Prey, Mooncrash and ‘Shaking Things Up’
Prey: Mooncrash (2018) is a strange one in modern gaming. A single-player expansion releasing the same day it was announced, well over a year after the original game launched, and without any build-up or fanfare, just industry rumours. This was subtle. Well, as subtle as announcing a game at E3 can be, but it’s certainly a quiet approach compared to what we’ve come to expect when releasing a blockbuster game today. Months of teaser trailers, interviews, articles, community events to generate interest for pre-orders and the hype train are the norms for big-budget studios. But not here. One day, the game just appeared. I was excited but apprehensive. It didn’t seem to indicate the game was worth making a big deal of by its studio or publisher. But, like Prey (2017) emphasises, it’s all about “shaking things up”. Mooncrash not only subverted my expectations of what it would be, but it made me totally reevaluate the game before it and came away with a whole new admiration.
Mooncrash mirrors much of the experience of Prey’s fundamental design, which is mostly unchanged and for good reason. Don’t mess with the GLOO gun that spits out sticky cement balls or the foam dart launcher that allows you to work a computer from across a room, it all works great. Mooncrash didn’t need to play with those parts to make itself stand out and standalone. What it did was play on the original game’s strengths to frame it as something that feels new. Where the main game focused on revisiting the same areas with new abilities revealing more, Mooncrash focused on re-imagining the world with each attempt. Where dying would mean restarting from a checkpoint, Mooncrash makes death a part of your narrative outcome. Where the main game made you a jack of all trades, each character in Mooncrash is a master of their own speciality. And it’s not only in the gameplay. The real areas that shine for me are the themes, the world and even the sense that the creators are screwing with the player. It’s not this clean cut and linear story, its that sense of journey and transformation that really gets to me. By playing Mooncrash, I reappraised the whole Prey series, taking a closer look and seeing something that equally excites and disturbs me.
Simulations and Doubting Perception
Both Prey experiences throw players into the deep end. There is so much exposition needed to explain everything in the game, to get the full picture, that it doesn’t even try to in places. And that’s sort of the point. These games make players question the world, the characters within and the playable character’s view of events. They’re all are unreliable, hard to perceive and therefore, open to doubt. And that’s thanks to the game’s smart use of ‘simulations’.
Prey setups up the protagonist, Morgan Yu, as a relatively blank slate from the opening of the game and allows the complex scenario that’s set up to be absorbed gradually. It must have taken months of careful planning and reiterating just to get it right. I, however, am going to try to condense it into a paragraph. Please bear with me as the story goes from 0 to 60 very quickly.
The opening has the protagonist, Morgan Yu, a lead researcher for his family’s company, TranStar, waking up in their apartment on Earth. After travelling to work in a helicopter they meet their brother, Alex, who helps conduct tests on Morgan, so they can travel to the space station, Talos I. This is quickly revealed to be a ruse. Morgan is already on Talos I, ‘volunteering’ as part of a series of tests to develop psychic technology that they acquired from a captured hostile alien species known as the Typhon. Because they’re messing with mind-altering psychic powers, each day Morgan’s memory is wiped back to the point before they started their original test. Morgan is then put to sleep and placed back in the simulation of their apartment. Every day, Morgan believes they’re waking up in on Earth, again and again, all to unlock more psychic potential from the Typhon. But the Typhon escape and simulation falters, which is where the opening of the game begins. Morgan escapes the simulation on Talos I, and finds they are among the few survivors on the space station, most having been killed by the Typhon. Morgan, like the player, has no idea what’s gone on here. It’s soon revealed that Morgan has escaped the simulation before and setup Operator robots to recall times prior to the game’s opening, guiding them to some vague goal of defeating the Typhon aliens. Where and how this all began is never made explicit and is impossible to pin down. This cycle seems to have no end.
The framing of this initial situation is crucial in how Prey unfolds. Doubt is how players are kept on their toes and critical of everything presented to them. I’m not sure there was one bit of Alex’s dialogue where I didn’t question every statement he made to convince me he was right. And even as the players gets some grounding and establishes some routine understanding of this world, the initial framing of Morgan waking up in a lie created by others and the ensuing narrative of conflicting goals, pushes to the player more questions without proper answers, and therefore, more doubt.
