Infamous: Second Son Proves Games Have Outgrown Good and Evil Morality
Remember when the original Fable had just come out and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was winning game of the year awards? The concept of choosing between being a good or evil character in a video game most certainly wasn’t new, but it still seemed so ambitious that we’d be able to shape a character into a hero or villain depending on our choices. But that was well over ten years ago. It’s fair to say that this type of mechanic isn’t viewed with the same sense of of awe it used to be.
Over the last console generation there has been a big push for better writing of characters in games. Characters who are more than just paper thin archetypes are becoming more and more common in games and the industry as a whole is better for it. But as characters grow and mature as the industry does, is it time for some of the mechanics that developers use in order to let players define them?
Infamous: Second Son was released at the end of March and I think no other game quite shows how much games as a medium have outgrown this type of binary choice making. What used to be a selling point for games like Fable, Infamous, and a lot of Bioware’s early outings is coming close to a state of being completely obsolete. It is time for developers looking to use video game morality to either universally adapt or be smarter in how they implement it.
Anyone who plays the Infamous franchise will tell you that, whether they preferred the character or not, Second Son features a more definitive characterization of its protagonist, Delsin Rowe, than the first two games did with original protagonist Cole MacGrath. Where Cole is shown as a more stoic and guilt-ridden man, Delsin is shown early on to be a bit of a punk, but one that clearly has a conscience and cares about the people in his life. Because Delsin is a more defined and expressive character from the beginning of the game, regardless of the player’s good or evil alignment, Delsin has enough traits of both a hero and a villain/anti-hero that he doesn’t exactly fit comfortably in the mold of either extreme.
Playing as a hero requires Delsin to not only defeat enemies who have threatened him, his family, and friends non-lethally, but also become a boy scout and save everyone he walks by when he has already been presented as a rebellious man with a criminal record. Playing as a villain turns the graffiti artist into a mass murderer. Neither of these ends of the spectrum fit with the Delsin established by Sucker Punch in the game’s cutscenes.
But as inFamous: Second Son’s design only really rewards players who choose to go for one end of morality or the other, and ultimately punishes players who try to go for a middle ground that could more accurately fit Delsin’s defined personality, there’s no real reason for a player to choose to keep Delsin consistent.
The fact of the matter is that Delsin Rowe is a deeper character than the mechanic that Sucker Punch has used to allow the player to shape him.
While this is a good thing for the guys at Sucker Punch, showing that they’re learning how to write better written characters, it also means they need to question the explicitly aligned nature of the game’s karma system and choice making. They can take the path of Cole MacGrath and make a character who is just defined enough to make you care about them, but is also enough of a blank slate to make his transformation into a good or bad guy believable. Or they can abandon the definitive good and evil karma system in order to take on more gray decisions that can be believable for the vision a player has of a character.
Games like Mass Effect and Fable do seem to get around this by making characters like Commander Shepard and the heroes of Albion an avatar of the player and a completely blank slate respectively. They have established back stories but have not established personality, meaning it’s up to the player to decide how they grow and develop as characters, completely forgoing the disconnection between where they start and where they end up, and that is what Delsin Rowe suffers from in inFamous: Second Son.
Mass Effect also works around this by not requiring players to stick with one alignment or another (except in Mass Effect 2 to an extent), and not punishing players who opt to walk the path of a Renegade/bad cop by not telling them that they chose a “bad” or “evil” choice. Mass Effect defines its choices in Paragon and Renegade but the potential character and player motivations that come with them don’t boil down to “I want to be a good guy or bad guy,” they carry with them some moral ambiguity and the motivation behind picking them is more interpretive.
So what’s the fix? Developers seem to like having choice in their games, and players seem to enjoy having it. Where’s the middle ground between writing characters with real depth and giving players some rope to shape them? It’s in gray choice. Define the character enough to give players a reason to care about them while also making the potential motivations for any given choice believable enough to fit with whatever vision a player might have of them.