I Love Prey, but I Dislike What Should Be Its Best Enemy

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.

9 thoughts on “I Love Prey, but I Dislike What Should Be Its Best Enemy

  1. Ouch! That sounds like the old saying goes: “The opposite of well done isn’t badly done, it’s well meant.”
    The UI is a classic case of “Eeeeh, what works for the mooks oughta work for the boss too, right fellas?”
    Is the spawn point randomised? So, if you load back into the previous area and come back, can the Nightmare be somewhere else? Then that’s super-dumb. Or is it fixed, and you just go back to take a breather and then carry on? Still dumb, but not as big of a fail…But in general, checkpoints that “reset” everything are just dumb, especially in a game calling itself “immersive”. Both of these problems could have been solved with a bit more attention to detail and/or a few additional systems in place.

    The One-Hit-Kill is not so easy to solve, probably. Many Horror games have the same problem: The monster finds you and kills you. After that, you respawn at the latest checkpoint. Very soon you’ll realise that there’s no actual consequence except losing some time, which, in turn, kills the tension. On the other hand, it would be foolish to assume that simply making the monsters “weaker” could solve the problem. It would have the same effect, only not as strong. If you go into an area, knowing that you can “tank” a hit or two, the encounters will be that much less tense.

    I believe you know the Mark Brown’s video about layered failstates (or was it Adam Millard? I never remember who made which video…)? He basically proposes: 1) Monster attacks you/other skillcheck happens. 2) You either escape or fuck up. 2a) You make progress as normal, or 2b) you don’t instantly fail, but have to deal with consequences, either additional challenges or diminished effectiveness in the future. Mark/Adam also mentions a few drawbacks of that system, but it does not address the underlying problem.

    I’m not satisfied with his proposal because it does not combat the issue of players getting too comfortable. Even with layered failstates, we can always rest assured that, as long as we are able to control our character, he’ll never be in a situation where he can’t finish the game. That would simply be seen as bad game design. Furthermore, humans are experts in discovering and understanding patterns, and in the end, layered failstates are simply a bit more complex patterns. And patterns, once again, lead to “deconstructing” the game and a loss of tension.

    People have had lots of cool ideas to combat this issue, like actively playing with our understanding of the games’ rules or video games in general. If I understood correctly, Prey does something like that with the introduction of the Nightmare: you visit an area you thought you knew, only to seemingly throw everything you knew out of the window with the new enemy. Other games have safe rooms that suddenly are not so safe anymore, change the layout of levels, or introduce some other changes to the overall game design.

    The big problem is, that all the elements that constantly keep us on edge are a lot of work to implement, and they have to be unpredictable. In order to stay unpredictable, they can’t become the standard in gaming. As of now, when a safe room suddenly gets invaded, my “trust” in my knowledge of the game gets broken (in a good way), and it takes quite some time before I can feel safe again. But what if every 3rd game had that feature? We would come to expect it and it would quickly become another habit not to trust a safe room.

    In a way, it is a constant battle between us – the gamers and…well, ourselves. The more we play and learn about video games, the more we see the patterns behind them, and we need something new to keep the tension going. But, as I previously mentioned, originality is a finite resource. So, I think we can’t rely on developers to keep everything going, and we have to take ourselves by our noses (is that an expression in English?).

    I propose to take “playing past our mistakes” (another one of Mark’s/Adam’s videos), one step further and decide against reloading when the enemy spawns in a fucked up location. We should disable as many UI elements as possible (especially enemies/routes on the minimap, or other similar indications). A game that really did well in this regard was KHOLAT, where you had a map of the area, but no indication of your own position. You had to look around to observe the landmarks and see where you could be. Yes, it made navigation harder, but it managed to make it an exciting gameplay element. Each time I got lost (which happened a lot at first), I didn’t get angry at the game, but myself, and improved.

    I’m against outright removing all those features from video games, though, as everyone should be able to get as much help as they need/want, and not every game has to be a hardcore simulation in every aspect. But I do see us, the players, responsible to make some effort and go beyond our comfort zone. Disable the UI, crank the difficulty up to Insane, limit your saves per level, forgo fast-travel; you’ll be amazed how much more tense many games can become!

    Phew, that was quite the comment, again…to think, I only wanted to make a dumb joke in the beginning. Well, by now you should know better than to post anything even remotely game design oriented and not expect me to ruin your day below it πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good lord.

      First off, I’m fairly certain it was Mark Brown.