Morgan’s character is also setup as doubtful. Each time their memory was wiped, their personality and perception slowly shifted, and what they wanted changed too. Recordings of Morgan are used by characters to present different, and sometimes conflicting, opinions on how to deal with the threat on the station, from escaping it and warning Earth to blowing up themselves and everything else. This is compounded by the Typhon players fight. These Lovecraftian creatures are black forms that appear as gas, liquids and solids all at once, bending into whatever form they require, with psychic abilities over elemental forces and even human minds. The human characters are hard to interpret, but the aliens are just that, alien, in every respect. The complexity of the situation and the shadowy characters encountered (including yourself) creates constant doubt and is where the smart setup begins. If everything is to be doubted, so the player has no idea what to believe or what these characters motivations are, then everything is presented as valid as each other. Its why the inclusion of choice in how players navigate, fight and decide on the fate of characters and the story is crucial in context. Giving players options in how they want to deal with these situations and choices reflects how they interpret the situation on Talos I.
It’s little surprise that Prey ends on a final perception-altering twist, for good measure. The game’s last scene reveals that the entirety of Prey has itself been an elaborate virtual simulation of Morgan’s time on Talos I, experienced by a Typhon-human hybrid who was created and placed into said simulation to help bridge the difficulties that humans and Typhons have in interpreting each other. As such, the whole game has been an elaborate lie, like the one that player opens to, but on a massive scale. The doubt is that created validity is once more turned back on itself. What reveal is real? If we’ve seen one layer removed to show there is another one beneath it?
Mooncrash offers a different interpretation of mistrusting perception. The player inhabits Peter, a hacker contracted by KASMA, a rival business, to spy on TranStar’s moon facility. The opening echoes the main game, in that you’re on a space station - but subverts expectation. Instead of escaping a simulation, you enter one. Peter inhabits the reconstructed experience of crew members from the moon research station, Pytheas, when the hostile Typhon arrive. He becomes several crew members, and sifts through their attempts to survive, escape and fulfil their last tasks on the base. The snippets of what the moon station’s and their own stories start to form from the personal tasks and objectives opened and their method of escaping.
Mooncrash is, primarily, a story of the player’s own construction, but through someone else’s setup, through the pieces they’re given. Players are given several objectives they can choose to pursue, such as ‘Escape using a Mass Driver’, without knowing what is required of them to achieve it (or what a ‘Mass Driver’ even is). Navigating to reveals a situation, like the dead crew members who were trying to use the Mass Driver (a space catapult for moving cargo off the moon, it seems!) to launch themselves at Earth and escape the aliens. The player needs to collect food and drink to activate this escape route. So, they begin exploring more or, if they’re clever, start thinking about going to cafeterias or living quarters where food is more abundant. It calls back to a lot of staple role-playing game roots. Everything from this moon base setting – which mechanically works as a traditional ‘dungeon’ – to the variety of team members whom each specialise in their own class of powers and abilities. And more importantly, as these characters, we have no idea what’s really going on or what is planned for us. Whilst the game world has already been constructed by the developers, and contextualised as a simulation of real events, it is the player’s own choosing in how they tackle the main goals, like deciding who escaped the moon, in which order, by which route, or whether they escaped at all, that defines the story experience. We never know what truly happened on the moon, because the medium of a simulation is up for interpretation.
This idea is supported fed through the world-building. The world generates a new possibility of items, hazards and enemy layouts each time the simulation is reset. The escape pods are a prominent example of this, with the first difficulty is finding out where they are, but as the simulation becomes more corrupted, soon the pods need replacement parts for you to acquire or aren’t even berthed, having seemingly launched off. With so many differences within each run through, ones that even grow more abundant or dangerous over time, it almost seems as if none of what is being experienced is ever the ‘correct’ interpretation of the events taking place. Doubt here is from the simulation not being as concrete in its interpretation of events, and that’s the point. It allows the player to venture off, not knowing what’s real within this supposedly well-documented event.
Yet, there is clearly some tangible influence that occurs within the space of the simulation that makes consistent sense within itself. The lack of many escape pods indicates that other crew members made it out, much like the Volunteer and Custodian accomplish in their story quests. However, characters like the Security Officer character is only unlocked upon discovering his body, which in timeline of events seems to contradict itself. There’s further evidence that many didn’t survive, at least, not for long if their story quests are to be believed. The Volunteer’s story concludes with the Typhon successfully tricking him into sending them to (probably invade) Earth, before they abruptly explode his head and kill him. The Security Officer’s story ends with him discovering that the Custodian is a corporate spy who killed several of his colleagues, and he decides whether to blow up the Custodian’s escape pod or not.
