Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
The start of Prey is one of very few narrative-based game intros that really worked for me. And it comes not that long after one in the same genre that especially didn’t: Mankind Divided. So I thought it might be interesting to replay both and compare what works and what doesn’t. Not to pick on Mankind Divided – I loved the game after the stumbling start – but just because you can be more specific with praise if you have something to contrast it against.
I talked through my thoughts on both intros as I replayed them in the videos here, and I’ll summarise and add some conclusions through the magic of text. Obviously both parts of this post spoil the intros to these games.
Sorry the mic gets drowned out in parts.
MD needs you to understand all the factions and political context of an arms deal, and a double-agent within one of them, to make sense of what you’re being asked to do and why you should care. You can’t really show that, so they just have to talk to you about it for 7 full minutes before you can start playing. The result is I didn’t really follow it and I don’t really care.
When you wake up in your apartment in Prey, all that really needs saying is that you’re going to work for your brother on a space station. The other stuff you don’t know is fun to figure out.
Unanswered question: who are the gold mask guys who kill the other terrorists?
Mystery: why am I waking up as if my day is repeating?
The difference is that this mystery is:
With the gold mask guys, it’s not clear why it’s important who they are, they have no relation to my character yet, and a very likely answer is very boring: they’re just another group of terrorists who want weapons. If they at least didn’t take the weapons, that’d be something to pique some interest – a vendetta? A hit? But still, faction-kills-faction is always gonna struggle to rank on those three points.
MD’s intro does have a cool piece of information to reveal, but it comes more than half an hour in, delivered through dialogue, and only implied. You’re a double-agent! Whoa! That makes both you and Interpol more interesting. But I learned that from a loading screen tip, after a long conversation that conveys it so indirectly I didn’t grasp it at all.
Could MD have done their reveal visually? Maybe. If your first mission had been to retrieve some vital drive, you could have a scene like:
MILLER (VO): When you get to Prague bring it straight to my office, Jensen, we can’t take any risks.
We see him put the drive in a brown paper bag and leave the train. As soon as he steps onto the platform, he drops it in the trash. He passes a woman sitting at a cafe, touches her table as he squeezes past, and without looking at her:
JENSEN: Package is in, you’ve got 20 minutes.
We stay on Jensen as he blends into the crowd, but can see her get up as she leaves the frame.
There’d still be some Tell before and after the Show, but the reveal itself is a big, dirty betrayal we see with our own eyes.
Prey’s big reveal is that your reality is an artifice and you’re the subject of a test. That’s an easy one to show visually, and they do it with style: you unwittingly shatter the false world’s thin facade with a wrench blow.
Ben: Great analysis.
During the lab sequence in the Prey intro, you were looking around for tells that Morgan is in a simulation. There is a subtle clue that the environment you're in is fake, but it's placed earlier on.
On the first day, when you take your second trip in a 'lift', down from the roof to the lab, there are dirty marks on the floor in exactly the same places on the 'roof' level and the 'lab' level. [For anyone who hasn't played the game, it's later revealed that the lift is fake, and the roof and the lab levels are in fact the same room, reconfigured with moving walls. You can also drop an object on the 'roof' level and it'll still be there in the lab].
Grant: Thanks to the start of this video, I've just now noticed that during the static flickers while staring into the mirror (gender selection screen), Morgans' eyes go neuromod-red.
Sunshine: "Peter Serafinowicz and I keep calling each other up to be assholes to each other. I don’t like either of us."
Is this Deus Ex or Spaced?
Aegeus: Adam being a double agent seemed clear enough - he and the girl are clearly tracking the Illuminati and trying to figure out what the mission in Dubai was really about - but it still takes far too long to get to the point. (Besides, are you really a double agent if nobody on the task force is supposed to know they're working for the Illuminati? Or are you just a single agent who knows too much?)
The Dubai segment mainly exists to tutorialize gameplay, so I feel like they could have saved a lot of time by folding it into Prague. Bomb goes off, gold mask dudes show up and start terrorizing people, and they give you a gameplay segment to learn how to sneak up on dudes and stab them with arm-swords. Probably takes less than ten minutes from start to gameplay. And it gives you a mystery with more personal stakes to start: They attacked your city, where you live. And they're probably related to the there's an obvious motive suggested, which again has personal stakes for Adam.