Shan really likes Infamous, you guys. Like… really likes it. Don’t believe us? Check out this cool, insightful retrospective she’s put together on the pros and cons of the characterization, portrayals, and other cool, geeky aspects of game design in Sucker Punch’s Infamous: Second Son.
For those of you who know me, you know that my favourite game is Infamous: Second Son. For those of you who don’t know me…my favourite game is still Infamous: Second Son. I’ve gushed a bit in the past about how great the representation of Delsin Rowe was—a modern indigenous character with a complex relationship to authority and the state, environmentally-based superpowers, and a sense of loyalty to his people…and they still dodged stereotypes at every turn.
Teepees? Casinos? Alcoholism? Not today.
But that’s only what got me HYPED for I:SS in the first place. I came for the cultural representation smoke powers, but stayed for the beautiful visuals, the spectacular gameplay, and not one, but three well-integrated DLCs (including First Light, a DLC even more emotionally compelling than the main game).
Oh, and for Delsin being a shithead.
Thanks, Troy Baker.
What I didn’t stay for was…well, the story mechanic. I can hear the boo-hiss from people who have heard me rant about this game, because I know it comes off as hypocritical to say that I didn’t like the story (stories, plural). I cried at both endings.
Like a tiny child.
It was great.
I was really emotionally engaged in Delsin’s story, his relationships and his responsibility to his tribe, his fellow conduits, and himself. However, my love for that story arose almost in spite of itself: there’s a lot to be desired in the execution here.
First though, lemme talk about what did work. First is the setting: Delsin starts off in Salmon Bay, Washington, where he lives on tribal land owned by the (fictional) Akomish nation. The plot is introduced via a flashback cutscene built right into Delsin’s newly unlocked superpowers, and we’re suddenly in the thick of it. He’s drawn to Seattle after the immediately likeable ‘Aunty’ character Betty is left hospitalized by the very capable, very no-nonsense Grace Augustine. Accompanying Delsin is his perpetually frustrated brother Reggie. Delsin’s issues with authority are introduced very early via the juxtaposition of his brother, the rez cop, and their conflict takes the form of clear evidence that both are embarrassed of the other’s life choices. However, despite Delsin’s spray paint, bad attitude, and “it’s NOT just a phase, DAD” denim vest/toque combo, it’s obvious he’s fiercely loyal to his family and just wants to keep them safe.
The narrative manages to not belabour the dynamic between the brothers (the ‘Social Activist Native’ and the ‘Peace and Order Native’ we get it). It’s cool that the developers didn’t feel they had to hold our hand in the clammy, uncomfortable palm of exposition to communicate their personalities. The things that Reggie (authority, family) and Betty (vulnerability, the tribe) represent are constant themes throughout the game, and I’m impressed with how much weight they hold at times There’s an incredible narrative pressure to not disappoint Betty in ANY WAY. I mean:
*EVIL SPOILER ALERT* For those who haven’t played through to the end of the “evil” plotline!!
….Delsin actually kills Betty when she expresses disappointment in him. He actually has to MURDER the puppy-dog face. It also helps that the writers made her so damn likable.
I also loved Fetch, the lead female character. She’s great and her side-story (examined in the First Light DLC) was incredibly engaging, and was a strong supplement to Second Son in adding great new gameplay options. Her story increased the replay value of Second Son immensely, and I think that’s a really impressive feat.
Moving back to the campaign of the main game, I also really enjoyed the overarching story. I found it believable and emotionally engaging to see what Augustine’s motivations were and how they conflicted with Delsin’s own. There’s a sort of bittersweet rage every time you’re asked to fight her in this game. However you decide to do it, and whatever you decide for her fate, the ending cinematics are soul-crushing. Be prepared.
So…what didn’t I like about it? To put it simply: it wasn’t the right kind of story for an Infamous game. The defining feature of the Infamous franchise has always been morality, expressed through diverging choices in gameplay. I’ve always felt this was the weakest aspect of the series, but since this is the direction they’ve gone, let’s talk about the issues it brings up.
First, I:SS’s main storyline is such that you are powerless to stop or alter the events of the game. You are given maybe five key decisions in the plot of the game (which trigger either “good” or “evil” cinematics) and have a number of missions and options for interacting with the unwashed masses that add to your karma meter in one direction or the other. Regardless of this, you are powerless to stop Delsin in most cutscenes, and many of the choices he makes would not be ones that most audience members would. While the game gives options for which path you go down (which mostly translates into what extreme of playstyles you’re going to use), they aren’t really choices at all in that there isn’t any sense of player control influencing the narrative. If you played through to the evil ending and then watched in horror yelling “noooooooo you dumbass!” at Delsin like I did, then you know what I mean.
But here’s the thing—Second Son’s storytelling is at its best when it takes control AWAY from you and tells you what’s what. Already this is not a great sign for the karma system. Delsin is his own unique, distinct, strong-willed, and pig-headed character. Seeing cosmically different options for his behaviour wastes of the system they made and the work the writing/acting talent did in bringing him to life—both parts of the game become short-changed by putting them together. They weaken the story because we don’t know who our protagonist “really” is as a person, once we’re done with him.The game falls short of giving us the sense that the Delsin of the “good mode” could really become the Delsin of the “evil mode” at the drop of a hat, which makes the whole character seem disjointed and flaky.
