No major spoilers, but I recommend playing at least halfway through Prey before reading.
One point of criticism often levelled at Prey is its story, setting, and characters — what you might call its fiction. On the surface, it’s true that the story has pacing issues, that the setting is derivative, that the characters aren’t immediately appealing. But scratch the surface, and there’s more depth and subtlety there than most players may want to give it credit for. There’s quite a few things that warrant a closer look, but I’d like to focus on a specific theme that is developed and supported throughout the whole game: the treachery of appearances, and what these appearances may conceal.
Like any good theme, it is introduced in the very first moments of the game. At first, Morgan’s life is exposed as a literal stage. The player will try to open the door to the balcony, and, after finding it locked, smashes the window with a wrench. The window, it turns out, isn’t a window at all; behind it lies no cityscape, but the inside of some facility. Within, Morgan discovers the true extent of the stage, complete with sliding walls, fake elevators, and a helicopter pad. After she escapes her personal rat maze and enters the lobby, she’s confronted with a second revelation: her stage is just a tiny part of a colossal space station.
The theme of treacherous appearances is never again as overt as in these examples, but they foreshadow more subtle deceptions and set expectations: What we see on Talos I is not to be trusted, or at least not to be taken at face value. The mimics and the looking glass technology are the most vocal reminders of this lesson. The player quickly learns that mimics can imitate any nearby object, and after that, even the most innocuous spaces turn into a paranoid nightmare. Any suspicious lamp, office chair, or trash can will make you wary. The looking glasses are a very different, less insidious kind of deception, but they too make you think twice about what you’re really seeing, and in more than one occasion, they conceal hidden spaces and paths that can only be accessed by smashing the glass.
So far, it could be argued that these illusions and deceptions simply exist to create layered spaces, and to instil curiosity and a sense of paranoia in the player. But that is only a part of their function, and if we look at Talos’ architecture and history, the threads of a theme emerge. Mimics and looking glasses are not the only things that deceive through their appearance.
Take the lobby, a complex space in its own right. There’s a spectacular view of the moon outside, and slick, decadent art that suggest both luxury and grandiosity – an aspect mirroring Bioshock’s Rapture. There are spaces designed for comfort and recreation that evoke a touristy hominess. And then there are offices and other spaces designed for utility. They possess a comforting mundaneness that tempers the more overbearing and grandiose elements with an appearance of innocuous normality. It’s a believable space, more down to earth and practical than Rapture, but its insidiousness lies precisely in this plausibility.
As the player progresses through the station, they realise that this first appearance was nothing but veneer, as unreal as the stage they started the game in. Tear it down, and the apparent humanity of places such as the lobby gradually disappears. Beneath that surface, you’ll find the dreary corridors of laboratories where deeply unethical experiments were conducted, or the literal G.U.T.s (Gravity Utility Tunnels) of the station; an alien, disorienting place without gravity, up or down, or any human points of reference. After you finally emerge from those depths beneath the starry “sky” of the arboretum, its lush greenery feels unreal.
On one level, it’s easy to read this as an anti-corporate message. It’s a familiar reality, as well as a familiar trope: corporations hiding industrial cruelties behind a mask that is equal parts grandiosity, shallow aesthetics and mind-numbing ordinariness. Its familiarity is arguably one of the reasons Talos feels so authentic. It’s a place suffused with a quintessential corporate arrogance that hides its ugliness without feeling a shred of shame. Its ostentatious illusion works not because it is so convincing, but because people prefer not to see what lies behind it. Like many other anti-corporate stories, it’s also an ironic story of hubris punished as a result of its own misdeeds. The Typhon may be an alien threat, but their presence is primarily an indictment for very human transgressions. Through their mimicry, they also mimic and ultimately reveal the spuriousness and deception of Talos.
Even though it’s a common trope, the clever, competent way in which it is realised would be enough to merit a nod of approval. But we can dig still deeper than that. If we look closer (as the game encourages us) and view the state of Talos not just as a corporate, but also more broadly as a human folly, another issue comes into focus: an existentialist fear that we don’t belong in this world, and the desperate attempt to dress up our existence in ways that alleviate this fear.
In this view, Talos still presents a veneer, but what is being hidden isn’t petty corporate amorality, but the fact that we all live in an uncaring, overwhelming cosmos. The station’s hubris, the way it incorporates space vistas into its architecture (especially in the lobby and the arboretum), is ultimately about creating the illusion of control over the immensity of a supposedly tamed cosmos. The mundanity of its office facilities and recreational areas is about upholding an illusion of safety, routine, and belonging in a volatile space that might destroy its inhabitants any moment. In this reading, we smash the looking glass not to find some hidden conspiracy, but an emptiness. Metaphorically speaking, there’s nothing behind the looking glass.