I cannot stress how much I advise against reading this is you haven’t played and completed the game yet. Please do so, it’s great 😀 So I’m putting everything in spoiler tags just in case you mis-clicked as a get-out-of-jail-free card.
If you’re still with me, fellow completer of this great game, feel free to open that spoiler and give it a read 🙂
Note: I have only played through once and seen what I assume is the ‘good’ ending – saving most people including Alex, taking no Typhon abilities, shaking hands. Things I say here could be contradicted by other endings, I don’t know, I’m simply basing this on what I was shown.
Let’s say you’re making a game where the twist ending is, “turns out you were Mr Evilman all along!”. You can take advantage of first-person perspective in that, with that viewpoint, the player need never see their own face and it wouldn’t seem weird because people are quite accustomed to that in FPS games. Start the game with a character saying, “isn’t it funny that there are no mirrors here?” and suddenly you start questioning it – that means… hmmm… maybe I’m not the person I think I am after all! Shock reveal ending blown immediately.
Prey opens with a fake-out reality and, in a similar way to the chap talking about mirrors, the hand is blown right from the off. If this convincing rendition of reality is, in fact, a simulation then I have absolutely no reason to trust that everything else isn’t a simulation too. Which means I can’t trust any information I ever get in the game all the way down to, “I am Morgan Yu”.
It’s a bold move showing that hand up-front – the game could have easily started with you waking up on the station, perhaps revealing flashbacks snippets of (what turn out to be) previous runs as you progress. And had the game’s final reveal simply been, “it was a simulation all along” then the ending – because of that opening – would have been unfathomably awful (see tangent 1 below)
But the single extra little tweak to the concept – the high stakes experimentation of the whole thing, the future of all humanity (what remains of it anyway) resting on the outcome, this elevated the idea greatly for me. It no longer mattered that I had questioned many aspects of the game’s ultimate reveal along the way, because the entire point of the game (as I understand it) is that inner conflict between human and alien. My own questioning becomes a manifestation of that, it becomes part of the game – part of the simulation. The ending could not come from no-where as a complete surprise – a part of you needs to feel that yes, this and all my suspicions were correct.
Everything in the game makes complete sense given all this. I thought, at the time, that it was a bit odd how the ‘December’ plot-line ended so abruptly but looking back on it now it’s really foreshadowing the ‘good’ ending. January represents the human elements within you, “Destroy the station at all costs”. December represents the alien elements, “Screw them, save yourself!”. And, of course, January destroys December. Those two robots are playing out, almost like a stage-play, precisely what Alex is hoping to achieve – your human side violently resisting your alien impulse.
In a similar way, while I very much enjoyed getting all the little snippets of drama via the audio logs, finding out who relates to who – the quarrels, the power plays, the romance – and these were all really nicely written, the NPCs themselves are rather simplistic. This is the character who’s a psychopath, this is the one with a medical issue, they really almost entirely exist in those audio logs and emails and no-where else. But none of that matters. It may be that none of these people ever existed, or that they’re assembled from bits of multiple people – it’s not the point. Each is there to test you on a particular judgement call – they are only as fleshed out as they need to be for the role they have been given within the experiment. They’re not people, even if their namesakes really did once exist.
So what’s wonderful about the whole thing is that we’re part of an experiment that’s running on a ticking clock. How many times can it be re-run before all of humanity is destroyed? Certainly not indefinitely. Which means that while the entire point of the experiment is for the Typhon to choose compassion and friendship, because of the time pressure elements of that simulation have to nudge you in that direction. It becomes a delicate balance – how much do you nudge before it ceases to be a free choice and you meet resistance? Because as presented, a part of us does resist – “They’re lying to you!”. It’s a dangerous game they’re playing – it’s magnificent.
Nothing makes this more obvious than (and this is why the story design is almost genius imo) the binary choice presented at the end. “Kill Them All” or “Shake Hands”. In a different game, a decision like this would be trite – ridiculous – especially as there is no real presented consequence either way. It would be a terrible terrible ending in any other context. But in Prey? Alex is gambling everything on their judgement – we won’t destroy this one, because it chose to do this or that. They have no means of direct communication with you, all they can do is infer from your actions (and this means your actions remain meaningful regardless of the fact it turns out to be all simulated). AND HE DOESN’T KNOW that what’s in your mind, in that moment, is “Kill Them All” or “Shake Hands”. How easy it would be for you to just click left. It’s powerful and it rams home how on a knife-edge the future of what remains of humanity is.
He’s trusting that what they’ve seen you do is genuine, that you’ll accept humanity as worth saving despite humanity being depicted as morally grey – where you’re asked to choose judging us by the best rather than the worst. Despite the fact that everything about your reality has been a lie – a deception designed to coerce you, effectively, into doing what they want. In that one single moment it’s simply asking the one question that the entire game rests on… now can you empathise?
Note: If you can’t trust anything in the game because of that opening reveal, who’s to say that what’s presented in the ending is real? Well, you can’t say that for definite – not really. However, I’m pretty confident that the choice to place this ending post-credits was extremely deliberate, to put a large amount of separation between this sequence and the simulations preceding it.
Edit: If you enjoyed the concepts in Prey and you’ve not yet read it, I highly recommend Blindsight – elements of which I’m pretty sure Prey drew some inspiration from.
A point of comparison. Fallout 4 begins with you being cryogenically frozen. Then you wake up, witness your child taken, return to sleep. There is absolutely no reason to suppose that the time between your child being taken and you eventually waking up should be short. Clearly when you awake a long time has passed and both sleeps were presented in the same way. So why on Earth the player or their character would assume their child would still be a child (that the first sleep was long, but the second short) is utterly beyond me.
Instead they have to rely on having Kellogg be arbitrarily long-lived to try and back-track on this – his lack of ageing suggesting that, oh, the second sleep must have been short, then. Except this is a game with long-lived synths in it who can look indistinguishable from humans so there’s no reason to suppose Kellogg would age conventionally. Do we know that he’s definitely human? We only have to get to Diamond City – extremely early on in the main quest – to encounter Synths and the anyone-could-be-a-Synth paranoia. It’s an utter mess of set-up and reveal. Okay, it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things except the game treats this reveal like it’s actually a plot-twist.