Second, the choices you ARE given don’t add to the experience. Certainly they CHANGE it in terms of side quests, play style, and good/evil ending options. but I never felt that they explored any issues or characters with anything I’d call “depth”…and (significantly) I feel like that’s the point of having a narrative built around a moral choice system. If play style is the emphasis, maybe diversify the different power sets a tiny bit more to really cater to certain situations or puzzles in the game. This would actually add to the gameplay experience much more than the Jesus/baby-eater dichotomy we actually given. As far as its choices go, the game doesn’t have a philosophical bone in its body. Additionally, a lot of these choices seriously break your immersion in the game—if we choose to have Delsin kill cops for funsies, why does his brother not react or change his dialogue in any way? It creates the feeling that the choices were added to the story after it was already written, rather than as a cohesive, complementary part of it..
Third: the morality system in I:SS just isn’t any fun. Aside from changing some (SOME) of the cinematics, the biggest effect the karma meter has on the player’s experience is through the skills tree. The upgrade system in this game is pretty basic—there’s a skills tree for each type of power, and you can use shards you collect around the city (you get them by blowing up D.U.P. installations) to upgrade those trees. Simple, classic. What’s so bad about it? It is extremely easy to get enough shards to get all the powers, meaning that this is not a character customization so much as it’s a way of getting you to grind for your abilities.
Which is fine.
Not exciting, but fine.
But whatever, I have 100+ hours logged in FF12, so I can deal. The issue here is that while you’re collecting these shards (on your APPARENTLY pressing mission to save your entire tribe) you need to either be a benevolent saint or literally a mass-murdering psychopath to get all your powers. There is no room for moral subtlety of any kind in the world of Infamous, and very little opportunity to change your mind. This is because the powers are locked until you’ve reached a certain level of philanthropy/douchiness. Want the other power set? Too bad; it’s faster (and better) if you just replay it from the beginning. With no wiggle room and no benefit to making INDIVIDUAL choices, why are we not asked whether we want to do a good or evil playthrough from the start? After the first few choices, there is no benefit to continually asking if we’re role-playing a murderer or a soup-kitchen volunteer—we are already forced to make that choice ham-fistedly clear in each moment.
So, after all that complaining…what would I do better? First off, I want to acknowledge that morality systems are a perennial thing in gaming, and I think we need to have that discussion collectively. For I:SS in particular, I’d say a different sort of conceptualization of “good” and “evil” is the most appropriate fix, going forward. In this series, it’s always extremely black and white
Or…. *AHEM* Blue and Red.
I would change this to suit the protagonist’s motivations. For this story, for example, Delsin comes across a number of people who need help, and the writers could have fleshed out these interactions a lot more (he compares himself to Superman and Gandhi, for shit’s sake).
Delsin’s lesser known superpower? Modesty.
Despite this, he’s on a time-sensitive mission in which he needs to develop new powers and take out the D.U.P. as quickly as possible to heal the dying Akomish and get to Augustine before she can really make Seattle her own. Here, a compelling moral conflict to me would be whether Delsin prioritizes his own people (speedrun playthrough) or stops to help people and remove the D.U.P. presence from Seattle (achievement-hunter playthrough). This is good way to have the audience believe the pressure Delsin is under to be a hero OR complete his mission. It has just enough grey area to make you actually sympathize with whatever choice is ultimately made. It also still keeps in elements of favouring certain playstyles, increasing replay value, progressing the narrative, and affecting how the other characters should treat Delsin and his actions.
Another possible way to play this would a sort of Mass Effect or Deus Ex style game, which really emphasizes divergent choices and the sandbox layout of this franchise. If you’re going to have key “choice” selection times, might as well be subtle, realistic, and complex. If this is your schtick, run with it. I would personally favour this alternative less, simply because I think it’s better suited to a game with less of a sense of urgency in the story (that said, Mass Effect has a lot of urgency in its plot). This method would be for a complex character and a game that focuses on the loyalty or opinions of the other characters, meaning that the other conduits and characters like Reggie would need bigger roles in the direction(s) of the plot. Less suited to a superhero-style story, but a better way to do morality than what’s currently in place.
Finally, you could make a game with moral choices that affect the city and the characters in salient ways (eg. with evil options being easier in the short term but creating public resistance in the long run) while not affecting the ending in any way (effectively the opposite tact than Sucker Punch went with). As much as I enjoyed both I:SS endings and found them really weighty and engaging, I don’t think they made sense for this character. Delsin should not be quite as all-or-nothing as these endings make him out to be, and the narrative shouldn’t have him diverge so hugely—these are like two completely different human beings, except that much of the story doesn’t change no matter what you do. Scrapping the polarized endings would be better than keeping them.
So what’s the take-away? Infamous: Second Son is a greeeeat game that I needed to have owned for a year before I had the emotional distance necessary to say mean words about it. It’s also a game that was built to have a killer morality system—so it’s a shame it never got one.