Critical Values: In Defense of Prey and Those Who Made It
When people who make a living out of critically examining a medium routinely fail to see the full picture of a work, there’s good reason to suspect a coming sea change. The existence of the following arguments may seem unwarranted — after all, 2017’s Prey was received fairly well critically — but I’ll be arguing that an assumption unknowingly held withing the video game community has still caused those critics to mistake some of the game’s most interesting aspects for flaws. In order to discuss both Prey and its reception, you first of all need to understand the ways in which the game itself forces you to interpret it’s events under flawed assumptions until the very end of the game. Once that understanding is in place, the game becomes one which manages to leverage a familial drama into a meta-narrative about video games — seemingly in response to its genre in general and what Bioshock tried to do in particular. The Great Assumption at work, however — the assumption that games are obligated to be ludologically gratifying — comes along and short-changes players, critics, and developers alike. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I believe that the assumption is the very ideological underpinning of the abusive environment developers are required to operate in to make their living. In essence, this is an argument for a paradigm shift which will allow us a fuller, more inclusive, and ultimately better understanding of what games can be.
This probably makes more sense if you’ve played Prey; I also believe you’ll get more out of Prey if you read this before playing it. I’ll leave it up to you. If you’re the kind of person who’s got knowing what happens in a made up story before consuming it high up on the list of problems in your life, you should probably save it for later. Seriously. Spoilers start with the next paragraph.
“Even though everything in the world is fictional, we want the player to believe it’s real.”
-Emmanuel Petit, Lead Visual Designer, Arkane Studios
Here’s what you find out in the ending — an ending which reconstructs the game’s beginning in total: Alex Yu, Transtar executive madman, captures an alien called a Typhon — which is the character you’re really playing as. He’s only gone and destroyed Earth, but now he’s trying to fix that. So he restrains you, and runs you through a simulation meant to convince you that you’re his brother Morgan — which you actually may or may not be in some sense — in order to ascertain whether the Typhon are at all compatible to humans in terms of emotion, empathy, and their ability to relate to others. He wants to merge the two into one. This means the entire game — at least as far as everything found in its world goes — is ‘narrated’ by Alex, so to speak, since he‘s the simulation author. And he’s probably the last person you should trust. The simulation has been reconstructed from Morgan’s memories, he tells you, and you’re left wondering how much is correctly remembered, how much isn’t, and most of all how much is Alex changing things to suit his needs. That last one is a good question to ask; a lot of what’s in the simulation doesn’t flatter him. For instance, there’s no attempt to hide the fact he created Neuromods in the first place by injecting Typhon material into human beings, and he doesn’t see the problem with the way he’s trying to fix that mistake: he’s trying to fix it by doing the same thing — only the other way around. He doesn’t see the problem with restraining a Typhon, killing a Typhon, or using a Typhon , which was, coincidentally, the same way he used humans to create the Neuromods. He’s still doing the exact same thing, and he expects you not to realize. Your takeaway is this: in the same way mimics make you question the physical space in which you play, everything that happens in the story is also potentially fake. The song at the end states that “now it’s time to beat the mind game,” because now you need to piece it all together in your head. Or, better yet, play the game again without the flawed assumption that you’re playing as Morgan Yu.
So you go back — way back, to the one thing which is clearly fake either way: the intro to the game. With the ending in mind, though, it is framed in a different light. You wake up in bed, supposedly as Morgan. You go to the Transtar offices, meet Alex, run some tests during which something goes wrong and you end up unconscious. Then you wake up in bed, as Morgan. Again. You know something is off. Things are placed differently from the first time, the mechanic in the hallway is dead, and once you realize the only way out is through the balcony door, you smash the glass, and reveal you were in a simulation the whole time. What you didn’t know when you first started the game is how this is simply the top level of simulation. The purpose of this simulation inside the simulation (obligatory Rick & Morty reference) is to cover up the real simulation — the one Alex is putting the Yu/You-Typhon through. Much has been said about this intro; more often than not, how cool it is to see this glass shattering is the first stop for a critic before going into how the rest of the game left them cold. And…I mean, it totally is cool. But if you stop at that, you miss a lot of points being made. One is that Alex is crazy, not stupid — he knows that the best way to cover up a lie is with a different lie. It’s also a lie suited to its purpose. Once you break the glass, you can walk around the simulation set and see how cheap of a trick it actually is. It’s basically the ol’ rotating wall trick — from which there are clearly visible scratch marks on the floor, by the way — with the added benefit of high-tech display devices called the Looking Glass. It’s supposed to be cheap, because Alex wants the Typhon to think that whoever created that top level of simulation isn’t all that good at it — someone who made this couldn’t possibly make a simulation of the entirety of Talos I (the space station on which the game plays out.) To boot, it sets up a theme for the rest of the game: what out of everything you experience, if anything, can you trust? And that’s where the message communicated to the player, as opposed to the character you play, comes in: even if you’ve been around the sci-fi block a few times and realize that this intro is probably not the only illusion the game has in store, you won’t be able to make any decisive conclusion about events until the very end of the game. All good plot twists work this way: they’re foreshadowed from the start, they’re relevant to all the events of the plot, but don’t make sense until you have the final piece of the puzzle. In Prey, everything is relevant to that final twist — including all the things the game allows you to do in the gameplay. The neat little intro communicates effectively not only within its own fiction but from the fiction to the player — a bipartite thematic structure that runs through the length of the game all the way through the ending.