Again, what happened is never fully revealed, but more importantly, what we believe can be debated. We don’t get a definitive, but many potentials. And this doubt is key to establishing the player’s own interpretation of events and then executing them in the simulation. Like Prey, it seeks to give player’s the onus of deciding on what’s really going on, but Mooncrash does it through direct setup and execution of the player’s actions. Instead of the player being directed to several outcomes to one end point, Mooncrash offers a variety of different end points to pursue and reinterpret for each run. The insecurity of not knowing pushes us further to question things.
How many layers of simulation are there?Just because Peter can finish his task and survive his employer’s attempts to kill him, could this itself just be a simulation of Peter’s experience? Could this be another memory that the Typhon-Human hybrid is experiencing for some reason? Maybe this is some type of experience like The Matrix, with all these characters sharing a simulated world or these are records experienced by some future generation telling of when the Typhons and humans encountered each other. It’s hard to tell the truth, because every interpretation is as doubtful as the next. Doubt is the story you take away from your time within the Prey universe. Doubt whether there is ever truth in anything. Doubt that your choices matter at all. Doubt that these ‘monsters’, the Typhon, are no more monstrous than you. Prey wants you to take these doubts of the game and make you re-evaluate what you think you understand. Not only in the game, but in life outside it.
Environments as Narrative
Space is an often-used metaphor for the unknown, and more relevant for Prey, isolation and loneliness. Both games are largely set on these stations, once bustling with life, discovery and human potential but now merely desolate mausoleums of human failure. The player characters are one of the few survivors of a hostile alien force, and most living humans have become their thralls. Wherever you look, there are reminders of what once was, what has been lost. But even pulled back, looking at the opening environments of both games, they setup this same sense of isolation and loneliness in microcosm of the much larger events ahead.
For Morgan, the environment upon waking up is crucial. They are placed, Truman Show-style, into their own contained little world, day-in and day-out. Everything must appear just right for both the player and character for it to be believable. And the details of this are magnificent. Players find themselves at first following this tutorial-esque path of waking up and going to do tests. Morgan’s “apartment”, upon first awakening is presented in a way to be touched and explored, with various items flashing – a prompt for players to interact with them – and a stunning view to investigate. The books give a deeper look into this world, along with the healthy plants, sleek tech and workstation which give a look at Morgan’s life. It’s clean, idyllic, perfect even. A bottle is left on the kitchen counter, with a note attached from Morgan’s brother, welcoming you for soon joining him on Talos I. Life is good. However, upon the second time waking up in the apartment, with the ruse of the situation being broken, waking up with the same morning routine has shifted from this sense of tranquil safety, to one of distrustful danger. And so they pull back the curtain, and all is revealed Morgan’s apartment is inside a larger room, an elaborate studio-like set. The journey to work fake, you never left this room. Alex welcoming you on board was all an act. The entirety of the opening is deconstructed into small components and shown its smoke-and-mirrors lie.
The first question that entered my head as I first leapt out this prison was ‘How the heck?!’. As a player I couldn’t believe this deception could hold water within the universe itself. I know that deception in making games is a very key part of tailoring the experience for players, like using existing tools to deceive the player to make it seem as if something else is occurring. Such examples allow the developers to direct the way players perceive things, like in Super Mario Galaxy example, where a signpost behind a door is used to appear as if it’s a note on a door. But what Prey did was beyond a small trick, but a full-blown illusion. In game, this is contextualised as a simulation for Morgan to be deceived. But as a player, the detail and steps taken to make this believable truly shows how the developers wanted to deceive them as much as Morgan. Once on the outside of this deception, you can start pulling levers and pushing buttons that controlled the mechanical simulation of the apartment in all its lavish detail.
