The Morality of inFamous

Probably the most talked about part of inFamous is the moral choice mechanic. The idea is to split the choice between good and evil options, which can be interesting, but the criticism has been leveled at how it is handled. Reasoning in later choices makes less and less sense as you continue on. The options in the early choices are both justified, while later ones seem to prove that you have a problem with rational thought (if you choose the evil route that is). None of the choices are ambiguous (my notes say otherwise, but I cannot think of any examples and after checking the wiki my memory seems better than my notes), both options inevitably lead to the same missions and story with nary a meaningful change between them. The major options are also as smooth as a large clunk in the middle of a symphony. Using Corvus Elrod’s terminology they are closer to developer moments than player moments even if they are billed as the latter. I’d also hate to meet the person who genuinely choose to go the evil route who wasn’t trophy whoring.

This gets the major criticisms of the system (and really all major morality systems in games these days) so now we can move on to what this particular system represents. Joe Tortuga has said that inFamous equates good with altruism and evil selfishness. This is a great starting point, but I think there is a little more to it than that. Cole has the same material motivation regardless of what he does: to get him and his friends out of the city. The moral choice system is all about how you go about it and why you do it. It’s a game looking to the morality of methods rather than what you are doing. Or it is during the story moments at least. The ludic system outside of mission rewards conflicts with this assessment, because once you’ve chosen a path you have to stick with it if you are going to get all the upgrades and you’re going to need them for the later enemies.

If I can be so bold as to asses the philosophical implications of what you are doing in this super powered conflict, the choices and role you set for yourself is one between Heinleinian co-operation and protection versus Randian domination and selfishness. The good morality is where Cole seeks a path of noble co-existence and in the face of a threat protection of the weaker race. The evil spectrum, however, seeks a path of conflict and eventual subjugation by purporting your genetic superiority over the heads of the masses. Does Cole choose to follow an ideal of co-operation to foster better results through more difficult and trying means or follow the greater good through methods of conflict believing he knows best because he is superior? Or to put it in terms more of my intended audience can understand; it is the Professor Xavier school of thought verses the Magneto one.

 

Or at least that is the conflict as the designers try to portray. Like I said in my previous posts, the earlier sections of the game are clearer and follow a vision while the later ones tend to get muddled and lose sight of the implied objective to the mechanic. The first two choices are prime examples of this. Do you choose share the food equally to those that need it or do you keep it for yourself because you can? Do you fight the riot cops mano-a-mano because you have the strength to do so or do you sick them on the crowd and make the fight much easier and bloodier? There is no one to force you one-way or the other. To quote Ayn Rand, “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me” seems very apt to the evil half of this dichotomy. Had they stuck to Heinlein/Rand conflict the morality meter might have made sense; it would have given us concrete attributes that we can map the morality meter to. This is a well-worn conflict, (X-Men, Harry Potter, Dragon Ball Z, Marvel’s Civil War, He-man and the Masters of the Universe) though this is the first time I’ve seen it represented within an individual instead of two opposing individuals/groups.

As it stands in the later sections of the game a host of issues come up where the morality meter loses focus of what it was representing. Why would the police help you in terms of the prison riot, after you’ve taken missions to fight and kill them? Why would people call to you for help with their surveillance problem if you’ve been indiscriminately murdering people left and right? Why would a photography student want to take pictures of you doing stunts knowing you could electrocute him just as easily? Why would you capture Alden and not kill him and remove the threat period? Why would you blow up a gas tank to weaken an enemy and harm civilians when you have already fought and beaten several of this type already? And why in the hell would people attack you, ineffectively I might add, when you could zap them into nothing?

These problems can be solved had Sucker Punch really worked out what they wanted from the morality system. At times it’s about a conflict of how you do things and at others a straight up good/evil morality play, ignoring the relativism of such a comparison. Such a good and evil dichotomy has to recognize they are two sides of the same coin differing only by margins. The margin they chose in this case is method. But they ignore that and in same cases offer two completely unrelated options. The only way for the story to reach its conclusion as scripted would be to focus on method, which is a far more interesting concept than what we ended up with. In that case when people talk to you while you are choosing the infamous path, they would focus on ends, knowing appealing to your means would be pointless. It would also bring the title into alignment with the meaning. Famous vs. infamous isn’t a question of what you do, but how people perceive you. It’s one of the reasons I find the choice about the poster to be actually meaningful rather than extraneous. Either way you are technically famous in that a lot of people know who you are. For example you can be famous for your card playing, meaning you’re really skilled, or you could be infamous for your card playing, meaning you are a known or suspected cheater. The end result is the same; it is the method and meaning of what you do that matter.

This conflict is especially interesting in light of the game’s ultimate mission. It was to make Cole capable of making the difficult choices; able to do what is needed to be done. Exploring the morality of how he does it is made even more important, because Kessler doesn’t care how you do it, just that you do. This is fine and makes him a better than average villain (for a video game). While the game’s entire premise is worked up on how you do it rather than what you end up doing. It gives you no options in that regard and recognizes the limitations of the medium, but instead of embracing that and working with it to proved an interesting how assessment, it uses it as a crutch for some subpar morality meandering.

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