Not a Mimic

Deception as a Rhetorical Device in Survival Horror Games

Webb Cover Image (Talos I)

Samantha Webb holds a Master’s degree in Game Design from Brunel University, London. She is a freelance games writer and narrative designer, working with both AAA and indie studios to develop games. She has an interest in second-level storytelling and semiotics and how games weave narrative beyond their dialogue. Follow Samantha on Twitter

Developed by Arkane Studios and published by Bethesda Softworks, Prey (2017) is a survival horror first-person shooter game. Set on Talos I, a space station that has fallen victim to an outbreak of a hostile alien species known as the “Typhon,” the player takes control of scientist Morgan Yu. While trying to escape Talos I and avoid destruction by the Typhon, Morgan will also meet and be responsible for the fates of other survivors of the catastrophe.

A key narrative element of survival horror games is deception: making the player think or believe something that isn’t necessarily true. Many horror games – with Prey being no exception – rely on the narrative hook of the player-character (in this case, Morgan Yu) having some form of amnesia. This amnesia is a convenient trope which allows and motivates the player to uncover the chain of events that led to the starting point of the game (for more on this, see Kirkland, 2009). A deceptive (amnesiac) mind is therefore the first obstacle the player faces, though the monsters encountered in these games are often also deceptive in nature. For example, the zombies of Resident Evil (Capcom, 1996) don’t necessarily stay dead once you’ve killed them. They seem dead initially, but as the game progresses the player can return to previous areas, which causes the zombies to reanimate and attempt to kill them again. Along with the player-character’s mind and the monsters encountered, the game’s narrative itself can twist and turn and deceive the player: in Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013), for example, the player discovers that their character was the “bad guy” all along. Deception can also play a part in level design and weapon acquisition: in Alien: Isolation (Creative Assembly, 2014), the player is forced away from direct routes due to fires, lockdowns, and other obstacles, and even if they manage to find a pistol early in the game they are unable to pick it up and use it: the game itself doesn’t let the player arm themselves. Deception is also prevalent throughout the narrative game space of Prey, demonstrating its place in a long tradition of horror games incorporating deception into their narratives.

This article uses Prey as a case study to examine how themes of deception are used as a rhetorical device in survival horror, and how it provides clues that prime the player for the narrative reveal at the very end of the game. This analysis focuses on two main aspects: the use of deceptive environment and the use of deceptive characters. I use the lenses of environmental storytelling and micronarratives, both defined and described by Henry Jenkins in his 2004 work “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” to analyse deception as a rhetorical device.

Rhetoric and Storytelling

Rhetorical devices are discursive techniques used to persuade an audience to think, feel, or act in a certain way. In video games, rhetoric can be defined as the way in which “video games make claims about the world, which players can understand, evaluate and deliberate” (Bogost, 2008, p.121). Within survival horror, we often see rhetoric focusing on ideas such as deception (discussed above) and corruption (for example, see Reed, 2016).

According to Jenkins’ definition, environmental storytelling often involves at least one of the following: crafting spatial stories that evoke pre-existing narrative associations, providing a staging ground for enacting narrative events, providing resources for developing emergent narratives, and embedding narrative information within the mise-en-scène (Jenkins, 2004). This analysis focuses on the final element listed: that environmental storytelling can embed narrative information within the mise-en-scène. Jenkins uses the term “micronarrative” to refer to a “localised incident” within a broader narrative structure (2004, p.125). These micronarratives can manifest in different ways: for example, they can be cutscenes, they can occur within the mise-en-scène, and they can be communicated through in-game narrative items. In general, micronarratives are used to “shape the player’s emotional experience” (Jenkins, 2004, p.125), making them a useful lens through which to study rhetoric.

Deceptive Environments

Mise-en-scène involves using visual design as a storytelling device and can include many elements, such as the physical objects in an environment, the colour palette used, the use of light and shadow, the framing of each scene, and so on. In Prey, mise-en-scène and its use in environmental storytelling help to build a deceptive environment. The various game paraphernalia and novels that can be found in Talos I can be considered as deceptive media from a rhetorical standpoint. By their nature, games and fiction books portray a world that is not real. They build a landscape or an environment in which participants – whether game pieces or fictional characters – move and act and are in turn acted upon. Although the player does not know it at the start of the game, Morgan Yu is in this exact position. They are a game piece within a simulated environment, and the seemingly important decisions they make are embedded within a fiction created simply to test what they would do in a given situation.

