Note: this post was first published on December 16, 2017 on my original website.
In the first place, it's a game made by developers who know their genre so perfectly that they are able to subvert, manipulate, and interrogate their players' expectations. The mimic--the alien that can turn into anything in your environment--is a perfect example. Prey's genre is about clearing out or stealthing into areas and then looting them blind. Prey ensures that that act never feels safe. In my case, I couldn't help but smile every time one of these guys blind-sided me. I outright laughed the first time I opened fire on an ordinary trash can in a fit of paranoia.
But there's more than that at play; it knows you won't trust anything or anyone, so it goes ahead and says "this isn't trustworthy, this is an illusion."
The game quickly peels back the curtain on those tests and reveals that they were a trick. The test environment was never real. You've been in space for years, repeating these tests for who knows how long, having your memory repeatedly wiped.
It's a brilliant trick: confess to a small lie to hide a bigger lie.
In fact, the real test has just begun. As you explore Prey's derelict space station, the characters and situations you encounter are rich enough in context that you probably won't notice how they push you to examine your ethics, the limits of your empathy. In context, the problem changes. When you're talking about 'real' people.
Of course, none of these people are real. It is just a video game, after all. And Prey knows that, too.
This is why, thematically, Prey 2017's ending works. At the end, there is a second curtain, a second reveal showing that even this more elaborate world, the one that seemed "real" to you was just an extension of that original test.
The purpose of the test? To try to answer the question of whether empathy can be learned. In the story, the question concerns whether a species of alien thought to be without empathy can be made to empathize so strongly with humans that they do everything in their power to preserve human life.
But the question it's really asking is: can video games teach us anything? Or are they just abstractions like the trolley problem of the original test section. No stakes, therefore limited as a moral tool?
Here, perhaps the outcry the ending produced can point us to an answer. The chief complaint about Prey's ending was that it undermined the player's choices: if none of it was real, none of it mattered.
To which I think Prey would say, "You knew this wasn't real when you started."