Monday, June 22, 2009

The Choices We Make: inFAMOUS

(NOTE: This critical analysis of the moral choices of inFAMOUS will contain story spoilers.)

It seems that ever since BioShock let you choose whether to save or to harvest the Little Sisters, "moral choices" have become the newest fad for modern videogames. Often, this mechanic seems forced or clumsily executed, but when done correctly, challenging a player's core beliefs can be one of the gaming industry's most powerful tools for engaging players.

inFAMOUS is the most recent game to be released to put a heavy emphasis on moral choices, asking the player to act based on complex situations and live with the consequences. As expected, some people loved it while others hated it, but the real question is: Does it work?

Well, yes and no. Let's break it down:

Press X To Be Good or Triangle To Be Evil

Whenever the player triggers a "Karma Moment," the game stops, the screen is colored gold, and Cole narrates reasons why both options make sense. By beating the player over the head like this, inFAMOUS lessens the impact of many of these choices, but without it, you probably wouldn't even be able to tell that you were facing a significant moment.

For instance, at one point, the player faces down a hulking golem creature that is about to throw a gas tank directly at him. There's a mass of wounded people within feet of this gas tank, so Cole surmises that he can either fry the tank, which would blast the golem's arm off but incinerate all those people in the process, or let the golem throw it to make sure no one but himself gets hurt.

If the game hadn't stopped, sat you down, and explained the situation to you like a toddler, it's likely you'd never have known the possible ramifications of that act. It just wasn't obvious that those people lying on the ground were any different than the people always lying all over the sidewalk.

But moments like that occur all the time in inFAMOUS without any gold coloring or exposition: I was fighting two enemies in the street, and they took cover behind a parked car. Behind them were a couple civilians, at least one injured. Now, I could use my shockwave attack to flip the car at them, but it'd probably hurt the people behind them too. Or I could risk running around the car to take them out with melee attacks, but I'd probably get shot a few times in the process. What should I do?

So it seems silly to stop the whole game and painfully detail the consequences of the kind of dilemma the player faces all the time.

The worst offenders, though, are the moments when the game literally boils the whole system down to "press X to be good or press triangle to be evil." The last moral choice you make in the game involves Cole finding the Raysphere, the device that gave him his powers in the first place at the cost of about a thousand innocent lives. The game pauses and Cole contemplates destroying the Raysphere to ensure it can't fall into the wrong hands, or using it again to become even more powerful. The game then gives you the option of pressing X to destroy the Raysphere, or triangle to activate it.

This choice directly clashes with the comments of Brian Oberg, co-founder of Sucker Punch Productions, the developer of inFAMOUS. Prior to the game's release, he was quoted saying that "good and evil in inFamous is not just a binary choice." However, that's exactly what that choice was, and it was also the final moral choice the game had to offer.

That choice is also arguably the most important one because, if you choose to activate the Raysphere, it doesn't matter how good you've been, always choosing the good options and helping people, you are now locked into the evil ending to the game and marked permanently "Infamous" on the game's Karma scale. Again, this stands in direct contradiction to Oberg's statements since he mentioned being able to "go back and forth" between good and evil.

Power Tripping Over Itself

Oberg discussed how "depending on where you are in the game you may want to actually play a mission with certain sets [of powers], and it may actually make sense for you to maybe become more evil to play a particular mission."

First of all, the way the Karma system works, you'd have to spend hours grinding your way back and forth on the Karma scale to actually go unlock the other set of powers. There is no way anyone playing inFAMOUS seriously spent that much time trying to flip-flop between good and evil powers just so they'd have the arc lightning power instead of the overload power for one mission. It would take ages, and the two sets aren't different enough to justify it.

Second, doesn't that defeat the importance of moral choices in inFAMOUS altogether, if you're merely being good or evil based solely on which powers you want rather than what you believe to be the appropriate response to each situation?

It's unfortunate, but you really need to decide whether you're going to play as good or evil before you even start the game. There's no incentive for staying in the moral gray area, only punishment. Certain upgrades are only available depending on how good or evil you are, so if you're staying somewhere near the middle, sometimes choosing good and other times evil, the game punishes you. It locks you out of upgrading your main powers, so you really need to be an extremist one way or the other.