Representations of games in the Talos I environment focus on analogue games, which can be understood as physical manifestations of simulated environments. They can be found throughout the space station, and include chess boards, pool tables, and tabletop games. Morgan can interact with some of these games: for example, the chess tables can be thrown and the character sheets from the tabletop game can be picked up and read.

Many of the games presented in Talos I are incomplete. The recurring chess boards are unplayed and unplayable, due to their lack of chess pieces. The tabletop game is ready to play with the manual and character creations sheets present, but the human players are missing. In his paper “Restless Dreams in Silent Hill,” Kirkland (2005) calls this kind of environmental storytelling “second-level storytelling” (p.169). This kind of storytelling refers to interactive narratives and is popular in survival horror. It demonstrates one way that players can learn more about the overarching narrative of a game space – in this case a story of abandonment caused by the Talos I crisis.

Rhetorically, this environmental repetition of unplayed and unplayable games shows the player that something is wrong. The game spaces have a purpose: to be played. And yet the vital components to play the game are not present, so their purpose cannot be fulfilled. In this way the games become signifiers of discomfort and incompleteness, and hint to the simulated nature of the Talos I station. The lack of players and pieces are a foreshadowing of the wider narrative of Prey, and the unplayable chess board represents Morgan’s own experience on Talos I. The space station is itself a game space, and the reason the pawn seems to be missing is because it is Morgan – i.e. the player – who is carrying out this role, although they don’t realise this until the end of the game.

Another example of the use of deception as a rhetorical device in the environment of Prey occurs during the in-game tutorial. Presented as a test of physical and mental suitability for life on Talos I before leaving Earth, the player must answer a set of questions based on the trolley problem, a famous thought experiment in the field of ethics. This is one of the first interactions with the game environment, and it proves to be deceptive in two key areas. Firstly, the player quickly realises that Morgan is already on the space station, and not on Earth as the game suggests. Secondly, at the end of the game the player realises that the questions asked as part of the test are the same ones presented within the Talos I simulation that Morgan discovers they are in. The tutorial acts as a reflection of the deception in the overall narrative: Talos I is a simulated environment, and one in which Morgan – who we discover is actually a Typhon – is being tested regarding their ethical and moral reaction to specific events, as well as their ability to empathise with human suffering.

The environment of Prey serves as a rhetorical device which signifies the deception of the narrative and game space that Morgan believes they are in. Through the constant presence of incomplete analogue games and the use of the in-game tutorial, the player is consistently exposed to the idea that something is missing; some part of the puzzle remains hidden. Only at the end of the game do they receive all of the information they need to see the true nature of the environment and the rhetorical clues that hint at the deeper level of deception embedded in the narrative.

Caption: One of the unplayable chessboards found around Talos I. Screenshot.

One of the unplayable chessboards found around Talos I. Screenshot.

Deceptive Characters

While the game’s environmental deception primarily involves inanimate objects set within the game space, another rhetorical element of Prey is the deceptiveness of the human and non-human characters the player interacts with on Talos I. The player can choose the level of interaction they have with some of these characters, but others will force the player to interact with them.

One of the first characters Morgan meets is January. Initially just a voice over a telecom, once the player fights their way past enough Typhons to reach Morgan’s office, they discover that January is actually a digital save-state of Morgan’s own unreliable mind. The deceptive switch from unknown helper to a forgotten earlier form of Morgan reinforces the rhetorical message that nothing is quite what it seems. When the player later meets December, an earlier save-state of Morgan, and the two manifestations each give the player conflicting messages, advice, and quests, thereby intensifying the level of deception.

This deceptive rhetoric is also found in several side quests. For example, in “The Cook’s Request,” the player discovers that the person who claims to be Will Mitchell, Talos I’s cook, is actually “volunteer” Luka Golubkin, disguising himself in an attempt to escape retribution for murdering a member of Talos I’s crew. It is possible to meet and interact with the imposter cook, and even carry out a quest for him, before the player discovers his true identity. In another optional quest, “Rescue Luther Glass,” if the player heads to the lobby to carry out the eponymous rescue, they will discover that Luther Glass is already dead. The distress call was a trick to lure Morgan to the lobby with the intent to kill them. Deception abounds on Talos I, and the characters Morgan interacts with reinforce this message.

