Story Review: inFamous

S

WARNING: This review is only concerned with the story of the game. Even though the story is an important part of a game, by no means is it the defining component. A game with a horrible story may very well be one of the best games ever produced. It’s just that my reviews are not about that.

SPOILER WARNING: The following text may contain spoilers for the people who have not finished the game in question yet. Reviewing the story sometimes makes such things inevitable.

Idea:

The main idea behind inFamous is the classic super hero origin story. An ordinary man somehow obtains super powers and his life changes forever. Along with him the world changes too. Now he must come in terms with all these changes. It’s not a terribly original idea of course. We have seen this, countless times, in many different comic books. But the main idea here seems to center on testing uncle Ben’s famous words. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Does power corrupt? What will our “hero” do with his new abilities? Allowing moral choices to steer the story into different directions, it can be possible to explore this simple premise in a unique was possible only in an interactive medium. Not a particularly original but a quite functional idea for this kind of story.

Rating: 1 out of 2

Setting:

At the beginning of the story inFamous takes place in our contemporary world. The residents of the fictional and generic metropolis called Empire City soon experience an apocalyptic event in form of a huge electrical explosion. In the aftermath, things are really torn apart in Empire City. On top of that an epidemic causes the state to quarantine the whole area. Now, this might now be a sane course of action, but it serves to build our setting as the story and medium demands. The great thing about inFamous is the fact that game play elements make sense in the context of the story. The player is not allowed to move out of Empire City because the city is physically sealed off by the army. (in fact, early in the story, Cole tries to leave the city with his friend Zeke. Only to find it is impossible.) Cole’s inability to swim or drive vehicles is explained by the electrical nature of his powers. Combined with the fact that Empire City is built on a set of islands and some other story elements, the player soon understands that it is not only impossible for Cole to leave Empire City, but it also doesn’t make much sense to do so.

Empire City itself is depicted as a huge, dirty city. You won’t find any bright colors here. This contributes to the pessimistic atmosphere of the situation. The streets are ran by gangs and the police is horribly underhanded. So we can say that the setting almost serves as a character, a damsel in distress for Cole. It is begging to be saved and there is no one else who can help. It will be grateful if you help it. You will see that in the faces of its inhabitants. But it will also hate you if you abuse it. This is a choice the player has to make. Regardless, unlike most games, the city is not just a backdrop. As we come to understand later in the story, it is the secret objective of our quest.

Not all is good about the setting though. Soon we come to understand that the world of Infamous is not like our world after all. All sorts of secret organisations are making larger than life plans building crazy scientific devices and horrible weapons of mass destruction. Sadly it is too hard to avoid these elements in super hero stories. Your super hero, by definition, will soon be much stronger than his opposition if things stay mundane. For Superman, who is faster than a speeding bullet and stronger than a locomotive, terrorists in the middle east are just a minor annoyance. You need the super villains. Infamous introduces the super villains instantly. Even the nameless, cannon fodder characters in inFamous are somehow super powered. Cole almost never fights against normal people. And the abnormals keep on coming, which makes you wonder just how many gang members are there in the Empire City.

Rating: 1 out of 2

Characters:

Most of the time the characters in Infamous are clearly defined by their moral choices. You have your classic bad guys and good guys. Even if the final twist changes things a bit, this is the case throughout the story.

The protagonist is called Cole MacGrath. We’re led to believe he’s an ordinary bike messenger, who finds himself in an out of the ordinary situation. You would not understand that from the characterisation though. Cole sounds more like a veteran soldier than an ordinary, everyman hero. The problem here is not only the bad-ass hero voice itself but also his behavior and lines. Cole simply doesn’t have the charm of a Nathan Drake. As a result he loses the everyman hero advantage. If the protagonist acts like a normal guy it is much easier for the audience to identify themselves with the hero. This is how Spider-man became such a beloved comic book character. He was much more approachable than an alien from another world or a rich guy who builds gadgets and fights crime at night. Peter Parker is a simple guy studying at the university just like you and me. He just happens to have the powers of a spider. Cole’s behavior and voice, however, make you wonder why Cole is working as a bike messenger and not a merc for hire.

