So I finally got around to playing and reviewing inFAMOUS: Second Son, which can be found here (shameless plug). For this opinion article I want to take a look at how the karma system in inFAMOUS operates. Through three games players have chosen between good or evil, but the latest installment, Second Son, showed this system’s age. Overall inFAMOUS hasn’t seen much change since the original debuted in 2009. For the franchise going forward, this system needs to be improved for future games in the series. There are two facets of the karma system I want to discuss: the overarching concept of the good vs evil karma and karma opportunities found through the game.
Just to clarify, inFAMOUS doesn’t have a bad or broken morality system. However, after three games it hasn’t seen much change or improvement. In my Second Son review, I found the side missions, the lack of karma specific missions, and karma opportunities to be underwhelming. The karma system needs to be improved for subsequent games to be better than its predecessors. Before this can be done, there are two hurdles to overcome. First the karma system, at its core, is the inFAMOUS franchise’s identity. Choosing the path you think is right… or wrong, allowing players to be a famous hero or an infamous villain. An inFAMOUS game cannot exist that completely excludes the karma system; otherwise it would be no different than a generic superhero game. A way needs to be found to give players choices, while at the same time, being true to the identity of the franchise.
By incorporating this karma concept into the game, Sucker Punch creates a story with two separate paths. That is the second hurdle. The obvious positive in a second playthrough are the differing story elements, missions, and powers which entice players to play through the game twice. Players bought this game, and can play it not only once, but twice in a different way no less. In inFAMOUS’S case however, there is a negative to these two separate paths.
The main plot points and events during the campaign cannot be too different, as they will act as constraints for a possible sequel. Creating vastly different good and evil karma storylines will make a sequel impossible. Sucker Punch would be forced to incorporate both storylines into a sequel. If enough of a difference exists, they would end up having to make two different games. For those who have completed both endings of iF2, this is a prime example of how making a sequel, in the form of an iF3, is not possible. They would have to choose one ending over the other (excluding the obvious reason why they cannot continue with the good ending). Although a direct sequel to iF2 did not happen, Sucker Punch still had to choose one ending over the other for the premise of Second Son.
The other side of the coin is that they need to create two storylines that are similar enough to incorporate in a possible sequel. Sucker Punch made the story similar enough to transition from inFAMOUS 1 into inFAMOUS 2. Spoiler for inFAMOUS 1, (come on, the game’s five years old already) an important character to Cole dies regardless of the karma choice Cole makes in inFAMOUS. While this is an incredible twist during your second playthrough, as the realization he/she dies regardless of the option you choose, this event is consistent in both playthroughs. Think about this… what if they lived in one playthrough and not the other? How would that affect the ENTIRE context and story of inFAMOUS 2? The playthroughs had to be close enough in terms of plot for the sequel. It didn’t dawn on me until writing this article, that this instance would have had an impact on the sequel if it wasn’t consistent (nice job 20/20 hindsight).
Now this is assuming Sucker Punch plans on making sequels. A game planned without sequels can go off into any territory it wants without having to worry about any implications it has to future titles. If that is the case, Sucker Punch doesn’t have to overall the karma system, but needs to make both playthroughs unique. They would still need to the concept of “karma opportunities” to the next level.
Right now there has been no word of a Second Son sequel, but it would surprise me if we didn’t see Delsin Rowe again. When planning games, Sucker Punch has to walk a fine line between both good and evil karma playthroughs. Too much difference and a sequel becomes impossible, not enough difference and having two playthroughs really doesn’t matter. A direct sequel for InFAMOUS 2 was not likely; therefore Sucker Punch had room to work during iF2’s development to make both playthroughs unique enough. Despite the differing endings in Second Son, the actual campaign is largely the same. Out of the three inFAMOUS games Second Son has the least amount of karma choices players have to make. Even so, they still run into a problem regarding a Second Son sequel due to it’s endings.
Much like iF2, a Second Son sequel may have to choose one ending over the other. If that becomes the case, the other ending now becomes non-existent. So what’s the point in having two endings and giving players choices if the next game will choose one over the other? The franchise finds itself in a predicament:
How can future games keep the franchise’s identity, while balancing two separate playthroughs, making them unique enough to avoid a disappointing second playthrough but similar enough to incorporate both into a potential sequel?
