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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.

Final Fantasy VII Remake is thinking hard about sex

Video games have a complicated relationship with sex. Relationships in general, romance as a side note, but particularly sex, and all the sex-adjacent parts of life. If I ask you to think about sex in games, some will immediately remember the Hot Coffee incident, where Rockstar accidentally left code in GTA San Andreas which allowed the main character to have poorly animated, full-clothed dry humping sessions with NPCs; it was hard to swallow that as a controversy even at the time, but still occupies the industry consciousness. Some might think of Bioware’s adorably tame fades-to-black, where Commander Shepard or Thedas’ Inquisitor culminate their game-long romance by cuddling their special someone in bed and, well, you know, the thing happens.

What you won’t see very often (outside of games literally about sex) is characters in a story who are absolutely gagging for one another, consumed by sexual or romantic feelings in a meaningful way. Nobody really wants to bang in mainstream video games, basically. They might talk your ear off about their emotions and how important you are to them, or how the galaxy exploding really made them think about what matters, but they don’t get messy. It’s all sterile, calculated, friendly the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Windows 11, or a Children’s Illustrated Bible is friendly.

And then there’s Final Fantasy VII Remake, kicking in the door, covered in sweat and dirt, shirt half untucked, confused and embarrassed look on its face. Even if you haven’t played it, the first thing you probably learned about the game was that the character designs were all uncomfortably hot, and that’s part of the appeal, but beyond the superficial FFVIIR has a raw, haphazard sexuality present in every aspect of its design. The characters aren’t just sexy, they’re sexual. Human. They want one another in a breathtakingly forward manner, stopping the plot in its tracks frequently to have an indulgent pine over one of their very sexy colleagues.

Let’s take a look at Jessie Rasberry, which absolutely is her real name. In the original game, Jessie is an Avalanche freedom fighter who helps blow up a few Shinra reactors before getting unambiguously pancaked by a falling city block. In the Remake, however, she’s reimagined primarily as Someone Who Wants to Have Sex With Cloud Strife. This version of the character flirts mercilessly with Cloud, teasingly attempts to get his attention at various points, gives him gifts, and invites him to meet her parents (in order to rob them). Jessie kisses Cloud on the cheek during one mission, which makes Cloud very flustered, because he’s a very large human-shaped golden retriever. Jessie’s flirting is so overt that Cloud at one point tries to divert her by calling her desperate, and she invites him over for a date that has particularly intense sexual implications.

They’re not all so in-your-face horny in Midgar, but that same feeling of humans being humans despite themselves runs through all of the characters. Cloud clearly has heavy feelings for Tifa and weird new emotions bubbling up about Aerith, but he was a Soldier, and they never taught you what to do about awkward sex thoughts; Tifa is a powerful and independent woman, and she still seems very ready to try and make herself known enough to get some romantic attention; Aerith is the quirky Zooey Deschanel next door, however she dedicates a good portion of her energy to making herself come across as sexy and capable as Tifa. Even Barrett—whose sexual exploits are limited to the ones that produced his daughter—exudes a messy vigour in every scene.

A tremendous amount of developer energy has gone into making sure players don’t just find these characters sexy, they find them to be sexual. Ridiculous skin textures, realistic sweating, and hyper-realistic anime-style hair exists not merely to impress the audience, but to impress upon them the three-dimensional nature of the cast. Yes, they’re sexy, but they don’t want to have sex with you, they want to have sex with each other. Which is far more interesting.

That’s what’s so intriguing about the overwhelmingly horny nature of this game, it treats the character’s sexuality as an integral part of the storytelling process. Where many video games may have sexy character designs simply to titillate the player, FFVIIR uses it to increase the emotional and intellectual connection we have to these fictional people. Beyond the literal plot points about terrorism, capitalist hellscapes, living planets, human experimentation, Remake makes us care about the individuals and their dirty thoughts. Aside from Jessie’s eagerness, a lot of the steaminess is communicated with 10% dialogue and 90% body language. In fact, have you seen how good these characters look when they’re touching each other? Do you know how difficult that is to achieve with 3D graphics? Just the scene in the ghost-infested train yard, where Tifa and Aerith both grip Cloud’s oblivious and perfectly-toned arms, must have cost a fortune in technology, time and labour. All to give us another indicator that these people absolutely want to get nasty.

