life. First, the execution of the portals that led to other parts of the level in real-time was inspired. Before Prey (2006), portals always meant some kind of loading screen. Not here! Suddenly, the imagination ran wild with possibilities as the player peered through one portal only to see himself from a different angle. Chasing yourself led to an infinite loop. In another instance, the player could look at a rock suspended inside a glass box and see tiny structures on it. Then the player would enter a portal and find himself miniaturized on the rock in the box, staring up at a now-gigantic alien who stood outside the box looking in. I couldn’t help but smile at the cleverness.

Second, the introduction of light paths that allowed the player to walk on walls and ceilings nearly eliminated the small dimensions of the levels. Suddenly, the player had to adjust their perception of up and down. The first time I was hanging upside-down and killed a bad guy standing on the same light path in front of me and he fell “up” was just another surprising moment in a game full of surprises. Learning to switch off the light paths while enemies were standing on them was icing on the cake.

Third, playing up the Native American aspect, whenever the player died you were sent to the spirit world rather than a save game load screen. In the spirit world, the player would snipe spirits that replenished different life meters before being thrown back into the game world. It was an interesting way to keep the player engaged with the game instead of inorganically loading save games. Tommy also learned special abilities in the spirit world, like spirit walking, which allowed his spirit to pass through force fields, snipe enemies with a spirit bow, and see paths his mortal self couldn’t. Amazingly, it was yet one more way to perceive the game world.

The Humanity of it All

It’s been 11 years since I’ve played Prey. I played it once and never again. Yet, this is a game that I’ll always look back fondly on, but not for all of the interesting game mechanics that I’ve just written about. Prey (2006) was the first FPS where I felt like I was actually playing a character with his own emotions and motivations. Sure, I had played the 3-D Realms games with protagonists who occasionally had lines, but Tommy (voiced by Michael Greyeyes) actually reacted to the environment. Early on, he’d comment on the bar. Later he’d react to aspects of the spacecraft, like the light paths or the rooms where the player could adjust the direction of the gravity. Towards the end, it’s Tommy’s response to finding his girlfriend again and channeling his anger toward the enemy that will always stick with me.

I had written a previous piece about voice acting and how it needed to be a tool that augmented the experience of the game by giving me more insight into the character I was playing. Tommy is my benchmark for that in any first-person perspective game. Tommy wasn’t just a guy abducted by aliens; he was a man who had turned away from his heritage and his faith, but learned to embrace both as sources of strength throughout the course of the game. And when he found Jen and had to kill her after Mother made her part of an alien monster, Tommy didn’t just go back to killing aliens; he was righteous fury, yelling at his foes. It was a fantastic experience that revealed the humanity in the game.

I haven’t played the recently released Prey, but I’m hoping it’s humanity will also shine through.