Infamous 2: Destroy the moral landscape. Again.

Oooooh rebranding!

The original Infamous is guilty as charged. I for one completely and utterly stand for a moral landscape in video-games that treats the player as a person with cognitive thought rather than an ape who just sees life as black and white. I am for video-games that reward though and connection with conciousness, not ones that preach the player is stepping into a completely different world and he should be treated differently. By all means, have hyper-reality elements and all that jazz. Set your cities underwater and play your Ayn Randian inspired story, but don’t forget that I’m still a person at the end of the day. Don’t ask me to choose between good and evil because those aren’t choices, they’re concepts. There isn’t a simple choice in my life such as the one that you present.

I’m talking to you Infamous.

Infamous once gave a choice to me. I could either disarm a bomb in a police station or just walk away.

I turned the game off right there.

In Infamous Players are rewarded for following a certain string of “good” or “bad” missions, effectively meaning they don’t care about the shallow moral question being asked. They are about the points they receive and the level upon which they can upgrade their super-powers so they can get more powers to get… more powers. The general cycle of empowerment really that stops being fun when you’re the God of destruction and once intimidating massive beasts are now small peasants. It happened with Bioshock, it happened with Fallout 3 and it happened to Infamous.

Infamous 2 is pretty much the same game on its outer shell. The game now boasts a different design approach to dealing with morality, however, it’s decided that the black/white morality wasn’t good enough. It thought that the moral system they were pursuing wasn’t embedded in the mechanics enough. You basically went about the mission with small choices but little change in the long run. They didn’t like this, the guys at Sucker Punch, so they wanted to do something better. Instead of introducing a multiple approach design that encompassed some grey morality they just copy and pasted.

Instead of simple little choices and a general lack of meaningfulness, we now have two separate and expensive looking approaches to missions along with a general lack of meaningfulness. Now you can either pursue the ‘good’ NPC’s path or the ‘bad’ NPC’s path. Effectively you’re not just letting players go all the way past thinking about the choice and only the reward, but you’re just making them think about which path is quicker rather than the choice itself. This ‘two approaches’ mission design was present in Far Cry 2 but better. You could go it alone or go help out a buddy who would be squabbling with the people you were trying to do. It was never forcefully a CHOOSE NOW, ONLY TWO PATHS. GOOD OR BAD? BAD OR GOOD!?! SUPERPOWERS! choice. It was always something that not made you to not only think about the mission approach they were asking of you, but of the literal act of them asking for a favor. In effect, Far Cry 2 created relationships fuelled by morality alignment whereas Infamous 2 will create relationships by whose mission takes the least team to complete.

From a gameplay standpoint the game looks to play and flow better, eliminating the dull pacing of the first game but now the mechanics have been incorporated into the moral choices even more. Effectively creating a game that preaches moral choices that aren’t choices, if you think about it.

“The choice between good and evil is no choice at all.” – Story, by Robert McKee

It was belittling as a player to be asked to care about people we didn’t even know, in Infamous with Cole’s girlfriend, but it was even more stupid to be asked to care for ourselves. We are effectively Cole in these games, he is the conduit by which we reach the experience. The game asked us to care about people we never met and somehow empathize with ourselves, along with caring about black/white morality questions that somehow mattered to Cole. Not to the player, but to Cole. This effectively separated any trace of player/experience connection, something which could be meaningful given the moral choice attachment. Although the irony is that actually thank god we weren’t so attached to such a stupid black/white morality mentality as that wouldn’t be interesting.

Except this is apparently interesting, as it increases ‘replay value’. Never mind the long-lasting effects of a well constructed morality choice, let’s just think about how many hours I can squeeze out of an experience that’s dull and meaningless!

They’re two completely separate approaches to the same mission, compared to the morality system of Infamous which basically left karma up to the player in how he/she would act during tasks, though there were missions unique to “bad” and “good” players. Brian Fleming of Sucker Punch explains that there will be a “very sizable number of missions” set up like this, with “plenty of unique content on either side.” That sounds like a lot of replay value to me.

From The Escapist.

Pretty silly, given how a lot of games preach this dual gameplay feature yet few ever use it effectively or when they do, it’s in a horrible good/evil way. There is more beyond The Moral Landscape (which is a book by Sam Harris that I highly recommend) and Infamous 2 now places these shallow moral decisions even deeper inside the player’s control. It seems odd that we as a gaming community have just accepted this as fact, allowing it to turn up in a damn lot of our content. I never feel motivated to replay games that do this since I doubt it’ll ever make a difference even if you place it deeper into the mechanics.

Isn’t a horrible lesson, at the end of the day, to teach our teenagers and young adults that the only choices in life are good or evil? They may be bright people themselves and realise this is wrong, but video-games do little to steer us towards the decisions that nobody wants to make. Complex, grey choices such as a certain brainwashing decision in Mass Effect 2 may enrich a player’s view upon not only their game character but themselves. These are choices which have multiple answers and degrees, shades of greys. Infamous 2 seems to do the lazy thing and squander these choices down to two separate missions (which is odd as that equals more of a workload for the developer) and a deeper interaction with the mechanics.

Infamous affected the city as you chose along the beaten path, a city that altered due to your decisions is absolutely a fantastic bit of design. I will hold my hand up and say that is the only thing worth salvaging. A city or environment that changes based on your decisions isn’t just a visual experience to be beheld, but also the relationships between you and the NPCs will likely change. I don’t mean Cole and the characters, I mean you as a player have made these choices and as such these NPCs may side with you. They may align with your way of thinking. An interesting idea is if one day it plays along like The Dark Knight did as a film, were Batman had to take extreme measures in the face of extremism. It’s really the best superhero film ever made because the hero loses everything he values except his identity, which itself is also challenged to the extremes.

No-one dares to align themselves with Batman, even Gordon and Dent have their differences with his opinions and choices. At the end of the film we’re left with a brutally beaten superhero that has lost the trust and respect that he once had, all because he chose the right thing to do. The right thing to do just so happened to be the hardest, in many ways it also entitled self-sacrifice. You can see the ‘ferries sequence’ in The Dark Knight as a moral choice asked of the audience themselves, on the value of life, but perhaps Batman’s choice to lose everything is the choice that’s been asked of us. Was Batman right to let the Joker win? Would Gotham decay if it lost its white knight or its Dark Knight? It lost both and that is what is so interesting, there are no right answers here, there is no history to review. There is only the possibility of what would happen given a different choice – films, television and other forms of media are strictly linear in that they only explore one angle while opening the question up to interpretation. Video-games are different in that they let you live the decisions that you want to make.

I just think that’s more worthwhile to pursue rather than ‘extra replay value’.

New rebranding courtesy of Joe Byrne.

P.S A new blog series starts tomorrow along the lines of ‘critique corner’ but for a different form of media. Pretty obvious which one it is.

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