Morgan Yu’s brother, Alex Yu, is another example of a deceptive character used as a rhetorical device. Players do not encounter Alex in person until towards the very end of the game, after they have already been deceived by other characters  (January who was revealed as not actually human when players meet her, Luther Glass who turned out to be dead, the cook who was not really the cook). These previous experiences might teach the player to not fully trust Alex. In addition, Alex himself refuses to tell Morgan all the information the player needs, stating that he is acting in Morgan’s best interests, but ultimately making himself appear deceptive and untrustworthy. It is therefore no great surprise to the player at the very end of the game when it is revealed that the real Alex was testing Morgan from afar, and the Alex the player met and interacted with was a deceptive facsimile.

The enemies in Prey are also used as a deceptive rhetorical device. One of the subspecies of the alien Typhon found in the game is the Typhon cacoplasmus, or the mimic.  The mimic can camouflage itself as an inanimate object, meaning that the player must exercise caution while traversing the space station as any seemingly innocent object could be a mimic in disguise, waiting to ambush and kill them. In one scene, a room full of objects are covered with bright yellow sticky notes, declaring each item “not a mimic” in bold black letters, thereby lifting the veil on the very deception that the mimics use as a weapon. The mimics are also the first manifestations of the Typhon genus that the player encounters and overcomes. This first interaction with an enemy sets the tone for the game, establishing deception as a key theme.

Another subspecies of Typhon is the Typhon anthrophantasmus, a bipedal manifestation of the alien that is created from human remains. When the player engages with this type of enemy, the phantom is often identified in the user interface by the name of the human it was created from. The phantom also walks like a human and can speak. Usually the words are nonsense, but occasionally it will seem to recognise Morgan and call out their name, misleading the player into questioning whether it is actually an enemy or not. This can be a jarring experience for the player when they realise they are killing a former co-worker, and adds to the game’s deceptive atmosphere. The Typhon forms can never be trusted to be true representations, just as the human and robotic characters can also not be trusted. Nothing is as it seems.

A Typhon anthrophantasmus, created from the human remains of a Talos I worker. Screenshot.

A Typhon anthrophantasmus, created from the human remains of a Talos I worker. Screenshot.

Conclusion

Prey is not the first survival horror game to use deception as a rhetorical device: it is a common trope in several earlier games, such as Bioshock Infinite, Resident Evil, and Alien: Isolation. In this essay, I used Prey as a case study to show how rhetorical deception can be used to design a compelling horror game. By understanding and manipulating a player’s experience and interaction with a game, designers can leave breadcrumbs throughout the narrative space that can foreshadow the game’s ending. Prey uses rhetorical deception in a number of ways, including through environmental design, second-level storytelling, and the behaviour of the characters with whom Morgan interacts throughout the game. That Prey has strong examples of rhetorical deception is no accident: in an interview with GamesBeat, Prey’s lead game designer Ricardo Bare stated that “part of the fiction of Prey, one of the core themes, is not really believing what you see. If you play the beginning of the game, there are lots of recurrences of that theme in the world and with the enemies” (Takahashi, 2017). Arkane Studios used this theme to create a cohesive approach to rhetorical deception that pays off when the credits stop rolling and the final, hidden cutscene (the game’s ultimate, brilliant, deception) is revealed.

Works Referenced

Arkane Studios. (2017). Prey. PC & Console.

Bogost, I. (2008). The rhetoric of video games. In K. Salen (Ed.), The ecology of games: Connecting youth, games, and learning (117-140). MIT Press.

Capcom. (1996). Resident Evil. PC & Console.

Creative Assembly. (2014). Alien: Isolation. PC & Console

Irrational Games. (2013). Bioshock Infinite. PC, Linux, Mac & Console.

Jenkins, H. (2004). Game design as narrative architecture. In N. Wardrip-Fruin & P. Harrigan (Eds.), First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game (118-130). MIT Press.

Kirkland, E. (2005). Restless dreams in Silent Hill: Approaches to video game analysis. Journal of Media Practice, 6(3), 167-178.

Kirkland, E. (2009). Storytelling in survival horror video games. In B. Perron (Ed.), Horror video games: Essays on the fusion of fear and play (62-78). McFarland.

Reed, C. (2016). Resident Evil’s rhetoric: The communication of corruption in survival horror video games. Games and Culture11(6), 625-643.

Takahashi, D. (2017). Prey’s lead designer created a game where enemies are everywhere. VentureBeat.