Wednesday, June 03, 2009
You must choose, but choose wisely. Or don't. It doesn't matter.
Morality systems in games are the new hotness. From BioShock's dilemma of whether to harvest or save Little Sisters, to the stacked ethical considerations of Fallout 3, it seems that game designers are interested in making players question their own actions. This is a good thing. While I like a brainless action game as much as the next guy, you can only accept so many attaboys for your genocidal prowess before you start to feel yourself covered in an indelible goo of wickedness.
So I appreciate inFamous's attempt at a moral dimension. After your character, Cole McGrath, becomes superpowered, his actions affect the way the citizens of Empire City perceive him. Kill civilians indiscriminately, and they will fear you. Save them, and they will grow to love you. Not only does it make sense, it also fits organically into the flow of the gameplay. Pedestrians writhing on the sidewalk are a common sight at Empire City. It's up to you whether to stop and help, or cruise right on by, and whatever you choose to do will matter, on some small level.
It's the big-money "karma moments" that seem shoehorned onto the proceedings. And it's these decisions that ultimately make the difference in whether Cole becomes a hero or a villain. The action stops, an icon appears onscreen, and Cole growls about the choice before him. In almost every case, the decision is contrived and simplistic, without offering any important gameplay consequences. "I could help this guy, or not," basically. Sometimes it's even less difficult than that. There are some choices where you can kill bad guys in order to earn power-ups called blast shards, or kill good guys to earn blast shards instead. Agonizing.
Part of the problem is that blast shards aren't nearly tempting enough to provide a real pull toward the dark side. Cole collects them to increase the size of his power meter, which is important, but not once in the course of gameplay did I ever feel in danger of running out of juice at an important time.
The other, bigger problem is that inFamous steers clear of ambiguity. Choices are obviously good or obviously bad, even when you get the feeling that the designers didn't plan it that way. There seems to be no admission that sometimes a moral choice can be good and bad, or that it can have unintended consequences. When Cole does good, the people love him. I was reminded of the Hamlet-like depth of Spider-Man, in comparison -- when Peter Parker does good, people still hate him!
Further still, the game rewards monomaniacal pursuit of the all-good or all-evil path by reserving some of its most potent powers for players who've stuck with one or the other. All of the game's karma moments lead up to one big decision near the end, which should be a tough choice but from a utilitarian point of view isn't difficult at all. If you've spent all your time pursuing one path, the decision is easy to make.
The idea almost certainly was to make players question all of the actions they'd taken in the game to that point, which is a worthy goal. But because the game's good-or-evil framework necessarily means that the storyline has to make sense no matter which path you choose, it's impossible for the consequences to be as momentous as they should be. inFamous actually disregards some of the choices you make. You make an ostensibly difficult decision, and then the plot says, psych! After all, you still have to beat the boss and finish the game.