Prey, Arkane Austin’s masterpiece, still deserves your attention

A brutal year of gaming industry layoffs has led to the unceremonious closure of studios that many believed to be the definition of successful. There’s a lot of ink worth spilling on each studio, but one closure that stood out to me was Arkane Austin, which Microsoft said on Tuesday would close its doors. (The French side of the business, Arkane Lyon, will continue on.)

Arkane Austin was behind one of the best games of the last decade: Prey. Prey is a testament to human imagination, and one of the best immersive sims ever made.

Set in an alternate history, Prey puts players in the role of Morgan Yu, a researcher freshly recruited to work on the space station Talos I. Morgan begins a battery of medical tests and procedures when a Typhon – one of the alien antagonists, made of black goo and malice – attacks one of the supervising medical personnel. Morgan awakes once again, back in their own apartment, but quickly realizes that this is a simulation. In a phenomenal sequence, Morgan then shatters the window of their apartment and steps into Talos I to find the station deserted and full of dead bodies.

A lobby on the Talos I space station, with elevators to the left, and the cafeteria ahead. The lobby appears pristine, with a sculpted golden lion statue and an advertisement for a movie. Image: Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks

While this classic horror setup is stylish, the true genius of Prey emerges once Morgan acquires a few tools to get around the station. Much like a Metroidvania, there are plenty of locked doors and barred paths, and only by acquiring new upgrades and backtracking can Morgan find all of Talos’ secrets. Morgan’s progression triggers the arrival of tougher Typhons, but even the basic Mimic – which can disguise itself as anything it pleases – is a threat.

My favorite tool is the Gloo Cannon, a massive gun that shoots out quick-drying foam globs. Gloo can be used to seal up a fire, create a bunch of stairs for sneaky platforming, or trap foes by drowning them in Gloo. It’s a non-lethal weapon, but who cares? Sometimes utility is much more exciting than ultra-violence. Prey is a fantastic immersive sim because the player has so many options, including using Neuromods to boost their abilities. Morgan can even use Typhon DNA to become more powerful, at risk of triggering the station’s automated defenses.

Prey offers a lot of choices for Morgan, many of which seem inconsequential at first, until the ending weaves everything together. Even choices outside of the main narrative can pay off. For instance, the Nightmare is a persistent Typhon beast that hunts Morgan. The name is a pretty good hint of its demeanor, and the first time one spawned in my game, I fled and locked myself in a tiny office with my heart slamming against my ribs. If you choose to inject yourself with tons of Typhon DNA, the Nightmare gets even more aggressive and persistent. Multiple playthroughs, even though they take place on the same station, feel different and memorable as a result of variables like the Nightmare’s presence.

A Typhon-infested crew member of the Talos I threatens the protagonist. The creature is a space suit full of black, inky material that sprawls out into tentacles. The Typhon is standing in an industrial hallway. Image: Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks

I don’t think Prey’s gameplay, as great as it is, would be as memorable without the time and care that went into crafting the environments. I often stopped to read whiteboards and puzzle over clues left behind. One room is absolutely stuffed with Post-It notes stuck on everything with each one reading, “NOT A MIMIC.” There’s only one coffee mug without a note, and guess what? It was absolutely a Mimic. In another meeting room, I found a snowman built out of Gloo by bored engineers. These little touches are threaded throughout the game, and it made me feel genuinely bad for all the space station staffers who had been unceremoniously murdered. They felt very real, and very human.

Prey is still worth playing today, and it’s accessible on Game Pass. But if you prefer an alternative that doesn’t require paying into Microsoft’s subscription service, Prey is on sale for $2.99 via Humble Bundle — the lowest price I’ve ever seen the game offered for.

Arkane Austin deserved better for creating games like Prey, and it’s a shame to see these developers scattered. We can offer them somewhat of a tribute, even if it’s one that feels hollow and ineffective, to enjoy the works they were able to produce before corporate demands came calling.