When the Void Stares Back: Prey, Post-Humanism and Mental Illness

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When the Void Stares Back: <i>Prey</i>, Post-Humanism and Mental Illness

This article contains spoilers for the videogame Prey and for the person Brock Wilbur.

Prey is a videogame about a person trapped in a reality that keeps changing on them, struggling to overcome a series of constantly shifting truths, while learning that absolutely anything in their world could be out to destroy them. A coffee cup may turn into a tentacled burst of violence in the form of unfathomable shade. Allies and family members will turn into villains and your greatest fears will be all that you can depend upon to remain consistent. The hero’s own voice may be crafting a narrative to be used against them, via events and recordings that they don’t remember or maybe never made in the first place. While trapped in this location, surrounded by infinite void on all sides, the main character must either reject the horrific mistakes of their past as outright lies or accept their sins, making amends or choosing to lean into the power and freedom of their new role as the villain.

This is also how it feels to be bipolar. I know that now, because I was diagnosed while I was playing the game.

Perhaps I should’ve known something was up when I sunk 100 hours into Prey in the first few days of release. (I don’t give more than two hours to most games these days because, you know, The World.) But Prey was connecting with me on a level that made me feel both terrified and right at home. Sure, maybe the closest to the skittering and clawing of hidden monsters for my life is the sound of my cat being a lunatic in the night. But the role of unreliable narrator in a world populated only by unreliable narrators was landing with me in a manner that went beyond the obvious “Narrative Twists Are Coming” of modern game storytelling. My friends seemed to think the game was “fine” whereas I was actively bailing on responsibilities to spend more time in that world—long after I’d run out of main quest things I was supposed to do.

But a considerable part of that may, and stay with me here, rely on me being a shit person with a shit brain doing shit things to him as a hilarious joke.

In October of last year, I burst into a friend’s apartment and shouted for hours about a treasure map. Good Christ, that hurts to admit out loud, and I’m a stand-up comedian. Yeah, uh, I cornered a friend and ranted about where I knew a hidden treasure was buried—or thereabouts—and then disappeared into the night. She’d partied with me before and had the perspective of knowing that I wasn’t drunk or high or anything else that might be considered a Brock Standard, so she called my fiancée the next day to let her know. And then I went to the hospital, because having not remembered a multi-hour treasure extravaganza, I too needed to know what was happening—especially if I had a split personality that secretly knew the location of some buried goddamned treasure. I don’t know if you’ve seen Los Angeles rental prices lately, but I need some cursed pirate pieces of eight to make ends meet.

For the first time in my adult life, I did blood tests, and the results of those blood tests amounted to saying “Something is terribly wrong but we’re not sure what.” So I embarked on a nearly year-long process of bouncing between various specialists who each announced, unequivocally, that they’d highlighted what had gone FUGAZI in my blood. Maybe four different times, I broke down crying because we’d finally solved The Brock Problem. And every time I was wrong.

By the time I was sitting down to the launch night of Prey, parts of my life were irrevocably fucked. Not that this was overnight by any means; looking back on the last ten years of my life is looking back on an innumerable series of situations where I was shocked to learn that my best friends were suddenly never going to return my calls again. It took, and I cannot ever thank her enough for this, a goddamned decade for someone to tell a loved one close to me what happened when Good Brock became Dougie Brock. Most people just disappeared, and that meant I never learned what or why the disconnect happened. I could be plagued by guilt, but baseless guilt is just sort of the FernGully slime from which self-destruction is fueled.

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In the months just before Prey’s release, I was bouncing between a half-dozen doctors. Each doctor had a different sure-fire answer to where these memory black-outs and disconnects were stemming from. I started one medication. I started six medications. I started a very aggressive hormone therapy, of all goddamned things, that wound up leaving me feeling both a decade older and a decade younger than I am, but not solving any of my problems. And often times, I was asked by friends and loved ones if there was even a problem to be solved, or was I throwing myself against a brick-wall because someone somewhere told me I had messed up?

Then I started into Prey. The game is actually based on an unrelated intellectual property from a previous console generation wherein a Native American remembers a generational history of his people embedded in his DNA that allows him to defeat a murderous alien race that employs both Portal guns and the actress Mila Kunis to equally terrible affect. I’d loved that original game, but of course this new property had nothing in common except for aliens and bullshit. Unless you consider my ability to tap into the secrets hidden in my blood and use them to extraordinary effect. (This does not happen.)