Like two mirrors placed on opposite walls of a hallway, standing between the intro and the ending makes the significance of Prey’s events distorted and difficult not to lose track of. But once the final piece of the puzzle is in place, it’s revealed that things weren’t as simple and disconnected as they seemed at first; not only is Prey a story about the mistakes of two trailblazing brothers — there’s something else going on as well.
“There’s a metaphor here, you know. Typically, the objective of control theory is to monitor the output of a system and compare it with the desired output (the reference signal). The difference between actual and the desired outputs (the error signal) is applied as feedback to the input of the system, to bring the actual output closer to the reference. Good control systems — and good engineers — learn from the past.”
From the afterword of Engineering Control Systems, by Sven Shird. In-Fiction
That something else is what the Great Assumption inhibits you from seeing. Where Bioshock left most of its immersive sim heritage in the past in to focus on its themes and ideas, Prey understands that it is precisely that design philosophy which allows a fusing together of its narrative and ludic themes in ways Bioshock was so famously unable to do. On the surface, Prey’s familial drama is a story about the costs of progress, whether it has any intrinsic value, and how to deal with its limitations — a story without answers to those questions. But taken together with the ludic parts — everything that happens between the start and end of the game, were I to cynically oversimplify it — the game reveals a reason for that lack of answers: it wants to allow the player to conclude what their own answers to those questions might be. What causes problems for this admirable ambition, however, is how a player can be limited in which questions they’re willing or indeed able to ask. So while Prey manages to do what Bioshock failed to do — to let the player explore the ideas of the narrative through ludic means — the type of gameplay required to explore the tensions inherent to all ideology (as in normative beliefs and values beyond epistemic reasons) isn’t allowed under The Great Assumption.
The type of gameplay required to explore the tensions inherent to all ideology isn’t allowed under the Great Assumption
The emotional core of Prey — the conflict between Alex and Morgan — centers on Alex’ delusions; in so many words, Prey is a modernist/metamodernist fever dream. Alex’s development of Neuromods was obviously misguided and immoral. He’s interested in progress for progress’ sake — the modernist ethos encased in poet Ezra Pound’s maxim “Make it new!” And while we’re on the subject of literature, I’d like to first point to how the texts you find scattered throughout the station — “And the West Stood Tall,” “Good Cop/Good Cop,” “The Neural Horizon,” “Survivor’s Account of The Evacuation,” and the reference to the hebrew Book of Judges — are all in one way or the other detached allusions to a modernist worldview in their own rights; the most damning of all, the trashy sci-fi novel “The Starbender Cycle,” where the characters conclude that in order to keep the universe from being destroyed, they must destroy themselves. In Prey, even this really terrible fictional fiction novelist appears to understand what Alex is so blind to. To him, progress not only has its own intrinsic value, but it’s value is higher than virtually anything. Playing the story that unfolds, however, the game shows you the costs of that progress, and challenges you to question whether that value of progress is intrinsic to itself or not. In the simulation, on the one hand, acquiring, imprisoning, and sacrificing human beings (including his own brother) is one of those costs; with the ending in mind, we must realize that whether this happened in reality or not is not the point — after all, Alex left it out in the open for you to see. What’s important is how under all his pretense of saving mankind, he apparently doesn’t understand what makes him view the world the way he does: under it all rests a solid assumption that progress is an all-encompassing goal in its own right — every other consideration be damned. His human sacrificing isn’t damning enough for him to hide. Then on the level of reality, on the other hand, he doesn’t see how acquiring, imprisoning, and sacrificing the Typhon you’re playing as paints him as having learnt nothing. So as the Yu-Typhon you’re embodying is being tested, so are you: do you accept Alex’ philosophy that progress is worth its sometimes neck-breaking costs, and that it has that intrinsic value to begin with, or do you — at the very least — start to question it?
