I played a lot of Prey over the weekend. It frustrated the piss out of me, but it also got me thinking. (You can see more about what I thought in our review.) A lot of what bugged me about it is stuff that bugs me about video games in general lately, all of which seems to really congeal together in Prey in a way that hit my pet peeves with nasty precision. Plenty of other people really liked Prey, though, and that’s fine! But readers may be wondering what goes on in my head, or maybe I’m wondering what’s going on in my own.
Either way, I’ve been thinking long and hard about what I think makes a Generally Good Video Game, and I managed to boil it down to a few key points. Keep in mind, this is specifically about games in the AAA space. While some of my tastes are informed by things like retro classics, I’m totally going to contradict myself if I’m gushing about JRPGs or something else down the line. Please, readers, join me on this journey into what makes a good game.
Step One: Tell Me a Story, Save the Lore for Codex Nerds
I use the term “nerd” here endearingly, I promise. Look, I can respect people who are into things like lore and world-building, albeit from a distance. (A long, long distance.) When it comes to having a compelling, single-player narrative, pushing lore in my face and expecting me to be engaged is not enough. Prey attends the “emails and audio logs” school of expositional delivery, and it sucks. It’s literally all you get for 90% of the game, and in a game about exploration and sequence-breaking in a giant series of corpse-laden rooms, it’s so easy to become detached.
That kind of thing worked okay in BioShock (barely), because the audio logs were almost always relevant to what was going on around you and they were supplemental. BioShock had hooks and character, devices writers need to be able to tell a story that feels unique, no matter how many tropes and clichés it rides on. Regardless of how clumsy it ultimately was, the first BioShock used relevant and familiar political ideas and colorful characters tied into the gimmicky powers and environments. The whole game tells its story, not just computer terminals and disembodied dialogue. If you’re going to hit me with nothing but dry text, I better be playing a 90's JRPG or I’ll be ready to jump ship ASAP. Or put that stuff in a codex menu, like in Mass Effect or DOOM, so everyone can be happy.
Step Two: Combat Needs to Make Sense
Prey plays a lot of tug of war with itself when it comes to combat. It wants to be a hardcore stealth game, it wants to be System Shock, and it wants to be a cool action-RPG with different tools that work together. In an ideal encounter, you identify your enemy, take note of the surroundings, then swap around your skills and inventory to take them down with finesse. In reality, your enemies move quickly and erratically, fill the screen with visual nonsense, and unless you get the drop on them big time, you’re going to be stumbling around and guzzling medkits. You have to define the rules and make sure both the player and opposition play by them together.
This is why games like Assassin’s Creed or Tomb Raider are successful, because the rules are laid out. While you get more options and things to do over time, everything stays generally consistent and feels organic. To me, it goes back to games like Castlevania. In Castlevania, Simon Belmont moved in super deliberate ways, and the enemy encounters and level hazards were all designed around what the player knows they are capable of. That way you could pick and choose your power-up and still feel like you had control over what was happening and a fair shot. This applies to games today as well. Too much overcomplication and going on with enemies and you lose that sense of coherence. You end up being Prinny. Don't be Prinny.
Step Three: Be Weird, but Be Consistent
Prey has a serious problem with how it guides you around its world. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild does a better job, and it barely helps you at all! To keep the player moving and invested, you need to lay out the law of the land and stick to it. Open world (or pseudo-open, Metroidvania, whatever the heck you want to call it) games often struggle to find balance here. Make it all about waypoints and you run the risk of insulting the player’s intelligence. Make it too open and players will get lost and frustrated. Prey doesn’t really care about establishing a flow or consistency in how it presents information. Keycards and passwords are strewn about haphazardly, waypoints either tell you exactly where to go, give you a general area to search, or just point you towards the end of your goal and don’t shift when something else comes up along the way. When you’re out in open space, certain objects are marked, but other instances of the same kind of objects aren’t. This makes certain parts of the game (especially in the cargo bay), more confusing than they should be. Especially when certain events don’t trigger for unknown reasons, but that’s a different story.
Even exploration-centric games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild have a sense of flow in their worlds. Based on the tools given, the player should be able to feel their way around and find what they need to find, even if it’s a challenge at times. It’s okay to try new things and think outside of the box. You don’t have to adhere to Established Video Game Rules. But you do have to be consistent, and deliberately being obtuse by changing the rules all the time is not fun for anyone.
This is more or less how I arrived at the conclusion I did with Prey, and how I look at games in general. I care a lot about storytelling and delivery methods and how games are structured and designed. If a game feels like a bunch of stuff was thrown into a blender, or the story makes my eyes start to glaze over like I’m a walking corpse in serious need of bifocals, I’m donezo. I’m more than happy to try new things and appreciate new approaches, but certain tenants of design hold true because of their effectiveness. I’m not here to dump on Prey, but it did frustrate me in a lot of ways that got my gears turning about the things in games that resonate with me the most. Thanks for your time, reader, and let me know how much I suck in the comments section below.