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Why the moral choices in InFamous: Second Son are bad

by on March 24, 2014
 

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The InFamous series exemplifies the problems with video game morality systems. Not only does it split people into two binary categories, it demonstrates a depressingly narrow worldview that deemphasizes personal change. Because power, according to InFamous, comes with seeing a path all the way to its end, not accepting and righting the wrongs within ourselves.

InFamous: Second Son, like the previous two entries in the series, is about using super-human powers to gain influence. Influence comes as a product of violence against a militaristic government agency that seeks to detain all super-humans. It’s what you do in developer Sucker Punch’s game, and it’s what hones your destructive skills and earns you more abilities.

The path to increase the potency of hero Delsin Rowe’s powers branches depending on his standing in the game’s moral system. Rowe can be good or he can be bad, and nothing in between. The more you follow one side of Rowe, the more power upgrades for the opposing option disappear. Turning back, changing who you are, is detrimental to your rise to power, and later in the game, it completely stops your progress. The only way to increase the rate of influence you gain by eradicating government strongholds within Seattle, is to keep your choices consistent. The way the game asks you to decide between good or bad is a reminder of what is no longer beneficial to you. InFamous: Second Son disturbingly optimizes morality.

Morality is a tough thing to systemize. Most games get it wrong. The Walking Dead successfully toyed with the vagaries of good and bad because it lacked a meter that swung to the left or right based on your choices. The lead character’s morality was internalized by players and represented in the game only by the player’s chosen dialogue and actions, and it could change any time. Where InFamous: Second Son fails, just like many others before it, is the way it surfaces morality to the player and makes it a bar that increases over time, pausing the game to tell you what your decisions have earned you, and ignoring attempts to revert your actions.

infamoussecondson2The abilities you get are satisfying. Game developers are skilled at creating power fantasies, as they should be, considering games have been some version of them since their inception. InFamous: Second Son is no different. Kill enough enemies and with a press of a button, Rowe will obliterate everything around him in a hail of destructive, almost apocalyptic, power, not unlike a classic arcade shooter’s “smart bomb” which would clear a screen of enemies. And the enemies only grow thicker hides as the game progresses. More power always wins.

For a few brief moments, InFamous: Second Son realizes this. Rowe’s police officer brother routinely calls him out on the people he’s murdered to get what he wants, and even offers ways to occasionally avoid violence. And the ending you get if you choose the bad path points the camera onto Rowe and explains to him the monster he’s become. They’re each well-written and well-acted scenes, but they are all made invalid since the game is about killing your way to the top. There’s no other option, Rowe is a bad person no matter what the icon ever-present in the top-left corner of the game says.

Thus, the morality system is redundant. The game is not about players expressing what kind of Rowe they want to be, it’s how successful he is at reaching his goal. Rowe might save more people than he would if he chose to be purely a killer, but the majority of the game doesn’t change. It attempts to have a system with interactive meaning but converts it into a false promise. Which in itself is an interesting topic. Unfortunately, InFamous: Second Son misses the point.

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