If you ask me, that’s kind of…enough? Putting you in a position of asking difficult questions is a great service, because asking good questions is as difficult as it is important. Is what Alex did wrong; was it right in some ways? In what ways was it wrong or right, and in what ways is there room for understanding and maybe even forgiveness, and in what ways should it maybe be considered indefensible? Does what I’m ludically doing in any way relate to, or even reflect, what is wrong and right about that? But Prey doesn’t want to give you any answers to those questions it challenges you to start asking; instead, it gives you the tools to start exploring them through mechanical and systemic interactions with the world around you.
While both Alex and the Yu-Typhon are stuck in a prison of sorts, the difference is that his is an ideological one, whereas yours is only a literal one. Unlike Alex, you’re free to explore the underlying meaning of your actions. That’s what you do through the gameplay, because in stark contrast to Bioshock — the ludonarrative critique of which rested on how the game’s narrative themes were undermined by how the game handled progressing through it — the gameplay of Prey fits incredibly well into thoughts on the costs and limitations of said progress. First, and most importantly, there’s the gameplay loop itself — the thing through which progress is achieved. The game has been criticized for an imbalance in resources and enemy strength. The enemies, so the argument goes, are too strong in relation to the scarcity of resources found throughout the station. I disagree: there are many upgrades you can pick to counteract this potential problem, many ways — such as environmental effects like fire, or just playing mechanically well — to conserve resources, and a great variety of ways in which to face your obstacles, which lowers the strain put on each particular resource; in addition, you can always choose not to engage with an enemy, and to instead sneak past them. But here’s the main thing: the enemies are strong, and resources are comparatively scarce, but shouldn’t they be? Much like Alex’ unexamined life, the Great Assumption we often carry into the games we play permit us from seeing that maybe we’re just doing it wrong. And I don’t mean in a “git gud” kind of way, but in the fundamental ways in which we approach what a game is supposed to look like as it’s being played. Look at it this way. If the themes of the story are questions of the costs and value of progress, shouldn’t you have to think about what it means, materially, to progress through the game? Shouldn’t there be mechanics and systems pushing you toward a choice? If it wasn’t a tight balance, the gameplay would have nothing to do with what the game is about. And you cannot have it both ways. Even if the balance was off, which it isn’t, wouldn’t that still be appropriate?
The way it is now, the game manages to make the claim, through the mechanical interaction with the game’s systems, that a good price to pay for progress is constant deliberation. If you’re routinely careful, you limit the chance that progress will result in an even worse situation down the line. And that’s an amazing thing for a video game to manage to say in 2017, to say nothing about the ways Prey manages to say it. Then there’s the kind of on-the-nose way you’re judged on your use of Neuromods , which is the most similar thing about Prey and Bioshock. If you use a lot of Typhon Neuromods, the world reacts by becoming more hostile; power aiding progress isn’t just that, but can be dangerous, the game is able to say through its systems. It’s got consequences beyond yourself. Where Bioshock’s parallel system — the harvesting of A.D.A.M. from Little Sisters — fell flat because the game balanced out the cost of being greedy, Prey understands the importance of making it costly. In other words, if Bioshock wanted to get its message across, it should’ve had the courtesy of rubing the player’s nose in the mess they made. Third, rewards aren’t necessarily equal to the ability cost of accessing certain areas. This is a choice the game has come under criticism for, but is actually a really subtle way for the game to discuss the intrinsic value of progress. Sure, sometimes there’s something great behind that locked door, but sometimes there’s just nothing there. You shouldn’t attribute that potential value to progress itself, because it’s mostly down to chance. These are three ways — the gameplay loop, the neuromod problem, and the cost/reward calculation of abilities in general — in which Prey lets its player mechanically and systemically explore the themes of the narrative. There are many more ways in which the game either develops on these specific techniques, or even introduces new ones, but I think these are the most important ones to pay attention to as you’re playing the game.
If you’re not paying attention to these complex ludonarrative interactions, though — if you’re not willing or able to ask the questions the game opens up for you — there’s very little in that middle chunk of the game that feels important. It becomes not a participatory exploration of the story’s ideas and values, but a well-made and fun, although basically meaningless series of diversions. Even though the things you do are captivating, they seem unwilling to let you see their meaning — the what and the how are in focus, but the why stays blurred.
It becomes not a participatory exploration of the story’s ideas and values, but a well-made and fun, although basically meaningless series of diversions.
