How the Queer Indie Game 'Gone Home' Influenced 'Prey'
We spoke with Arkane lead Designer Ricardo Bare about writing the game's characters, D&D-loving space lesbians, and actions that speak louder than words.
All images courtesy of Bethesda
There are some light Prey story spoilers ahead, albeit nothing after the mid-game point. If you've played through Crew Quarters, you'll be fine.
After a 48-hour mega-playthrough using only human abilities (and subsequent less-constrained playthroughs), I think it's safe to say that Prey is one of my favorite games of the year, and in 2017, that is saying something. I've gone into detail about how I've felt weirdly catered to in the game—being an immersive sim in space, with plenty of queer women characters, and a delicious, anti-corporate dystopian overall storyline—it feels like a game for me, and that's exceedingly rare in big-budget video games.
It's inclusion of queer women characters isn't without complication: the tragic lesbians trope rears its head in the game, for sure—although that, in itself is complicated by a revenge subplot that let me take the only vengeance I think I've ever really felt 100% awesome about in a game.
I'm certainly not the only person enamored with Arkane's latest creation, nor am I the only one impressed by its approach to storytelling—a more nuanced, subtle take on characters that feel like real people, rather than their more theatrical counterparts in say, the BioShock and Dishonored titles.
And while Morgan is essentially a silent protagonist, her (I played as a lady Morgan, but you could easily play as a dude as well) choices—whether to help survivors, assist whistleblowing efforts, or cast the fate of uncertain would-be escapees—matter very much to the fabric of the story. There are no dialogue wheels, but your actions speak volumes.
I spoke with Arkane's Lead Designer Ricardo Bare about writing and designing Prey in this fashion, taking a slightly more subtle approach to character-building and story. I also asked about those lebians, tragic (and/or vengeful) as they may be.
Waypoint: How did you decide on making the many branching quests/story content based on gameplay choices alone (i.e. no dialogue options for Morgan themself)?
Ricardo Bare: This is largely a consequence of wanting to avoid stopping the action by going into special modes, or cinematic sequences. We didn't want to have a conversation system with player inputs for this game. We wanted everything, as much as possible, to take place via in-world player verbs.
Generally, could you speak about writing the characters and making them feel "real" even in their extreme situations? Many other immersive sims tend to have larger-than-life caricatures (Like Sander Cohen and Andrew Ryan from BioShock, the Stranger from Dishonored, etc.), but in Prey, there's a very different, more subdued tone.
I'm very happy to see that people are having fun discovering all the little backstories of the crew. I think our goal was just to try and make the place feel as human as possible by including a bunch of interesting details about people's personal lives. I think when someone is larger than life maniacal or a mouthpiece for some kind of ideology it's hard to relate even though it can be incredibly entertaining (Granny Rags is an example).
Whereas, if you learn the head of a particular research project was a D&D nerd, or one of the neuromods salesmen is a sad, washed up ex-professional athlete, then you might feel a connection because you know someone like that. A lot of the humor some of engineers use is a distant echo of the way I remember my dad and his workmates talking (he was a crew chief and jet mechanic in the Air Force). The fact that they're gone now is more tragic because of those humanizing elements.
It's not a better approach, necessarily, it's just a different way to engage the player.
I personally really love the inclusion of queer women in the game, and how much it seems to be a non-issue in their lives. I think Morgan is one of the only queer woman protagonists in any AAA game (possibly the very first woman of color), and that a really sweet romance (between Abby and Danielle) is a part of the main quest really struck me.
What was the thought process behind writing these characters, and the specific approach? Do you have LGBT team members who helped steer those decisions?
I suppose the best way to put it would be that we try to include things that we find interesting, no matter what. Personally, it's interesting for me to learn about characters and people that aren't like me and to represent them in games as best as we can. At the same time, we value diversity. I think it's healthy and stories are better off for it, so it's a filter we apply as we work. An 'international space station' with only white dudes would have been boring and dumb.
For the Abby and Danielle storyline, I believe our lead level designer, Rich Wilson took some inspiration from Gone Home when he initially conceived of the idea. The gameplay conceit was to spoof a voice lock, but in order to do so you needed samples of the user's voice. So, in collecting Danielle's audio logs to synthesize her voice, you'd invariably learn about her and her relationship to Abby (and others).
On that note, what is your response to the idea that the characters play into the stereotype of "tragic lesbians" in fiction?
I think my response would be that it's a fair point to make, broadly speaking; it no doubt sucks to look around various storytelling media and find a dearth of 'happy endings' for LGBT relationships.
So, in Prey here is yet another queer couple with a doomed relationship. But, going a little deeper, I think the critique is not particularly incisive in this context. Danielle and Abigail's deaths have nothing to do with their queerness, nor is there some encoded message to be had in it that is specifically hostile to LGBT-ness. It's just that 99% of the people aboard Talos are dead and some of those people happened to be gay. That's my take on it.
One of the things I love about writing, and afterwards interacting with people's critiques and reactions, is the opportunity to learn. This is a topic I think about a lot, but like everyone else, my perspective is limited and I have some blind spots. In the circle of 'things I could possibly know about' there's the subset of 'things I should know about' and then there's the even smaller circle of, 'things I actually do know about.' Anyway, your question has led to some interesting reading, so thanks for making those circles slightly more congruent.