The new Prey follows Morgan Yu (either a male or female character on account of, you get it, Morgan) whose brother has condemned them to a series of a tests. What seems like a co-operative scientific environment soon descends into death and destruction and there is some question about whether you are an individual at all or just another rat in this maze. As the curtain pulls back, you find yourself trapped on an elaborate space station, where aliens that have the ability to mimic any object have murdered almost everyone and intend to murder you. You have…. A wrench? And a desire not to die. And that might be enough.

As you begin to piece together the mystery of what happened on this space station, it is obvious that your brother is against you, but so is everything else. Spotting where these “mimics” hide becomes an almost comedic experience—why are there three shoes at the edge of this room? Why does everything in this room have a paranoid sticky-note saying “not a mimic” on it except for this one microscope? Maybe I should slowly approach that microscope—-OH FUCK OH FUCK wrench wrench wrench wrench Heavy Breathing.

There’s a proud history in games of doing terrible things to your genetic code in pursuit of super-powers. Far Cry makes you into some-kind of Cat Person that even Bowie wouldn’t fuck with, and Bioshock gives you syringes that re-write your code so that you can light cigarettes by snapping your fingers—and light all other motherfuckers the same way. But something about Prey goes very different very quickly.

See, in Prey we’re dealing with Cool Future Science, and the basis of this is a device that can inject you with any skill set that science can synthesize. This only exists on this space station you and your brother run, but imagine it: this is not the ability to fly or make heads explode. This is stealing the skill of the greatest pianist in the world and shooting sixty years of talent directly into your veins. This is becoming a better athlete, not from steroids, but from stealing the knowledge embedded in muscle memory, and using it to jump higher. This is being less of a fuck-up because you stole it from someone better’s blood. This is Talented Mr. Ripley-ing your endocrine system.

When you’re filling syringes with hormones and complementing them with a handful of psychoactive mood stabilizers, it is impossible to tell the Blade Runner future from the terrible present that you’re suffering.

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There’s a lot of post-humanism dick-tease that happens in games like these. The idea being that you steal science or portals or drugs or blood from a certain target and use it to improve yourself. That’s… part of Prey. A game like Bioshock wants to hinge on whether you’ll sacrifice your humanity, but it actually demands it. It becomes nigh impossible to progress in any entry in that series without giving in to exactly what specifications of Ubermensch are required to proceed. You can’t really hope to survive without shooting bees out of your hands or going all Mr. Freeze on all the screamy bros around you.

Prey gives you that option. You can absolutely mix and match both human and alien talents, skills and downright super-powers until you are an unkillable God just killing time while also killing animate material. But this is not the way the game wants you to play, as a set of very different achievements inform you. “Split Affinity” rewards you for playing the game once with only Typhon (alien) powers and again only using human upgrades. The achievement “No Needles” rewards you for playing through the game a third time with no upgrades from either side.

Normally, despite my achievement whoring nature, I would not give in to these demands. And on my first run of the game, I didn’t. I made myself that aforementioned God and blasted through the world. My replays, following these guidelines, were when I found my true love for Prey. See, human injections give you the skills you need to hack computers, make guns, expand ammunition, recycle materials, and expand your strength, speed, and awareness. Human abilities allow you to overcome human problems and the limitation of your human body. The Typhon abilities allow you to adapt and hide in plain sight, to use mental projection to explode your enemies or bend them to your will, or to escape from any situation using teleportation. That last one makes the easiest comparison between the two skill sets: do you want to run quickly between points A and B like a human, or do you want to teleport like a Typhon? And as a human using neither system of upgrade, well, you’re as weak and embarrassing as a human should be in this situation.

It was in these divided playthroughs that I learned more about how to think of myself and my brain problem. As a human with no changes, no superpowers or detriments, you can still make it through Prey. It has far less, shall we say, flair? There are no highs or lows in gameplay on nearly the scale I was used to. It was normal. It was disappointing. On the Human Enhancement playthrough, I saw how self-improvement could make life easy. You don’t necessarily earn your upward mobility here, but at least it makes sense. Then there was the Typhon Only playthrough. In this one, an alien DNA is changing the very make-up of your body and thoughts and that adjustment has no patience for your humanity. Maybe it is not inherently evil, but it does stem from a place that seems unrecognizable. And the powers you acquire, as indicated by the teleportation, are all about hiding, deceit, and, more damningly, shortcuts.

