Nick D. takes a look at inFamous Second Son and why the series’ trademark morality system doesn’t work anymore.
inFamous Second Son was released on the PlayStation 4 recently and has been heralded as the best AAA game on the system. This isn’t an unfair statement. Yet, clouded beneath the superior characters, and beautiful graphics is an old relic that just doesn’t seem to have a place in the slicker game. What I’m talking about is the black and white morality system. It’s poorly implemented and has little purpose outside of artificially expanding replayability. These kinds of morality systems grew increasingly popular last generation for similar reasons and very few of them succeeded in any meaningful way. Therefore, I put forth that maybe it’s time for the inFamous series to turn its back on their basic karma system and embrace a newer-freer system that rewards gamers without constricting them.
The basic concept of the inFamous games are intriguing to anyone with the faintest idea of what a superhero comic or movie is about. You are set forth in a city with the ability to grow and become a superhero or super villain should you decide. This all relies on a morality system in order to check your progress. Evil actions like killing civilians push you further towards red, or evil, karma, while good actions like reviving civilians push you towards good.
This basic system worked, to some extent, in the first two inFamous games partially because morality systems were still less common back in 2009, and partially because the protagonist, Cole McGrath, was such a nonentity that you could just as easily imagine him cutting a swath through the innocents of Empire City as you could imagine him helping them. However, neither of these two reasonings apply anymore. Delsin is a developed character, and morality systems have been inserted into so many games that the novelty is definitely gone.
Delsin Rowe is the character that Cole McGrath never could be, which is to say that he has a personality. This personality is developed through cutscenes, character interactions, and general commentary as you play in your city-sandbox. Deeper characterization is praiseworthy in most circumstances, but it undercuts the harsh nature of the morality system. Delsin isn’t the kind of guy to randomly murder civilians. Even in a pure evil run, every evil action he takes seems incredibly out of character, making the whole thing seem poorly tacked on.
Part of the fault of this lies in the outright bad creation of the black and white morality system as a fake means of giving the player more freedom. In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, gamers were given the option to fall to the dark side for the first time. Many, myself included, pictured the subtle manipulations of Darth Sidious. Instead, if you wanted to be on the dark side, you had to be a dumb thug that did nothing but murder for little reason. It was a reduction of the already stark Star Wars morality to good – save everyone ever! – and evil – kill everyone no matter what.
This is the kind of morality that has been used in inFamous games. Delsin gets evil points by randomly killing civilians most of the time, which aside from not making sense, also restricts players in how they want to be evil. Unless you want to be the kind of evil that randomly wastes his time murdering street musicians, you’d better get ready to wait a long time for your karma meter to raise. It goes back to the Star Wars morality system. If you want to be good, you go out of your way to help people like a hero. If you want to be evil, then you mindlessly kill everything.
There are a about four moments in the game where you get to specifically pick an evil action despite whatever karma you have. Once again, these are heavily skewed towards good. Only one of the choices, an option to murder an NPC later in the game, makes any sense when picking evil due to the emotions flying around at the time. In these situations, it’s clear that Sucker Punch was skewing good in their development because picking evil results in cartoonish acting for baffling reasoning.
The worst part of the whole thing is that you are forced to care about the karma system in inFamous Second Son. Every power you obtain has specifically locked off portions that are reserved for people of the appropriate karma level. In other words, you can only unlock everything for your evil character if you’re pure evil, and everything for your good character if you’re pure good. This is common in games with morality systems and it’s one of the key reasons why implementing a morality system in video games is a bad idea.
Morality systems were meant to provide gamers more freedom, to let them enjoy not being the hero for a change. But what they really do is restrict your playing to the absolute basest. Why? Because these games inevitably give strong incentives to max out good or evil, and those points are completely counter to one another. In other words, many gamers are forced to make choices and play the game in a way that makes no sense to them in order to score the abilities and power ups they want. An evil playthough is a pure evil playthrough, and a good playthrough is pure good even if you come to a decision you, or the character you’re playing, doesn’t agree with.
One of the big reasons developers implement these systems is padding, to have two barely different stories that encourage the gamer to play through the game twice to see. And it’s only twice, as I’ve mentioned. Since there’s no room for straying the path, you’re likely to experience everything simply by sticking to good one playthrough and evil the next. A game with a morality system often tells you exactly how many times you’ll be replaying that game, whereas a game without it, leaves that question ambiguous.
What I suggest is inFamous nixing the morality system altogether. Second Son did a great job at characterization, and Sucker Punch squanders some of this trying to incorporate evil into the game. I think choice should still be a major part of the game, but it shouldn’t be neatly divided up into good and evil. Give Delsin or whoever is the next protagonist difficult choices with real consequences. If they lead him or her down a dark path then so be it, but stay away from direct good and evil. It’s too black and white. It’s far better for everyone if every choice can be made fresh instead of being forced to follow the same path simply because you’re on a good or evil playthrough.
This would allow for more freedom of player choice instead of forcing them down paths for power ups, and could even increase replaybility past the usual morality system way if the choices and story are impactful enough. More importantly, such a system doesn’t sabotage the great work the developers and writers do on the characters, and lets them focus on who they actually are rather than trying to shoehorn them in cartoonish scenarios.
That’s what I suggest. inFamous was a game that was born out of their morality system, being able to choose to be good or evil. However, the series, and, I would argue, the industry as a whole has moved past that. Good characters and real freedom of choice rather than bland morality systems are a better future for the series.