One such instance you need to be paying attention for is the early, alternate ending, which seems like an effective but unrelated joke when you first play through it. After being contacted by December — an alternate version of the operator robot January, which Morgan created as a message to himself in the future — you get in an escape pod, ostensibly to just leave it all behind, only to be pulled out of the simulation and terminated by Alex. At first it comes across as a little meta-commentary on video game fatalism — you don’t really have any say in what your options are. And it is that, because “Great, the choices in games are basically an illusion because they’ve already been made for you in advance by the designers, and no matter how many they’ve made they all exist at the same time. Good Schrödinger’s choice, guys!” But what does it mean in the context specific to Prey? For that question to exist, you need to assume that what happens in the game is related to the themes of the story, and to know that it, in fact, is you need to have seen the ending. Here’s what it means. It furthers the juxtaposition of Alex and the Yu-Typhon: the Yu-Typhon can simply choose to disengage from the horrors of Talos I — an ethically valid response — but that wouldn’t be congruent with Alex’ imprisoning ideology. If Alex wants to test how the Typhon reacts to the events on Talos I, then what’s the point of his little test if significant results are prohibited? The Typhon either passes, or…nothing. There’s no alternative, so Alex’ test is epistemologically meaningless because it’s unfalsifiable — he doesn’t allow his hypothesis about how the Typhon are compatible with humans to be contradicted, which is what getting into the shuttle would indicate. The sequence escalates the tension in the narrative, and it’s probably the closest it gets to actually revealing the twist of the ending — it says the exact same thing, but in a less obvious, more demanding way.
Here’s the choice. On the one hand, you can give the game the benefit of the doubt and assume its disorganized strands will be woven together — you can start to press your mind for the right questions. On the other, you can refuse this benefit — you can assume there’s some failing at play that isn’t your own. You can get in the way of your own enjoyment of Prey.
[I]f Bioshock tries (and mostly fails) to posit the player can’t be anything other what than the game’s allows them to be, Prey tries (and succeeds) in positing that the game can’t be anything other than what the player allows it to be.
Admittedly, there are many challenges to enjoying the game fully, and in how the game constructs the concept of Player, there’s a discussion on what it means that there’s this otherworldly entity in every game that controls everything and is both the same and different in its every instantiation. Because what if that entity is imperfect? Even with all the information the ending provides at hand, the events at the level of reality are open to a lot of interpretation. There are so many questions left either unanswered or where the answer is just alluded to. Was there a real Talos I, and was it better or worse than the one we saw in the simulation — how much did Alex modify and sterilize it? The characters we met throughout the game turn out to be robots in the ending scene — what happened to them, were they ever actual people, or just Alex’ constructed AI cronies all along? Where’s Morgan now? To what extent was he a test subject in reality, is he dead or alive, why wasn’t he turned into a robot if that’s how the robots do work? All of these things are left for the player to exert their right of interpretation upon, and to leave so much of the fiction in the hands of the player is truly empowering — in fact, it’s part of the point the game is making. With Prey, Arkane Studios manage to take the player empowering design philosophy of immersive sims and translate it into the narrative: just like the player gets to decide on how to deal with mechanical and systemic problems, they get to decide how to deal with narrative problems. The tension between Morgan being alive or dead in reality can only be resolved once the player makes a choice — the interpretive choice is what makes it part of that reality. The player is the fire in the equations, as one of the books in the game coins it: amidst all the constants, variables, and functions, there’s you running around affecting all of them both ludically and narratologically. But it causes a problem: that fire is both creative and destructive. You are a Typhon in Prey. A Typhon — the same kind of creature as all the enemies you’re encountering. Prey is explicitly casting you in the role of both devil and deity; you’re the one who creates, and the one who can destroy. Because just as players will optimize and mid-max the fun out of a game’s mechanics and systems, they have the power to do the same with its aesthetic elements. The tensions between wanting to do something, and not being mechanically able to; that’s what optimizing is about. And just as players will choose the easiest way to do that, they’ll choose the easiest way to do that in terms of aesthetic tensions: it’s the path of least resistance. It’s easier to dismiss the tension between a gameplay loop and a which are seemingly disconnected but keep rubbing up against one another as someone else’s mistake, than it is to hold on to that tension for a long time until the game makes it possible to alleviate. Prey wants to keep that tension up until the very end, because without tension, a choice — whether it’s a small thing, a button prompt, or even an inadvertent one — is nothing. Ultimately, if Bioshock tries (and mostly fails) to posit the player can’t be anything other what than the game’s allows them to be, Prey tries (and succeeds) in positing that the game can’t be anything other than what the player allows it to be.
There’s more to Prey than meets the eye, but the current paradigm is one in which we often stop at what’s right in front of us. Where Bioshock was using something new to pay tribute to something old, Prey uses something old to say something new. The thematic lobby is one in which you situate yourself in a modernist dilemma: how do you weigh the sometimes staggering material costs of progress against its supposed inherent value? The game then goes on to present corridors into explorations of that question — explorations through mechanics and systems for which ludological gratification would be antithetical. The game knows that it’s as incapable of forcing you down any of its thematic paths as it is forcing you down its ludic ones, and that you, not it, are the only one who will be able — or unable — to ask the questions required to get to the right places. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how well Prey might do these things, because we’re primed — conditioned, even — to ask the wrong questions.
