Talos I is a beautiful nightmare. The privately-owned research facility, suspended in space above the Earth, offers a captivating blend of science and art-deco design. Its offices are filled with tall, geometric art prints, red leather sofas and mahogany desks laced with gold. The station's lobby, large and extravagant, features two winged-lion statues carved from bronze and a huge set of windows overlooking the Moon. It's gorgeous, but there's a problem — the vessel is overrun with black, wispy aliens that can hide in everyday objects and kill you in a couple of seconds.
Welcome to Prey, the latest video game from Arkane Studios.
While many developers have tried to tackle the "extraterrestrial discovery gone wrong" concept, few have done it with an alternate history running underneath. Talos I presents an intriguing future that is unlikely to materialize by 2035 — one where commercial companies, rather than government-funded organizations, run expensive science experiments in space. In the world of Prey, it's all possible because of a timeline that diverges from our own in the late 1950s. Piecing together this past is one of the most satisfying parts of the game. You're fighting not only to survive but to understand the people and political forces behind your situation.
(Note: This piece contains some mild story spoilers.)
Breaking the norm
Arkane's alternate history grew from a desire to break away from space-disaster norms. "We didn't want to do any kind of installation that was military or government," Ricardo Bare, Prey's lead designer said. "I feel like we've seen that a lot, and we just weren't as interested in that." Between Halo, Doom and even the most recent Call of Duty, the video-game industry is rife with uber-buff galactic soldiers. The focus on warfare leads to dropships and planet-side bases that are chock full of dark, oppressive metal. Experimentation and artistic flourishes are usually saved for the game's alien species.
Looking for a new direction, the team researched the original space race that kicked off between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1955. The first man-made satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched in 1957, followed by Sputnik 2, with the Soviet space dog Laika on board, a little more than a month later. A mad dash for space dominance followed, the two nations desperate to make history and outdo one another. Arkane wondered: What it would be like if cosmonauts discovered an alien race at this time? How would the two nations react?
Ricardo Bare is a writer and game designer living in Austin, Texas. He's currently lead designer at Arkane Studios.
"Now, secretly behind the scenes, the US and Soviet Union are collaborating rather than competing," Bare explains. "And the early kernel of the [Talos I] space station, called the Kletka, is actually a collaboration between the US and the Soviets to contain this alien organism."
During development, Sébastien Mitton, art director for Dishonored and Dishonored 2, visited the team in Texas to give some feedback and direction. He suggested that, in the game's universe, John F. Kennedy should survive his assassination in 1963. "I was like, 'Man, that fits with what we're doing really well. Let's go with that,'" Bare recalls. The idea became another crucial turning point in Prey's alternate history. If Kennedy survived, he might have had a greater influence on the space industry. Extra funding and government support would have fueled innovation, accelerating humanity's early efforts into the cosmos.
In Prey's timeline, the US and Soviet Union build Kletka to trap and observe the vicious "Typhon" alien threat. A company called Transtar eventually takes control of the project, expanding and transforming the ship for its own needs. The Kletka name vanishes, replaced by Talos I.
The privatization is a reflection of our current space industry. While NASA struggles to retain its funding, companies like SpaceX are stepping in with new ideas. Elon Musk's fearless startup is now delivering payloads to the International Space Station and learning how to land rockets so they can be cleaned up and used once more. "What happens to Elon Musk's company? What if he, or Google, or someone like that ... what would happen if they ... what would they look like in 100 years if they decided to build a space station? It certainly would not look like the ISS," Bare muses.