What this system amounts to is that you know which way you're going to swing before the game even presents you with the next choice, even if you disagree, simply because it would be foolish to pick otherwise.

An unexpected effect the game had on me in regard to powers was that I found myself role-playing the traditional good superhero or the evil villain. The first time I played through the game, I strictly adhered to the good path, healing almost every injured citizen I came across or surgically taking down stray enemies. If I accidentally shocked a citizen, I immediately rushed to heal him. I usually landed as gently as possible using the air thrusters, which must look truly heroic from a citizen's standpoint. And I never, ever let a hostage die.

Playing through the second time as evil was liberating. I'd kick injured civilians or drain the life from them if I needed it. I only bothered to take down enemies if they got in my way or took the first shot, and I was never concerned with collateral damage. Occasionally, I'd go out of my way to ensure that hapless civilians would get hurt. I usually landed with a thunder drop, causing a lot of splash damage every time. And I always, always killed hostages.

I wouldn't necessarily call that totally the game's doing, because I tend to role-play in character-driven games anyway. However, inFAMOUS definitely influences you to play the role of your hero or villain as well with the Karma system, awarding points here and there to swing the balance of your moral standing, even for little actions like healing or hurting one random citizen. In this way, it keeps the good player in check by not letting him go on a mindless rampage without consequence and the evil player in check by reminding him that he's not supposed to be healing anyone since he's, you know, evil.

The more significant cracks in the system come with the more significant choices.

The Illusion of Choice

Far and away, the biggest problem I see in inFAMOUS' moral choices is that most of the time, you really don't have a choice. In that example I mentioned earlier, where you must decide either to destroy the Raysphere or to activate it, it really doesn't matter what you pick. That Raysphere is going to activate regardless and it is going to kill John, the character that helped you find it.

But that's not the only point in the game where it wants you to feel like you're making more of an effect than you really are.

There's a point in the game, my favorite point actually, where Kessler, Cole's main antagonist, has armed several bombs around a section of the city with civilians trapped at each one. If Cole fails to disarm even one, they'll all blow up. So as Cole, you rush around the city, taking out enemies as efficiently as possible to rescue people, until you finally reach the climax of the mission: Kessler presents you with two buildings. From one dangles six doctors; from the other, Cole's girlfriend, Trish. There's time enough to save one, so which will you choose?

Honestly, the game floored me for a moment when I got to that point. While it wasn't an original concept, I couldn't remember the last time a videogame had given me that kind of a choice. I panicked in that moment, agonizing over who to save, and loved that a videogame was having that kind of effect on me. Of course, that feeling was totally ruined when I realized that I needed to pick the good option and save the doctors, but not because I wanted to. No, I needed to save the doctors since I was already playing as good and it made no sense from a gameplay standpoint to save Trish and take the evil Karma hit.

To make matters worse, it really doesn't matter which option you choose: Trish is going to die. Either you picked the doctors and she fell because that was your choice, or you picked to save Trish but it turned out that Kessler had pulled a Joker from The Dark Knight and switched them around, so that Trish was actually with the doctors.

Talking specifically about this point in the game, Sucker Punch's game director, Nate Fox, said that "it isn’t a black and white choice, but that’s what makes it a good one." He's right: Saving Trish really isn't an evil act; it's just a selfish one. But the game categorizes it as either black or white, rewarding either good or evil Karma. It's totally binary and Trish dies either way.

So why give me the choice if they both result in the same thing?

A Man Without A Country

Finally, a lot of these choices would be more powerful if the characters were more likable. Cole's best friend, Zeke, is annoying as hell from the very beginning and only gets immeasurably more so as the game continues. Trish is a total, complete bitch from the start who I couldn't bring myself to care at all about.

It didn't matter how much good I did in the city, how many people I healed, or how much I sacrificed, Trish still viewed me as a terrorist and refused to listen until the moment when I decided not to save her and she fell to her death. Then, of course, she forgave me. Yeah, okay. So why was I supposed to care about her again?

The citizens of Empire City are usually no better. Heal one and they might say "thanks" before casually walking off like nothing happened. Occasionally they'll snap photos of you, which can be funny, or cheer in an embarrassing "you're playing a videogame!" way. Sometimes, if you've cleared a section of the city, the citizens might help you by throwing rocks at a stray enemy until he goes down, and that's definitely encouraging to see. But in general terms, citizens don't present a good motivation unless you're playing as evil, in which case they'll throw rocks at you, becoming a big motivator to be more evil.

