In a lot of computer games, moral choices can be reduced to personality tests; they may be interesting dilemmas, but my enduring memory of games even as enjoyable as Mass Effect and Dragon Age is the choices still led you, eventually, to a fight or not a fight and a vaguely equivalent reward. This is not inherently a bad thing, the games still had memorable character moments, and generally hold up well as stories. Even something like The Witcher 3, which does not simply fall into good/bad decisions, generally has a lot of situations where the options are bad/worse and you as a player are not quite sure what will be worse (because the people the characters interact with are irrational, bigoted or stupid). But, nevertheless, it is not for no reason that moral decisions in video games became typecast as “do a good thing for a small reward, or a bad thing for a possibly bigger reward and a fight”; idea like Mass Effect‘s Renegade and Paragon points provided clear mechanical incentives for making choices that were often empathy versus utilitarianism. Bioshock was probably the weakest example of all; there, moral choice was “do you murder someone who looks innocent for immediate fiscal reward, or spare them for a larger reward later”. Hardly an interesting dilemma and almost a purely mechanical one.
Thus one comes to Prey (2017), a game which begins with the most banal of personality/morality tests; a trolley problem (kill one to save many or not?) and a Rorschach blot test (interrupted, admittedly, by alien invasion). Your protagonist is being prepared for a space mission, and has to go through tests clearly nobody is taking seriously, and so you as a player, for whom the trolley problem is a banality, will probably not take it very seriously. When it is then revealed to be a laboratory simulation, being run by apparently nefarious scientists, there is little guilt in not having taken it seriously. So be it. You have greater problems, it turns out, than a sixth-form philosophy question because there are aliens everywhere. And then the real game begins, and turns out at the end to have been the real morality test.
Moral choices in Prey are not dialogue choices, most of the time. They are not “do you want to fight this thing now or later,” or “do you talk this person out of fighting you.” They are “are you going to go out of your way, using up limited resources to fight incredibly annoying enemies, to do something for someone who will probably not live for very long even if you help them?” They are “Is it worth helping people who are possibly unpleasant, who may not like you, whose needs are trivial compared to the crisis at hand?” and “is it worth helping people live in the short term when your long term plan is “destroy this facility?” Survival versus quality of life is an interesting dilemma, for sure, and it is one the game keeps calling you out on. The character of January, a purely utilitarian robot which exists mostly to be an amoral compass, so to speak, is a good foil to basically everything else in the game. When you – should you choose to – help a severely ill woman find medicine so she does not die in pain in a basement, January reminds you that by helping her live a little longer she will be alive to die when you self-destruct the base.
You have plenty of opportunities to save people from immediate danger before you have any plan to get them off a remote space station full of hostile aliens. Video game logic would have you believe, if you want to get the “good ending” (not always by being a genuinely good person), you save everyone. Everyone lives, Dr Who style, the plot will provide the escape. Prey does not offer you an escape for a very long time. The station’s escape pods don’t work. You see a lot of people who died trying to use them. There are no ships – and, indeed, you have the opportunity to kill a shuttle full of escapees who may be harbouring the alien lifeform, a very real version of the trolley problem you are given at the start of the game. And, indeed, there is a cruel arbitrariness to a lot of this. When I played, I managed to completely miss a woman who I had come to think was a pleasant character from her diary, until I received a call from her saying her air had run out and she wanted me to avenge the death of her girlfriend, because she was not going to make it. That was distinctly unpleasant, rather more so a narrative twist than simply “shoot first, ask questions later.” I had not paid adequate attention to crew rosters, not taken the time to check on her status, and as a result she had died because of my negligence before I had even known she was alive. That is the mark of quality in Prey’s moral choices; most of them are hidden, or running on timers the player is not privy to.
I mentioned above that the whole game is a personality test. This is literal. The ending sequence reveals that the player is an alien lifeform being put through a simulation of humanity’s response to the invasion day, to see exactly how the alien mindset views other beings. This could dismissively be called a dream ending. Ultimately it is. But it is a dream ending that nevertheless does something interesting with a tired form; it is the dream of an outsider being forced to imagine themselves in an impossible situation, where the player is completely unaware of the fact it is a dream, and where the dream revelation is used to assess how seriously the player took their situation. You are put, as a player by extension, in front of a panel of the characters you encountered in the dream who discuss not how you stacked up to the person who originally did it all, but to their moral standards. They discuss if you followed orders, if you confessed to crimes you learned you were culpable in, if you tried to save lives.
That is what makes the dream ending work; it is not a dream in the sense that the player woke up and none of it mattered, it is a personality test like the Rorschach blots or the trolley problem, and that test is graded by the examiners. If you played assuming nothing mattered because everyone was doomed or it was just a game or they were bad people who had it coming, then that was the decision you made freely (based, of course, on subconscious genre literacy or general dismissiveness of empathy in fiction). If you played thinking that there was a mechanical reward for being a nice person and you would get a good feeling inside when the credits rolled and everyone had their happy ending, you didn’t get that but you did get told you were capable of basic human decency by a psychologist so that’s something. Prey is a game where the “good ending” is being told you are not an amoral utilitarian bereavement, where the definition of “paragon morality” to quote Mass Effect is going out of your way to be nice (and putting yourself in genuinely awkward situations, not just saying what someone wants to hear.)
Most of the mechanical rewards for moral choices can be found even if you “break” them or are an unpleasant person. They still exist, people still have stuff you can take off them. But you chose to just kill them rather than help them. By making the choices so academic, by making the ending just be a panel of shrinks telling you whether or not you’re possessed of basic decency, Prey makes its moral choices feel a lot weightier than a game which heavily ties being nice to mechanical incentives. If you are only nice, if you can only identify with characters in a game because the game rewards you for doing so, then either you aren’t nice, or the storytelling is so bad you don’t care.