One of the hardest parts about accepting a diagnosis of Idiot Lying Brain is finding a way to dig back up and re-evaluate every story you can remember (or half-remember) about a time you were not you—and be honest with yourself about it. In which situations were you a totally aware human being who made bad, petty or cruel choices? In which situations were you under the influence and at best in the co-pilot role? Obviously, neither of these situations are the kinds of things you can explain away or sweep under a rug with an excuse of mental unrest. Important, but not off the list. Then it becomes about plowing through texts, emails, DMs and such from people you mostly don’t speak to anymore. Taking stock requires trying to believe everything that anyone has ever said about you in your life, whether you thought they were wrong, or lying, or deliberately trying to destroy you. (Oh, you don’t have that last category? That’s… for the best.)

There’s always a solution, no matter your situation. Where there’s a will, you don’t have to die alone.

This is all to say that if Prey’s Typhon powers are all about deceit and shortcuts, what you’ll soon discover upon re-examining your entire life is that nothing could be more human than tricking yourself into erasing every detail that could complicate the image of how you want to be seen. As someone who fetishized David Carr’s The Night of the Gun (a book about exploring your brain’s fake history from a journalist’s perspective) I suppose I was damned to do this eventually. No matter how you might come to taking this on, it sucks. I promise. What unravels first is all of the shortcuts. When you realize easy, how second hand, how Your Nature you’ve made the process of ignoring even the mildest criticism… well, those shortcuts are now forever off-limits to you. If you want to change.

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There are plenty of games where the improvements to your body and talents come with the implication that your humanity is also deteriorating, as noted earlier regarding the tentpole series for this: Bioshock. What Prey does differently is to make this dehumanization an active element in gameplay on a scale that only the Fallout games could grapple with.

The world can tell there is something wrong with you, and the world stops trusting you. As it should.

When you start injecting alien DNA into your body in Prey, people in the game start trusting you less. Turrets and other human defense systems on the space station start recognizing you as an enemy, even if you’re the one who builds and deploys them. Few things have shocked me more in games than spending ten minutes building a wall of anti-alien defense weapons, only to turn them on and have them murder me because I was not hiding My Darkness as well as I’d hoped. The scanner saw into me, and I know what it saw, because I’ve been looking for it too.

I thought a lot about those turrets, which were charged with morality in neither direction on the spectrum, and how they still knew after my very first paltry chromosome misstep that I no longer belonged. I thought about my friend who once went from drunkenly collapsing mid-Guitar Hero song on my couch to not returning my calls in the space of a summer. I thought about my friend who pretended to be out of town because they no longer knew how to talk to me. I thought about my friend who said “I know you need a friend right now but I can’t be that friend” and then got me fired from a gig I’d worked to get them hired for. I thought about my friend who I provided constant emotional support for until they knew I was lost, who now speaks of our friendship as if they were the victim of a terrible trick. I thought about the friend who I’d loved like a sister who had to go after I screamed about treasure maps and imaginary sleights. I thought about a handful of people who I just never heard back from.

What’s wrong with me if I blame the turrets I built?

The world can tell there is something wrong with you, and the world stops trusting you. As it should.

The thing about turrets is that they also turn on you as soon as you do wrong. Whereas people do not. The people I counted on to correct me when I started making mistakes just stood there and watched—or laughed about it. It’s hard to be a turret when you’re complicit and it’s hard to know how far you’ve traveled from the path you chose when no one even thinks of stopping, or even delaying, you. In that way, maybe I would be thankful for turrets if they did their job instead of just looking the part.

But the flip side of all this is that everyone has their own version of the events. If dealing with bipolar means accepting that you have been an unreliable narrator, moving on with your life involves recognizing that everyone else has the potential to be an unreliable narrator too, and if your best interest isn’t in their heart, fuck ‘em.

Within the confines of Prey’s space station, the Talos I, you can go anywhere and do anything. As you explore a world littered with corpses, your only audience are the victims of actions you don’t remember choosing but must now take responsibility for. As you talk to survivors, listen to recordings, and uncover buried backstory you can—at best—dismiss the pain you’ve inflicted as passive. At some point, even in a tale of erased and re-formatted memories, denial can only go so far. The earlier that you accept tangential proof, the earlier you can do something about it. And this isn’t just a past tense issue—I killed a lot of people aboard the Talos I that I did not have to. Some were on weird revenge principle. One was a guy that I could just never navigate the sub-menus appropriately to free from his mind control, so instead I just kept blowing up his head no many how many save games I reloaded. There’s an achievement for making it through the game without murdering a human. I do not have that achievement. The earlier you accept your shortcomings, the earlier you can do something about it.