On the other hand Cole is one of the more approachable characters in the story since his monologues, especially at the beginning of the story, flesh him out as a human being. He is bewildered by the events, doesn’t want to be called a terrorist and often weighs the possible consequences of his actions even though that is part of the game play mechanic. Still you can’t help but feeling a certain distance between him and the player. We do learn that he is far from being an ordinary human and his interactions with Zeke suggest that these two were not really your every day upstanding citizens. The problem is that he is supposed to be a normal guy with whom we can identify ourselves.

Things are not better for the support characters on the protagonist side. Zeke, who is supposed to fill in the shoes of a sidekick is an annoyance at best and acts more like the incompetent lackey of a villain than a sidekick of a hero. His obsession with power later turns him into a major annoyance but I can’t say I was surprised by that turn of events. The whole thing would have a much stronger impact if Zeke was a likable guy who got corrupted by the lure of power. But in this story he starts off half corrupt anyway. Trish, the love interest is probably the most normal human being in the story, even though she acts like a scizopath sometimes. At the beginning she is a concerned girl friend who is afraid Cole might hurt himself despite his new super powers. But right after the Voice of Survival tells everyone that Cole is a terrorist, she is incredibly quick to trust a DJ he doesn’t even know, over her boyfriend. That really doesn’t make much sense even if her sister had died in an explosion allegedly caused by Cole. We don’t even see a discussion between Cole and Trish regarding this topic until much later in the story.

The problem here is that the protagonist and the support characters are not really interesting or likable people. By contrast, Kessler is a much more interesting person as an antagonist. Of course the final twist complicated this a bit but still Kessler stays apart from all the other characters by having tangible motivations. He never deviates from his plan and he arguably succeeds in the end. Sadly the antagonist has even worse support characters at his side. Both Alden and Sasha are cardboard cut, silver age comic book characters.

Wild-card characters like Moya and John also have little impact. John dies almost as soon as he appears in person, while Moya’s methods compared to his motivations seem to be too complicated.

Rating: 0 out of 2

Plot Structure:

Infamous literally starts with a bang. The commendable little thing many people neglect is the starting screen, during which you can catch a glimpse of Empire City in its pre-explosion state. This peaceful little scene contrasts with the apocalyptic event caused by the player himself by pressing the START button. Like Cole, who carries the explosive device into the heart of city and causes all the horrible events unknowingly, the player causes the explosion by pressing START, forming an early link with the otherwise unlikable protagonist.

After the initial exposition the story seems to center on a MacGuffin called the Ray Sphere. For a long while the duty of explanation falls on Moya’s shoulders. This saves the writers from constructing legit motivations for each of Cole’s actions. The bulk for the story depends on Moya giving missions to Cole. Cole has one main motivation: Getting out of Empire City. By promising that, Moya manipulates Cole into doing her bidding. Furthermore, the sub islands of the city conveniently serve as the chapters of the story each divided into smaller chapters in form of generators Cole has to power up. Each generator grants Cole another power but again it is never explained how exactly that happens. These underground chapters usually serve as tutorials to the new power Cole has just gained but they could have been better designed from a story perspective, forcing Cole to discover the power himself rather than showing a video of the power and presenting an obstacle course for him to try out his new abilities.

Not much about the Ray Sphere is explained. John’s illogically placed “dead drops” speak about its creation but we don’t exactly know how and on what basis it grants super powers to people. Cole seems to have electrical powers while others seem to have entirely different abilities. Fights against two of the super baddies, Sasha and Alden, also double as the ending for the first two chapters.

inFamous throws us at least two big plot twists before we can see the ending cinematic. Both of them are problematic for different reasons. The twist about Moya doesn’t come as a huge surprise and seems fitting but it also invalidates most of her actions. Characters choose the path of least resistance towards their objectives. Moya’s methods seem incredibly convoluted and her failure quite illogically surprises her. He either has to be incredibly naive or incredibly stupid To expect cooperation from Cole after all the things she has done, and both options are not logical for a supposedly highly intelligent and scheming character like Moya.

