myEXP: Infamous

Comic-book superhero-empowerment in a sandbox videogame? I'll take it.

Originally posted 25 July 2012 @ HypArc.net.

Table of Contents

I

A couple of weeks ago I finished Infamous, a game which had long lingered on the periphery of my awareness. I knew it was kind of like Grand Theft Auto ("in some way") and had something to do with superpowers ("or something"), but I never really clocked exactly what it was.

And, as I found out, it is Grand Theft Auto with superpowers - with all the delirious levels of amazingness that that entails.

II

In many ways, Infamous feels like a videogame founded on principles borrowed from comics: in fact, it plays out like a comic-book superhero origin story. The main character, Cole McGrath, awakes to find himself in the aftermath of a blast that's devastated his home city, and then comes to realise that the blast has imbued him with the power to manipulate electricity. The story follows Cole trying to find the people responsible for the blast - and his superpowers - as well as trying to protect the city, either out of compassion for other citydwellers, or to save his own skin. A number of common comic-book superhero tropes are there right from the get-go: ordinary guy granted extraordinary abilities, moral struggles, and the burden of responsibility regarding how he uses his newfound powers. These tropes work fantastically well in Infamous, largely due to the interactive nature of videogames as a medium; superhero stories frequently focus on the empowerment of the protagonist - an increased ability to affect the world around them - and videogames empower their players to affect the game-world.

Superhero videogames are not a new premise by any means, but Infamous' story feels refreshing and new - partially because it's not just a pre-existing comic-book superhero incarnated into the video game medium to provide a tie-in to a movie release. There're even short story cutscenes done in the style of a motion comic, which is a nice touch - if a little confusing, because major events in the game playing out through largely-static images feels jarring and strange.

Infamous uses a morality system, and in all honesty, it's pretty basic - you can mold Cole into becoming John-Stuart-Mill-themed "Heroic" or Friedrich-Nietzsche-flavoured "Infamous" by performing certain incidental actions in the game (healing injured pedestrians for Good points, blowing them up for Bad), and, at other points in the game, you're explicitly told (through Cole's inner monologue) that you have to make a choice between being Good or Bad. This unambiguously Manichean morality might seem anachronistic and contrived, but in fact, it works well for the experience that the game is trying to achieve; it's a nice nod to the Golden- and Silver-Ages of the superhero genre in comics, where morality often was just black-and-white, good-and-evil, as well as the rising interest in antiheroes as protagonists in modern comic books.

Borrowing heavily from urban sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto, Infamous allows the player to roam Empire City looking for Missions to complete - this includes Story Missions, which advance the plot of the game and grant Cole access to new powers and areas to explore, as well as completing Side Missions to assist the citizens and emergency services trying to cope in the aftermath of the explosion, some of which allow Cole to increase their Good or Evil moral standing. The player is free to undertake these missions in their own time, further increasing the sense of empowerment throughout the game.

Cole's powers increase in intensity and variety as the player completes more Story Missions - every time he powers up one of the city's electrical substations, he gains some new ability, such as being able to toss a concentrated "grenade" of electricity that detonates after a few seconds, or the ability to glide through the air (presumably due to maglev). The player can also spend experience points (gained from combat, but also from helping citizens and completing missions) to boost the power and range of these abilities. The continual evolution of Cole's powers also reflects the way comic-book superheroes tend to find new and varied ways of using their powers throughout their adventures, and it's a pretty empowering feeling when you unlock the final upgrade of one of your powers to cause even more wanton destruction than you could before.

III

And that's a major part of the appeal of Infamous, at least for me - as Cole's powers increased, I felt like I had more agency in the game world, like every mission I completed, every upgrade I earned, made me able to interact with the game in a new, interesting way. Sure, the ability to fire electrical-rockets that deal Even More Damage is great, but there are a number of "utility powers" that make the way you move around more interesting: Cole gains the ability to quickly traverse power cables by sliding across them - and then, when the monorail is powered up, can actually ride on top of the monorail car, or by grinding along the monorail itself. Cole also has to use his powers in ways other than just combat, too; he can use them to power up machines - or power them off, by "stealing" their electrical power - as well as using them to heal people in the street, or paralyse the limbs of enemies once they've been knocked to the ground. It's this increased ability to interact with the game world itself that made playing as Cole feel more empowering than, say, playing as the protagonists from Dragon Age or Final Fantasy - it's not a case of just placing one foot in front of the other from one battle to the next, it's the power to say, "You know what? I'm going to climb this building. I'm going to tear apart everything in this street. I going to see if I can bridge this gap. I'm going to take cover by hiding in the underpass." It's empowerment in its purest sense - the ability to affect the world around you.

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