By the time I finished inFAMOUS on my good playthrough, I was so pissed off at most of the characters I'd sacrificed so much to protect that playing as evil was a breath of fresh air. But not as much as I thought it would be.

Going down the evil path isn't really as evil as you'd expect. You're still saving people and doing the same things you'd do if you were going down the good path. Why would evil Cole care about saving random citizens? He kills random citizens all the time.

So it would have been cool to see the evil path be truly evil rather than just a slightly modified version of the good path. Though it's totally worth it to play as evil by the end of the game because you're rewarded with black lightning bolts and a blood-red sky. Awesome.

Even though many of inFAMOUS' moral choices fall flat, the mechanic itself is definitely still interesting. The stark moral choices and Karma system are really more bothersome in retrospect than in practice. In the context of the game, they don't offend nearly as much as you might expect as you get used to Cole's gravely exposition detailing his every thought. It just becomes part of the experience.

inFAMOUS is a totally awesome game that I still hope everyone gets to play at some point now, but let's hope the moral choices in the inevitable sequel are much more meaningful and thought out.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Just Try Not To Get Excited For God of War III

It's no secret to anyone who knows me or has been reading this blog for awhile, or casually passed me on the street, that I love the God of War series. It's easily my favorite game franchise thanks to the main character, Kratos, being a total badass with a gripping story, always beautiful graphics and inspired art style, and the games just always seem to nail it. While I haven't played it myself, I hear even the cell phone game was pretty awesome.

So the God of War III demo they showed at E3 this year totally got me jacked up for some bloody God of War action. Here it is, finally in beautiful direct-feed, though I'd definitely recommend watching it in HD instead:

I think my favorite new feature of the game is not anything like awesome way Kratos can mid-air grapple to enemies, or ride a Cyclops around murdering fools in his path, or even rip a god's head straight from his neck with his bare hands in what is easily one of the most brutal scenes I've ever seen in a videogame that I can only hope won't get censored.

No, no, sir. My favorite new feature is how Kratos can get absolutely soaked in blood.

It's particularly noticeable after he rips the eye from the Cyclops (which now includes optic nerve) and blood shoots all over Kratos' face and torso. You get a really good look at bloody Kratos after he's ripped Helios' head off and is casually examining it as it just keeps screaming almost comically. The game just looks amazing.

Like I said, just try not to get excited for God of War III.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Redesign A Go-Go Baby!

Let's put it this way: I need to stop being a perfectionist.

I went into the site's HTML to change one tiny thing and ended up hours later, waist-deep in code with twenty Photoshop windows open. Yeah, this redesign is something I've been meaning to do for a long time, but this is ridiculous. When you've got work in the morning, don't start redesigning a website.

Well, whatever. You're looking at the product of a foolish all-nighter. The background's a slick black now, the text a brilliant white, and my eyes a sweet shade of blood-shot that I'm sure my co-workers will love.

I even found a way to make the entire blog wider, which required a lot of trial-and-error and culminated in me realizing that I needed to expand the site's banner. Then I realized some of the icons needed to be replaced, some text and link settings modified, and every single review, preview, feature, rating, in the news, and contest story banners (still) need to be updated to match the black background. Awesome.

You can see now how this all snowballed from one ten-second easy tweak to a six-hour trip through insomnia.

And to top it all off, I spent a good chunk of time trying to get rid of the white separator lines you see between posts and sidebar items, and totally failed. So if anyone out there knows how to manipulate Blogger's HTML to do that, please contact me. Also, I want links to be underlined when you hover over them, and despite putting in the correct code, it still refuses to work. Again, any help would be much appreciated. Thanks, GreenLava.

I'll leave you with the before and after shots:


Thursday, June 11, 2009

inFAMOUS Review

inFAMOUS is a game that does so many things right that the things it does wrong cease to matter. Most of the powers don't make any logical sense, but are so much fun to use that you just won't care. Electricity lets me glide? Sure, okay. Electrical rockets? Why not? Without hesitation, once I beat it playing as good, I immediately restarted to play as evil and have invested a ridiculous amount of time overall. It's so easy to play for hours more than intended, collecting "blast shards" in the city and just messing around. While it could use a bug-fixing patch, inFAMOUS is a fantastic game easily worth $60.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Another Uncharted 2 Beta Code Giveaway

UPDATE: Okay, that last code is gone! The correct answer was "candy." You could've either found that on Penny Arcade or right here on the blog in the very first post way back in January 2007. Thanks everybody for participating. Cracks me up seeing my PS3's inbox full of messages from random people with only "candy" or "bananas" as the message.

