Prey is the best of video games

See that semi-colon all the way down there? You can actually scroll down to that semi-colon. It may not actually be all that interesting — it’s there solely for the sake of a silly post introduction. But it is there. You can put your cursor over it, too.

Spent your ammo? Sneak. Can’t hack? Backtrack. Real in-game decisions, real results, and the real option to get it catastrophically wrong. This is followed by another weighty choice: the decision to follow through with that fuck up by actually saving it.

It’s another decision, but it’s also a feature of games that serves to diminish meaningful choice. Everything effectively becomes ‘Schrodinger’s side quest’, a state in which a mission is both complete and incomplete until the proceeding save is deleted or the results committed to your hard drive.

A decision, no matter how well presented, fights to feel meaningful because an alternate reality is only keystroke away — even in Prey, a game that manages to make basic decisions such as ‘How do I kill this single enemy?’ carry weight.

Still, at least both sides of the “do or don’t” coin entail consequences, as deciding not to pursue that juicy quest might unleash its own set of outcomes in the form of a missed upgrade, story beat or new-spangled weapon. Tension and doubt follow, as you never know what you’re missing for better or for worse.

This is opposed to a “have or not have” side quest, where I simply don’t get an additional extra as a result of skipping supplementary content. If I choose to pursue that content under this design, there’s little-to-no risk by doing a bit of a hack job beyond a slightly lesser reward. In effect, it’s all gain for no or little loss — and absolutely no tension.

When I do that thing in that place, or don’t do that thing in that place, my game state has the capacity to change vertically and horizontally — different and better, or worse. That’s not to say this is something exclusive to Prey, it’s to say that Arkane’s shooter is an apt reminder of just how compelling an experience these decisions can create. Less and more: less side quests, more meaning.

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