Arkane Studios' Prey Hides in Plain Sight
New sci-fi video game wants to keep players on their toes
The journalist on the computer next to me seems more prepared for the onslaught. When the first alien burst toward me, its spindly tentacles grasping for my head, I couldn't help it: I yelped. Behind me, Susan Kath, lead producer on the upcoming video game Prey, chuckled – clearly pleased.
That little jump scare, her smile suggested, was nothing compared to what I was preparing to face inside the shadowy space station I now called home.
Surprise is the name of the game here. The enemy uses camouflage to conceal itself, creating an underlying tension that will be with you the entire game. Kath said even the developers are sometimes caught off-guard by the ambushes. Is that really a health kit you're reaching for? You can't really be sure until you reach out to grab it.
By then it could be too late.
The brains behind the trauma awaiting audiences in Prey are based right here in Austin. After more than three years, the studio invited journalists to a preview event at Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar, prepared to unleash this sci-fi thriller into the world.
Prey didn't replicate overnight. When Arkane Studios wrapped Dishonored in 2012, the Austin office that co-developed the game alongside the flagship branch in Lyon, France, was a team of seven or eight. The Lyon team moved on to Dishonored 2, while the Austin team began working on a concept for a new title – another action-adventure, but this time one with an even more sinister bent.
Since 2011, Bethesda Softworks, which published the Dishonored series, had worked to commission another title in its Prey intellectual property. The Doom-like 2006 first-person shooter, in which a Native American man and his family are abducted by aliens, took nearly a decade to produce, and efforts on the part of another studio to develop Prey 2 fell apart in 2014.
But like the amorphous alien menace that stars in this year's Prey, the concept wouldn't be so easy to annihilate.
Bethesda and Arkane already had a relationship because of Dishonored. Around the same time, Arkane began working on what would eventually become an entire reboot – not a sequel at all – of Prey. The idea of the haunting Talos I space station and the terrifying aliens that overtake it were already in place when Bethesda offered up the Prey title.
"The game was old enough – at this point 10 years – that our version of it, our full reboot of it, kind of makes sense," said Raphaël Colantonio, Arkane president and co-creative director. "You see that in the movie industry all the time."
This Prey follows Morgan Yu on a lonely path to figuring out why he's woken up on an expansive space station filled with a ruthless alien presence. Arkane equips the player with a selection of gadgets, like the GLOO Cannon, for instance, which shoots quickly hardening goop that can be used to fight enemies or create makeshift platforms. Navigating Talos I will take every gadget and instinct you have.
"Here's a challenge, give the player a bunch of cool mechanics, and you figure out how to solve the problem yourself," explained lead designer Ricardo Bare.
That aspect is what sets the game apart for Colantonio. "For me, it's the sum of systems that allow me to feel a real tension and make decisions to how I'm going to survive," he said.
That's another thing that distinguishes Prey from its namesake, and even some of Arkane's other work (Dishonored featured a relatively linear storyline, for example), and it's also a good measure of how far the industry has come in the last decade. More than ever, the goal is not to shepherd the player through a linear storyline by solving puzzles in the specific way a level designer envisioned.
"There are still a lot of video games that emulate movies in many ways, as far as how the narratives go, and I think our future as immersive sims is to branch out as much as possible from movies instead, and doing everything dynamic," Colantonio said.
Prey, in contrast, is "just one huge interconnected world, instead of mission, mission, mission, mission," said Bare.
It takes a lot of manpower to engineer that level of detail. What was three years ago a team of less than 10 ballooned to handle all the work associated with putting out a game of Prey's magnitude. Architects, level designers, environment artists, and others work in the studio's new facility in North Austin. Arkane didn't provide an exact number of employees, but it's now about half the size of the flagship Lyon office, according to Colantonio.
Beyond that, it requires manpower to maintain the open-world nature of the spaceship. Like in many role-playing games, players can drop items in an area, go on with the story, return, and find the items exactly where they've left them. "The cool part is the player feels like now this is his new environment," said Colantonio. "He knows it, he owns it, more and more. And it feels like a home. It's a very powerful immersion trick. The hard part is that it costs a lot of extra work."
The work Bare did as a designer on 2000's Deus Ex, he said, is now done by at least three people. As the technology behind games improves, the industry continues to become more and more specialized.
"Historically, it's been taking more and more people to make games, just to catch up with the technology and the level of fidelity that the technology allows us to do," Colantonio added. "It's easy to predict that we'll grow more, simply because there is a new generation of hardware already."
The studio wouldn't talk much beyond Prey, which is due for release Friday, May 5, but Colantonio expressed hope the studio could one day press further in its quest to provide a game with truly dynamic narration.
Colantonio said he looks forward to "the day that we can solve that, and offer a world where things happen on their own, based on what you've done – not based on a few conditions that are pre-thought. ... I think that's where we need to go."
For now, at least, the merciless aliens haunting Talos I offer plenty of variety. Just keep that GLOO Cannon at the ready.