We begin with the protagonist being arrested, drugged, beaten, and accused of unknown crimes by a corrupt police force. Players are quickly asked to sign their name to a confession, without knowing what they’re confessing to, let alone whether they’re actually guilty. A butterfly tells you that you are the only hope for humanity, but that your chances of victory are slim to none.
At the beginning of Undertale, the player character has the opportunity to look at themselves in a mirror. Interacting with the reflection gives you one simple line: “It’s you!” In the immediate it’s just a cute moment, a fun little interaction in a game packed full of them. But hours later, towards the end of the game’s pacifist route and after hours of challenges, trials, and growth, there is another mirror. It looks just like the first; even the room you find it is nearly identical. This time, however, the message upon interacting with it is different, an acknowledgement of how far the player has come and how they’ve grown: “Despite everything, it’s still you.”
Morgan Yu, the protagonist of Arkane Studios’ 2017 immersive sim Prey, also goes through an awful lot over the course of their game. Waking up with no memories is already a pretty rough start to the morning, but to then find out your life is a Truman Show-esque simulation designed to monitor your every move, then find out the only reason that simulation has been interrupted is an invasion of human-munching psychic aliens? That’s only the beginning of Morgan Yu’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Between fighting to survive, seeing loved ones die, and the constant manipulation from the other human denizens of Talos I, the only word that seems to convey the magnitude of impact on Morgan’s psyche is traumatic. Morgan is a person suffering from trauma, both immediate and from the past.
Trauma can change a person in two ways: it leaves scars on our bodies and minds, a direct impact of the event permanently changing who we are; it also prompts us to actively change, to adapt and equip ourselves to deal with our newfound reality and survive. While I’m sure the events of Prey leave plenty of physical and mental scars on Morgan, it’s this second method we particularly want to focus on. During the game, Morgan literally takes on aspects of the alien attackers, the Typhon, in order to fight back against them. The powers and abilities Morgan is granted by Neuromods are permanent effects, a kind of hardened skin put on to reckon with a new reality. But not only are many of those powers of Typhon origin, the Neuromods themselves are made from the Typhon’s organic matter; the very source and representation of Morgan’s trauma is permanently within them. Morgan carries that experience as an aspect of themselves in a very literal and physical way, as a constant part of their being and an irreconcilable change in their character.
Alex Garland’s 2018 film adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is refreshingly straightforward about its themes regarding trauma, and how it becomes a part of its bearer. In the film, the Shimmer as an environment, a location, represents the traumatic events of the characters’ lives and the collective mass of a lifetime of experience and hardship. It seeks to display for the audience how that alters—and ultimately becomes an inescapable part of—the self.
The Typhon in Prey act as a similar metaphor, but with the important distinction that the internalization of the Typhon is conscious. Where the Shimmer forces itself upon its victims and makes a home in their minds and bodies, the way a traumatic experience often will, Morgan Yu intentionally takes upon aspects of the Typhon as a matter of survival. It isn’t voluntary, per se, as the choice is at the very least made under great duress, but it is active. The Typhon powers are all the ways we learn to protect ourselves from further harm after a traumatic event; the barriers of mistrust we put between ourselves and other people, the way we avoid places, feelings, smells, and visuals that remind us of our pain, the way we avoid situations or circumstances resembling those we would rather forget. The aliens are a manifestation of the changes we bring upon ourselves, both consciously and unconsciously, in order to keep moving forward through life.
Over a lifetime one accumulates countless scars and learns thousands of little behaviours to keep from repeating past trauma, and like a biological Ship of Theseus eventually all those little changes add up. Eventually, you have to ask if what remains is the same person. As Morgan acquires Typhon powers, the security turrets of Talos I stop recognizing them as even being human, having taken on so much of the alien biology and psychology as to be indistinguishable, at least as far as computers are concerned. Much of Prey’s narrative is focused on this idea, that someone can change so much that they are functionally a different person. The experiments Morgan was the subject of before the game’s opening were to determine how Neuromods would change the subject’s personality, and Morgan even says they no longer recognize recordings of their prior iterations as themselves. If the player helps Danielle Sho and deals with the imposter who killed her girlfriend, Sho will tell Morgan they seems like a completely different person than before the Neuromods. Mikhaila Ilyushin will say something very similar if you are honest with her at the end of her own quest, and even Morgan’s own brother Alex says he believes “the old Morgan is still in there”, implying the Morgan he sees now is unrecognizable to him.
Trauma isn’t always a big, scary event however, and it isn’t the only experience that leaves a permanent mark. Every event in our lives and every person we meet is absorbed and becomes a small part of us. In Annihilation, this is represented by the protagonists literally taking on each other’s physical characteristics, most notably the Ouroboros tattoo first sported by Anya and Kane but eventually the whole of their respective teams. Prey, on the other hand, features the Phantom enemy, a physical manifestation of psyche left behind by dead members of the Talos I crew. Every one of Morgan’s co-workers, from employees briefly passed by in the hall to close personal friends and associates, is a part of their experience, and ultimately shapes who they are. It’s theorized in-game that the Typhon are largely made up of both the crew’s organic matter and their psychic energy, that the aliens literally are the people they consume. Whether we’re talking about the experience of the alien outbreak or the physical makeup of the neuromods, in a very literal way the thing that is shaping Morgan, and changing them into a new person, is all the people around them in their daily life. This is primarily characterized through violence, because this is an action-focused video game where you blow up aliens with your mind, and also several big guns, but it isn’t necessary to interpret this as entirely negative. The people in our lives change us in a myriad of ways, for better or for worse, but either way become an inseparable part of us.
One could argue the purely human powers available through Neuromods are the positive impacts those around us have; the ways our loved ones make us stronger or the behaviours we emulate from those we admire. A human powers-only playthrough of Prey is a version of the story where Morgan has healthy habits and coping mechanisms and manages to get through their very bad day at work with no serious side effects.
Prey asks the question, can you truly remain yourself through trauma, a lifetime of experiences, and the inevitable influence of those around you? It also seems to offer a pretty firm answer: no. The you of today is not the you of yesterday. This ship is no longer the one of Theseus. But through all of this my attention is drawn to, of all things, the games Status screen, featuring the same still image of Morgan looking back at the player as a reflection in a mirror. There’s some reassurance to be found there. No matter what Neuromods you install, no matter what conditions you accrue or choices you make, the same face of Morgan is there looking back. Despite everything.