      To answer your question about spawn location: I think the spawns were static. I’m not 100% certain, but it seemed like when they spawned they were always located in the same spot and started chasing me down from there. I only saw one spawn into the map in front of me once because the spawn spot was beside the loading zone for that area, so I can’t confirm that claim with 100% certainty.

      I think that patterns can still be used, but two things need to happen. Firstly, the pattern in question can’t be overly present or overused. The more often you see something the more chances you’re given to crack it. If you only see something a few times throughout an experience they have fewer opportunities to figure it out. This is also a case for keeping games shorter, in general, as it prevents their mechanics from becoming stale (not just this kind of one).

      Secondly would be throwing in a few variations on what can happen and how the behaviour of something manifests. If the pattern has several potential routes for how it works then it can throw you off figuring it out immediately. Unfortunately, removing consistency leads to situations where some players may call into question the fairness of the thing, which is a whole other can of worms I’m not really willing to open.

      I think that playing the roguelike styled DLC (named Mooncrash) will help to address some of the problems of predictability for this enemy. Mostly because they’d feel a lot more threatening when the map is constantly shifting around and unlike the main game where you have several resources that the developers hand you prior to them appearing you aren’t guaranteed the same comforts in a procedurally generated network.

      Though, generally speaking, I like what you’re suggesting. It’s actually a shame because I didn’t realize until AFTER I beat the game that various HUD elements could even be disabled. That’s so uncommon in a lot of games so I didn’t think to look for it (and only did by chance while I was capturing screenshots). I think I’d have liked being presented the options at start-up just so I knew they were available options to tweak my experience much in the same way that standard difficulty selection is presented. If nothing else I suppose that is something to be mindful of when I eventually give Mooncrash a go.

      Heh…well yeah. It is what it is. Still like when I get these kinds of comments in regard to my work.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. EDIT: One day I’ll make you quit writing (or at least ban me) with my comments. Hope you’re not too busy at work today because you’ll be doing a lot of reading. Have fun! πŸ™‚

        I agree to some extent. Continuing using patterns is not only possible but imperative. Like I said, not every game has to be (nor can it, for that matter) an infinitely complex, entirely unique creation. Patterns/Tropes/Systems/Rules, call them as you will, are an integral part of video games. It begins by having the standard WASD control scheme over reducing your HP to 0 kills you, all the way to the most complex mechanics in hardcore simulations. As annoying (and sometimes predictable) these limitations can be, they are what make video games work, although that’s a whole other issue. So, let me address your points more directly.

        1) Not overusing the pattern. Correct, but again, not as simple as it sounds. Who decides what is “overusing”? It’s down to the individual player, to be honest. Theoretically, you only need to see something a single time before being able to recognise a pattern. Some people are better at that than others. Even one and the same person can have a much easier time spotting certain patterns, but be pretty “resistant” to the next one.

        Of course, there’s probably enough data out there to make most systems work for at least the relative majority of players, so it’s not as black and white as I just made it seem. But still, there will always be those people that have a higher probability of “catching on too early”. Since you’re coding for a living, which revolves around patterns quite heavily, I’d assume you’re a “fast pattern recogniser”, for example.

        Luckily for developers, only one side of the spectrum causes problems in this regard. It’s all about hiding your patterns from players, so people who almost never catch on (which does not mean those people are stupid, by any means) will never be a problem. So the theoretical solution is to make your patterns as complex as possible. Practically, this won’t work, ever, which leads to another thing you mentioned:

        2) Making games shorter. I’m with you on this one, seeing as I always complain about game systems “not being streamlined enough”. The problem is, this won’t work with all types of games. Some experiences need their scale, they live from their vast open worlds and epic adventures. Other games need to slowly build up layers of mechanics, systems and puzzles.

        Also, you can’t always have back to back action in your game. I’m not talking about reflex-based stuff here, but I mean “action” as whatever the core gameplay is comprised of – shooting, puzzling, deducting, humour, etc. You *need* some filler content, and in there, we see a lot of “simpler” patterns. Long corridors to have dialogue take place; safe spots to pick up ammo and health, sections where you steal everything that’s not nailed down (and with the right equipment, even this stuff). All of these examples revolve around taking a breath and stretch out before it’s back to whatever you are meant to do 70 % of the game.

