Preying On My Mind.

Playing the PlayStation 4 demo of Prey resulted in me quitting in anger, hurling my controller at the floor, and deleting the demo.

Getting around to playing it on the PC, I have reached a point seventeen hours in where I encountered a bug that, though it didn’t prevent my progress, would result in a bunch of things being messed up were I to keep going.

Both of those things are true, as is this: Prey is one of best immersive simulation games I have played; I even prefer it to System Shock 2. There are only two games I could make a case for being better at this style of game: Deus Ex and Dishonored.

I was already hooked, even before I found this retro-future GoPro.

It’s been a difficult time for me recently for a plethora of reasons I don’t want to dwell on. Prey was a game I had largely discounted, what Arkane Studios were saying sounded too ambitious, and in terms of a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 I’d already been burnt by BioShock. A game I generally like but one whose connection to the earlier “Shock” games seemed superficial at best. I had struggled with Dishonored 2, a superbly made game that I should have adored, but one I just never felt I could connect with. So when I played the demo for Prey and my immediately reaction was aggressively negative I resigned myself to just never being able to enjoy these types of games again.

I am nothing if not stubborn, I decided to try the PlayStation 4 demo again. I took it slowly and, instead of trying to rush in and smash the scuttling Mimics as quickly as I could, I treated them with respect. I made sure my attacks were deliberate. It was a revelation. Once I stopped trying to approach the game with the assumption that these were cannon fodder enemies that I could easily dispatch I realised what this game was. It’s slightly too clunky. It’s slightly too difficult. It’s also incredibly smart, both in terms of systems design and writing, and confidently erudite without being patronising. It builds on everything I found compelling about System Shock 2 in well thought out ways, and makes small but significant changes to certain core tenants of the immersive simulation style that are so obvious in hindsight it’s shocking nobody has attempted them before.

It’s also subtle, I joked that it was probably going to be too subtle for some (reviews appear to have borne this out). There are no caricatured characters spouting philosophy at you for ten hours. It’s a game about scientists and corporations and technology, but it’s handled with a deft touch. The TranStar corporation is engaged in some incredibly unethical experiments on board Talos 1 and the people involved know that. They argue about it, they attempt to justify it to themselves and others. Their responses are entirely, tragically, human. There are people who totally buy the corporate line about the benefits of the work they are doing. Others who are willfully ignorant regarding the extent of their complicity. Even some who are attempting to lift the lid on what’s going on and reveal it to the world at large. Each of these people have their own motivations, none of them are cackling super villains. Even your brother Alex has clear reasons for his actions, reasons that might even convince you.

When it comes to systems design, Prey is maybe a little too late 90s, though it updates the interface and presentation of those systems in ways that make them more comfortable to engage with. Combat can get awkward if you are overwhelmed but at all times you have a myriad of options with which to approach each situation; though your character build choices will push you towards a sub-set of those. I’ve already seen dozens of people citing very different  – and often mutually exclusive – ability combinations and weapons as being “over-powered”.

Prey is also rough, Patch 1.2 has just been released fixing a bug that was corrupting save games and preventing further progress. My own bug is less severe but still frustrating. I’ve been assured a fix is coming soon, and yet I think I’m going to restart the game. Seventeen hours in, I’m going to restart a game I’ve not finished yet. A game that is reportedly 20-30 hours long, and I’m really excited about it. To me that tells me all I need to know.

I really like Prey. It might be my favourite Looking Glass Studios game.

Design By Example: Reactive Takedowns in Dishonored 2.

Stealth play exists on the tenuous edge between concealment and conflict. Between avoiding NPCs and actively confronting them. When the player is detected most stealth games shift into a different style of play, one focused on either combat or rapid disengagement. Multiple styles of play with skill sets that don’t overlap cleanly, forced to exist within the same game.

This divide is a soft-boundary within the simulation. The models of detection and combat operating at different levels of fidelity, causing a disconnect when you shift from one to the other. This boundary is most obvious when crossed in the other direction. After transitioning from conflict back to concealment AI controlled NPC will eventually “forget” the presence of the player despite potentially having seen one of their friends killed in front of them; behaviour inconsistent with their aggressive search and combat routines. There are many good reasons for handling the simulation in this manner, unfortunately that doesn’t make the state change smoother. Games of the Immersive Sim genre have traditionally provided for a less messy transition between these states. Built around a consistent simulated world, the state change alters the means and motivation for engaging with the possibility space but not underlying rules themselves.

The spectrum of powers and abilities available to you in Dishonored 2 – along with the underlying simulation rules – don’t entirely resolve this conflict either, though they go some way toward smoothing the transition. What Dishonored 2 does do is play with that threshold between concealment and conflict. Allowing you to remain within that liminal space even in the face of mistakes and sudden occurrences that would otherwise result in fight or flight.

A successful block will stagger an NPC, allowing you to initiate a reactive takedown.

When detected there is a limited window where, if close enough, you are able to punch and then grab an NPC, restraining them in a chokehold. Traditionally when discovered by a patrolling NPC your options are limited. You can attempt to kill them which can be both noisy and messy, or you can accept detection and make a run for it. In Dishonored 2 this moment is extended, stretched out into a window of opportunity. Barely a few seconds but long enough to act, to regain the advantage, rendering the troublesome NPC unconscious and remaining in a concealment state rather than fully breaching the boundary and initiating conflict.

You deal with the immediate concern of being detected, replacing it with the new one of what to do with the body? Having prevented an alert, you now have time to deal with the next problem on your own terms.

If we consider the shift from concealment to conflict as the failure state of stealth, then this ability to incapacitate enemies in your moment of discovery provides partial failure. You have not been entirely successful at remaining hidden, but you have managed to avoid entering outright conflict. The strength of partial failure comes from the way its consequences can spiral outward effect all future decisions while not directly forcing you into either a different style of play, or a complete restart.

You’ve avoided detection for the moment, but now you need to do something about the unconscious body. Carrying it around means you won’t have access to your sword, and makes movement slower. If you can successfully hide the body you may be in a better position as there will be one less NPC available to potential discover you in the future. Unfortunately, NPCs in Dishonored 2 can adjust their patrol routes to compensate for missing companions. Removing one might well make things easier for you but not necessarily in the ways you were expecting.

Partial failure such as this also exposes you to more of the game’s systems, as the world state changes so too does the possibility space. An unconscious NPC is an extra element to deal with, a new entry point into the games systems to explore, certain opportunities are available now that weren’t before.

Unconscious bodies can be thrown at other NPCs, staggering them for long enough to grab them in turn.

These reactive takedowns are not only limited to the moment of initiate discovery, you can trigger one any time you are able to stagger an NPC. This can be achieved either by throwing something at them (including another unconscious guard, in what rapidly becomes a comedic escalation), or blocking their sword attack. A way of allowing you to engage in combat, if necessary, without being forced to resort to directly lethal violence. This further extends your ability to take back the initiative in the few seconds before everything spirals out of your control.

Games built on offering players a range of solutions require not only a rich possibility space, but also the time necessary to parse the potential options and choose an appropriate one. If the options available are logical and readable that window doesn’t need to be large, about as long as it takes to stagger and choke an NPC.

The tension of the stealth genre comes from the constant presence of the boundary between concealment and conflict. By allowing partial failure, and therefore partial recovery, Dishonored 2 keeps this division intact by extending the threshold. It creates a liminal space where your failure to remain entirely undetected has consequences, but ones that can be resolved using your existing stealth skill set rather requiring a state change into using those skills necessary for combat or evasion.