The Great Assumption
So. What is this Great Assumption I keep antagonizing you with? I hope it’s obvious at this point it’s the paradigm of received knowledge which states how video games are first and foremost supposed to be ludologically gratifying, and that a failure to uphold that promise is invalidating — but the important thing, its consequence, is the inability to deal with the growing number of deviations video games are displaying which the universally accepted paradigm can’t explain. Ludological gratification is really a catch-all term I’m using to describe the countless ways in which game designers make sure that their games are able to build, sustain, and discharge ludic tension — game feel, aesthetic design, level design, narrative, audio design, etc. The predisposition, in turn, is bolstered by an impulse to find the cause of the perceived screw up not in the game itself, but in its designer’s intent. All of this leads to a culture of bad faith criticism that ends up hurting the ability of players to engage, critics to analyze, and developers to make games. The paradigm of the Great Assumption isn’t able to explain the full spectrum of what video games are, and when a game like Prey comes along like a tall blade of grass reaching for the sunlight, the Great Assumption makes sure it gets cut first.
In no way am I trying to argue against ludological gratification — that’s not the point — but I am arguing against how it’s so often taken as the self-evident measure of a game’s merits. The vague definition of fun is, in the same vein as running time, taken as an indicator of evident value. But it’s really about ludic tension; the fun of a video game is to offer a hurdle. The jumping of that hurdle, the release of the tension, is gratifying. The first problem with this is pretty self-evident: fun — vague though it may be — is a pretty narrow span of recognition. It makes sure games which let you explore uncomfortable, controversial, or otherwise formative ideas fall into the camps of weird or esoteric virtually no matter how elegantly that demanding experience is presented. I try not to compare video games to other mediums; it’s really not all that useful. For instance, I wouldn’t say that while it’s routine for a movie to deal with difficult-to-digest subject matter, games are treated with doubt when doing it. I wouldn’t say that, but…mmm…fuck it, it’s true. Enjoyment isn’t about having fun all of the time to all of the people; enjoyment can be about nourishing something that is only good in small, safe doses — exposing yourself to something normally difficult or painful in a way you can control. The second problem is that it interferes with flexibility. I’m not saying the world would be better with more depressing video games, but that it would be better if we were open to and supportive of a developer wanting to take their game in any given direction at any given time — perhaps especially if they only make it halfway there. If something terrible happens in an otherwise adorable game, why would playing that terrible thing be ludologically gratifying? Shouldn’t it be ludologically distressing to play? Or at the very least, couldn’t it? I am aware there are games that do this, but they often focus on that alone, which kind of ends up supporting my point: inflexibility. If you introduce a not-fun part in a game otherwise focused on ludological gratification, and don’t make a big deal of it, chances are someone is going to get confused — and on the internet, that means outraged (see Final Fantasy XV’s controversial Chapter 13, which had to withstand a lot of ridicule just because it tried to switch things up.) The last thing is that it just seems like a bit of a missed opportunity, because all the tools are already there — you can use any of the tools used for ludological gratification in order to subvert it if there’s a point to make or experience to provide. There’s no need for a sea-change in how games are made; only in how games are regarded and received. I’m not saying games shouldn’t be fun to play —obviouslt— but that it can’t be the only thing games are unconditionally allowed to be.
This, of course, is way too sweeping ; there are always many different voices at the same time. It’s also not about people in general, so much as it’s a certain strain of critic (often without the right qualifications) who make a living from their work. I don’t want to call anyone out, partly because I don’t think it’s a very nice thing to do, and partly because I don’t think it helps anyone. So I’m going out on a limb a bit that you’ll recognize the sort of broad-strokes reception I’m painting. Just do a Google search, and I’m sure you’ll find lots of Youtube videos and articles floating around with titles such as “The Ten Stages Of Coping With Final Fantasy XV’s Chapter 13” (see what I did there?) But just in case you don’t, let’s return to Prey specifically before I make a whiny, sanctimonious fool out of myself.
You can write as many articles as you want about the interview you had with him in which he confirmed the final act was misguided.