        Still, you need to be careful. It’s for a reason that many of those segments are called “bad” and “boring”, and people complain about being taken out of the action. On the other hand, if you don’t have those segments in place, people will say the game is badly paced and does never relent. Again, there’s a lot of room for friction…

        3) Variation, without losing consistency. That’s a great point you make there! Video games are inherently unfair, and for the most part, they are unfair heavily in favour of the players (I know, I’m not telling you anything new, you have seen the videos^^). I always say that it should be theoretically possible to play through a game for the first time and not take any damage. I don’t mean that it should be easy enough for *anybody* to do so. No, I only mean there shouldn’t be any “forced” damage.

        If you design a room in a way that a player is almost certain to look at a certain thing, and then gets ambushed from another direction, it’s brilliant. Had I looked in any other direction, I would have seen it coming and could have reacted. But the devs knew where I’d be looking and they planned their enemy placement accordingly. On the other hand, if I walk into a room, and suddenly an enemy teleports right behind me and fucks me over, I’m unhappy. I probably didn’t explain this as best as I could, but I’m confident you know what I mean πŸ™‚

        Armed with that knowledge, we can now begin to actively break patterns, without losing consistency/fairness. Think of it as two patterns that are the opposite of each other, if you will. A great example that comes to mind would be the design of Dark Souls III. There are a lot of dark corridors that convey various levels of safety. In some of them, you’ll have big windows, giving you much-needed breaks and invite to enjoy the view.

        Unfortunately, a lot of those times, there are enemies hidden in the dark corner right across, so you’re almost guaranteed to get fucked a few times. So, after a few times, you learn to check the corners before admiring the view. But you never get the feeling of “having figured it all out” because not every corner is an ambush. You never know which “pattern” will be in use – the ambush or the break from the action.

        But what’s that? You come across yet another window, and instinctively you check the corner, only for an enemy to swiftly climb through the window and ruin your day. Hilarious! This is pretty fair, but still works very well. The tension does not relent because you identified a pattern (in this case, a dark corridor with a window) but because you only know which pattern it is once you either seamlessly transited into “action-mode” (after which the tension is supposed to be gone), or had to wait out/check for all possible known iterations of the pattern before you have safely identified it.

        I think this is a step further from your “variations of patterns”, and a tad more effective, without being too hard to implement. It does not always have to be so crass as to negate entire safe-rooms or systems.

        Without having played Prey, here’s my proposal for how they could have implemented such a system: Have the Nightmare move “parallel” to you, on a grid-based system. Whenever you enter an area, and the Nightmare is in the vicinity (not necessarily posing a threat to you, though), you get the audio-cue, the screeching. This way, you know that the Nightmare is somewhere near you, and you will probably encounter it in the near future, but you don’t know exactly in which area. Whenever you hear the screeching, you know that you haven’t managed to lose it, and you’re not getting any distance between it and you.

        Personally, if the grid-system works, I’d not have it screech on a diagonal axis, so there’s still the possibility of not hearing anything in one area to instantly getting the thing in your face in the next area. Also, with the grid not being “shown” to the player, and the aforementioned sometimes seemingly random encounters, it would take a bit longer to figure out how the pattern works.

        Right, I think I write these comments far too “post-styled”. Sometimes, I even know which pictures I’d put into them^^. At the same time, I’m leaving out a lot of additional info I’d like to give, for the sake of shortening them. Which sometimes leads to you replying with exactly those arguments I wanted to make, but didn’t write down xD

        I swear, one day I’ll take a look at all our discussions here, and make 3 separate posts out of each of them, where I’ll give my full, unabbreviated opinion.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. But then my articles wouldn’t have additional community sourced information in the comments section XD

          To your point(s), I don’t actually have any additional things to add (I don’t think). You pretty well covered all of the counter arguments I would have made already yourself so I think this is where we’ll cap this one.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I have to agree, the Nightmares were rather disappointing. They very quickly went from “Oh god, how an I going to defeat this thing” to just “Oh good, another one” where I proceed to just run past when its not looking

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remembered you said that would happen after I brought up that I’d finally run into them a few times while we were chatting about Prey, but I never expected it to get as bad as it did. By about the mid-point in the game they posed very little threat and that kind of kills all the tension as they were one of the only things that could reasonably challenge your overwhelming dominance throughout the runtime of Prey.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly. It was one of the many things that could have been improved. I would like to see another one, the first one was an ok game that could have been great.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Y’all writing blog posts in the comments section lol. I’m just here to say this post got me hyped for Prey three years after playing it, a second playthrough is required!

    Also I hope Prey 2 happens!

    Liked by 1 person

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