The fascinating problem of Prey’s ending

If you’ve yet to finish Prey, turn away: here be spoilers.

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The fascinating problem of Prey’s ending

It doesn’t feel like so long ago that I was gushing over the addictive modern-day masterpiece that’s otherwise known as Prey. Today, I stand by that gushing, despite a near game-breaking bug that took me weeks to get around and—more pointedly to other players who didn’t experience such bugginess—a rather lacklustre ending.

Oh, you should definitely stop reading now if you haven’t finished Prey. I feel that enough time has passed to talk about the ending, but if you intend on finishing the game, you’re best to click away and come back later.

I’m fully willing to acknowledge that part of my problem with Prey’s ending is that two of my peers had talked, in broad circles, about how effective it was. One was underwhelmed, and the other adored it. Intrigued, I feel that I let my expectations lean closer to the adoring side rather than the curbed enthusiasm, and that likely impacted my lack of emotional connection to Prey’s ending.

Fast-forward a few weeks since I finally finished Prey, and my negative ‘dafuq, that’s it?!’ reaction to Prey’s ending has dulled somewhat, and I feel I can critique it without that initial emotional reaction. On the surface, Prey’s ending is underwhelming because it falls into the trap of other games that champion choice and ultimately break down into binary decisions.

Yes, there is a certain element of grey around those binary decisions, which takes into account certain choices you made earlier in the game, but it falls into that same BioShock trap of confusing morality as a black-or-white thing. Are you malevolent or are you benevolent? Do you choose to save humanity or, in the literal words of Prey’s final main-path choice, ‘Kill them all’? I dislike binary morality in games almost as much as I dislike rhetorical questions in writing (let alone two of them in succession), but it feels particularly out of place in Prey because of its fascinating exploration of morality up until that point.

If anything, the underwhelming and binary nature of the ending stands as an exclamation point for just how much Arkane Studios got right in the player agency leading up to the ending. In terms of gameplay, Prey lets you play in a variety of ways, and not just in terms of stealth or action. There are many gameplay shades in between, all of which are complemented by the kind of unlocks you choose to pursue.

I took a relatively completionist approach to my play-through, and know that I did pretty well with that intent because I popped a Steam achievement that said I’d read every email. That one is half ironic because I didn’t read all of the emails as much as I skimmed them. This could also be part of why I found the ending to be underwhelming, especially if you step into speculative areas, which I think you have to with Prey’s conclusion if you want it to make sense.

That said, given the depressing data on how many people actually finish games, let alone do all the stuff on the side, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect players to do absolutely everything in Prey in order to make sense of the two-choice ending on the main path. It sucks more because I spent most of the game wanting to understand why I made certain decisions, and what the consequences would be.

Usually, I treat games that champion choice as some sort of villainous power fantasy, where I deliberately tend to play immorally. With Prey, I felt compelled to do the opposite, despite the hopelessness of the situation. I was constantly being reminded that, one way or another, the station and everyone who was still alive aboard it was doomed.

As soon as it became an option, I knew that the right decision for my play-through was to detonate Talos I. In my mind, the needs of a handful of people were far outweighed by the needs of an entire planet. Hell, the development of my powers tied into this superhero-esque fantasy, where everyday lab guy (my Morgan was male) has a chance to save the world. As a Half-Life fan, I certainly appreciate that setup.

But this is where things got weird. I still felt compelled to help and save the surviving people I’d already resigned to an explosive fate. And this wasn’t a situation where I was expecting to have another choice—which comes later in the game. I had made my peace with my decision from the moment it became available. It wasn’t just the right thing to do. More important to how my brain works, it was the only logical option.

In light of this, it made little sense that I should feel any attachment to the Talos I survivors. After all, fetching medicine, annihilating a towering Nightmare, or restoring oxygen to a part of the ship they were trapped in seemed like polishing brass on the Titanic. Logically, I should be keeping these people at arm’s length. Logically, it didn’t matter whether they saw me as saviour or villain because none of it would matter when we were all soon to be space dust. Or so I thought.

Arkane had somehow achieved an impressive feat, bypassing my logical appraisal of the situation and, despite showing how it was destined to play out, made me grow attachments to NPCs. Despite my increasingly alien upgrades, I was still determined to act humanely. It reminded me of a particular scene in Danny Boyle’s underrated sci-fi movie Sunshine (SPOILERS, for those who haven’t seen Sunshine), where the crew who’s seemingly destined to die by this stage of the plot sits around and votes on whether they should kill someone to preserve oxygen.

It’s a similar case of the needs of the many greatly outweighing the needs of the few—more so, in the instance of Sunshine, because they signed up for a mission that already had impossible odds—but within that scene, one of the crew members refuses to cast a death vote. That said, she doesn’t try to stop the others from moving to kill the ill-fated crewmate, but says these chilling words: “You make it easy for him, somehow. Find a kindness.” (END SPOILERS)

It’s a poignant point that I was regularly reminded of in Prey when I made life-or-death decisions for NPCs who I was, ultimately, already planning on indirectly killing. Despite this, when that binary choice rolled around at the end—which showed it was all just a simulation, and the robotic avatars of those same NPCs had nice things to say about me—I didn’t want to just ‘kill them all’.

This may have tied into the reality that I jumped at the plan B option that only came about towards the end of the game: a long shot to win it all, saving both Earth and Talos I. It wasn’t just because I wanted to believe in this new possible ending, either. It was because it was a layered choice about trust and faith in people and what I chose to believe as true, based on the information that was presented to me. Y’know, kind of like real life.

I’d spent the entire game vilifying Morgan’s brother Alex, as Arkane wanted me to do, despite his insistence that there was an explanation for why he was acting in a seemingly villainous way. For me, I bought into Alex’s explanation, despite the insistence of January (which, up until that point, had been a sort of moral compass, querying my decisions to save when the Science Operator bot knew I intended on destroying Talos I).

For my friend who loved the ending of Prey, he created an implied backstory to help make sense of the ending. He believes that what you play in Prey actually happened, and you’re re-running a simulation as some sort of VR Voight-Kampff test to determine whether an alien can be taught to be human. It’s certainly a fascinating theory that makes the ending more appealing.

But even if that’s Arkane’s intended backstory, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The ending isn’t so bad that it diminishes what came before, but it is so lacklustre in its binary execution that it feels like an odd footnote to an otherwise fantastic sci-fi exploration of what it means to be human. I don’t want to come down too hard on the ending, mind you, because I don’t have a solution for how I’d fix it.

Despite choice in games, we still crave some sort of narrative closure, and something distinct is preferable to a whole lot of ambiguous nonsense. Arkane has a full stop to Prey; it’s just not one that I enjoy. But the beauty of the jarring ending is that it forced me to dissect why I was so opposed to it, which meant analysing the rich exploration of the moral grey that came before the curtain fell. In this respect, you win again, Arkane.

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