What if JFK had lived? Quite a meaty “what if” for history buffs. While most speculation in that vein covers civil rights legislation and the Vietnam War, one video game is using Kennedy’s space legacy as a source of broad and terrifying inspiration. Prey, from Arkane Studios, is a near-future thriller that centers on a stranded astronaut aboard Talos 1, an enormous space station the U.S. built in conjunction with the Soviet Union in an alternate timeline where Kennedy led the nation to the moon and beyond. Raphael Colantonio, the game director for Prey, realized the narrative needed a real-world anchor and saw Kennedy’s death as a unique historical moment.
“There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ around it,” Colantonio told Newsweek. “Everything [in our story] gets channeled through that.”
Players are introduced to the alternate timeline as part of the “found narrative” structure for Prey. Rather than present players with the history in a front-and-center way, bits of the story are found scattered throughout Talos 1. Kennedy’s involvement in the creation of the station, for example, is introduced in a museum-style exhibit within the station.
“We needed something to feel grounded. Even though it’s not real, it feels real,” he said.
Talos 1 feels very real, a triumph of both good video game level design and a sharp eye for aesthetic consistency. Colantonio cited New York’s Viceroy Hotel as a source of inspiration, a Roman and Williams designed hotel renowned for its “old New York” feel that relies heavily on accents of iroko wood, brass, aluminum and leather to evoke trademark nostalgia. The design of Talos 1 is in line with this philosophy; it’s a place that feels more Mad Men metropolis than Mad Max dystopia.
Of course, Prey isn’t about aesthetics alone. It’s a sci-fi thriller with plenty of the granular combat skills gamers love. Talos 1, Kennedy’s legacy, becomes the flashpoint for an alien invasion unlike almost everything seen in video games before. Prey introduces aliens known as Mimics: viscous, inky black spiderlings capable of taking on the shape of any object in the room. Mimics are trans-dimensional beings, described in the game by a wary scientist as the “ultimate trap-door spider.” Colantonio explained the decision was made early on to abandon the conventional alien tropes.
“We didn’t want the obvious, cliched aliens. No lizardmen, no insectoids, no greys,” he said. “What is the purpose of those aliens?”
As a gameplay mechanic, Mimics work wonders in the intricately designed spaces full of gold-rimmed coffee mugs and art deco desk furniture, adding a near-constant level of anxiety as literally everything can be seen as a potential threat.
The beginning of the game has you reliving the same day twice, only to find out the second time around that your life is actually a controlled experiment. For what? By whom? It’s unclear. There are very few survivors remaining on Talos 1, most of your interactions are one-sided affairs as you scan through old emails and voice recordings on computers inside the station’s various offices and laboratories. Isolation looms large throughout the voluminous interiors of the space station. Everything feels tailored to lull you into a state of quiet introspection moments before a paperweight lunges at your face. Prey is, fundamentally, a game about identity. Yours, and the world around you.
“It is about identity and empathy and who you are,” Colantonio said.
After several hands-on sessions with Prey I’m inclined to agree with Colantonio, but rewriting history won’t mean much if we’re too busy avoiding jump scares to notice the finer narrative details. So far, Prey seems to have found the balance, but I’ve only seen a slice of what will likely be 20-30+ hours of gameplay. The real challenge for Prey, which releases worldwide on May 5, will be if it can sustain these intricate themes without being bogged down by too much video game action. Sure, it’d be easy to tone down the story and focus on fun combat. But Prey seems to channel JFK’s actual legacy here by making specific gameplay and narrative choices not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
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