There’s a lack of awareness in the critical community of intentional fallacy, and since The Great Assumption is unspoken and presumed, the assumption gets projected onto the developers we look to for answers. As it turns out, Prey makes for an interesting example on this topic. It’s important to realize that many of the arguments leveled at the game can only be made in earnest if you dismiss something at the core of its narrative: the fact that you’re playing a simulated experience. Whatever it is — that the final act is overlong, that the choices are simplistic and too gamey, or that many of the tasks are fetch questy — the only way to make those criticisms and stop at that is to, as many have done, dismiss the simulation as “a cop-out”. If you’re just somebody playing Prey for the fun of it, you obviously have every right to do that, it affects nobody; when a professional critic does it, though, it’s called an Intentional Fallacy — and that’s a BIG THING™. It means basing an assessment of the work on the author’s intention rather than on one’s own response to the work. There are a lot of reasons to why you shouldn’t do this: the author might lie when you ask them, the author might be dead when you ask them, and the author might not, in fact, know themselves what they ultimately ended up making. Prey is an interesting sort of case study for this, because former Arkane president Raf Colantonio has publicly stated the final act of the game was compromised. But here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter. You can write as many articles as you want about the interview you had with him in which he confirmed the final act was misguided. As a critic speaking for an audience — academic or general — interested in games as a medium, what am I supposed to do with that? Discuss how it’s bad, when Arkane probably know what they would have liked to do differently — especially seeing as they publicly said as much? That’s not helpful. Discuss how good the game that never was would be? That’s conceited. Now the game is, and the critic’s job is to discuss the game as is, and analyze what it’s doing. The problem with the Great Assumption in all this is it’s much easier to infer a reason for a perceived inconsistency from outside the game rather than simply ask what that inconsistency does within the work; more often than not, inconsistencies create some of the most dramatically potent tensions. “This part doesn’t seem very fun— they must have screwed up, because clearly that’s what they were going for.” Fun. Gratifying. So if the final act is overlong and awkward, that creates a tension in the work. The critic has to ask, and answer, what that tension ends up signifying. In the case of Prey, I’d argue that it signifies Alex’ meticulousness. Walter Dahl’s arrival, for instance, is one of the most annoying things about the final act — he comes out of nowhere, the operator bots he brings with him are very powerful, and his storyline yanks you around the station like a tiny dog on a short leash who just wants to get to get the treat already. You may dislike it when it happens, but assuming that’s interesting to someone else seems conceited, too. It doesn’t change the fact it’s a way for Alex to test the Typhon on how it deals with a difficult ethical issue during inconvenient circumstances. It doesn’t change how it functions as both a foreshadowing of what’s to come and characterization of the Yu brothers. If you want to critique it, you have to critique the effect it has as a function in the work as it is. A professional critic berating something because it annoys them and wasn’t fun doesn’t just seem like a cop out — it is one.
You may dislike it when it happens, but assuming that’s interesting to someone else seems conceited, too.
The only thing all this leads to is a culture of bad faith criticism, where instead of discussing what games are doing and appraise the value of that, the point is to find all the ways in which it isn’t ludologically gratifying. This is a corner video game criticism outside academic circles seems to have painted itself into, and it hurts the medium’s ability to thrive creatively.
Let’s look at the choices in Prey — choices being an ever successful way of docking points off a game, precisely because they can’t be anything other than expected and so fail to build, sustain, and release tension. The critique of the choices in Prey is how they boil down to usual video game stuff — kill or save, do a genocide or do a peaceful — and that they don’t relate to the themes of the main plot. Taking the choices on good faith as the way they’re meant to be, however, turns them into a thoughtful exploration of the very nature of choice. Arguably the best choice is the one about Walter Dahl, because it’s genuinely difficult. Killing him might be morally reprehensible, but if you leave him be you’re ensuring many other deaths, and if you save him, you end up forcibly removing his neuromods in order to make him forget the order which brought him to Talos I. Eeeh… Is either of these actually better than the other: kill a bad person, refuse to kill them and cause many more deaths, or keep them alive only to use and abuse them? This is one of the last choices you have to make as the Yu-Typhon, and the inconvenience of making the seemingly “right” choice of saving him (it’s super disruptive to the third act’s general pace) can be read as the game giving you ample opportunity to go “wait, maybe this isn’t the most ethically responsible thing.” That’s pretty impressive. The arguably worst, or weirdest, choice is in how you deal with the fake chef in the kitchen. On the surface, he’s just a for-real dangerous person to keep alive, so you kill him — in self-defense. If you examine it closer, though, there are structural similarities between his plot line and the main one. It functions as what’s known as mise en abyme: a small version of the story within itself, which results in a theoretically infinite reflection between the two levels — like two mirrors on opposite sides of a hallway. What if I describe the chef’s plot line like this: A fat man imprisons you, taunts you with traps and tests, wonders what he’s going to do with you, you end up on a quest to hunt him down, only for the climax to not give you many answers? Hey! That’s the broad-strokes plot of Prey! The choices are also meaningful. Not in the capital ‘M’ Meaningful way of being clearly signposted, but because they aren’t signposted as such. Only once it’s all said and done and the game is over does the meaning of each choice reveal itself. In a superficial examination, they’re easy to dismiss on bad faith, but if they aren’t a good way of representing choice, I don’t know what is.
