Shown this past Thursday during the opening ceremonies of the 21st annual QuakeCon, Arkane Austin's rebooted version of the alien-themed, 2006 game Prey looks to be a moody, freeform experience. You star as the primary subject of transhumanist experiments taking place on board a massive futuristic space station. Whether you are a man or a woman is up to you, but either way, your fate will be the same. Things, predictably, start going wrong almost immediately.
Not long before you take the reins as Morgan, the player character of Prey, the Talos 1 space station was taken over by aliens. You've seen them in the latest gameplay trailer – wispy clouds of inky black. In the demo, the first hostile encounter is with a mimic, a small shadow that can transform itself into objects in the environment. In other words, even that trash can in the corner might have a bone to pick with you. Stay cautious.
"What you're trying to do initially is peel back the layers of mystery," said Ricardo Bare, lead designer at Arkane Austin. "Who am I, and why am I here?" And, of course, where did all these aliens come from? From there the experience will spiral into something open-ended and complex, a first-person narrative experience blending stealth, combat, quiet exploration, and even a bit of psychological horror.
The prevailing wisdom has been that Arkane has been working on Prey since at least 2013, and that the project began as a reboot of the troubled sequel to the cancelled 2006 first-person shooter developed by Human Head Studios. According to Raf Colantonio, Arkane's co-creative director, however, those rumors don't hold much water.
"We were never working on a game related to the original Prey," he said. So why go with the name? "As far as the high concept goes, it made sense," Raf said. "We do a specific kind of game – player-based games where simulation is important, and in this case, we wanted to do one in space. It made sense for us to call it Prey," adding: "It's a cool name."
Games that prize player choice and complicated, overlapping sets of game systems to mess with are often called "immersive sims": past examples include Dishonored, Thief, Deus Ex – and the genre traces its origins all the way back to the original System Shock in 1994.
The Talos 1 is a vast complex, an enigmatic place that's haunted by an alien menace with its own set of systemically implemented behaviors and agenda. To combat them, you're given transhuman abilities, some of which imitate the aliens themselves. At times, the player uses the same abilities as the mimics, turning into coffee cups and pieces of junk, using the disguise to avoid violence or move through tiny, otherwise inaccessible pathways.
Immersive sims, Colantonio and Bare told me, are rare creatures in the industry, difficult and complex to make and somewhat inaccessible for the casual player. For Arkane, though, these games hold intrinsic value. They're hoping Prey, with its space station in the middle of disaster and the eerie alien menace – Bare described them as "almost paranormal seeming" – will showcase the beautiful alchemy of the immersive sim's complexity.
Oh, and those mimics? Don't get comfortable just because you've been through an area before and think you know where they are. "That's not scripted," said Bare. "That's an AI behavior. They scan the environment and go, oh, there's 10 different things I can turn into here, and they pick one. It can even happen that you mimic something to hide, and then a mimic can come up and mimic you."