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inFamous 2’s moral missteps « Nitpixels

inFamous 2’s moral missteps

In this piece I will be discussing the recently released inFamous 2, and I feel I should preface myself with some warnings to the reader.  First is the obligatory SPOILER WARNING;  I will be discussing some of the bigger story events in the game, so should you want to remain unspoiled you should look away.  Second, while I will be taking a rather harsh and critical look at one specific aspect of infamous 2, this should in no way be read as a negative review.  In fact, the gameplay here is an excellent improvement on the original, with tons of content and well worth the full price of admission.  But, as this site’s name implies, sometimes you can’t help but nitpick.

The inFamous franchise aims to take the concept of moral choices in games, mechanics usually restricted to RPG titles, and bring them into its decidedly action-focused game world.  The series follows Cole McGrath, an ordinary guy with a flair for parkour who gets the extraordinary ability to control lightning, as he travels through the fictional vistas of Empire City and New Marais trying to survive and avert-or cause-varying levels of destruction and mayhem.  The player’s choice between good and evil paths is central to the gameplay, affecting not only Cole’s appearance but also what powers he can access, with Evil abilities that tend to exhibit a rampant disregard for collateral damage and civilian casualties.

inFamous handles this concept of morality rather clumsily.  In the first game, things had a fair setup:  you’re given an inhuman amount of power and placed in a horrible situation. Do you go the Spider-Man route and accept the great responsibility to help those around you, or do you put on the Joker makeup and relish in the chaos and madness?  Unfortunately, the games stumble in the execution of these ideas, with inFamous 2 making more missteps than its predecessor.  Both games make the classic mistake of giving each moral conflict only two drastically opposed resolutions without any semblance of subtlety or middle ground.  Cole can either be an electrical messiah, healing the sick and arresting muggers with energy handcuffs, or he can be murderous psychopath, using prisoners as kindling for a bonfire while chucking grenades at innocent bystanders.

This may work if inFamous 2 were a hyperbolic comic-book universe where the cartoonish extremes felt natural for the character, but the developers specifically designed Cole as an every-man with a rather generic personality which doesn’t really change regardless of what karmic path he’s on.  It ends up hurting immersion in both good and evil halves of the game.  Cole comes across as too rash and somewhat dickish when the player is playing Good, contrasting with the selfless and heroic actions the player is performing.  Citizens will happily run about on the street, cheering on their hero and begging for a quick photo, seemingly oblivious to the multiple apocalyptic forces laying siege to the city and nation.  Conversely, Evil Cole is still driven by the overall storylines of protecting New Marais and ending the larger threat of The Beast, which run counter to the Evil gameplay mechanics that encourage wanton destruction and genocide (such as bonus experience for killing innocent bystanders and side-missions to murder police and street performers).   Civilians all recognize you on sight enough to know to run the hell away before you can roast them alive, but that doesn’t stop the populist leaders you’re working with from saying you’re a good and trustworthy man, because The Plot demands  you work side by side.

The game’s binary karma system exacerbates this problem by defining good and evil on strictly binary terms and then tying it into the character’s strength progression.  New skills are unlocked based on exactly how good or how evil you are, going so far as to remove your earned powers should you deviate too far from your path.  (I learned this the hard way in the first game, when a careless Thunder Drop from a fifty story building ended up killing enough pedestrians to knock me from Hero status to a mere Guardian.)  This system removes all the advantages of player choice by rendering every choice beyond the first irrelevant.  Complex or difficult questions aren’t asked of the player, because the player can’t risk undoing the work they’ve already put in developing their abilities.  inFamous 2 would perhaps have worked better if the player were presented with a simple option to make a Good Cole or an Evil Cole at the start of a new game, offering parallel but distinctly different storylines, or by offering options for karmic-neutral powers.  As it stands, with every choice representing absurd extremes of benevolence or malevolence beyond any reasonable nature combined with the necessity to stick doggedly to your previous decisions, the whole exercise becomes uninteresting and uninvolving to the player.

There is one specific and pivotal moment midway through inFamous 2 which defines your character’s karma and skill progression, and it’s one the game bungles pretty badly, so I feel compelled to discuss it in detail and point out why it failed.  Spoiler warnings are in effect in earnest from here on out.

inFamous 2 introduces two new superpowered characters who travel along with and fight besides Cole as the story progresses.  One, Kuo, is a former federal agent working with Cole to put a stop to The Beast, the apocalyptic force working its way across the eastern seaboard towards New Marais, who gains some ice-related powers of her own early in the game.  The second, Nix, is a wild-child swamp dweller whose recreational activities include keeping swamp monsters as pets and using her fire-related powers to burn the local militiamen (and anyone who looks at her funny).  It should be pretty obvious which one represents “Good” and which represents “Evil.”  Naturally, they’re at each other’s throats whenever they’re together, but they have inevitably convergent goals: they both want to stop the militia, who has a device that can be used to give people superpowers.  Kuo wants to destroy the device at first, but once the trio recognizes the device can be used to transfer powers between each other, she relents and agrees to use it with Cole.  Both Kuo and Nix argue over who should use the device first, and the player is given a button prompt with the Big Choice between them.

This moment fails because it doesn’t just define the player’s choice between ice and fire powers, it also completely locks in Cole’s karma as well.  Kuo is the obviously good choice, Nix is the obviously Evil choice.  You can pick the opposite character to your current karma, but no matter how far up the Good/Evil scale you are, this decision forces you down the karmic path of the chosen character, completely negating your accrued karmic points if necessary.  The problem is that this is by far the most morally neutral decision the player must make in the game.  Whatever choice he makes, Cole is choosing to work with a willing partner to undergo a procedure that only affects them.  The characters aren’t presented with any reason to believe the device won’t work multiple times, which would allow them to trade powers back and forth like Pokemon.  There is nothing intrinsically good or evil with either outcome, and yet this is the moment chosen to represent Cole’s ultimate ascent into heroism or villainy.  If the player has made all the cartoonishly evil choices in the game, including missions where they cause a warehouse full of prisoners to explode just to cause a distraction or setting fire to a village just because, everything is instantly forgiven and Cole is transformed into a hero just because he chooses Kuo over Nix.  There are better ways the creators could have given a critical choice to the player at this moment, such as tying it in more directly with the previous mission (where there was a good choice of “delivering medical supplies to the sick” and an evil choice of “take over weapons turret, rain fire down on crowded street corner, killing hundreds”) so the defining moment of good and evil in the storyline actually represented a choice between good and evil instead of arbitrary meta-gaming.

Morality can be an interesting aspect of character-driven gameplay when done well.  It can be used as a tool to allow the player to examine how they view right and wrong in the context of the actions they take.  inFamous 2 tries to make these choices a central component of its gameplay, but it doesn’t seem to know how to use player choice to create a compelling experience for the player.  Perhaps future installments can find the nice middle ground where the player is presented with reasonable and difficult choices.

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  • http://taufmonster.blogspot.com Henry Phillips

    Furthermore, wouldn’t taking the powers away from an evil person be an inherently good act?

  • http://taufmonster.blogspot.com Henry Phillips

    (formerly Bare_Gryllz)

    I think many games just fundamentally mishandle what Evil is. Most games tend to portray evil as a psychopath when in most other mediums evil is portrayed as extremely selfish, in a way. In a more traditional and believable way, the morality choices would probably be something like “delivering medical supplies to the sick” or “keep the medical supplies for yourself so that you can mend the wounds and ailments of your personal army.”
    In the real world, people who kill thoughtlessly aren’t so often evil as they are mentally disturbed, I feel.