Over the past decade, Bethesda Studios, the video-game publisher known for megafranchises like The Elder Scrolls and Fallout, has quietly developed a house style — or, really, a house structure: A mishmash of themes and storytelling devices that form a skeleton to which Bethesda’s developers can add flesh and blood. The central narrative conceit of most Bethesda games is that stories are told through the game’s environment; rather than having characters act out dialogue, as they would in a conventional video game, players are free to explore the levels that they’re placed in and suss out details, and supplemental fiction at their own pace and by their own designs.
This is often done by finding diary entries, or voice logs, or emails: In Fallout, pre-apocalypse civilization remains a ghost in computer terminals throughout the wasteland; in Dishonored, corrupt Dickensian aristocrats plot schemes in diary entries. Even last year’s reboot of Doom — a game whose log line begins and ends at “killing demons on Mars” — managed to work a bit of the trademark Bethesda storytelling into its design. It’s a form where the power comes from discovery. In Fallout, you might find notes about two children in a bunker, and then find two grave mounds on the other side of the room, putting the clues together. A safe combination scribbled in a notebook could lead to further riches down the line. These titles harness the strength of an interactive medium in ways that no other form of art can, by calling on the player to bring their own deduction skills to the table.
The problem is that actually playing the games is a chore. Fighting enemies is often a clunky and unrewarding errand that slows investigation of the games’ exhaustively fleshed-out virtual worlds (last year’s Doom being the one exception). Bethesda seems aware of this, since all of its titles can be played on the easiest combat difficulty without any penalty, the implicit message being that it’s cool if you just want to explore. Bethesda games feel like ornate, immersive dioramas, with maps that you traverse and double back through, always discovering some new detail.
Nowhere is the tension between compelling atmospheric narrative and tedious gameplay more pronounced than in Prey, the newest game from Bethesda, specifically the France-based Arkane Studios. The Prey of 2017 has little in common with the 2006 first-person shooter of the same name (its title seems, more than anything else, a trademark extension), and a lot more in common with the beloved BioShock series. In those games, the player is sent a fantastical setting — a city underwater or floating in the clouds — and given little context about where they are, save for the obvious starting point that something has gone horribly wrong.
This is how Prey begins. After breaking out of an experimental simulation, Morgan Yu finds that the space station he or she (you can choose the gender) lives on, Talos I, has been overrun by an alien species called the Typhon. Morgan has little memory of his adventures (I’ll refer to Morgan as male, in correspondence with my playthrough) because of neuromods, enhancements that give him abilities like more health or faster running speed. The similarities to BioShock’s plasmid system are immediately apparent, and they don’t end there. Morgan also starts the game with a wrench as his only weapon, and the story is teased out over a long arc of walkie-talkie conversations, recorded audio logs, and foreboding email exchanges found on computers spread throughout the station.
It’s a rich environment where the diorama analogy is more apt than ever. Human corpses don’t just lie sprawled on the floor; they remain frozen in time, mid-crawl, often with one arm outstretched toward help that is no longer there. Sneaking through air ducts and maintenance tunnels, and jetting around the vacuum of space to parts of the facility where the hull has breached can be a fun, dizzying experience. Every time you pass through a doorway into some new form of chaos, the game subtly tempts you to figure out precisely what happened.
But almost from the jump, and as expected, Prey’s combat system undermines the title’s strengths. Trying to hit “mimics,” — small, spiderlike Typhon creatures that can hide in plain sight as inanimate objects — with a wrench becomes a chore. Larger humanoid enemies, hulking black creatures known as phantoms, are what gamers refer to as “bullet sponges,” soaking up unreasonable amounts of damage before eventually expiring. Mobility is limited and, unlike Arkane’s previous game, Dishonored, which lets users warp around the setting with magical ease, avoiding and evading enemies in Prey is more a chore than it is thrilling. It didn’t take long after completing the game’s opening act before I took pity on myself and ratcheted the game’s difficulty down to its easiest setting.
The game tries to nullify this frustrating combat with a series of psychic powers that players can upgrade themselves with, derived from the alien species, according to the in-game fiction. The only problem is that because these powers are alien, accepting them will turn the ship’s own security system against you, in addition to the game’s already-formidable slate of aliens. In other words, you get more powerful, but the game throws more enemies at you to balance it out. I opted to forego the powers, in order to make combing through Talos I’s densely packed interiors less of a hassle.
In taking what I thought was the easy way out, I also decided to exploit a design flaw in the game’s scrapping system, which lets players collect junk around the environment and recycle it into useful items like health packs and bullets. The problem is that players quickly discovered that the raw material produced by recycling could itself be duplicated. The end result is virtually infinite resources in a game where resource management is part of the tension (and in my opinion, part of the hassle). Every so often, I’d spend five-minute sessions working an in-game computer to pump out health kits and shotgun shells ad nauseam.
In cheesing my way through the game, I may have kneecapped myself. But I had spent so much of the game’s early chapters running out of resources and sprinting straight past enemies that I got fed up with fighting enemies really early on. The meat of Prey is in its menacing, isolated setting (a lab in which almost everything has a Post-it note attached, reading, “Not a mimic,” stands out as darkly comic) though its designers seem to think otherwise.
To its credit, Prey accounts for these types of choices — powers not taken and entire wings of the spaceship all but ignored; a late-game note I discovered implied that the developers knew about the item-duplication exploit. My experience with the game was fittingly summarized in the game’s epilogue. Recapping what I had accomplished, customized to the decisions made throughout the game, one character commended me on refusing to accept alien powers. A few seconds later, another character that I did not recall spoke up, revealing that I had played through the entire thing without interacting with them even a single time. If the minutiae of actually playing through Prey weren’t such a slog, maybe I’d reload an old save, acquire some new powers, and see what I missed.