Fear often lays dormant in the shadows—a fear of the unknown and unseen, an elevated sense of our own insecurities and paranoia, personified in the peering eyes and sharp claws of our nightmares. Fear is just out of sight, but never out of mind.
It is a formula often used in horror cinema, which allows you, as an audience member, to elevate that fear by hinting at the presence of a danger off-screen. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws used this to excellent effects, as the all-encompassing ocean allowed for the shark to be anywhere at any time. Forty-five years later, we are still seeing the technique of unseen horror used commonly in cinema, but a new medium of entertainment has also adopted the method.
Where film offers a layer of disconnect due to its on-rails format, video games reconnect with the power of interactivity. Suddenly we are no longer egging on Brody to shoot the shark, because we have the gun in our hands. With a sweaty grip on the controller, you are all that stands between those shadowy threats and a proposed death.
When we talk about the fear of our surroundings within games, you will likely think of something like Dead Space or Resident Evil 2. Whether it’s the light of your plasma cutter revealing the atrocities of the USSG Ishimura, or perhaps the stomping of Mr. X acting as a constant reminder that something is out there, every corner is a potential death sentence. The possibility of their presence is often what scares the most, as our imaginations run rampant with the fears of sneaky necromorphs and skull-crushing T-virus experiments.
Now, what if you were to take that premise of unseen horror and camouflage it in obscurity, a horror that is hidden by its self-effacing everydayness yet becomes all the more effective because of it?
Well, dialing our clocks forward to 2035 and blasting off to a moon-orbiting spacecraft, you may find this to be exactly the case in Arkane Studios’ Prey, a sci-fi shooter that somehow manages to make a coffee cup scarier than a towering enemy literally titled “Nightmare.”
The premise to Prey is pretty simple: a space station, an alien outbreak, and a lone survivor. You get the drill. Yet that, coupled with some superb world-building, helps Prey manage to stand out with its designs of the alien Typhon. You have the aforementioned Nightmares, the light flickering Phantoms, and even radiated Cystoids. Yet Prey’s scariest enemy is its smallest. The Mimics may seem relatively tame, but they have a small trick up their inky-black sleeves. You see, the Mimics are fast, tend to come in little packs and, oh, they can disguise themselves as any object they please.
Creeping through the despondent hallways of Talos One—the once great Neuroscience research station—a restless sense of paranoia starts to permeate its way deep into your core. After watching a man have the life drained out of him by a pack of Mimics, and a wrench-thumping encounter with an unassuming office chair, you are on edge. Your eyes dart over every tipped bin, every misplaced projector and oddly situated coffee cup. You begin to question items that you see in your everyday life. With the telling rattle emitted from a nearby hidden Mimic, you sit alert, readying your trusty wrench, becoming hyper aware of how surrounded you truly are by potentially life-threatening objects. It is the ultimate embodiment of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
There are bigger threats looming around the various departments of Talos One as mentioned, and they too occasionally spark a pang of fear into players. Yet Arkane smartly manages to amplify this sense of unseen horror originating from the Mimics, by linking it directly with its gameplay—and it is all to do with recycling.
Looking at Prey as the pseudo-horror sci-fi that it is, you wouldn’t expect recycling to be such a huge part of the game’s eco-system. Yet, lo and behold—dependent on difficulty—ammunition is scarce and resource management is key. In steps the recycling systems, which can repurpose the junk lying around Talos One into resources used to craft ammunition, weapons, and upgrades. By making the collection of junk, which can be found in every nook and cranny of the space station, essential to your survival, Arkane manages to push players towards the confinements of Mimic-infested offices and labs.
This results in players exploring their surroundings with a constant cautious approach. Each time you get too comfortable, you will be knocked down a few pegs by a petri dish you tried to stuff in your pack. Even dozens of hours into the game, Mimics can still get the jump on you, as you charge up your swing and strike the wrong microscope, resulting in a blow to health, and the panicked thrashing of your wrench hoping to hit its shots before stamina depletes.
Prey and its creation of the Mimics may not be the most overt example of horror, yet three years on it remains firmly in my mind as an experience that not only scared me when I least expected it, but also influenced how I played the game. It mixed up the pacing as I was running from Phantoms one minute, and then trying to decide which items had intentions to kill me the next. Through the medium of video games, Prey effortlessly amplifies that fear found in a film like Jaws by placing you in control. You may be able to adjust its framing to try and uncover its horrors, yet this enemy is hidden so deeply in plain sight, that you will edge your way through its setting, expecting it to strike at any and every moment.