Bit Treasure is about the old stuff, the games you buy when you’re strapped for cash or when you throw your money at Humble Bundles, the games you come back to every now and then over the years, or have buried in your 300+ Steam games list. And sometimes it’s about the games you’ve just never heard of.
Treasure One: A Franchiser’s Prey
My first encounter with 2006’s Prey was a trailer on a CD. It came bundled with a gaming magazine back in ye olden times before the internet lost its collective shite over every conceivable scrap of information on everything ever. At 14 I wasn’t in a financial position to buy games willy nilly but I did have that trailer, showing off an alien abduction, a Native American protagonist, and the premise that you had to fight your way out of whatever alien hellhole you landed yourself in with gooey, living weapons. Also Native American magic because “video games”. It also had portals as a gameplay mechanic a year before Valve swooped in and claimed the mantle of “Definitely the only Game in Existence to use Portals”.
You play as Tommy, a Native American ex-army guy frustrated with his life on the Reservation. Despite his clear intent to leave, his girlfriend Jen wants to stay and his Grandfather keeps pestering him about his lack of spirituality and pride in his heritage. He wants out. But, ultimately asking for too much, Tommy, Jen, and Grandfather are abducted by forces unknown. We later find that Tommy, along with a small chunk of the human population, has been brought onto an alien megastructure known as The Sphere: a colossal organic spaceship that’s collecting alien species to feed and maintain itself. Tommy now has to blast his way through aliens, gravity-defying architecture, and general eldritch horrors to save Jen — and Earth.
Tommy’s grandfather acts as a spirit guide throughout his journey, helping Tommy embrace his heritage by gaining the ability to “spirit walk”, essentially leaving his body in a mystical ghostly form with a mystical ghostly bow and arrow to absorb the mystical spirits of your alien captors (we can talk about the mystical native trope in gaming some other time). Despite the trailer giving a general vibe of a swashbuckling adventure through Cthulhu’s organs in space; Prey is dark. Like… holy damn does it get dark.
Once you’re in The Sphere, the story does not pull any punches; humans are harvested, pure and simple, and the harvesting process is as needlessly complicated as it is horrifying. Survivors hiding across The Sphere are driven to madness from the things they’ve seen. Children die in this game. I wasn’t expecting that when I first played it. Most games ignore the existence of children in horrifyingly bleak scenarios but NOPE, Prey sticks a kid in front of you, murders them, and then brings them back as a ghost to kill you and – OH GOD FRANCINE WHY?!
Horrifying child ghosts aside, the game itself is a blast, imaginatively utilising Doom 3’s id Tech 4 engine. From the character, monster and level design, to the universe the game introduces, for me Prey is up there in the realms of sci-fi gaming figureheads Half Life and the original Doom. These games introduced truly creative places and gameplay that left you in awe at almost every turn. Weapons are varied and suitably alien, from the pistol that’s also a sniper rifle to the machine gun that’s also a freeze cannon that’s also a super-OP lightning-zapper to the facehugger minigun that shoots grenades out of its tailhole.
The game is also a marvel in level design, with each new area taking a new approach to its two biggest original concepts: anti-gravity and portals. Levels will sometimes have you walking along lit-up paths on the walls and ceilings, where enemies can appear at literally any angle. I don’t think any other FPS games really took advantage of having you worry about enemies in all directions until Bioshock Infinite with its Sky-Line mechanic. There are rooms in Prey where shooting panels will shift gravity to a wall or ceiling, which makes for some really interesting puzzle-solving.
Portals also play a big part, mostly to show off the id Tech 4 capability to go “Can YOUR game engine produce non-Euclidean geometry? Ours sure can”. The portals are stationary for the most part, mainly used to get you from the end of a level to the next before the loading screen. But Prey uses them for puzzles as well, and when they’re mixed in with the gravity-shifting, things get real mind-bending real quick. And I haven’t even gotten to the spaceship flight. You can fly spaceships in huge open rooms that break up the close quarters combat. It’s a lot of fun because the ships have a tractor beam that you can pick up enemies with and fling them across rooms. It’s highly entertaining.
This game is now ten years old as of writing; its successor was originally going to be a straight sequel but is now a reimagined reboot thing coming out in 2017.
The 2017 game looks incredibly interesting and I’ll definitely be paying attention to its development, but what could have been a great franchise is now another rebooted name. It’s a shame that Prey’s legacy has been relegated to “almost franchise”, it deserved better than that. It’s also somewhat rare these days — it’s not on Steam or GoG, and the box copy I have has seen better days. I do hope Bethesda et al bring it back into circulation along with the new one; it’s definitely worth a play for the sheer uniqueness of its presentation and storytelling. Until then, I hope this article makes you interested enough to look it up, you never know where the treasure may come from.
Editor: Joseph Diskett