Prey: Mooncrash is hiding a lot more beneath the surface than its premise lets on. The DLC’s surprise announcement and release at E3 2018 promised an endlessly repeatable, never-repeating experience—a distinctly roguelike take on the first-person shooter genre. That means death resets most of your progress, and while certain character abilities carry over into each individual “run,” total progress resets to zero with every load, along with inventory, item, and enemy placement.
The objective is simple: you need to escape the Moon by any means necessary. That could mean repairing an escape pod or zipping through an alien portal to a shoe store on Earth. While the objective might be different, the basic gameplay in Mooncrash is awfully similar to the core Prey.
Mooncrash is still a first-person shooter where you can sneak, shoot, or use psychic powers to get past goopy aliens called “Typhon.” You still rifle your way through garbage cans and shipping containers for bullets and expired snack cakes. And, perhaps most interestingly, you still get to explore Prey’s unusual alternate timeline, through from a very different perspective than that in the main game.
The first game presented its alternate universe—where JFK was never assassinated and corporations are somehow even more all-powerful—through the eyes of the corporate elite. Mooncrash has you instead playing as a contractor, working to escape those corporate overlords by playing and replaying a violent simulation to their arbitrary satisfaction.
See, your player character isn’t actually on a Moon base. They’re strapped into a simulation of the facility after its fallen to an alien outbreak, an obvious extension of Prey’s ridiculous twist ending. This time, the conceit works. Since Mooncrash starts with the simulation as its premise instead of a last-second rug pull, it has the time necessary to support the DLC’s plot rather than undercut it.
Close to home on the Moon
Mooncrash’s new take on this “fantasy” hit all to close to home for me, in the way that Prey’s boring, featureless aliens never really did. A certain unease still settles over me between every “virtual reality” run. It’s the same unease more and more workers feel every day as parts of the world slip further into the gig economy and unregulated spec work.
Breaking from the cycle of corporate exploitation isn’t as easy as prepping an escape pod. There’s always another gig to take you away from the things you love—assuming you want to eat.
Mooncrash isn’t even subtle about the connection between cyclical themes and repetitive gameplay. One of the only readable books in your isolated space pod is a copy of The New Pharaohs. It’s a fictional text from Prey proper that details just how bad work conditions have become in this mirror world.
Occasionally, as you fight for your survival in this corporate dystopia, the corporation that hired you will send photos of your family. The “reward” inherent in such images drips with preemptive malice. It’s there to remind your character what they’re working for—and by extension, what they’ve already been denied access to by an abusive contract.
But it’s not just a personal connection to gig work that make Mooncrash’s winks and nods resonate. It’s hard not to draw parallels between the silent protagonist’s plight and that of many game developers. Game making as a whole is so especially rife with exploitative work conditions that the practice gets its own special, cutesy name. Time taken away from family is just one oft-cited consequence of the so-called “crunch.”
A particular set of skills
I doubt Mooncrash is a secret cry for help from the game’s developers (at least not entirely). Regardless, developer Arkane Studios has a proven talent for add-ons that are even better than the main game. Although I wouldn’t put this expansion up there with Death of the Outsider, it borrows one of that product’s best lessons: each of five playable characters that your playable character embodies in the simulation has unique, limited skill sets.
This massages the problem of creative choice so often seen in the original Prey. That game was at its best when it presented a locked room full of life-saving goodies. If my computer skill wasn’t high enough to hack the door open, I’d have to find a key. That meant figuring out whose office I was breaking into, reading email threads between long-dead scientists, and tracking down their corpses.
Or maybe I had a high enough strength skill to stack boxes up to the room’s vent? Better yet: the shape-shifting skill is great for morphing into a coffee cup and rolling through broken windows. The possibilities weren’t endless, but they were varied enough that every puzzle box felt like it had multiple viable angles to attack. The trick (and the fun) was finding those angles.
But in Prey proper I eventually had enough skill points to bypass any obstacle anyway I liked. The challenge of making a grand entrance faded as my character became more powerful. By contrast, Mooncrash divvies its skills between classes. The engineer can repair broken doorways, but isn’t as good with psychic powers as the scientist, for instance.
The relative lack of power and resources fits snugly into Mooncrash’s blending of oppressive themes and inventive gameplay. The simulation subjects aren’t corporate overlords themselves: they’re prisoners and blue-collar workers. One is literally a janitor with no special skills but with unique access to extremely useful items.
In a neat twist on the genre, you can even play as multiple characters in the same run. That lets you set up subsequent characters with better gear and half-solved puzzles that lead to otherwise unattainable escape routes. It’s like single-player co-op—and I can’t help but think of how it mirrors the real-world practice of low-power groups supporting each other to reach a common goal.
Yet there’s always that unspoken dread of bumping back to the DLC’s frame narrative. Mooncrash has an overall win condition (escape with every survivor in a single run), but the trajectory of my silent protagonist is less clear. Even if the DLC ends on another sci-fi twist, and the lone contractor does flee, there’s no simple escape hatch for all the other fictional people who are looking to the Mooncrash simulation for a momentary reprieve from the endless, benefit-free grind of the “real world.”
It’s not the aliens that scare me in Mooncrash. It’s not the fear of death, which went out the window the first time I died and respawned to try all over again. What scares me is the lack of an ending. The idea of being trapped in an endless, unsatisfying cycle is—well, unfortunately, it’s not that hard to imagine at all. Prey: Mooncrash just never lets me forget about it. And that’s a much more potent thing to fear than some oily monsters.
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