What do you do about it? I have no idea. I’m just trying everything.

My writing hero, and now writing partner, is also bipolar. Nathan Rabin details in his book You Don’t Know Me but You Don’t like Me that his doctor handed down his evaluation while Nathan was in the midst of chasing both Phish and Insane Clown Posse around the country and engaging in some moderate to high drug use that could not be curbed—for journalism purposes. Like almost everyone I know in comedy and writing, finding out about the presence of a mood disorder is greeted with acceptance and an agreement to try medication that might save your life—only to see it abandoned as soon as it impedes on the creative process. One of my favorite female comics of all time once admitted that to avoid being forced onto medication for bipolar, she just made notes to avoid the obvious red alerts—“If you shower every day, you won’t get institutionalized.”

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Within the game, using Typhon powers, you can create a copy of yourself that tricks enemies. You also have a device that scans monsters and reveals their strengths and weaknesses. When you scan the copy of yourself, the following information comes up:

Strength: Devastating beauty
Weakness: Toxic family
Immunity: I wish
Resistance: Good advice

My entire lifetime’s interaction with mood disorders has just been learning how everyone I trust shortcuts around them. No one ever spoke out loud about how to, you know, take responsibility. Why would we? It isn’t entertaining. Just like how the “No Needles” playthrough is slow, meticulous and feels like work. To quote the “Pickle Rick” episode of Rick & Morty: “You seem to alternate between viewing your own mind as an unstoppable force and as an inescapable curse. And I think it’s because the only truly unapproachable concept for you is that it’s your mind within your control.” And then Susan Sarandon yells at a pickle. This is very important to me. But maybe not as important to the piece.

Maybe that’s the biggest betrayal in this reveal? Should I have never tied the worst experience of my life to a “fun” game? I can’t help that. It’s a matter of timing. I, too, have a terrible time relating former best friends to automated gun turrets in a shooty space game. Believe me, I would’ve picked something more literary, just in case I had to go out on it, or to at least make the people who weathered through this with me have something better to point to than a coffee cup alien blaster. For that, and most other things, I am truly sorry.

I take a pill now at night. It makes me very tired very quickly, and honestly that’s fixed a solid third of my problems because I’m not DM’ing random people at 3 AM with incoherent questions from a brain that hasn’t slept in a week. I don’t disappear for days on end to rewrite books in my own serial killer handwriting. I’m not waking up my wife to explain how sad I am that I had “a solution for zeppelins while I was dreaming” that I tragically cannot sketch out now. I take a pill and I’m not sending emails from an anonymous account as I inquire about careers as a professional hitman. Shit. Writing it all out, I realize how close I was to not being able to fix this.

My doctor tells me that most people don’t accept this diagnosis until they’ve been arrested at least once. My doctor tells me that it’s not my fault that a year of rotating specialists missed the mark by so far. My doctor tells me that it’s going to be okay as he takes two prescriptions from another shrink and tears them up (with my permission) because we both believe I’m done missing the mark.

Two weeks later I call that shrink, just to let him know our time together is done, because he made things much worse for me by getting this wrong. He doesn’t take it personally. He’s actually annoyingly honest: “Look, everyone I met post last-November I worry I got wrong. We’re all wrong.” So yeah, you aren’t alone, reader.

I reached a point where I couldn’t deny that something was wrong, and I hid in a videogame that coincidentally wouldn’t let me hide. My wife and my friends and my family were there, but for stupid timing reasons a System Shock successor made me face the flawed programming inside of my veins. I’m slightly annoyed by the choice, but I have so much I owe to the folks who extrapolated a darkness I couldn’t reflect in my own life—so I could start the process of rebuilding myself as someone safe, good and real.

On Talos I, you can run. You can open an airlock and jettison into space. You can embrace a silent darkness, shut out everything you’ve been told, and pretend. But even out here, even at the borders of where mankind can venture, there are floating corpses of your past—dragging, wrapped around advertisements, leaking from shuttles. Beyond the edge of your world, your mistakes still haunt you, as they will into whatever form your next life/reality takes. The people you’ve betrayed, in a post-human world, will live forever in new forms that judge you for your every choice.

Here, in the inky void, I realize why so few of the super-powers in this game seemed important to unlock. Maybe the most brutal super-power of all is just a fleeting glimpse of self-control. I would do terrible things to master it, and maybe that’s why it alludes me.