Under the Great Assumption, being subtle or clever is a risk, because the paradigm doesn’t allow non-traditional approaches to design. If we leave it behind, those tools viewed as principally there to build ludological gratification machines are allowed to also be used in new, creative ways. If we leave it behind, we don’t get critics routinely dismissing things warranting a closer look on the assumption that the developers were trying to achieve that ludological gratification, when potentially in reality they just wanted to do something new and/or weird. And if we leave it behind, it becomes that much harder to cling to the bad faith permeating the culture around the medium. A culture which, if uncomfortable but important relationships are made plain, turns out to be more hurtful than just isolated bad faith criticisms.
…And Those Who Made It
It’s not only about Prey, though, but an industry-wide problem — the responsibility for which ultimately rests with us. While the heritage of Gamergate is both real and somehooow still alive, it’s sadly just the extreme end of a spectrum — a side that begins with The Great Assumption, and the urge to find flaws based on our own prejudice. The reasons why this happened are difficult to glean, but there are definitely clues in the industry’s recent history. Perhaps part of the cause exists further back, in a time when playing games often meant identifying as a socially awkward outcast. Maybe still it’s simply the entitlement of an extreme minority causing so much vitriol toward the people lovingly crafting our games — I honestly don’t know which would be worse. But it’s ultimately clear that there’s an abusive element in the spaces developers are required to attend in order to share their creative endeavors — and maybe starting here, with Prey as example, where the language is least hurtful, is the best way to talk about it.
One big change, with roots in the mid-2000s, when the indie scene’s categorical explosion begun, is the widening of the window through which we’re able to peer into the creative process of game developers. Less so than in the past do publishers alone have power over what, how, and from whom we see and hear what is going on in the development process. Taking a stance against a publisher taking advantage of, undermining, or otherwise making life difficult for its creative talent — the ones we ultimately owe this art to — is comparatively valid. But we need to remember that inherent to the publishing business is understanding and, more importantly, communicating with consumers; they have professionals trained and experienced in dealing with the dangers — creative as well as sometimes physical — of being a public figure. Ideally, that’s what they’re there for. We value creative works highly, and we want those with the ability to produce them to be safe physically, obviously, but also creatively. In our mistrust of the industry, we run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
A huge creative risk is when you start to think about what others will think about your work — the trust between creator and editor is about the editor assessing the work with the creator’s best interests in mind. But looking at the past years, what’s been happening instead? Publishers in the gaming industry have been realizing that instead of an experienced presenter, you can put a few developers on a presentation stage to convey a sense of passion, a sense of earnestness, and paint the entire endeavor as cooperative rather than exploitative. So far so good. But an experienced presenter, removed from the creative process, also results in a shield between those creating and those consuming — between the needs of the one and the needs of the other. So it turns into a situation with rock and a hard place — you win some and lose some with each approach. Where it gets really messy, though, is when you consider how skewed the power balance between these two needs are. Whereas the people on stage are restrained due to being public, exposed, and reliant on the other, the people in the audience and behind the screens have the completely opposite experience. They’re anonymous, hidden behind that, and don’t really need the creative entity because there are so many around. With this in mind, not only is nothing gained in terms of creative freedom — the one thing every creative will tell you is critical — but the creative talent itself is jeopardized, put in the searing spotlight for what is, when you think about it, mostly good will. It’s clear there’s been a change: we see more of the people making our games than arguably ever, but I can’t help but think it’s part of why the abuse — adverse and slight — has become so ubiquitous.
