'Prey' Holds a Mirror to Silicon Valley's Dark Soul

'Prey' Holds a Mirror to Silicon Valley's Dark Soul

TranStar CEO Alex Yu wouldn't be entirely out of place in a Silicon Valley boardroom Bethesda

If the worst tech scions had the means, they would totally experiment on us like this

If the worst tech scions had the means, they would totally experiment on us like this

The helicopter lifts up from the roof of your apartment's tower and takes off over downtown San Francisco and towards the Bay Bridge. "Seventy-eight degrees, clear skies all the way," the pilot says over Mick Gordon's lush, euphoric synth soundtrack.

Prey begins in the sun, but it soon lands in the shadows, amidst the twisted corpses and fires of a space station ravaged by an alien attack. It was a fine station, elegantly designed, with no expenses spared – the stuff of Elon Musk-style grandiosity made real. But this was no pleasure dome. It's a facility run by a corporation called TranStar, and it's been attacked by the very thing on which it's been experimenting.

So far, so video games: on its surface, Prey appears to be a standard tale of hubris, of a lust for greed and power leading to the creation of a mysterious and terrifying foe that will destroy all humanity. So far, so System Shock. But there's a lot more to Prey than that. It's a game of our times, where threats aren't necessarily external, where there might not be a clear bad guy, where evil isn't extraordinary and seeps out of everyday process. There's a very specific reason why its opening is set in the tech industry's nerve center, where capitalism is at its most unrelenting and ferocious, buoyed by the conviction that through technology, tomorrow will always be better (and its scions the richer for it).

"What if I told you I could turn you into a mathematician on the level of Einstein in under 10 minutes? Welcome to the age of the Neuromod."

If Prey has an Andrew Ryan figure, it's the player character's brother, Alex Yu. Ryan is the main antagonist of Bioshock, a game with which Prey shares a pedigree as a descendent of the proto-immersive sim, System Shock. But while he and Yu are both business magnates, Ryan is a man of grand 20th century vision, the builder of an underwater city in the belief that pure vision can be the architect of better societies. It all went to shit, of course.

Alex Yu is smarter – which is to say that he's building off of his predecessors' errors, and knows that "making the world a better place" is not about something so messy as maniacal social control – technology and the free market make the project much easier. To that end, his company, TranStar, has developed the most disruptive tech of all history: the Neuromod. Any human that injects one into their eyeball will form new physical and mental aptitudes. It goes to shit, of course.

The thing about Neuromods is that they're made from materials farmed from the Typhon, an alien race that it's keeping in captivity on Talos-1, TransStar's space station orbiting Earth. This makes Neuromods a commodity of terrifying scarcity, because of their utter power and the fact they're produced by sacrificing human beings to the Typhon so they reproduce. That's what's going on in Psychotronics, the high-security division that you'll read vague rumors about in TranStar employees' email and memos.

But Prey isn't wholly fixated on the terrible things that go on behind closed doors. TranStar is a functioning business, with all the plodding banality that entails. The nightmare labs of psychotronics exist alongside regular cubicle farms, and there's even an arboretum that wouldn't look out of place in a multibillion dollar tech campus.

TranStar has a full roster of named staff, and through their email you'll get insights into their relationships with each other – peeks at their petty feuds and trysts, accounts of subordinates not getting to work at a proper desk. It's a staff that's getting things done, comprising talented and right-thinking people – as is surely the case in even the most ethically bankrupt tech stronghold. There are earnest engineering nerds constructing their own Nerf-style crossbow, which comes with a changelog (v1.3: "Finalized name to the Huntress Boltcaster. Rejected Clive's suggestion of ‘Painthrower' and Franklin's ‘Excruicator'"). There's a D&D group, the artifacts of which you find scattered throughout the station.

And it's also a staff which has written a marketing memo about managing the public perception of injecting Neuromods into the eye, issuing strong concern about the fact that removal of them will lead to memory loss: "If this leaks, it'll kill NM sales."

After the past few months of revelation at the ethical and regulatory malfeasance that's been taking place at Uber, it's tempting to see TranStar as a kind of hyper-dramatized sci-fi equivalent. They're both companies with transformative visions which they're rushing toward as fast as they can, ethics, laws, and lives be damned.Uber's vision is about transportation, about a relentless efficiency that will eventually remove the human element from road travel with self-driving cars, never-mind local regulations and the livelihoods of taxi drivers. There's a sliver of irony that

But Prey could also be talking about any of the libertarian entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, of floating city utopias like The Seasteading Institute, of using illegal overseas working conditions to maximize profits, of a focus on serving people like them. Making the world a better place is about making their world a better place first.

Back in System Shock's time, when the head of a megacorporation caused the creation of an AI bent on becoming a god, evil was a lot more clear-cut. Today, things aren't. We depend on the things Silicon Valley makes: the services it runs, the gadgets it sells. If we want to cut our dependency on fossil fuels for travel, should we immediately write off Uber's vision for electric cars? On Talos-1, just as in the real world, the boundaries between right and wrong are blurred. Right and wrong are happening under the same roof, and they frequently depend on each other.