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The clever trick that defines both Prey and Planescape: Torment

Art: Beamdog
Keyboard GeniusesKeyboard Geniuses is our occasional glance at a few intriguing, witty, or otherwise notable posts from the community’s discussion threads. Comments have been excerpted and edited here for grammar, length, and/or clarity.

And In The End…

I wrapped up my multi-part review of Arkane Studios’ Prey this week with a deep dive into the game’s twist ending and how it played into the themes that were being established all along. Readers kept the discussion going down in the comments. Mr. Smith1466 pointed out a fun callback:

The achievement for killing Alex is called something like “Push the fat guy!” That’s a wonderful callback to the psychology test way back at the start of the game. That in itself is purely genius, and the casting of the wonderful Benedict Wong and his resulting character design is a lovely byproduct of that gag.

As for the twist itself? Eh. An interesting take on the “it was all a dream!” ending is still an “it was all a dream!” ending. Points for cleverness, though. I don’t really see the ending itself as being a sequel hook. It’s more in keeping with the kind of nutty ending Philip K. Dick would hammer out for one his countless wonderful druggy short stories.


Captain Internet disagreed with that last part:

Well, it wasn’t quite “it was all a dream.” They could have had you waking up in your apartment with Alex on the com again. Moreover, there wasn’t a denial that any of it had happened—something happened on Talos 1, even if it wasn’t exactly what you experienced, but the characters and relationships between them almost certainly existed.

What I really liked about the ending was that it managed to at once stay in character but also get you to reflect on what you’d been doing, much more successfully than BioShock managed with the “Would you kindly” moment. BioShock never gave you the option to disobey orders, and had a largely linear path throughout, so when you’re told you’re a puppet of Atlas it’s rather hard to agree. It even wussed out of making you suffer for not harming the Little Sisters. They’d leave you little gifts if you saved them, and it is clearly the right thing to do, so there’s very little reason not to.

Prey reveals that you’ve been playing a game, but not the one you thought you were. All the incidental stuff gets put front and center, and it gets you to reflect on how you got where you were going rather than the endpoint.

This Fellow Right Here points out another conversation Prey’s ending digs into:

I think the twist is also meant to invoke the usual debate about stories and empathy. A lot of people talk about how stories help put us in other peoples’ shoes, how reading stories about people from other cultures helps us understand them better, etc. And in this case, the twist is that we are literally invoking the power of stories to build empathy and understanding (via sci-fi super-science). The Typhon you play was made to believe he was Morgan, so that the Typhon’s emotional horizons are expanded.

Screenshot: Prey/Bethesda Softworks

And ~Swinton, who’s been posting wonderful takes throughout the series, discussed a very interesting similarity between Prey and Planescape: Torment, another game written by Chris Avellone.

The whole thing reeks of Chris Avellone’s design sensibility. Prey has a very strong grasp of thematic resonance, which, while an Avellone hallmark, is not exclusive to him. What’s more interesting is how Morgan Yu vaguely reflects the Nameless One from Planescape: Torment.

Basically, when we play RPGs, there’s a relationship between character and player that can be hard to navigate. Take Prey: You are a scientist trying to survive an experiment that you were responsible for. This invites a key cognitive dissonance. If my character is my avatar, how does that character even make sense? Were it really my character, it wouldn’t have made those disastrous decisions in the first place.

So right off the bat, an RPG—that is, a game that allows you to define a character through the choices you make for them—can’t really deal well with notions of inherited responsibility and guilt, because when we’re asked to account for choices we didn’t make, we balk. It’s for this reason that most player characters in RPGs are essentially empty vessels, who for all intents and purposes did not exist before the start of the game.

What Avellone did with The Nameless One and again with Morgan Yu is to put a little spin on the well-worn plot contrivance of amnesia to get around the agency problem. Instead of putting the player on the hook via “You are the person who did these things, you just can’t remember doing them,” The Nameless One’s condition and the “personality drift” of sustained neuromod abuse makes it “You are responsible for these things, but you are not truly who you were then.” You get around the problem of foisting a character with objectionable history onto players who then immediately wash their hands of it with sudden do-goodery. When you discover you dispassionately ordered the death of your ex’s father, there’s no distance or sense of unfairness. That is something that you did. You just have to decide how to reckon with it.

It all adds another level of thematic cleverness to Prey’s conceit. I mean, if you wanted to prove beyond doubt that a hostile alien could be instilled with human empathy, why wouldn’t you load them up with the memories and consciousness of someone as utterly lacking in empathy and ethics as Morgan Yu? Any test positives couldn’t come from incidental echoes of the human personality. They would be coming from the Typhon.

PS:T and Prey both feature naif protagonists gradually uncovering the depths of their own cruelty and hubris by following their own trail of destruction, but PS:T was more centrally preoccupied with it. Avellone is basically the only RPG designer to coax character development out of player characters, and this is the trick he uses. Clever man.


Checking In

Screenshot: The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker/D’Avekki Studios Ltd

Over in this week’s What Are You Playing This Weekend? thread, we’ve got another heaping helping of mini-reviews from the ever-exuberant Shinigami Apple Merchant. SAM’s been playing a bunch of things, but they brought us a take on The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker, an especially weird full-motion video game that’s worth reading about:

Imagine a 12-hour game of Clue meets one of the few Twilight Zone episodes where you have the main character talking to a therapist, meets Lovecraft. Why play Clue for 12 hours? Aye that’s the rub.

My main advice is to use hints often and play through it quickly, doing the bare bones of what you need from each session (each patient has key statements that must be heard to proceed to the next act). So much of the design was focused on making your character’s perception of who’s guilty and what crazy supernatural stuff is affecting a given patient the focal point of your experience that it dilutes the overall journey. You start off really intrigued and writing down details to get yourself immersed, but within 20 minutes of conversations, it’s relatively clear what’s going on with each person with minimal uptick in tension/suspense/weirdness. It’s definitely an interesting approach to ask Colonel Mustard how he feels about Candlesticks and whether or not he’s being possessed any time he enters a Study due to a dream from a past life experience and that the possessing spirit might be the one really controlling things, but that concept can’t sustain for more than 2-3 hours.

And since I’m all about experiencing as much content as possible in the first playthrough, I viewed almost every possible clip available over a total of 14 hours or so. And I definitely think that was 6-8 hours too much time spent on my part. Diminishing returns ensued quickly. In the end, this was a really interesting idea, with some pretty fun moments, but it also ran out of steam the longer things went on.


That does it for this week, friends. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. We’ll see you again next week!

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