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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.

The Outer Worlds’ hollow star and why the player’s role matters

French? I can't f***ing read French. This article contains mild spoilers for The Outer Worlds and Prey. Click here to leave the colony.

In the film Groundhog Day, weatherman Phil Connors is stuck in a time loop, living out the same day over and over again. Maybe forever. And he’s super bummed about it at first, until someone points out that a person in his position could literally do whatever they want. Lie. Cheat. Steal. Learn to play the piano. Eat forty cakes and wash it down with ten bottles of whisky. Armed with this knowledge, Phil goes on a hedonistic rampage, living out the dream of a life with no consequences. After an unspecified period of time, however, the novelty wears off; being an unkillable god-like being untethered from the petty concerns of biology and polite society means no relationships, no lasting developments, no impact on the world at large. Phil, unable to move forward, becomes suicidal, depressed and nihilistic. Nothing matters.

Video games always cast us as Phil Connors, in some way. No matter the game, every time we boot up an interactive experience we consent to being placed inside one time loop or another, slowly finding our way towards whatever point this particular universe wants to show us. That means the way the main character is positioned in the story is pretty important, and how they interact with the game world is very different to other mediums.

This is all my very roundabout way of trying to figure out a puzzling question: why don’t I enjoy playing The Outer Worlds? Obsidian’s newest RPG is a fine example of the genre, a worthy follow-up to their other work, and a valid, unsanctioned response to an unspoken request for a Fallout game that isn’t full of bugs. The combat is fun, with time-dilation powers, laser-powered swords and guns that make all the correct boom noises. It has a wonderfully endearing cast of support characters and an interesting, topical story about the dangers of corporations holding power. The artwork is beautiful, casting off all notions of muted colour palettes in favour of the true psychedelia of alien worlds. The music, acting, mechanics, setting, enemy design all range from good to excellent. And yet, it’s a struggle to get from point A to point B; each moment spent with the game feels like an enjoyable slice of something but fails to compel me to move forward. A quirky space adventure with a dry sense of humour and the freedom to do mostly whatever I choose should be a slam dunk.

Part of the problem comes down to me. The ‘me’ inside the game, that is, not the real me. The version of me that I lovingly crafted in the prologue, the one making all those big decisions and riding in the spaceship. The most important person in the universe. At first, I named my hero Jervan Cudgel; the plan was to make him the sort of melee-focused pugilist I had so much fun roleplaying in Fallout: New Vegas many years ago. He would be honest (to his own detriment, if necessary) kind of dumb, and look like the bronzed, curly-haired star of a 1970s pulp sci-fi film. This was the plan, anyway.

None of that matters. The Outer Worlds opens with some remarkably efficient storytelling which lays out a few salient facts: there’s a colony called Halcyon where corporations run everything, it sucks, a ship full of colonists got lost, and a wanted terrorist is going to break one of them out to help him with his plan to overthrow the status quo. Like much of the game, this is actually pretty interesting and engaging, but it also puts the main character in a very distant position from the outset. You, the player, are one of said lost colonists. Because you’ve been in cryogenic stasis for a few decades, you have no idea how anything works on Halcyon, you don’t know anyone, you have no contacts and you can barely conceptualise the societal norms that perpetuate this twisted version of our own civilisation. Unfortunately, the overall effect of this framing device is a trending towards apathy. Since none of these people are important to me, and I don’t even live here, there’s no reason for me to engage with their plight on a personal level. There’s a beautiful synergy that happens in games at times, where the player and their avatar have motivations, goals or emotions that sync perfectly with each other. The result of this is usually a more cohesive and natural-feeling game experience, since you can more easily empathise. Unfortunately, The Outer Worlds hops onto this train too early, giving us a character that syncs with the player’s state of mind, rather than convincing the audience to synergise with the hero. You currently don’t care about Halcyon colony and you have no idea what’s going on? Good news, here’s some dope who also thinks like that.

When you experience the world a little further, you may find yourself actually caring about what happens there; it is, after all, a well-realised science fiction world, full of likeable characters. But once you do, your avatar is still that dope, with no connection to the world beyond the dialogue trees available, no context for his or her actions, and no reason to pick one decision over another. As I decide to shut down the Saltuna factory on Terra 2, saving the deserters and dooming the loyal factory workers, it’s me making the decision I would make as myself; Jervan Cudgel might as well not exist, he has no opinion on the subject.

