What Works and Why: Prey's Intro

Tom Francis, the developer behind Gunpoint, a 2D Stealth Game, compared the opening sequences of Arkane Studios' Prey and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Prey came out firmly on top in that particular comparison. Here's why:

  • Interactive right away.
  • Starting in your apartment gives you a sense of who your character is in this world.
  • Your computer gives you the option of reading more about who you and your brother are, but is optional.
  • The mysteries are big and central to you:
    • Who am I in this world?
    • What is my brother’s work and what’s my part in it?
    • What are these tests for, and why is everyone so surprised I’m doing the obvious solution?
    • For each, you get enough info to speculate but not enough to clear it up, and they’re all intriguing to me.
  • The tests are framed as a thing you must do before you can go to space and Talos 1, treating that as an exciting reward. Going to space is exciting, I relate to this motivation. And it makes it cooler to be there, especially as it comes sooner than you’re led to believe.
  • Waking up as if the day is repeating raises further intriguing questions about your place in this world, especially when it’s quickly shown that it isn’t.
  • Breaking the glass is a great cinematic reveal – the most dramatic action you’ve taken so far is one and the same as the biggest dramatic reveal it gives you.
  • Behind the scenes, all the notes, e-mails and environmental storytelling are interesting because the mysteries they contribute to are a) closely related to you, you’re their test subject, b) emotionally charged – you were being lied to, c) consequential – it matters a lot what was going on here! and d) actually mysterious – I’m their test subject, but also their boss?
    What are they studying and why all this deception if I’m in on it?
  • I didn’t get to it in the vid, but later when you emerge into the lobby, that’s a big, beautiful, visual reveal of a big piece of information – or a satisfying confirmation of what you’ve already twigged through your own investigations.
Mankind Divided
  • Non-interactive intro cut scene.
  • Starts with a news report about a terrorist incident, layered over footage of unknown men attacking other unknown men. Same incident? Seemingly not. Same men? Maybe. What’s this incident? Don’t know yet. Trying to tell two stories at once, and both are just ‘terrorists do bad things’ so far.
  • Long, talky briefing, all tell and no show. We’re going after an arms dealer. He’s selling to some faction. One team is gonna do one thing, I’m gonna… block? An entrance? To keep the Jinn out? Aren’t the Jinn already there? Isn’t that who the deal is with?
  • Also interact with some gizmo in some way that’ll save? Our undercover agent? Why, how, which one was he again?
  • Long, unusually difficult stretch of gameplay with no further explanation. What I do in the level seems unrelated to what the briefing said: I’m not stopping the Jinn getting in, I’m moving through a level beating them up.
  • Peter Serafinowicz and I keep calling each other up to be assholes to each other. I don’t like either of us.
  • Get to the deal. Bad guys are there but other bad guys kill them. I must unplug a helicopter!
  • I don’t know who the gold mask guys are but it doesn’t seem interesting or important. Some bad guys killed some other bad guys over some weapons. The new ones are mysterious, but to be honest I only just met the last faction of bad guys and I still don’t really know who they are, so this new group are not meaningfully different. They’re both just violent people who want weapons, that’s all the plot that’s been communicated after about 30 minutes of talking and fighting. There are unanswered questions, but they’re not consequential, intriguing or related to me.
  • Long credits sequence of disjointed news reports and symbolic imagery.
  • Long conspirator chat that doesn’t clarify anything.
  • Game suddenly goes back into intro mode, with a long non-interactive talky sequence arriving in Prague, ending in another inciting incident with no context: an explosion.
  • In the third of three intros, wake up in your apartment. Some of the augs you didn’t choose are disabled now but some aren’t and you can’t see which ones because that screen is broken until you go and do a mission that’s hard and annoying without knowing what your augs are.

Start from a place that needs no explaining

MD needs you to understand all the factions and political context of an arms deal, and a double-agent within one of them, to make sense of what you’re being asked to do and why you should care. You can’t really show that, so they just have to talk to you about it for 7 full minutes before you can start playing. The result is I didn’t really follow it and I don’t really care. When you wake up in your apartment in Prey, all that really needs saying is that you’re going to work for your brother on a space station. The other stuff you don’t know is fun to figure out.

Unanswered questions are not automatically mysterious

Unanswered question: who are the gold mask guys who kill the other terrorists?
Mystery: why am I waking up as if my day is repeating?

The difference is that this mystery is:
  • Consequential: it matters a lot what the answer is.
  • Personal: the answer will affect my character specifically.
  • Hard to answer: there’s no obvious answer that isn’t interesting in itself.
With the gold mask guys, it’s not clear why it’s important who they are, they have no relation to my character yet, and a very likely answer is very boring: they’re just another group of terrorists who want weapons. If they just didn’t take the weapons, that’d be something to pique some interest – now that boring answer is out, and the best guess is slightly more interesting: maybe they had some personal vendetta against the Jinn? But still, faction-kills-faction is always gonna struggle to rank on those three points.