Warning: This article has heavy spoilers for Infamous: Second Son. You have been warned!
There was a point during Infamous: Second Son where I was staring into the lens of a CCTV camera, my crosshair glowing red as it hovered over the the wailing tech that had spotted me casually decimating citizens on the streets of Seattle. I wanted nothing more than for the siren to stop, because, firstly, it was annoying, and secondly, it wasn’t going to do anything. No armed forces were going to turn up and attempt to stop me, my face wouldn’t be plastered on billboards telling people to fear me, and besides taking back a small percentage of control from the DUP, the only reason it was there was to add credibility to a weakly implemented theme.
I’d like for you to think for a second about your favourite books or movies or shows or films, maybe even your games, and focus on the themes they represented. How did you know as a certainty that the theme was in play? Was it because there was a poster of Big Brother constantly staring you down, or was it how it affected the life and thought processes of Winston Smith? During the course of Breaking Bad, at what point did you realise power corrupts? Why was Romeo + Juliet able to be portrayed so far out of its time, so far out of its original element, with success?
Themes are a backdrop, a pictured curtain at the back of a stage that the mind subconsciously recognises as an emotional directive – the green hills and smiling sun in the Teletubbies springs to mind, not because I’m a weirdo, but because it’s directed at young, developing minds that can take this severe obviousness that has about as much subtlety as a baseball bat to the face.
In order to make the theme real, in order for it to invoke a sense of reality in the audience, there needs to be a reaction to it. Imagine, if you would, a dog wandering the wilderness. Imagine it walking cautiously as it makes its way through the burnt and decaying remains of men, women and children, occasionally sniffing at the air. Imagine it marks its territory on a sign that says ‘Beware: Landmines’, and tentatively crawls through a gap in a fence before coming to a complete standstill, looking around anxious, its tail between its legs.
Reactions don’t need to be necessarily human or come from a human to bring a theme to life. Hopelessness. Confusion. Death. Something bad has happened here, and you can feel it, truly feel it because you are able to empathise with the dog because those surroundings would affect you similarly.
Shooting down that camera only achieved the satisfaction of not hearing the siren. Its place in this world was completely meaningless, a roundabout way to give players an obscure sense of achievement and a much weaker sense of control.
The announcement of Second Son at E3 was hilarious (seriously, remember that guys face?) and focused on the idea of the military state. Checkpoints, heavily-armed military presence, a heavily bias and propagative media ensuring that the message of ‘us’ and ‘them’ was kept alive and well. However, I never experienced it. Despite the fact that Seattle had only recently come under DUP control by the time Delsin gets there, there were no complaints at checkpoints. Life didn’t seem to be affected by potential conduits being locked in cages, or giant cement towers being erected in the middle of the city. It also didn’t stop people drinking coffee fucking everywhere (if you are from Seattle, please let me know in the comments if that’s all you do on every single level of every building in the city).
Delsin seems similarly unconcerned. There are cameras and checkpoints everywhere, and I’m assuming from the tech and the world that the internet exists. I’d also assume that, despite the fact that the general public were little more than barely animated mannequins, that they were supposed to represent the people of the world that we know now. However, he isn’t afraid to show his face, publicly. Despite the fact his original concern and fear were for the people of his reserve, he seems all too happy to go on a genocidal rampage with only a beanie to slightly obscure his features (which it doesn’t).
In a world of constant footage and video and picture taking and communication and propaganda and fear, his face would have been known within minutes of his first assault in the city. You might argue that the head of the DUP, Brooke Augustine, repressed media coverage of his appearance, deeds and so on, but you can bet your balls the public would have seen him, and taken photos, and shared that shit till his name and face were as common as STI’s on a schoolies cruise ship.
Now, good and evil in games has always been a bit of a moot point – the only time it has worked (and even then, failing at the ending) has been BioShock. A completely blank slate that makes the decisions and feels the way you do, because there was no barrier between you and your avatar. That’s who you were, and that’s what you did. Once you’ve established a character, their choices should follow a pattern, in the same way real people do. For those of you unaware, any choice you are presented with is decided before you are aware you’ve decided it. Subconsciously, you choose, and then you think you decide. In the case of Cole McGrath, you are given a man who has just been at the center of a huge explosion. He is branded a terrorist, he gets new powers, and he starts life anew from this devastation. From there, you decide how this basically reborn person deals with this completely new world and life.
Delsin, on the other hand, is a rebellious teen or young adult or whatever – he wears the punk clothing and spray paints things. He has a distaste for authority, but we never see whether it’s an educated distaste or the result of being bored and needing some kind of excitement and attention. He’s used to getting in minor confrontations with the police for petty things.
