Prey, Arkane's upcoming sci-fi adventure (due May 5) might have recycled its name from a 1995 game – "naming games is really hard and Prey is a really good name for a video game," says lead designer Ricardo Bare – but everything else is new and seems purpose-built to dodge the usual science fiction stereotypes.
There’s a distinct lack of the usual steel gray corridors or steroidal space marines that we've come to expect from anything set on a space station – and the first weapon you find is a kind of Gloo Cannon that shoots off-white space-goo that momentarily freezes enemies and forms handy climbable structures. This is science fiction from the makers of the ever-imaginative Dishonored series, the "Edward Scissorhands of gaming." Even the aliens are tough to pin down; some look like spiders as scribbled in black crayon, some are more intimidatingly humanoid, all can morph into the objects around them. No coffee mug is safe.
"There were a couple of tropes we decided to stay away from," says Bare. "We didn’t want to do a military spaceship where everything is black metal, and we also didn’t want to do a NASA sort of thing. So we went with a corporation in space, like if Elon Musk’s company built a space station for private citizens to work at and they had tons of money, this is the kind of thing they would build."
As you can see from the video above, once you make it through a twisting introduction to the life of Morgan Yu (that has just a hint of The Truman Show meets Black Mirror) you’re aboard the Talos I space station. It’s all wood panelling and conference rooms – despite the vast cosmos on the other side of the huge windows you wouldn't be surprised to run into a Starbucks stand. For sci-fi fans that grew up on Aliens and Star Trek and catch up on The Expanse at lunch it's as natural a playground as a city street.
That familiar but fresh setting – it's the future but they still use email – lets Arkane tell a sprawling, more complicated story than just "aaaaaargh aliens." The mission objectives are simple but the distractions along the way are endless. "A lot of the people on our design team are tabletop RPG guys and I’ve always felt that being a good level designer is kind of the same skill set as being a good game master," says Bare. "Especially in our kind of game, because what you have to do is strike a balance between giving the player a super interesting context - what are you doing here? what’s the setup here? - and then letting them improvise."
The powers Yu develops are key to that improvisation, human and alien skills that are the result of a neuroscience experiment and can be unlocked and upgraded. Hacking, telekinesis, turning into a chair or, more usefully, a turret. It's lazy to compare it too closely to Bioshock but there's that same feeling that some areas of the world present questions that only a good dose of upgraded powers can answer. You can shrink into a small object, or cause a mess with Kinetic Blast. Combine one power with another and you could mark yourself out as either a total genius or an idiot – perfect fodder for YouTube.
If you’ve played Dishonored you know that Arkane formula already, an upgradeable set of powers that will get more and more ridiculous as the game progresses – plus permission to break shit. That’s not something that happens naturally though. Most of us need to be told that it’s OK to behave like bad kids at the birthday party. "That’s really challenging and it’s something we face every time we make a game," says Bare. "We faced it on Dishonored and even before that at other companies working on Deus Ex and stuff it’s just really hard to get people to experiment."
So hard that there’s even a tutorial style pop-up in Prey to encourage you to experiment and NPCs that die horribly before your eyes just to underline the point. "There’s a part in the game where you run into this laboratory and there’s a scientist that’s still alive – only briefly – and he’s trying to get away from a phantom," says Bare. "He sprays a line of goo up the wall and then he starts to climb it. Of course then the phantom catches him and kills him, but hopefully players see that."
Arkane hasn't just thrown out all the classic science fiction beats, but they have added a layer of tools and toys on top of your story. My story? The victim of a neuroscience experiment who likes to slide into your private emails while your corpse rots mere metres away. Someone else's might be about hacking, taking down the alien threat one numberpad at a time while a shotgun maniac shoots at every coffee mug they see – just in case. Arkane tells the story, you warp it.