In Infamous: Second Son, you play a mass murderer named Delsin. You can play as a not-mass-murderer, but then you’re not playing the game right (it is called “Infamous,” after all). This is a game about a guy who gets super powers that allow him to kill pretty much every human he comes across with fire missiles that he shoots from his hands. It’s a totally awesome feeling, and the game is basically the epitome of a power fantasy, but there’s a problem with that, because the narrative tries to paint Delsin as something of an antihero when he is a straight up villain. The actual “villain” in the game is a woman (which is rare and kind of cool, in and of itself) who tortures people using her own superpowers. Sure, that isn’t cool, but the thing is, she’s not the one wantonly launching herself up into the air and killing dozens of civilians at a time. Delsin's doing that. And while it’s super cool looking and uses all sorts of fancy particle effects that show people why they should buy into the current generation of video game consoles, that’s you, the player, killing dozens of civilians (there’s a combo counter in the upper left hand corner that tells you for sure) at a time.
But you’re still the good guy.
Early-ish in the game, you’re set to run after a sniper who has killed 12 innocent people. Delsin’s brother, a police officer who for no clear reason continues to help his serial slaughtering sibling, says that she must be stopped at all costs and blah blah blah.
Thing is, by the time I got to that mission, I was routinely massacring 12 innocent people while simply crossing a street. They’re just there, being dumb and not driving around cars that have clearly been destroyed. (When you see a six-car backup behind a smoking rubble, you’ll feel even less bad about blowing up the little blobs of textures and triangles than usual.)
But the game still treated me as though I was the better man.
Which is bullshit.
The reason to kill civilians and everything else with a digital pulse is because it gives you evil karma (which doesn’t actually come back to bite you, so it sort of misses the point of karma, but whatever), which in turn allows you to upgrade your various superpowers to make it easier to kill civilians. (There’s also a “good” track that gives you the ability to incapacitate enemies as opposed to literally disintegrating them, but again, why?) The whole black-and-white morality system as a concept has been analyzed to death, so that’s not really something I want to delve too much into, but it bears a little bit of discussion. So, here we go:
Black-and-white morality systems seem like a cheat. In Infamous, the decisions you make may impact the story in some way, but the real reason it’s there is for gameplay purposes. To really play with all of the powers, you need to play through Infamous twice, once as good and once as evil. And while gameplay does need to drive design choices, morality is fundamentally tied to the playing of a role and the embodiment of a character.
I don’t really like the decisions I’ve made Delsin make, but I knew I would have more fun playing it “Infamous” (again, it’s the name of the game), so that's where it went. That’s playing a role. When I played the Mass Effect games, which are slightly less black-and-white (and never have true black the way Infamous does), I created a version of Commander Shepard that I followed despite oftentimes choosing things that made me feel kinda bad. That’s the real way to play a game, to try to embody a character and keep them consistent... But that’s another discussion entirely.
The point I’m trying to make is that even though it’s affecting gameplay, it really should be about the story, but that means it can’t break the narrative’s reality. The morality system in Infamous breaks the narrative, because it rewards awful behavior while trying to justify it in ways that become increasingly ludicrous. (Seriously, the way a man who can fly and shoot fireballs justifies slaughtering protestors with signs (the horror!) to his cop brother (who just accepts it, because whatever) is among the stupidest things I’ve ever heard in a video game, and that’s really saying something.)
It’s ludonarrative dissonance at its most blatant, actually, as the game attempts to follow its path and paint the character in a light that totally does not jive with the actual reality of said character. Delsin is ostensibly trying to do good, but with the destructive powers at the player’s disposal, he’s caught in a nonsensical world that simultaneously accepts and rejects his blatantly horrific actions. He gets mad when people call him a bio-terrorist, but he’s more of a bio-terrorist than all of the other conduits (his preferred term) combined. And it’s a self-awareness issue fundamentally baked into the narrative. No, we’re not talking Man of Steel-final fight levels of white-washed carnage, but it’s that kind of thing, except worse, because it’s direct. Superman presumably wasn’t trying to kill tens of thousands of people when he threw General Zod through buildings. But when I’m Delsin, whipping random passerby with a chain made of fire?
That’s not okay. Not for the savior of Seattle, and not for anyone deemed a “hero.” (To my knowledge, nobody has really referred to Delsin as a hero, but that’s clearly the role he’s filling.)
Infamous: Second Son is a generally fun (though hardly groundbreaking), very pretty game that falls on its face every time it tries to matter. While I haven’t actually seen it through to the end (I’ve lost interest in the narrative at this point), I can’t help but feel like any attempts at consequences would only serve to highlight how ridiculous everything was until that point. And that’s a shame, because there were some fascinating places this narrative could have gone (first and foremost by making Delsin’s brother into an actual antagonist who vows to capture the criminal who happens to share his bloodline), but none of them are explored. As we move further into the current gen, I’m hoping that these sorts of narratives, seated firmly in the last generation (and before), start to disappear.
Videogames are capable of so much more than this. Let’s see developers prove it.