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There is one final detail of Prey that sums up the entire experience, and how I see my internal battle now. In this game, there is a monster called The Typhon Nightmare. At random points, a small box will appear in the corner of the screen that simply reads “The Nightmare Is Hunting You.” This is the warning you get. This is the only warning you get. Suddenly, and usually from right behind you, a multi-story pulsating inter-dimensional shape without shape will materialize. It is pure fear and oh Christ does it hate you. The first time I encountered it, I shouted because it was so large it filled the largest open space in the game. It was so terrible it felt like cheating. And because my computer had never scanned it before, my HUD displayed its name as “?????”

If you manage to survive your first encounter with Prey’s nightmare, you’re warned that the Nightmare will return, and find you no matter where you hide. If you complete a side-quest, you gain the ability to control a radio wave connected to a satellite outside the station. In the future, you can use this signal to draw the Nightmare away from you. Or. Or. Or you can use the signal to call the Nightmare to you, wherever you are, to make sure it finds you and fucks with you immediately.

When I first unlocked this device, I laughed, because why would anyone intentionally ring for darkness personified as a gentleman caller? And then I started calling the Nightmare all the time. Wherever it could fit, I wanted to see it, and destroy it, and reap my plentiful rewards from bringing down the inevitable, the impossible, the big infinite. This was exactly when I realized I had a Nightmare which had sporadically taken the wheel inside of me for more than a decade. I got pissed, and I started to call it directly to me. Sure, therapy and writing and groups and meds were less fun than a shotgun or shooting lightning out of my brain, but I kept calling it. And I kept killing it. And I kept reaping the rewards.

What does it mean to call the Nightmare? Sometimes, I worry that it means I’m embracing the invitation to become a Nightmare—to do whatever I want, whatever I feel I deserve, and the world owes me this freedom because, by God, I earned it. I worry about that call. The rest of the time, I call the Nightmare because I believe I can win.

And I’m winning.

I know it’s easy to roll an eye at this. Sure, not everyone finds out about the rebellion inside their source code while playing a AAA title that perfectly reflects how stupid they’ve been for way too long. I know it’s not the most mental health positive take, because it sounds like I was unaware that I was an ‘80s cartoon villain except I swapped bank robberies for interpersonal relationships. Perhaps I’m a little too bleak about that, especially when I only see myself reflected in the formless unstoppable killing machine. I should pull that back.

I’m not a villain. I’m not a victim. I am a human being adjusting to a situation beyond my control. I’m taking responsibility. I’m not taking shortcuts. But also I’m moving forward in a story and I can’t lose everything into the past. I’m inviting the darkness to meet me head on. And most importantly, I would’ve done this years ago if I had a single person in my life who talked about it on healthy terms. If I knew that it was a good, manly, necessary thing to pursue mental self-care and professional evaluation, maybe I could’ve skipped four emergency room trips or, more punishingly, the vanishing nature of everyone I depended upon.

I wish I knew. I wish my bloodline knew before me. I wish it didn’t take coffee cup monsters to make me take myself seriously. I hope someone reading this gets started before you’re looking into the void and laughing when it stares back.

Prey ends in a moment where, divorced from the reality of everything you’ve undergone, your player-character is plucked into a new reality and faced with all of their choices in a very Defend Your Life showdown. Even the people you’ve killed are represented, post-human, as their minds have been uploaded into floating robots. And maybe this is the future I’m most excited for now, where I could possibly leave this flawed body behind and upload all the best parts of me into a vessel where, should there be a collapse between connections, I’ll just update the software.

No matter what your accumulated ethical status, the game always ends with a choice and a handshake. You can accept the handshake and work towards something bigger, brighter. You can accept the handshake and unleash everything dark inside of you and leave nothing left alive. I think about this moment with unreasonable frequency these days, especially when I bump into old acquaintances on the street. When the hand is extended, I never reach out unless I’m sure I know it’s the safe version of me behind it. I think it’s always me now, I think I’m in the driver’s seat, and I’m pretty sure I’m not a conduit of electric death. But I’ve seen how easily it can hide in the open, and how easily it can hide inside what seemed to be the best version of me, so I can never take that hand without taking a moment to pause ever again.

I’ve lost too much to ever play loose again. It’s never a bad time to restart, carrying over only your knowledge of what has come before. This is the playthrough with no shortcuts.

Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.