infamous407_screen.jpg[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us. This time, inFamous and how choices can be used to divide gameplay and narrative.]

While we struggle to figure out what choice is and what it's doing in our videogames, we continue to demand it. It's clear that choice offers interesting options for game design gameplay that are interesting, stimulating, and fun. So what does choice provide to players? Is the appeal of choice the ability to craft the game's narrative, or is it the experience of watching a narrative unfold in different ways?

Choice can be used for a lot of things, and fewer games are more confused about what they're doing with it than InFamous. There's a lot of problems with the way the choice is handled in this game, but the main one is that there are about 40-odd big choices in the game, not to mention the countless ones reflected in the moment to moment actions of the player, and each and every one(except the first) is a lie.

In reality, there is one choice. When nearly all of the powers in the game require the protagonist to be either wholly good or wholly evil, choosing anything but the same way is foolish. What follows then are not a series of choices but a incessant harassment of the player, and any attempt at seriously considering any choices beyond the first will be thoroughly punished.

In fact, Sucker Punch didn't create a system of choice at all. They created a game with two parallel narratives using a unessesary and ultimately irrelevant gameplay system. In practice, the system of choice in inFamous is a way of separating narrative, gameplay, and play style into two distinct sections, and that's in no way a bad thing even if it's bizarrely implemented. Choice has a lot to offer to game design without offering choice.

Selling Good and Evil

Even though it's simplistic and all too often preachy, the Good/Evil binary solves a simple but fundamental problem with choice in games: letting players know they have one. It's easy to put a byline on a package about choice, but harder to define exactly what that means to the player. By framing choice in such stark terms, it lets players know what to expect. This is great for splitting narrative and gameplay, but it's far too simple to make narrative choices a meaningful or interesting part of gameplay.

In the case of inFamous, this is because most of the powers and the most fundamental ones can only be improved if Cole is good or evil enough to use them. Trying to play both sides only hamstrings the player, so it's utterly bizarre that there are so many choices in the game. While the theme is appropriate to the superhero mythos inFamous draws on, such a system cannot support struggle of any kind, let alone between good and evil.

One thing that the good/evil reward system does is manipulate player behavior. An evil character gets more evil (which the game rewards) from engaging in a rampage-like playstyle, and the evil powers cause a lot of widespread damage. On the other hand, this means good players need to watch pedestrians, but on the other hand they get rewarded for saving them. This is where gameplay really does intersect with narrative, or at least the experience of prosocial or antisocial behavior. However, it's at this point that inFamous starts to uncomfortably implicate the player in this antisocial attitude.

Am I Evil?

Trish especially feels like she's only there to remind the player that doing bad things is bad. There are instances where Trish and Moya don't even talk to Cole if he choose good, but don't hesitate to berate evil actions. This inequality is curious. It's as if they're berating the player rather than Cole. I don't need to be told that evil things are evil--I don't even want to be evil. The game told me it would be fun if I was, though, but look where that got me.

The ex-girlfriend and doctor who represents morality and sacrifice for the greater good makes up for what she lacks in charm and personality through self-righteousness and hypocritical condemnation. The incessant lecturing is extremely grating and unfair to the player. With one breath, the designers say that it's okay to be evil, then as if afraid of what they've done, take every opportunity to lecture the player. Designers are caught between wanting to allow players to be evil and not wanting to ultimately reward them for that--a noble goal, but the truest condemnations of Cole come from his own mouth.

It's a bit like if Freddy Kruger's girlfriend called him to complain every time he killed a teenager. It's certainly not going to convince him and its effect on the person watching the movie will be limited. This is probably why Zeke, of all the characters, is the most interesting and subtle in how he reacts to player choices. He justifies Cole's behavior and even begins to fear Cole himself in the evil path. Seeing their friendship corrupted by Cole's power was well done.

I Am Not Cole McGarth

Players are following the script laid out for them by the designers. It isn't their job to turn around and condemn them after doing that like some sort of moralistic sting operation. This is a story (two stories, in fact) about Cole MccGarth.

And inFamous does a great job of developing Cole as a morally ambiguous enough person that either path is believable but well defined enough to feel like a real person. the subtle differences in his attitude and their buildup is work of good storytelling, and it works because it's grounded in a character, not a living moral imperative.

Choice can be used for the player to decide their experience, but the tone of inFamous almost borders on saying the decisions define the player. This is a dangerous step. Even if the gameplay is meant to allow a player to craft their own story, it is still only a story.

New Routes For Choice

inFamous needs to reign the player in to keep narrative commonality. Obviously, there are technical reasons for this--inFamous has a lot of content, but there is a limit. Huge narrative divergence means a great deal more work.

While this makes a lot of sense in some ways, the current model makes even less. Once the player reaches the end, after all, they have no new game + and a great deal of rehash to look forward too if they want to see the other route. And they most certainly want to see it--after all, if they enjoy the game enough to beat it, they'll want to see everything it has to offer. Unless there's a huge brick wall in the way.

Routes of play can be focused on something other than good and evil, and that leaves a lot more room for depth in terms of both gameplay and narrative. That means more tools and more paths for developers to take. It's like watching the same players cast in a series of separate plays, or a series of "what ifs". The videogame can present choices fluidly, on the fly.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, where dinosaur vampires cry out for blood, and can be reached at [email protected]]