Knowledge and Understanding: An Analysis of Prey (2017)

A Video Game Analysis by Daniel Alexander

            Prey (the 2017 reboot) begins in a very specific way. You, as Morgan Yu, wake up in your apartment, receive a meesage from your brother, and then proceed to the TranStar building where you undergo some tests. At the end of the examination, an alien disguised as a coffee mug kills the examiner and you black out – only to wake up back in your apartment, at the start of the day once more. It soon becomes clear that you’ve been stuck in a simulation and are actually on Talos I, a space station where the terrifying Typhon aliens have broken containment and are killing off everyone in sight.

            As you progress through the station, the most valuable items you’ll find are neuromods, which function as the game’s skill points. These are physical objects that take up space in your inventory and can even be fabricated if you find the right recipe. In the story, neuromods are items derived from Typhon that imbue one with knowledge they wouldn’t otherwise possess. They can confer anything from combat instinct to musical talent. As you learn more about the Typhon, they can even grant you supernatural abilities like telekinesis and shapeshifting.

            The Typhon from which the neuromods are created are equally as central to the game, as they make up most of the enemies you’ll face. As you progress, you’ll learn more about these tentacle-y monsters – in particular, you’ll discover that they lack mirror neurons, which are responsible for developing empathy (the real world science behind this is dubious, but it’s central to Prey’s story). This means that they are literally incapable of seeing other beings as worthy of consideration, which makes it that much easier for them to kill any humans they come across.

            The final key element in the story is the player character themselves, Morgan Yu. Morgan is an executive in TranStar Industries, but more importantly, they volunteered as a test subject before the game’s start. This sees them repeatedly having their memories wiped by removing neuromods (which resets your mind to when the mods were installed) and going through a basic testing process to examine the effects of the new Typhon abilities. This repeated memory reset leads to the existence of several different versions of Morgan Yu who can be encountered throughout Talos I. There’s January, an operator robot with Morgan’s personality who guides you through the station; December, another operator with Morgan’s personality who encourages you to simply abandon everything; and the various recordings and notes throughout the world that paint different pictures of Morgan Yu. Ultimately, your true identity is in flux and poses an open question for most of the game.

            These three elements – the neuromods, the Typhon, and Morgan’s memory – contribute to the game’s main themes of knowledge and understanding. It is through them that the game examines the effect that knowledge has on the human mind, especially when pair with empathy or a lack thereof. The way the story unfolds and the choices players make each contribute to this greater dynamic.

            The neuromods are quite literally pure knowledge. They allow Morgan to download new information and abilities directly into their brain and most playthroughs will see dozens of mods being spent. This poses a difficult ethical dilemma, however, as you eventually learn that neuromods are made from Typhon, which can only reproduce by killing humans. Morgan Yu is complicit in this crime from their executive role and their use of neuromods, especially if the player continues to use them after discovering this truth. This one piece of information re-contextualizes the whole story and makes you question your engagement with the game’s mechanics – how can you be the hero when using technology built on corpses?

            If the neuromods embody the price of knowledge, then the Typhon are the consequences of knowledge without understanding. They are the origin of the neuromods and are also completely without empathy as they attack and kill with ease. We later learn that they feed on consciousness, which is perhaps the best example of intelligence without understanding in the game. They consume other minds to grow, something that they’re capable of because they don’t see these minds as minds. They don’t understand that human consciousness is anything other than knowledge for them to absorb as they can’t see personality or emotion – just the parts that are of use to them.

            Finally, Morgan Yu’s history challenges players with knowledge about themselves. This is seen most clearly in the side quest where you seek out information about Mikayla Ilyushin’s father, who was executed on Talos I by a past version of Morgan Yu. Given that you’re supposed to be the hero of this story, it’s difficult to learn that some iteration of yourself was actually the villain. The more we uncover about Morgan, the more we grow to understand that their previous self was a very ruthless and unforgiving character, fitting their role as an executive in a major corporation. How you react to this knowledge – as well as other knowledge gained throughout the game – will define your character.

            All of this taken together – the bitter truth about neuromods, the psychopathy of the Typhon, and the challenges of Morgan’s past – tell us that some knowledge is not meant to be known. The human drive to innovate and discover led the residents of Talos I to the Typhon; the Typhon drive to consume and absorb knowledge led them to break containment. The pursuit of knowledge in this game leads only to ruin. In fact, the presence of the Apex Typhon at the end of the story raises the question of if some knowledge can ever truly be understood as this final monster is akin to something Lovecraftian in nature.

            What’s very interesting is the way that the game’s true ending handles these themes of knowledge and understanding. The final scene reveals that everything you experienced was a simulation being given to a human-Typhon hybrid to test your empathy. It turns out that the Typhon have invaded Earth and Alex Yu – Morgan’s brother from the game – is banking on combining human empathy with Typhon powers to save the world. While this might seem to contradict the entire theme of the game as Alex is pursuing some dangerous knowledge in his hybrid experiments, it actually fits rather well. At this point, it’s clear Alex has learned from his mistakes on Talis I. He’s tempering his quest for knowledge with empathy and understanding. His questions for the hybrid aren’t centered on learning more about it from a scientific standpoint, but whether or not it shares the compassion and empathy that he possesses. Knowledge is still a risk, of course, but Alex has put in the work to understand it. It isn’t easy, and it takes a lot of time and work, but in the end, it is worth the effort.

©2019 by Daniel Alexander