After acquiring his powers, however, Delsin goes from punk to murderer with not much hesitation and a huge grin on his face.
Second Son shouldn’t have been a game that focused on good or evil – it should have been a game that focused on change and how you facilitate change. How does someone who has been forced to take on the mantle of an outsider convince their former demographic that there is nothing to fear, that you could live side by side? Do you declare it openly, peacefully, honestly – or do you manipulate the masses in the same way they were manipulated before?
With this question comes fantastic opportunity to not only explore themes in games but to make for far more interesting and diverse missions. Imagine a mission where good Delsin (honest, open) is hated by the mainstream, and so is invited to be interviewed on an underground internet news channel. The DUP raid the station, taking out innocents, and viewers of the broadcast start to see how their society treats ‘bio-terrorists’, and the freedoms they’ve given up due to their fear.
Bad Delsin (manipulative, calculating) could have donned a mask. He could have been anyone, anywhere. As silent and deadly as smoke, a weapon wielded from darkness with the aim to get equality but at a cost only Delsin knows. You strike at random places. Because your powers differ, they have no idea whether they are dealing with one bio-terrorist or many. Contrary to the unmasked Delsin, masked he could be invited to the most mainstream, propaganda-fueled news channel. It could play out brilliantly – Delsin agrees to go, knowing that he will be portrayed as the villain. He uses his smoke and stealth to discover that, as soon as the interview is over, he will be attacked, with footage arising after the incident manipulated to make it seem like he began the assault out of nowhere.
He gets the drop on them. Perhaps Eugene will release the intel on the DUP’s plans to make him look bad. People fear this masked conduit, but they also don’t know who to trust. The illusion is breaking. There is panic. And in chaos, the mask is the only constant they know. He is out there, looking, waiting. This paves the way for Delsin to either take a leadership role or martyr himself for the cause of bringing people together after ripping them apart.
The first choice should have been whether or not Delsin would have covered his face. It fits into the game and the theme on so many levels – the idea of fame and infamy, the digital age of information, fear, militarism and its effects on democracy…a completely missed opportunity that would have also tied in with gameplay. Smoke powers for stealth, Neon for assassination and speed, Video (god damn that was a stupid power) for spreading further chaos or order (with the help of angels/demons).
If thought out cleverly, it wouldn’t have to affect the events that unfolded throughout the course of the game – the destruction of his reserve, for example, should have been a thing that happened either way to promote the theme: An unmasked Deslin would have seen the destruction of his reserve at the hands of the DUP, learning a valuable lesson about secrecy and the cost of change. A masked Deslin would have told those at the reserve about his identity, and been shunned by them. Realising there was no room for error, for his secret to be released, he wipes them all out, learning a valuable lesson about secrecy and the cost of change.
I’m not saying I’m a better storyteller/writer than Sucker Punch, but I probably am.
Interesting stories, no matter what they are about or where they’re set, will see a theme naturally arise. Confederacy of Dunces, a book ostensibly about nothing at all, with a vast array of unlikable characters and meaningless interaction, portrays perfectly the theme of the fallible human condition and our seemingly incurable empathy. It is especially difficult for games to nail themes, because a gamer’s actions have to reflect the theme, along with the story, and the environment, and so on. I am not quite as much of a fan of the term ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ as others – I do not care that Booker eats garbage in BioShock Infinite, or that heroes capable of bringing down dragons will often be completely incapable of swimming or getting over thigh-high gates. What I do care about is whether their deliberate actions make sense in their environments, and reactions to those actions are properly conveyed.
There is a point in Second Son where Delsin convinces his brother (forgot his name) to not take in the Neon girl (forgot her name) because her only crime was ‘killing drug dealers’, to which his brother responds that ‘it was still murder’. Let’s try to look aside, for the moment, that being a drug dealer doesn’t automatically make you a bad person. Let’s look instead to the brother complaining about murder when I had, on the way to this particular meeting, performed a passive killing spree because I wanted to entertain myself in the three minutes between destinations.
Good and evil and the value of life; these are the themes in play here. Grossly mishandled, and thoroughly underwhelming because I, as the active force in the game, wasn’t part of it by choice; rather, my actions and the plots reactions were decidedly unrelated.
But we see this all the time in games. Tomb Raider was supposed to be about survival, yet within the first three hours of the game we are treated to seeing Lara turn from ‘never been in the wilderness’ to ‘joyfully shooting gas cannisters mid-air to create an explosion’. In Beyond: Two Souls, there are many points where you’re ‘fighting for your life’, when really you are ‘pressing ‘x’ at your leisure to move on from this scene’.
I can’t imagine that the process is easy.