This isn’t a game that shies away from sex or the sexual, and it doesn’t get weirdly defensive or judgemental about it either. Aside from Cloud’s reflex deflection of Jessie’s advances, nobody ever shuns anyone for being sexual or expressing themselves. Midgar is a safe place, at least down below.

Having that sort of acceptance allows them to use these aspects of the characters—and aspects of the human experience—in broader pieces of the game. On several occasions during the game, you have the chance to determine what sort of attractive outfit a character wears. In Tifa’s case, this is done by choosing the description which you think best suits, rather than by just picking the hot one; for Aerith, the dress she wears is picked by the game based on how many people you chose to help with side quests in the Wall Market. Both require you to connect on some level with the characters and the world.

The section where you need to enter Corneo’s mansion, infamously played for laughs in the original because Cloud needs to dress as a woman, is transformed into a complex minigame where Cloud needs to learn to dance as a gateway to learning to express his true self. It’s not accidental that this part of the game uses the language of burlesque, a performance art known for allowing participants to harness their sexual confidence. So many parts of the game that seem frivolous and ridiculous at first glance are actually using the raw humanity of the characters to bring you closer to them as a player.

On a macro scale, this is all serving the bigger story as well. Flirtation, romance, and sex are all framed as a necessary distraction from the soul-sucking dystopia in which these characters live out their lives. Midgar is a horrible place filled with inequality and death, but the people in the slums survive and thrive because they maintain what makes them human. And yes, that includes sex, sometimes. Compare the Wall Market—which we first see as a seedy nightmare full of debauchery and criminals, but later come to embrace as a melting pot of people simply trying to enjoy themselves—to the cold, harsh architecture of the Shinra Headquarters. Shinra represents the cutting away of everything human, flattening and removing imperfections until only things that are ‘useful’ remain; the Wall Market is excessive, loud, filthy, and it has texture. You can sense the stories behind every corner in the Market, and imagine all the inappropriate acts happening behind every door. Nothing sexy has ever happened in the Shinra building, unless you find black marble and expense reports arousing.

Final Fantasy VII Remake’s sexy and sex-distracted characters exist to tell us the same thing that the story of the game does: life is messy, and exciting, and it makes you want to kiss people and make horrible, sexy mistakes, and enjoy all the weird parts. If you take out the sex, the dirt, the fumbling looks and awkward touching, the colour, then you’re killing it. So I sort of hope other developers look at this oddly horny JRPG and see that games could stand to be a little less sanitised and a lot more emotional, to match the unsanitary, emotional people that play them. Let more video game characters bang each other, it’s good storytelling.

Building character: The slow burn of Dragon Age II

Dragon Age II has the longest and most in-depth character creation system ever seen in a video game, clocking in at around 30 hours. After the initial, perfunctory decisions about lip colour and combat class, the game quickly allows players to craft their ideal fantasy protagonist over the course of several years. When they’re done shaping the soft clay of their unique Hawke into the Champion of Kirkwall they always wanted, the credits roll and the game is over; your quest is complete. Flawless efficiency.

In Origins, the first Dragon Age, BioWare created a universe that was brimming with possibility. Like many other big RPGs, it centered player choice and an ability to affect the world around you. The titular origins were important in setting up where the Grey Warden had been in their life, and what contacts they might already have, but there was a strong focus on the idea that the player had a very powerful role in shaping the destiny of fictional Ferelden. Player decisions were largely external, and also very large: save an entire race of people by risking the safety of another, kill mages to avoid them becoming a danger later, execute the ruler of a nation because you don’t like him very much. Dragon Age II instead opts for an inward-looking approach, where the outcome of events is de-emphasised in favour of putting the spotlight on how the main character reacts to narrative moments and the people around them. It’s less important what Hawke decided to do with the Qunari than how it shaped his or her view of the world.

This shift in priorities is reflected in the way dialogue functions in the game. Superficially, it’s similar to other Dragon Age titles, Mass Effect games and other modern RPGs: the player is given a choice of different responses, all of which either embody a particular emotional response or are purely informational. Diplomatic or helpful responses are friendly and non-confrontational, aggressive or direct responses are generally the opposite, and humorous or charming answers are for when Hawke wants to be sassy. What makes the system in Dragon Age II so interesting is that these responses will slowly warp the mind of the player’s Hawke, bending them further towards one of those three personalities. From the very first dialogue choice in the game, a system begins tallying a player’s responses and choosing a general tone for Hawke based on those choices. While early in the game, players might find themselves having to pick the sarcastic option themselves, late-game Hawke might offer a witty barb of their own accord.