But where does the need — to be so vitriolic in some cases, and just mistrustful in some — come from in the first place? Well, both are reliant on that presupposed attitude of distrust. Competence, earnestness, indulgence — why are we so hesitant to give developers the benefit of the doubt with these things? With Prey, specifically, it’s so odd to question their ability to make a solid game, because they’ve been making good games for over a decade; to assume that they simply botched the last third of a game they spent four years creating… What’s sad is we don’t seem to even realize how fiercely insulting the question alone is. What’s sadder is I don’t even really need to mention all the fucking toxic, hateful, disgusting filth creative people have to endure — most of all if they’re not straight, white men — every single day as a matter of fact “cost of business.” (Morgan Jaffit, Defiant Development)
An obvious source of the distrust is the fact that games used to be decidedly worse. Now, before you start writing an angry comment, I’m saying games used to be technically worse. Having ideas is easy — you probably have 20 excellent ideas every day — but the ability and perseverance required to make it come true is not. Playing an old game, that old axiom shows, and it shows hard. A large part of the charm of playing older games is seeing the myriad ways in which developers of yesteryear bent over backward to make their ideas a playable reality…if only just. More often than not, the technology wasn’t there, the techniques weren’t there. When it was there, it was rough — held together by digital duct tape. You could see what they were trying to make — that’s where a lot of the energy came from; raw creative ambition — but you could see just as clearly the concessions made to make the result ostensibly that idea. And maybe that’s where the awkward nerd comes into play. Way way way back, people ordered magazines with code in them — code which you had to manually input into your machine in order to play an often very simple game. It was nerds making things for nerds — real OG computer lab nerds. But even later on, in the 90s and 00s, these games were too busy being functional to start with to even think about spending time convincing anyone that what they were doing was cool. You had to already think being a wizard adventuring through a dungeon was cool, because the game itself sure as anything wasn’t going to make you think it was. That benefit of the doubt that’s so rare nowadays was par for the course if you wanted to enjoy a game at all. And I’m saying this went on for a long time — and again, I’m not dismissing them; I’m saying that’s part of what gave them their charm, earnestness, and energy. Even games in the sixth generation — the PlayStation 2 era — struggled to convince anyone of…anything, really. To take them seriously, you really had to be on their side from the start; you had to give the games the benefit of the doubt. Maybe somewhere down the line, that was taken advantage of. Maybe once games were able to be as spectacular — as convincing — as they now have become to such an incredible amount of people who would never play these older games, the influx of people felt like an invasion. I can understand that feeling; the feeling that the thing you gave so much of your compassion to took advantage of that, and is now busy catering to these new people who needed to be convinced. I don’t particularly share it, but I can understand it. I can even find it sweet. Of course, it’s only sweet if you assume those aren’t the same people as the ones being so destructive right now.
And maybe they’re not; maybe those abusive voices are the voices of the unconvinced — those who came in late, and get angry when a game doesn’t convince them enough to forget that what they’re doing is actually pretty uncool (because, let’s face it, videogames are almost never cool.) There’s an undeniable logic to the chain of thought: if you need to be convinced how cool a game is, whenever something doesn’t quite make sense, whenever something doesn’t feel ludologically gratifying, whenever your suspension of disbelief is challenged, you might feel exposed as what you’re currently engaged in: nerding out. Maybe the “Press F to pay respect,” and resulting meme-ification of it is because it brought the dishonesty and corniness of the violently popular military power fantasy (pun intended) much too close for comfort.
I realize all this theorizing is somewhat ridiculous, because at the end of the day I just don’t know. But neither do you! It’s probably a little bit of everything: the people feeling let down in comparison to the leeway they gave games when they required some imagination, and the people who just can’t seem to handle doing something kind of lame, and the apparent movement to put developers at the forefront all combines into a perfect storm. What’s clear, though, is the incredibly entitled attitude of these reprehensible voices. Sometimes I wonder if these voices are so misinformed they don’t understand how many more games are released compared to years past; leaving one behind is so easy. It seems like that would counteract these feelings in the first place, but somehow it doesn’t — like, at all. Is it outrage culture? Is it algorithms? Is it the dark, powerless void of simply being one among millions against what is perceived as the powers that be? Here’s the thing. Whereas an abusive commenter must have assumed somewhere along the line that the creator has actively tried to hurt them, the critique made in bad faith simply assumes they are to some degree incompetent at their jobs. The difference here is in what you assume ludological gratification has been replaced with — is it a cabal of diversity-loving SJW Cultural Marxists; or is it simply the developers being bad?
Is it the dark, powerless void of simply being one among millions against what is perceived as the powers that be?
A difference is also that where one is impossible to approach to begin with, the other is working under the belief that they’re without prejudice — but is, in fact, unknowingly working under the Great Assumption that video games are supposed to be this or that; that they’re supposed to be ludologically gratifying. It’s also a lot easier to dismiss an absurd accusation compared to a sneaky implication that you’re bad at what you do, because…well, because we’re all already a little bit afraid of that! Whatever the cause — be it power structures within the industry, disappointed nerds, or sensitive memelords — I think it’s a spectrum which begins here, with the Great Assumption. Critics will always do a lot of assuming — that’s impossible to get around — but you know what they say about assuming. So if we’re going to assume, let’s have the dignity and decency to make asses out of only ourselves, and heroes out of those who work on games like Prey.
Ludocriticism is Oskar Permerup, and this text can also be found in a video essay format on the Ludocriticism Youtube channel. You can also find critical examinations of the rest of Arkane’s Ludography over there!