I’ve always been a firm believer that video game narrative is just as important as mechanics. Action without purpose feels empty, right? I mean, unless it’s in a Mario game where the actions in and of themselves are kind of arbitrary. Running and jumping your way through a castle doesn’t require too much explanation. But what about a situation where you’re actually being made to simulate an act as heinous as murder? Do you truly want to simulate killing with no purpose? Let’s look at inFAMOUS 2 for a second.
I usually pick a game to focus on when I do these designer talks, but I feel like I already covered Xenoblade during my “Autonomy” talk. One day I’ll revisit the original game when talking about narrative, but for the sake of mixing it up, I want to talk about a game that truly masters the art of conflicting choice.
inFAMOUS 2 is a game about Cole MacGrath, a delivery boy who gets a package with his name on it. Upon the explosion that nearly destroys his entire home city, he is given a new set of powers that affords him the chance to fight back against a tyrannical government and clear his name. This sounds really gritty and dull, but it has the makings of a superhero game actually. inFAMOUS is a series near and dear to my heart, but the second game is the one where the narrative truly shines. Karmic decisions are not just minor elements. They drastically influence your skills, relationships, and the overall story of the game. Even missions are different based on the karmic path you choose. But this isn’t about choice, it’s about how choice weaves into narrative, and how narrative weaves into gameplay.
The best example I can come up with is going to come with some very heavy spoilers, so brace yourselves and turn back now if you haven’t played the entire game on BOTH karmic routes.
Two important characters in inFAMOUS 2, Kuo and Nix are the prime example of how much narrative can influence your decision making, and increase the value of the game. You meet Kuo first. She’s obviously got the best interest of the world at heart, as she works with the NSA and wants to soup up Cole so that he’s ready to face off against the ambiguous conduit monster that is “The Beast.” Kuo being the hero is the story you’re fed. But while the bad guys seem to be the biggest issue, you meet this very enigmatic third party by the name of Nix, who takes great interest in the “Demon of Empire City” and aims to discover more about him. Nix is treated like the bad guy for the entire game. All of her more radical decisions, like killing police officers and blowing up warehouses, or even raising monsters, are treated like the immoral side. Cole, Nix, and Kuo are all working towards the same goal, yet the way they go about them in the minds of the writers are morally polarized.
inFAMOUS 2’s final decision carries a lot of weight because of this. The lives of all conduits are on the line and Kuo wants to protect her own life over the lives of the world. Nix, still irrational, wants to destroy the Beast at all costs. You’ve spent the whole game being told you were siding with a representation of good and evil, and the last mission, which screams mental conflict throughout, is now mixing up your perception of who is good and who is evil. Obviously grey area isn’t something new to storytelling by any stretch, but I like that the karma system represented good and evil, yet offered a twist at the end that shows that your karmic decisions were stylized if nothing else. That if you truly identified with the erratic nature of Nix, you should have done a good karma playthrough. It was a strange twist but one that I enjoyed all the same. This post is getting on the long side so I want to sort of narrow down the point I’m making.
It’s key to keep players guessing and give them motivation. Narrative is one of the strongest devices for doing so. I’m going to continue this designer talk once all the E3 hype dies down. Tomorrow will be our big FINAL REMINDER post.
Until then, stay beautiful and come back soon for more from the GAME ROOM!!!