Sometime in the distant past–circa Summer 1998–I sat in the crowded Dallas, Texas offices of 3D Realms to see something few people ever had or would. They were the famously successful developers of Duke Nukem 3D, who would go on to become infamous thanks to their inability to ever complete the sequel. (Duke Nukem Forever would, roughly 15 years later, emerge from an entirely different developer and be utterly horrible). But Duke Nukem wasn’t my interest that day. I was after a secretive new game called Prey.
Prey had just as troubled a development as Duke Nukem Forever. iD Software’s Quake had brought the first person shooter into the third dimension in 1996. 3D Realms wanted to take things even further. They wanted a game that used cutting edge tech–especially “portals”, a sudden buzzword back then to, essentially, create pathways from one point in a level to any other point instantly–married with innovative game design and story.
iD was mostly interested in giving players something to shoot. With Prey, 3D Realms wanted to create something more involving. Richard “The Levelord” Gray was a lead level designer at 3D Realms, having famously made some of the best levels from Duke Nukem 3D and other popular games of the time. Ever affable and engaging, he was visibly excited talking about Prey, showing me around early prototype levels and explaining just how crazy the game would be.
Where other shooters just shoved mindless enemies at players, Prey was different. It took its name literally. The player–a Native American named Talon Brave that had been abducted by aliens–was forced to hunt or be hunted by smaller numbers of highly intelligent alien opponents who would track you down. Keep in mind: even two decades later, most shooters still don’t possess the level of artificial intelligence needed for what 3D Realms was planning.
The levels were meant to be mind-bending, with surreal connections to other “rooms” that didn’t make linear sense. The addition of a Native American protagonist was a big part of the design, lending a sense of mysticism and ancient mythology to the overall sci-fi set-up.
This Prey was never to be. Delays and budget overruns made the project drift away into video game obscurity for years. Then, in 2006, Prey finally did hit the PC and Xbox 360, from an entirely different developer, Human Head Studios. Contracted by 3D Realms to finally get something of the original game out, it was an odd mix of the original intent and more standard shooting action.
Talon was now named Tommy, a whiny, brutish and insanely vulgar lead. The enemies became standard mindless alien brutes. But the wonderfully surreal level design and inclusion of Native American mythos were true to the core of 3D Realms’ vision. It did well enough that ZeniMax Media–parent company of gaming giant Bethesda (of Elder Scrolls: Skyrim fame) bought the rights to the game and contracted Human Head to make a sequel.
Human Head completely scrapped every element of the original in favor of a more open world game about a sci-fi bounty hunter. It didn’t look terrible, but definitely seemed to lack the originality of the first game. Then, things got hinky. By most accounts, Human Head was nearly finished with Prey 2 when Bethesda quietly killed the project and took the series away from them.
Bethesda felt the name–if nothing else–had worth (after all, they bought the rights to it), so passed it over to the makers of the Dishonored series, Arkane Studios.
That leads us to now. Prey has returned to the 90s, just not in the way any fan would have imagined. To modern console gamers, this new take on an old name is very familiar. From the bizarre use of art deco design in space to the ability to use vials of serum to give your character new powers, it’s clearly riffing off the exact same design block as the Bioshock series.
That’s true, except Bioshock was doing the exact same thing. Irrational, the makers of Bioshock, had largely taken an earlier title–1999’s amazing System Shock 2–gave it a new location, and streamlined it for modern console audiences to create what was one of the best games of its generation. System Shock 2 was a PC-only release, so it’s no surprise diehard console gamers had no idea it existed. 2017’s Prey “borrows” almost every element from that superb game, from the inventory system and collecting trash, to the punishing difficulty level and insane ramblings of the turned crewmembers.
A lot can happen in 22 years, especially in gaming, but few games can match the bizarre history of Prey. Despite repeated attempts, there have been only two finished, completely unrelated games over three decades, yet somehow the name at least is hanging on. I still remember that excitement over the original concept though, so can’t help feeling disappointed that none of its vision managed to survive the long trip to now.
Prey, in its current form, was released May 5, 2017 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Microsoft Windows.