This has a nominal effect on the overall flow of the narrative (the game will never take away any important choices) but makes a huge difference to the way the main character is perceived by the audience. Rather than being a simple mouthpiece for player choices, or a static face and class decision made in minute one, Hawke becomes a malleable character who is growing and changing as events unfold.

Altering the concept of an RPG to focus on the long-form creation of one character isn’t wholly done by mechanical means. Everything in the narrative of Dragon Age II is designed to support the idea that Hawke is the centre of this story. The game opens with a simple and oft-used framing device: the storyteller. Varric Tethras has been captured by the Seekers of Truth, and is being asked about the ‘Champion of Kirkwall’ by Cassandra. The Seeker wants to know how the Champion started a war between the mages and templars in the city, and Varric—being a bardic sort of chap—is going to tell her in the most roundabout way possible. This framing of the entire game as a story reinforces the mythic idea of a hero with a benevolent hand in matters far beyond their station. Behold the mighty champion, see how their decisions shape the world we live in. Except the reality of the story fails, on purpose, to bear that out; Hawke is no doubt an important figure in the city and present for many of the mad things which occur there, but Varric’s story frequently makes it clear that Hawke was often swept up in events beyond their control, and that tensions would have escalated regardless. By presenting the audience with the winking and unreliable narrator of Varric Tethras, it invites the player to question not just the events they witness but the role their ‘hero’ might even play in them.

So, if the story of Dragon Age II wants us to see that heroes aren’t always the most important part of a story, what does it want us to see. If you look at the companions in this game, compared with others in the series, there are some clear differences. Where in Origins and Inquisition, the main character is flanked by powerful, important and driven individuals, Hawke gathers a group of misfits, folks barely holding on to their place in the world. Fenris is a slave, consumed by revenge and despised by most; Merril is an elf cast out of her own clan thanks to her relentless pursuit of forbidden lore; Anders is a mage on the run from everyone. Through the story, the characters form a strong bond with Hawke and are drawn into the plot by that bond, rather than a menacing external threat, like The Blight, or a giant green hole in the sky. While not explicitly stated, it’s easy enough to extrapolate that if Hawke had not come to Kirkwall almost every one of her companions would have been killed by their respective obsessions or problems. With this reliance on the player character, the narrative further reinforces the idea that who Hawke is holds more importance than what they do.

And what does Hawke get out of all this peripheral heroism? What do they get as a reward for being the Champion of Kirkwall and offering snarky commentary as magic civil war breaks out? Nothing good. From the moment they arrive in the city, the Hawke family are forced to claw their way back into society, participating in organised crime and generally letting folks step all over their dignity. Where the Grey Warden Hero of Ferelden dies a martyr, or perhaps lives long enough to become a monarch beloved by all, and the Inquisitor becomes a similarly beloved hero, Hawke mainly deals with anger and death. Regardless of the player’s choices, one of Hawke’s siblings will always die in the first act of the game. The other either dies later, is forced into isolated servitude, or actively joins the enemy to the player’s cause. Hawke’s mother is kidnapped and cut into pieces, then reassembled like a terrifying maternal zombie.

Hawke provides the player with a sympathetic, broken canvas on which to paint a picture of what they think a champion looks like. With the narrative framed around the character instead of the events they participate in, and with the mechanical tools already in place to allow for shaping the way they behave, players can take an active role in deciding what kind of character they want to build. And, since the narrative is never structured to require heavy involvement from the protagonist, players can feel comfortable tweaking their personality and world view right up to the final scene. Rather than deciding how the character players envision might react, they can have a more loose idea of their behaviours, and be guided moment to moment, leading to a more collaborative and improvisational process, akin to creating a Dungeons & Dragons character.

So who is Hawke? More than most other RPG characters, Hawke is a hero shaped by whoever plays the game. She or he is the sum total of all the decisions made from moment one to the end of the epilogue. And they’re always changing, just like a real person.