The set is painstakingly elaborate, with screen projections, secret doors, actor’s uniforms, walls that shift and turn, signs telling people to keep quiet around the set to keep up the illusion. The fish tanks and the city skyline are one-way mirrors for the scientists to watch Morgan, whilst Morgan sees a beautiful view. There’s even a shelf full of the same bottles that Morgan’s brother sends them, there to replace the apartment one each time Morgan drinks it. This lie is so full, so detailed and careful in its approach that there isn’t an easy way to break it. The illusion is as real to the player as it is to Morgan. This accuracy isn’t surprising, considering Arkane also made the excellent Clockwork Mansion, a mission in Dishonored 2 in which a steampunk genius has built an elaborate house where the walls shift, the rooms transform, and all sorts of things could appear and disappear with one lever being pulled. That same detail of an inhabitable place that can be one way and then completely shift has evolved in Prey, from just a function of a level mechanically, to be a key part of the narrative and world building too. It alienates Morgan as apart from everything else, unaware of what’s been going on whilst he’s lost weeks, months, maybe years, in this simulated routine. The environment works on so many layers to entice the player in and make them ask questions. It emphasises that doubt I mentioned before that’s prevalent throughout the game. As this environment shows, if these are the lengths an almost faceless corporation like TranStar will go to keep you pumping out new psychic technology, what else could be going on?
Mooncrash is a much tighter opening, and once again doesn’t try to repeat the main game, but what it does is effective in establishing a lot with a little. Peter awakes aboard a spy satellite, which encompass primarily a single room and bathroom. The work terminal is the most crucial item in this place, with its central chair and mass of screens contextualising the simulation aspect of the game, along with the tech expertise of the protagonist. And, stereotypically for a hacker, you see discarded food and drink around the floor and cardboard panelling, implying an unhygienic and unhealthy lifestyle. Yet there are dumbbells, books, a potted plant with a trowel, indications that Peter does other things outside of his work hours. A bit of self-care. He keeps a picture of his daughter holding her favourite toy next to him whilst he sleeps. The giant window looking out onto both the Moon below and Earth in the distance helps set the context for the player, aware that they’re far away from anything or anyone. Away from everything he wants. This space, whilst isolating, shows the protagonist is trying to make it more welcoming and homely.
These beginnings tell two different stories that are intrinsically linked to each other, not just in their similarities but in their contrasts also. Both stories feature characters wake up in similarly, and their main motivations from the outset concern family. Each are tasked by corporations when they awake, to fulfil some secretive motivations or hidden agendas (something Arkane Studios explores in all its games). Both are set in places where said corporations have built or bought out extra-terrestrial spaces to use for their research and profitability.
Yet where Morgan lives in gentrified luxury, Peter inhabits a solitary cell. Morgan’s life seems perfect thanks to his family’s wealth and connections, whilst Peter’s life is about struggling to support his own family. While Peter has the autonomy to personalise the space he lives in, Morgan’s is setup and contrived by others. These small snippets, whilst not crucial to their respective games’ main plot, help create deeper messaging to the player about the character’s they are inhabiting, but also the in-game intent behind those who built these places for the characters. And all this gleamed from a singular room in an opening of the games. Such skilful use of the resources at hand can set the tone and experience the rest of the game, whilst even foreshadowing things to come, something Arkane do exceptionally well.
Mooncrash is successful, in that it clearly achieved what it set out to do: expand on the main game whilst playing with its formula. It is not simply an extension, but its own interpretation. But it is also more than just successful. What it was even more amazing and special in achieving, was how it reflected Prey back at me, the player, and recontextualised both games. By playing through Mooncrash, I was able to see the sublime level of detail Arkane achieved in making both games. It showed their approaches to their work and how they were able to make two each stand both together and apart. Playing Mooncrash became transformative of the original game, but by going back to play the original, Mooncrash was also transformed in my eyes. The same happened for me with Arkane’s other well-known series, Dishonoured, with each new release making me take a deeper look at its world. Where you see how these characters mirrored or contrasted each other, how characters once evil could be good or lost in grey, and sympathy was shifted.
Arkane might have hit upon a formula that really works for them as creators and myself as a player. Releases that enhance the other games in the series. Or maybe it’s more that the games aren’t one trick ponies, that there’s this consistency of them doing a great job and being masters of their craft that only by seeing from a new viewpoint, in a new game, that I can truly appreciate it. There is love and attention to detail in every aspect of the games they make, and it shows.
My concern for how this game was first marketed, as something to immediately after being announced without anything revealing detail, was quickly subdued. Like Alex Yu, Arkane are pushing their own boundaries and the boundaries of their industry’s standard, because together they’re “gonna shake things up, like old times.".Hopefully things don’t end up quite as apocalyptic for us as it did him.