I thought long and hard about that question. Then I took a nap. I probably had a few beers afterward, possibly too many beers. Then I came up the following. Some may seem like blasphemy considering what I have talked about above, but bear with me for the duration of the article:
- A singular ending, where regardless of choices throughout the game the core ending remains the same.
- Civilian Perception as the driving force behind whether the protagonist is considered a famous hero or an infamous villain, not the protagonist him/herself.
- Player choices as ambiguous moral choices, not the simplistic “blue” vs “red” choice, leading to a positive (good) or negative (bad) outcome.
- Get rid of “karma opportunities” and create a sub-campaign to replace it. This sub-campaign can be followed in the traditional inFAMOUS way ensuring players can pursue a desired karma outcome.
For the “singular” ending, the main result of the campaign is the same regardless of karma choice. If the city gets decimated by the antagonist in the final battle, regardless of what karma the player ended up with… the city still gets decimated. This ensures that a sequel can come from the game’s ending: we have to worry about incorporating both endings into a game. This also avoids the dilemma of picking a certain ending for a sequel and making the second ending/playthrough utterly pointless.
Now you may be thinking, “Matt, but isn’t that stepping on the whole, ‘identity’ component of the franchise?” Well yes… a bit. But the main identity isn’t the ending, it’s the gameplay; the different paths leading to the ending and how much they differ. I will get to that in a bit, but I want to focus in on how the “core ending remains the same”. There may be small differences and events in the ending, depending on what karma you reached the end-game with. To put this in context, let’s say our protagonist, Bryan (yeah let’s go with Bryan) teams up with another conduit, Petey, over the course of the campaign. Depending on the choices made, they could ally themselves to defeat the antagonist or end up becoming enemies. Let’s say regardless of the choices players make, by the time the credits roll, Petey… lives. Good karma results in a straight forward superhero tag-team to defeat the antagonist. Evil karma results in them becoming enemies, and fighting, before eventually reaching an agreement (Petey comes over to the dark side) and defeating the antagonist.
What if SP decided to not keep Petey alive? A single ending is still possible, but with the good karma playthrough he dies during the last confrontation with the antagonist. For the evil karma playthrough, due to Bryan’s decisions, Petey and Bryan become enemies. At one point in the game, Petey dies during showdown between the two characters (sorry Petey). In this way, two playthroughs have different events with one having a unique boss battle not found in the other playthrough. The overall outcome remains the same. Sucker Punch does not need to create more than a single core ending with two versions; as such this core ending will survive as the definitive cannon ending for a sequel to be based off of.
Now, here is where I start to ruffle some feathers. It’s an idea that can be incorporated with #1 and #3, but can be dropped entirely. However, it does work well with supporting a singular ending and building a sequel off of it. Instead of leading the protagonist down a road of good or evil, the decisions the character makes and their resulting consequences present the protagonist as either good or evil. The developers can create a protagonist that follows what he/she believes is morally right, but due to decisions players make in the game the protagonist can end up with evil karma. To elaborate further, I want to present to you, Batman. For those who have seen the Dark Knight, during the ending, Batman convinces Commissioner Gordon to frame him for the murder of Harvey Dent. The result is Batman who is portrayed as the villain through the circumstances of his choice, but in reality is the hero. This way, we can keep the overall personality, goals, viewpoints, etc of the protagonist intact, regardless of whether players end up following good karma or bad karma. To reflect the karma, citizens can like or dislike the protagonist. This has been done in past games to reflect the player’s current karma. I think this is a dynamic way to show how people feel about the protagonist.
From a gameplay stand point, the people who perceive our protagonist as a villain will have act in a negative way to him. This influence can result in him being more angry at the people enabling access to evil karma abilities. As I stated, this can be coupled with providing choices where one is “riskier” and has a higher chance of providing a bad outcome. With that in mind, it’s time to do away with decisions that are so black and white.
