In space, no one can hear you say sh*t
As a fan of the original Prey and Arkane Studios, the team behind its 2017 reboot, nothing excited me more than loading up Prey for the first time and seeing that title screen. But that excitement quickly turned into confusion when I realized that outside of cutscenes, I couldn't hear a single person in the game. The audio, somehow, had bugged. The only sounds heard were the shrieks of my enemies, the creaks of an abandoned spaceship, and my own screams.
Prey begins as a solitary exercise. You awake, alone, with the glistening skyline staring back through your apartment window. A phone call connects within moments, presumably to direct you to your first objective. This is the beginning of a relationship the player has with narration and world building, but for me, no dialogue was emitting from my speakers, and even with subtitles turned on, zero words helped fill in for the audio's loss. I learned quickly that I was alone aboard Talos 1.
I paid a quick visit to the Bethesda forums to see if I was alone. I wasn't. But I was suddenly faced with a choice: take the time to fix this bug and experience the game as designed; or disconnect from Xbox Live, stay in my silent prison, and see how the game changes when you can truly only rely on yourself.
I chose the latter.
It's Arkane's attention to detail that actually made this a completely achievable runthrough.
The following 20 hours was a mix of shock, fear, confusion, and curiosity as I attempted to solve the dozens of mysteries aboard this derelict ship, both personal and alien in nature. It changed the way I play videogames, not just this one, as I'm normally not so precious with my games. I typically listen to podcasts or have a second screen up while I play, but here I found that I needed to pay more attention, not less.
Without verbal cues, I needed to focus on the level design, the hints that filled loading screens, and environmental and creature sounds. It's Arkane's attention to detail that actually made this a completely achievable runthrough: each audio log that contains a safe combination immediately flashed the number sequence at me and the game brought it up again when attempting to crack the associated safe. I knew exactly which type of enemy was where and the most important of information was always recorded in the game's extensive logs. But even the greatest game design can't help when a character is in a life or death situation and only their cries for help can save them.
Take the case of Volunteer V-090655-13, who appears a few hours into the game. He's trapped inside a glass case and, thus far, nothing trapped in a glass case has survived. He's begging me for something, but I don't know what that is until the mission tooltip pops up to ask me to either kill him or set him free. The nearby monitor details his deplorable past, including solicitation of a minor and human trafficking. I wish I could hear what he has to say about the situation, but his emphatic explanation is lost on me. Prey is asking me to make a moral choice, but I don't have enough information.
Luckily, this is where Arkane's decision to forgo an XP progression system really shines because there is no reward for killing him or setting him free. Sure, he may have some common loot I'll otherwise miss, but because I'm not motivated by an experience bar or level gating, I can simply walk away and refuse to partake in this part of the game. That's a choice I may not have been so comfortable with had I heard what the man had to say and how he said it.
While I was fit to live out my days without dialogue, a few instances really shined without the aid of audio. There's a lab in Psychotronics department with sticky notes on every single item that read "Not a mimic!" Save, for, of course, the mimics in the room who are easily identifiable -- or at least would have been, if I didn't start collecting those notes before realizing my mistake.
After a dozen enthralling hours, the game crashes. Passing over the obvious jokes about a Bethesda game crashing, my heart sinks. I hoped my unique trip through Talos wasn't taken from me. Reloading the game, I hop in the menu and immediately activate an older Audio Log, and am relieved to hear nothing at all. The next phone call comes in from whoever has been calling me for 12 hours and still, no audio or subtitles.
Who is it? Who is this person that keeps calling me?
A potential endgame sequence has an intense bundle of conflict. There's a side quest which presents you with an escape pod and a chance to leave early. As I climb into the pod, my phone rings. Who is it? Who is this person that keeps calling me for hours? Is it my brother, the scientist I was tasked with finding? Am I sentencing him to death by escaping? I trudge on, confident in my decision. Another phone call. Is this pod a trap? Am I marching toward doom? The answer turns out to be a mix of both, but it did provide me the single instance of dialogue I could hear before the endgame.
The cutscenes don't suffer the same bug as the in-game experiences, so when a voice boomed through my speakers whispering "This isn't the one," I'm more excited than scared. And then the "Game Over" screen takes over. I still have no idea why any of that happened and (because I had already spoiled myself on a lot of plot details) I know this would be my fate well beyond the game's ending, which puts me in a bit of a space pickle.
Reloading and carrying on with the main story, I find one of the final missions tasks you with finding someone and "hearing them out." I do find them, I "hear" them, and I am just as clueless after as I was prior. Another possible path toward completion results in a main character killing another, for no reason made clear to me. And when the post-game stinger reveals the true nature of yourself, your time on Talos 1, and the fate of the universe, well, I just saw a confusing silent film that ends abruptly and without resolution.
I felt almost nothing for any character I came across. I had no emotional attachment to their plight because I never heard it.
I completed my first playthrough in Prey with more than a dozen unfinished objectives. Normally, that would drive me mad. But this game managed to scare me into not engaging beyond my strict mainline objectives, because the only voices I heard for nearly 20 hours were those of my enemies. By contrast, because the majority of these side objectives were personal (save this person, solve this person's crisis, speak to this person), I felt almost nothing for any character I came across. I had no emotional attachment to their plight because I never heard it.
Still, Prey worked. It worked on so many levels, from weapon diversity and combat encounters to plot reveals and power fantasies. I may not have heard anything any character had to say, but my motivations were clear because I created in the vacuum left in this bug's wake. When 20 hours were over and the game had finished, I could justify all of the decisions I made along my journey. Rarely does that happen for me with any game, in any genre, with any number of chances to hear the game tell me how to think, act, or feel. Prey's achievement as a game is that it shines through even the worst of roadblocks and even gave me perspective on how a hearing-impaired player would feel in a game without subtitles.