I have both positive and negative feelings about the final twist about Kessler’s identity and true goal. Most of you probably won’t see it coming unless you are actively looking for a twist and it will probably make you question who the hero and the villain really are. And added bonus is that the story in general doesn’t really depend on the twist itself. This is merely a reveal of the main mystery, not a huge game changing twist like Metal Gear Solid 2’s “it all was in virtual reality”.

That being said, even though the twist does actually answer many questions and solves the main mystery, it is technically a very bad and unfair solution. The writers basically trust in what you’d assume you know about the setting of inFamous without telling you some key elements of the setting.

One of the biggest sins in creating a setting and a mystery is not giving the reader the rules of the mystery. In a classic mystery story, which uses the English Cozy setting, the writer makes it clear that the murderer is one of the guests in the isolated environment. The fact that the environment is isolated is key here. We know the manor was locked for the night, the train was moving, the ship was in the middle of the ocean etc. So the murderer is clearly one of the characters we have seen. The culprit never turns out to be someone from the outside world or someone who can pass through walls. Both cases would be unfair. The reader has to have equal opportunity in solving the mystery and ideally should say “Ah-ha! Of course!” after the protagonist has revealed the truth. If someone is able to pass through walls, this is a change in the rules of the story. There is no way the reader could have known that.

Similarly inFamous plays the time travel card to solve its main mystery even though we had no idea that time travel was possible in this world. Of course this invalidates many of the previous clues we had about the motivation of the villain. We do understand the villain’s reasons for doing all the things he did, but this is hardly fulfilling. A huge chunk of information comes at the end of the story. You simply can’t throw your protagonist out of a helicopter, go to the commercials, and return saying “Oh by the way… People can fly in this story.”

Furthermore, despite its popularity with comic book and fantasy fiction writers, time travel is one of the most problematic storytelling devices in the world. Its presence alone disturbs the chain of causality in a story and raises a lot of questions. Is Kessler from a parallel dimension? Is this a CTC model? (closed time-like circuit) If yes what’s the use of time travel to past? If no what’s the point of time travel? How does an ordinary bike messenger become entangled with secret organisations and develop super powers without the aid of of the ray sphere? Is this the most efficient way of fighting whatever evil thing Kessler was fighting against?

Interestingly the ending, along with the title of the story, suggests the better way of telling this story would be choosing the evil path. (better according to Burke’s theory of storytelling.) The choices the player makes conveniently makes little change in the main storyline. The changes we experience are in side missions, most of which are irrelevant.

There are a couple of potentially very interesting hooks and themes. Terrorism, the nature of truth, good and evil, fate, the relationship between Trish and Cole, media and how it manipulates reality, the nature of trust are a few of those. Sadly none of these themes are explored in depth

The goal here is to construct a classic silver age comic book story. In that the writers succeed. It all could have been much more though.

Rating: 1 out of 2

Craftsmanship:

Most of the dialog here makes sense even if some stuff is out of character or unnecessary. The star of the show is again Empire City. Its depiction makes you believe there are actual people living here. People whose lives depend on you. This is more than a huge level for a video game. This is a living, breathing city. The change between 2D comic book cut-scenes and realistic video game graphics may at first have a jarring effect. Even though these two visual styles are incompatible they are both beautiful in their own right.

A story like inFamous needs a good sound track. Although the music here is technically not bad, it’s far from being memorable. There are no strong themes for characters or the story itself. There is no Cole melody we can hum. This is a major problem for a super hero game.

On the other hand story to gameplay transitions and chapter ends are done expertly. Even though the pacing is somewhat problematic the craftsmanship is good enough to make you want to reach the end of the story.

Rating: 1 out of 2

OVERALL:

4 out of 10

(0-3= BAD, 4-6= AVERAGE, 7-10= GOOD)

NEXT WEEK: Batman: Arkham Asylum

About the author

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By Fasih

Disclaimer

Daniel works at Riot Games.

Fasih works at Crytek.

They have opinions. Their opinions are theirs only and are not necessarily shared by their companies.

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