Before Prey officially begins, I’m asked to choose if I want my avatar, Morgan, to be a man or a woman. The two versions appear side-by-side in splitscreen, dressed identically in red spacesuit retro future chic and staring into a camera that represents their respective bathroom mirrors. I can make my selection immediately, but if I wait, the Morgans begin to examine their right eyes which soon turn a concerning, mysterious red. Red eyes are a minor story point in Prey, an unfortunate side effect of injecting neuromods (the game’s upgrade system) through the eyeballs, but in the process of highlighting that redness, the game also calls attention to the distinct slant of the Morgans’ eyelids. Though Prey begins with a gender choice, there’s one thing set in stone no matter which avatar I choose: Morgan Yu is Asian.
This may not seem like a big deal for a medium that places such heavy emphasis on what comes out of Japan. Nobody blinks at an E3 conference’s English-subtitled trailers, and plenty of games feature Japanese settings, even if many are populated by ambiguous anime faces. In the broadest possible sense, Asian people have plenty of ways to see themselves in videogames unless, like me, you don’t feel particularly at home in these settings. I grew up in the Midwest to a Vietnamese mother and a white father, and try as I might with games like Japan-based Yakuza or Hong Kong-set Sleeping Dogs, I can’t call them fully representative of my own experience. Videogames lack what so many other mediums also lack: Asian characters who don’t hail from predominantly Asian countries, who have their ethnicity portrayed in concrete, specific ways that an all-encompassing character creator could never replicate.
I had doubts about Prey, because after making my choice (the male), Morgan’s face disappears behind the first-person camera perspective. Even when I go into the bathroom and stare in the mirror again, I never get his face to appear there, in the shower door, or in any reflective surface. Person of color though he may be, Morgan seems to disappear into the homogeneous void of first-person shooter protagonists, unable to challenge social norms because gloved hands clutching a shotgun claim no specific ethnicity. He becomes, essentially, the race-less entity on the very cover of the game where a space helmet obscures his (or her) face.
But Prey neatly sidesteps the problem of representing an Asian character in a first-person videogame by supplying other reminders of what he’s supposed to look like. Morgan’s brother Alex (even voiced by an Asian actor, Benedict Wong) is a prominent figure in the plot and appears early on—it’s tough to forget race with the protagonist’s big Asian blood-relative running around. After another hour or two of play, I encounter the videos Morgan made for himself. He talks right into the camera, going over important details with a face that looks like mine, a face that’s meant to be mine. He squashes the notion of an ambiguous “you”; he is, instead, a Yu.
That’s not to say Prey, positive as its portrayal is, entirely escapes cliché. It’s true that Morgan, a capable figure who’s even blessed with Handsome Action Hero Stubble, avoids the stereotype of a meek, sexless, socially awkward Asian male, but he remains a scientist. His role as the game’s hero, as the one with all the answers, places him as the scientist with quite a formidable intellect, and this recalls entrenched tropes of Asians as the people with the best grades who enroll early into college because of their overbearing parents who probably make them play the violin. In context, Morgan’s position makes sense; his intellect drives the plot, so he’s not just a guy hitting stuff with a wrench who happens to be a scientist. But even so, I find myself wondering how much of a role Morgan’s job played when defining his ethnicity, especially when Prey also features the trademark Overbearing Parents that Alex fears reporting failure to. After all, it’s their Asian father (James Hong) and not their white mother who makes the cold, calculated decision to kill both Morgan and Alex for their failure in the ultimate rejection of Asian children who don’t live up to parental standards.
However, Prey otherwise takes a considered approach to race. You can see it best in Morgan’s apartment, where his Chinese heritage intermingles with other aspects of his life instead of overpowering them. He owns a book about cooking with a wok, but the thing itself is presumably stashed in one of the cupboards instead of laying around to prove to the player how Asian he is. And that’s not the only cookbook he owns, either—another goes over the culinary benefits of gluing chicken skin to salmon. He keeps a book on T’ang dynasty verse but also others on neuroscience, electronics, deep space. The bamboo steamer in his kitchen sits next to a coffee maker. The shelf in his closest holds red envelopes from Chinese New Year and a Great Wall postcard as well as postcards from Austin, Texas and the Kennedy Space Center. In a later return to his apartment, I find a stack of pizza boxes to accompany the dim sum and Udon noodles in his cupboards. For players in a hurry, these nods to Morgan’s heritage are easy to overlook, and that’s the way it should be—his ethnicity is just one facet of who he is, so there’s no need to advertise by making his place overtly exotic, by decorating it like a temple or playing the kind of ambient music you’d hear in a Chinese restaurant.
As voiced by Tim Kang (or Sumalee Montano as a woman), Morgan does not speak with a distinct accent. Not only does this decision play directly to my own experience as an Asian-American, but it encapsulates how well Prey navigates the potential minefield of portraying an Asian protagonist. Growing up, I fielded constant requests to speak Chinese or Japanese, to tell people where I really came from; the general perception of an Asian person is as a foreigner regardless of where they grew up. So much of the U.S. media bends to this perception when it bothers to portray Asians at all—too often, the characters who represent us hold different values, speak other languages, get better grades, come from far-off places when compared to “regular” people. They grumble about honor. Sometimes they’re awkward and/or meek to emphasize how different they are, how foreign. They are defined by being Asian, which is to say they are made into a separate entity from what’s considered ordinary, American society.
There’s nothing wrong with an Asian character who does, in fact, come from an Asian country, but it contributes to a depressing, tiresome dearth of representation for the alternative. Prey never directly grapples with race. Morgan never faces any discrimination, never hears any cracks about how good he is at math. Instead, though it brushes up against some racial tropes, Prey does something just as brave: without erasing Morgan’s heritage, it lets us see the face of an Asian protagonist as just another face. And that makes all the difference.
Steven Scaife is a writer based out of the Midwest. He writes about games, movies, and other stuff people told him was a waste of time at his blog and @midfalutin.