ORIGINAL: That's right: Another Uncharted 2 multiplayer beta code giveaway. I've already given away two codes, but it seems that I've managed to get my hands on another. So you know what? I'm giving this one away too.

The same rules apply as last time: First one to send me a message through the PS3 containing a specified message gets the code. This time, though, I'm going to make it a tiny bit harder since I've only got one code. Just answer this riddle:

what is delicious

I'm looking for a specific word. It really shouldn't take you long at all to find the answer, realistically speaking. This is the Internet, after all.

My PSN ID is "whatisdelicious" and here's another hint since everybody so far has been guessing

You don't have to leave this blog to find the answer. Mind you, it still shows up on Google if you still want to go that route.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Uncharted 2 Multiplayer Beta Impressions

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was a great game that completely fell apart by the end. The supernatural twist made no sense whatsoever and turned the game into something nobody wanted it to be, and enemies in general could take so many bullets that I had to put it on easy difficulty before the logic center of my brain could explode. Say what you want about me playing on easy, but guys wearing t-shirts shouldn't be able to take five AK-47 rounds to the chest and keep coming like nothing happened.

So going into Uncharted 2's multiplayer beta, I was hoping that it wouldn't take an unreasonable amount of shots to take down other players. After playing the beta for the last two days, I feel like it still takes far too many bullets to kill other players. Guns just don't feel powerful, and when there's as much cover as there is in the two maps included in the beta, it's too easy for opponents to slip away after taking half a clip.

While the guns in the beta are standard fare for Uncharted, the grenade launcher is easily one of the most badass weapons to kill someone with in any multiplayer game, ever. Seeing it in action is absolutely terrifying. Grenades fire out in a spiral that leaves a smoke trail before ripping apart another player.

The levels in the beta feel pretty small and dense; they could definitely benefit from some breathing room. Their best design feature is their verticality, allowing players to scale to the second floor of some buildings. This part definitely makes the multiplayer feel like Uncharted; it's a lot of fun to climb and set up your own little spot on the map to take people down from. Hopefully this verticality is emphasized more in the final game as it's what kept the multiplayer interesting for me.

As this is a beta, there are still some technical issues being worked out. For instance, I was taking cover in the middle of a level, poking my head out to fire on some unsuspecting players when all of a sudden, from the bottom-left corner to the top-right, the lower half of the screen went completely black. It reverted to normal in a moment, but served as a definite reminder that I was playing a beta.

Luckily, that also means that the developers can iron out the other issues, like designing the levels a little better to prevent spawn camping. Three times I was killed immediately after spawning by a clever guy hiding behind cover with too many grenades. As well, hopefully there will be something along the lines of character customization, because while it's fun to play as Nathan and the rest, playing as a faceless bad guy is less interesting. It'd be nice to create my own avatar and see what other players make.

Overall, Uncharted 2's multiplayer beta shows promise (and it's absolutely gorgeous), but definitely has some significant issues to fix before it hits later this year if it wants to have any chance of competing for time against heavy hitters like Modern Warfare 2.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Uncharted 2 Multiplayer Beta Code Giveaway

UPDATE: Wow, this went a lot quicker than anticipated. I'll try to do something like this again in the future (I hate wasting extra codes). A huge thank you to both winners and everyone else who sent me a message!

ORIGINAL: Hey everybody.

Well, I've found myself absolutely flooded by Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Multiplayer Beta codes. And by that, I mean I've got three. I bought inFAMOUS, I'm a Qore subscriber, and then Sony literally sent me another one about five minutes before this post went live. Cool.

I only need one for myself, so the first two people to send me a message through the PS3 with the word "bananas" in the message will each get one Uncharted 2 beta code. That's all there is to it.

My PSN handle is "whatisdelicious." Surprise, right? So get cracking. The multiplayer beta goes from June 3 to June 28.