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Despite Everything, It’s Still Yu: Trauma and identity in Prey

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.

Forward, specifically, through this large antigravity tube

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.

Stories in a toybox, or how I learned to worry less and play Skyrim forever

Don’t panic, but they’ve released Skyrim again. With the 10th anniversary of The Elder Scrolls V’s initial release, Todd Howard, that little scamp, has graced gaming enthusiasts everywhere with the aptly named Anniversary Edition. We’ve seen all of this before in one form or another (although now there’s fishing, apparently? I promise not to make this about the fishing), and Skyrim itself has rightly become a memetic representation of the industry’s laughable slide toward endless remakes and remasters. The Anniversary Edition was preceded by the Special Edition, which came after the Legendary Edition; you can play the game on PC, 14 flavours of Xbox, Amazon Alexa, select refrigerators, and simply by closing your eyes at night and allowing Bethesda to jack into your dreams. I fully expect to be greeted at the gates of hell upon my death with a copy of Skyrim’s Inferno.

And yet, here I am, lined up to have one more adventure across the frozen wastes of Tamriel, prepared to finally be awake, saved by circumstance, ready to choose no sides in a war between bad people and bad people from slightly further away. Why? What is it that compels me—and thousands of others—to return, over and over, to this world? Ten years on, it’s abundantly clear the primary target audience for Skyrim isn’t fresh faced youngsters, it’s people who have already played the game multiple times. It’s practically a guilty pleasure by now, friends sheepishly noting that they were playing Skyrim again, trying not to make direct eye contact with the dozens of untouched new games that have come out in the interim.

Skyrim is not a masterpiece of narrative, nor is some mythic pinnacle of game design. It is, however, a near-perfect expression of player agency. Many, many jokes have already been made about Todd Howard’s infamous pseudo-quote “See that mountain? You can climb it,” referring to the supposed limitless possibilities and grandiose scale of the RPG. While there are certainly mountains you cannot climb in the game, because a game simply cannot code toward infinity, the core message in the quote does ring true. Do whatever you want, have fun. Skyrim’s central theme is not the discovery of new and exciting story beats, the overcoming of challenges, the chance to meet compelling characters; its guiding principle is to be interactive, to encourage play. In that light, many of the game’s limitations actually begin to look more like boons.

Players interacting with the world of The Elder Scrolls V are essentially akin to children given unfettered access to a full toybox. Inside, there are brightly-coloured figurines, spooky cave sets, plastic animals, dragons, shopfronts, even a CD player. Like a box full of toys, there’s minimal value to knowing the contextual importance of particular characters or locations. Ulfric Stormcloak has as much narrative value to me as decades of Batman comic history has to my 8-year-old. He acts as a gateway to my own exciting adventures, more than a fully-formed character.

Near the beginning of the game, if you’re playing without any time and space-bending modifications, you quickly end up in the town of Riverwood. Inside the Riverwood Trader—the town’s only shop—you can quickly pick up one of your first irrelevant quests, as the proprietor wants you to help return a golden dragon claw that was stolen from his shop. If I do go to Riverwood, I always pick up this quest, even though it’s been completed a thousand times. There’s a warm and familiar comfort to meeting Lucan Valeruis and his sister Camilla, hearing their argument about the theft, offering to be the hero who saves the day. The content of their discussion isn’t vital, they’re archetypal characters: a shop owner in distress and his attractive (and available) sister. You can almost picture a dozen variations of this scene playing out while I hold my Lucan, Camilla and Dragonborn action figures, doing all the voices myself and smashing them together if this is the one time I decide to rob them instead of helping.

Characters and situations in Skyrim are paper thin, largely pointless affairs, which certainly isn’t a compliment to the game. And yet, it’s hard to imagine a more rich universe like ones crafted in titles like The Last of Us or Horizon Zero Dawn ever supporting similar levels of engagement. Context is demanded in these games, where the why matters as much as the how, and your enjoyment is linked to how much you connect with the narrative. In Skyrim you’re dumped into a world made of LEGO blocks and objects designed to help you have fun at the expense of everything else. It inspires a kind of admiration to recognise how deeply the game cares about entertaining you by leveraging methods largely unique to games as a medium.

This inherent malleability means players can interact with the Skyrim box on any number of levels without having to experience significant cognitive dissonance. A wolf glitching out and flying 200 feet into the sky, or an NPC trying to arrest you after they already died, isn’t breaking any immersion, because we were only ever immersed in the play itself. If all the world’s a stage, and we merely players, then everything is part of the show.

Similarly, this blasé attitude to the complexities of worldbuilding and storytelling explains why Skyrim is so heavily and gleefully modded by almost everyone who plays the game. Plugging in new mods to change the way people look, add new adventures, change the genre of the combat, yank out vital parts, or turn all the chickens into kaiju is just throwing more toys into the toybox and encouraging more imaginative play in a world where it was already all about your own imagination. Where discussion might swing toward artistic intent with more narratively and mechanically meaty games, here it seems to practically beg for experimental button-pressing—even before Bethesda’s Creation Club codified and commodified the whole idea. You can’t play Skyrim wrong, any more than you can eat a delicious pie wrong. Stick your fingers in the middle and shove it straight in your mouth if that makes you happy. It goes some way to elucidating why nobody ever really goes out of their way to finish what counts for the main plot in game; you simply take what you need from the story until you’re full, then you leave the table.

Viewed through the lens of play, rather than a deliberately coherent experience, the constant replaying and rereleasing of Skyrim becomes much less puzzling. Nobody begrudges a kid for returning to their favourite toys, and it’s actually a healthy part of developmental psychology for them to exercise their brain in coming up with new versions of familiar scenarios. In a similar vein, there’s no shame associated with owning a train set or some other kind of endlessly tweaked hobby. So, as I head into Whiterun, again, to be told that I need to climb the 700 steps and learn to do magical screams, again, I’m doing so with a clear conscience and a new appreciation for a game that has consumed hundreds of hours of my life. Because it’s okay to just play for the sake of play, sometimes.