Let me paint a picture for you. You’re exploring an isolated space station. This wasn’t always the case: until recently it was bustling with life. You see, the folks aboard the Talos 1 have spent years developing technology that transplants alien genes on humans which enhance their innate abilities. Unfortunately, due to a recent containment breach the alien life, known as typhon, went on a rampage. There are few survivors among the wreckage and supplies are scarce.
You’ve been pillaging the remains of Talos 1, but are barely managing to keep yourself alive. Each run-in with the typhon has been too close for comfort and continues to put pressure on your dwindling resources. After barely scraping by yet another enemy encounter, you enter an office, which is when you hear it. A blood curdling screech. It’s so loud it shakes the space station. Worse still, it sounds close by.
Turning to look out the office window you catch a glimpse of what you can only assume is the source of the noise. It’s huge. And it’s heading right for you. Without hesitation you scramble to the door and slam the emergency override lock preventing access to the room. You hear the beast continue to scream from behind the door. How will you escape?
A voice ringing in your ear snaps you back to reality. Your robot assistant, January, informs you that you are being hunted. Luckily the typhon currently in pursuit will relent after a short few minutes. So you stay holed up in the office praying that this creature never manages to find a way in.
It passes. The creature vanishes into the shadows with a hiss. It’s still out there, but you’ve managed to survive a little longer. But a thought lingers in the back of your mind, “how long do I have before it strikes again”?
What I outlined is your introduction to the Nightmare enemy from Prey (2017). It’s enormous, loud, and it really wants to kill you. It appears just as soon as you reach the point in the game where you should have a bit of unearned confidence in your abilities so as to knock you down a peg, and it’s terrifying. Unfortunately, it doesn’t remain that way and that’s what I wanted to write about today.
For those not in the know, Prey is an immersive sim developed by Arkane Studios where you explore the ruins of Talos 1. You’ll spend most of your time scrounging for weapons and ammo so you have a means to defend yourself while you search for a way off the station. Prey features lots of player driven exploration and problem solving. If you’ve played Deus Ex, Dishonored, or (especially) System Shock then you know exactly what kind of experience you’re in for.
You begin quite weak relative to the various threats on Talos 1. What’s even worse is one of the starting enemies is a mimic which can transform into objects throughout the station. These little bastards are littered throughout the early areas of Prey and if several get the jump on you it can result in your demise. This, along with some stellar sound design, makes the whole of Talos 1 extremely frightening to explore. You never know when something is going to strike and you’re not equipped to defend yourself.
As you progress through the game, two things change. Firstly you’ll happen upon several weapons as well as weapon upgrades. Weapons make you far more proficient at combat and with each upgrade they become magnitudes stronger. After a little bit of exploring you will have weapons that can quite confidently smite most typhon aboard Talos 1.
Secondly, and more importantly, you will have access to Neuromods. They’re technology that the scientists aboard Talos 1 were developing and make use of alien genes to allow the user to instantly learn new abilities. Gameplay wise these things are responsible for your skill progression. As you install an increasing number of Neuromods you greatly increase your ability to take hits and also generally improve your combat proficiency, especially if you use them to gain unique powers like typhon energy blasts or teleportation.
This is where the Nightmare comes in. Once you get to a point where you start to feel comfortable defending yourself, Prey introduces a very large, very fast enemy that hunts you. What’s worse is you’ll never know it has found you until its horrible screeching starts ringing in your ears. It acts as a constant threat that aims to maintain tension throughout Prey even after players have become otherwise invincible.
Or…it would act in this way if the Nightmare was implemented better. You see, despite initially scaring the pants off of me, Nightmares quickly lost their power to create tension and I think that’s a shame given the power of their introduction.
So what happened?
The first problem with Nightmares is the UI. Whenever a Nightmare is present they let out absolutely horrifying noises, which are meant to alert the player to their presence. This is great. Unfortunately Prey tells you when an enemy has spotted you by putting an awareness meter over their head. Nightmares always know where the player is though, thus they always have a marker above their head. This removes any sense of tension as players can quickly determine where the beast is and how best to escape it. You’re simply given too much information to be afraid.
Secondly, how the Nightmare appears in an area could use some tweaking. They spawn in one of two ways: deep into an area, or right at the start of it. If they appear late into an area the player is forced to adapt creating an interesting escape plan. This would also allow for anticipation and tension build-up if the UI didn’t communicate too much information. However, if the creature spawns at the loading zone for an area, you have no reason to do anything but turnaround and load back into the previous area. It can’t follow you and you’re not prevented from doing this, thus it becomes a very reliable and thoughtless strategy.
The final issue Nightmares have is that they always kill the player in one attack. I understand how this could be misconstrued as threatening, but let me ask you this: is it scarier to die instantly, or to be left alive with a sliver of health while you’re running for your life? I’m going to assume most of you answered with the second. Generally speaking, leaving someone barely alive and fighting for their life will cause a greater fear response compared to killing them immediately. As such, it’d make more sense for Nightmares to do reduced damage creating prolonged bursts of terror.
Based on their introduction I assumed Nightmares were intended to maintain tension through the late game of Prey. For this to be achieved the player has to feel uncertain about when and where the Nightmare will strike. Giving players perfect information about the Nightmare’s location and having loading zones work as an effective shield against them really diminishes their ability to create meaningful impact on the play experience. If you do manage to get caught by one the experience will end so quickly that your brain won’t even have time to register fear. This is a shame as it doesn’t lead to surprising or memorable encounters with what should be one of Prey’s best enemies.
Personally, I’d like to see Arkane use this sort of enemy design again in their future titles, but in doing so I’d like to see a few small tweaks. Giving the player less perfect information about what is hunting them and having said hunter not instantly kill them would, in my opinion, lead to more interesting situations. It’s far more tense to barely escape being hunted with a sliver of health after a surprise attack than it is to thoughtlessly avoid an encounter because you knew when and where it was coming from before it happened.
But that’s just what I think. What are your thoughts? Do you think my suggestions would help, or are they too far in the other direction? Let me know in the comments.