Choosing blue for good and red for evil feels too straightforward. Choosing the good option means the mission will result in a positive outcome. A morally grey approach will make players think about their actions, about what might happen. Is choice A morally good, or is choice B?
Here’s another aspect of morally “grey” choices to think about. For those who have played an inFAMOUS game before, did you decide to pursue certain karma, and then stick to it for the duration of the game? I did, every time, for all three games. At no point did I choose an evil karma option when my goal was to achieve maximum good karma (or I wanted the good ending, or to unlock good karma powers, etc). While this may not reflect all players, it wouldn’t surprise me if this was the case.
In a way, starting a game then choosing a specific path to play undermines the entire reason for choice. Players may selectively make a decision based not on what they want to do in a particular situation, but for the end goal of a specific karma. Regardless of the situation presented to the players, they will choose one option over the other. With a morally grey approach, players will have to think about what choice would result in a “good” outcome, if that is the karma they are working toward. They will be forced to think about the possible outcomes for both choices before choosing the best course of action.
Sucker Punch has room to work with this set up. They can either be straight forward allocating one decision to have good consequences, while the other has bad consequences. They can also use this to lure players into thinking they are making a “good” choice, but due to events that occur during the next mission, their choice has negative consequences that portrays our protagonist in a negative light. That way, they have more flexibility to craft the story they want, at the same time giving the players the opportunity to make decisions, to the best of their ability, to make their protagonist into a famous hero or an infamous villain.
There is a downside to this morally grey approach. Players will have a harder time choosing one specific karma route for the sole purpose of being purely good or purely evil. However, players can still make their decisions based on which one they think is good or bad. Those wanting to make bad choices will choose the path that seems to lead to an evil outcome and vice-verse. With either choice shrouded in grey, players will not know, with 100% certainty, what karma their choice leads too. Players will find a harder time to choose only good or evil missions. If SP does try to create twists and turns, by making choices seem good but end up with negative consequences, it will make maxing out a specific karma very hard… on the first play through. Players will be more enticed to play a game multiple times, maybe not just twice, to see what missions their choices lead too.
Karma opportunities have been around since iF1. Healing civilians will give good karma, while hurting or killing them give evil karma. This is something I think should remain in future titles. However, going after street musicians for evil karma or stopping drug busts is much too boring. In retrospect, karma opportunities are shallow events to increase, albeit slowly, a specific karma. They aren’t particularly engaging and lose their luster after a few times. My second playthrough consists of ignoring these opportunities. If I needed a few points of karma, then I would pursue these opportunities. Resources would be better served to create a sub-campaign, made up of mini-missions.
Imagine if Delsin didn’t go around indiscriminately busting drug dealers with no overall aim. What if he followed the drugs up the food chain and took down drug leaders and bosses in each district. Here he is working towards a positive goal. On the flip-side, maybe Delsin could take over the territory of the drug dealers, capitalizing on their gain. Instead of a monetary reward, he could get blast shards from dealers he has under his control. I would pursue the sub-campaign to have a different experience than in my other playthrough.
The inFAMOUS franchise may be around for a long time to come. It’s world is only limited by the amount of characters, powers, and stories it’s creators can dream up. With three games under Sucker Punch’s belt, the time to make upgrades/changes to the karma system. It showed its age during inFAMOUS: Second Son, with limited karma choices and missions and dull karma opportunities. The constraints from having to account for two playthroughs results in problems for potential sequels. Providing morally grey choices to players allows them to make decisions in the here and now, without consciously or unconsciously adhering to a specific path determined before the game first started. For sequels, having a single core ending will be beneficial to breaking the constraints of having good and evil karma playthroughs ending up as either too similar (bad for replayability) or too different (bad for sequels). It allows more flexibility to craft a story and mix up events that occur during the campaign. With public perception and not the characters choice to do evil driving karma, the protagonist’s character can remain consistent. This also makes sequels easier to manage when your character doesn’t end up causing mass casualties, during a specific playthrough/ending. Whatever happens, I’m excited to see what the next inFAMOUS game will be, whether it is a direct sequel or introduces new characters.