The main character in Prey (the one from Arkane Studios) enters the world in a similar, baby-like state, unmolested by the complexities of the universe and carrying a big box of Convenient Amnesia. But the very different methods of building the protagonist and the role they need to play in their world make for an interesting contrast. Morgan Yu wakes up to a laboratory in turmoil, with the bodies of people they don’t know strewn all over and an infestation of aliens they don’t understand. Much like The Outer Worlds, Prey provides its hero with access to various computer terminals, many of which contain bits of world-building or character flavour. However, many of these pieces of correspondence refer to Morgan by name, or are actually addressed to them. Those that aren’t can usually be traced to someone on the station who this email version of Morgan Yu interacted with, allowing you to trace their significance back through the chain and connect some dots about who they were to you. Recordings and AI companions speak directly to you, as Morgan, and tell you in no uncertain terms why player and avatar alike should give a lot of damns about everything happening. Family members, angry work colleagues and possible lovers drop in either live or posthumously to offer their opinions and emotions to the main character, cementing the idea that you are very real and vital to whatever happens next.

You could argue, of course, that there are successful stories which lean into the idea of a featureless protagonist shaped only by the player’s own choices. All the recent Fallout games do this, birthing you from the door of one vault or another into a wasteland you never knew, or simply giving you a job to do. But Fallout 3 motivates you with the mystery of a missing father, New Vegas has someone try to murder you and bury you in the desert, and someone in Fallout 4 steals your actual baby. Regardless of how well each of these was handled, they all stick some simple, primal idea in the player’s head that they can agree with the protagonist on. Revenge, mystery, loss. The Outer Worlds has some very grand ideas about the corrupting influence of money and the value of repairing a broken society, but it makes no attempt to earn the hero’s attention on those fronts. If you want me to engage with your universe, I need to be in the shoes of someone worth guiding to that goal, and I have to understand how they work.

The way various mechanics function in the game do it no favours in regard to building a main character with some meat. Everything in Halcyon bends just a little too easily to the will of the player; from persuasion checks to combat encounters, there’s an overall sense that The Outer Worlds really wants you to succeed. It is almost cartoonishly easy to lie and steal your way through the game. The overall effect of this freedom is to make the player feel as though they’re in a sort of inflatable playground where nobody can get hurt and everything will be the safest kind of fun. You can die, like in most games, but you’re psychologically prepared for the inevitable truth: the hero is important and powerful, and they’ll be fine. Plus, they don’t matter, so it’s okay if they do happen to die.

By presenting players with a protagonist without context, The Outer Worlds inadvertently creates a stunted version of Groundhog Day’s Phil. Without the motivation to improve themselves, they never have any desire to move out of the consequence-free simulation full of cake and shrink rays. Lacking the self-awareness that eventually crushes Phil Connors, they are unable to see the value of limitations and complicated relationships. They stay in the loop forever, completing meaningless, hedonistic tasks. Nothing ever matters.

So, is this why I can’t see myself playing The Outer Worlds to completion? Is the lack of a compelling main character enough to soil a game that is otherwise very accomplished? Maybe. Games are defined by their interactivity, and that interaction is primarily delivered through the player character’s perspective. Even if a story isn’t literally told by the protagonist, we’re invited to frame everything as part of their personal journey. So that journey has to matter, it has to be meaningful even while it allows for the spectrum of player choice. Much like picking a narrator for a novel, choosing a game protagonist has the potential to drastically alter the reading of the story developers want to tell. Dragon Age II is the strange, personal RPG it is because it’s about Hawke; Alien: Isolation feels so immediately connected to the Alien mythos because Amanda Ripley is the daughter of Ellen; Oddworld feels desperate and oppressive because we’re cast as a slave who could be turned into a popsicle at any moment.

Oddly enough, the one time I felt really in-sync with The Outer Worlds was in a third attempted playthrough as an unrepentantly duplicitous bastard, lying my way from conversation to conversation without a single care for the consequences. Finally, the Stranger and I were on the same page. Nothing mattered.