I can’t recall the last time I played a video game to experience a particular story. Sure, the Grand Theft Auto series featured some fun story beats after the third installment, but the true sandbox gameplay (namely running from as many law enforcement types as I possibly could) is what kept me coming back, game after game, hour after hour, day after day. Limbo (pictured, left), considered by many to be the best story told be a game in years, featured puzzles that bent my mind more than any plot twist could. It wasn’t until Red Dead Redemption came along that a truly engrossing story captivated a huge swath of gamers, though it snuck up on nearly everyone through techniques that the GTA series had long been making use of. I find Red Dead’s story, as well as that of Assassin’s Creed, another fantastically told tale with superb (but not perfect) game mechanics, to be notable but by far the top reason for playing either game.
The world of inFAMOUS 2, while fun to hop around in and try out all manner of powers on an endless group of evildoers, does nothing to really suck me in the way that Red Dead or even GTA IV did. In both of those games, when the controls would get just a bit too finicky and make a mission nearly impossible to beat, the promise of a resolution to a hanging plot thread would keep me going, pushing through a manic camera or a ham-fisted control scheme (you try riding a horse and keeping up with a caravan of marauders while Dead Eye aiming oncoming attackers and tell me a cowboy’s life ain’t hard).
Powers that are awe-inspiring to see are hampered by ineffective mechanics in actually using them (inFAMOUS 2)
When the horrendous camera gets stuck in a corner while a massive mutant pummels my poor, defenseless, blind Cole McGrath avatar, I think to myself, “What is this battle going to gain me?” The answer is usually one of a number of repetitive actions: another mission; more bad guys to zap, electrocute, or maim; a new type of bad guy to zap, electrocute, or maim; a slight bump in my relative karma (which will in turn eventually lead to more powers with which to zap, electrocute, or maim bad guys); or, in the case of the larger battles, a blast shard, which will give me bigger, badder powers with which to… well, you get the point.
Morality doesn’t play into things as much as any game touting this buzzword feature would like you to think it does, leaving a story that boils down to, “Hey, big bad thing’s comin’. Better get ready.” When you finish a mission, you get more powerful to prepare for this inevitable conclusion. When you find a side mission, the only reward is a checkmark that moves you closer to becoming all powerful, powerful enough to take on The Beast that is ripping its way down the East Coast. The bigger story here: How can Cole be considered a hero, regardless of the binary game choices leveled at the player, when, no matter which path is chosen, the East Coast is decimated beyond repair while Cole waits things out in scenic, exotic New Marais?
Regardless of who you piggyback on, the East Coast is gone. Deal with THAT.
And this, much more interesting story, is not one that I, as the controller of Cole, have any part in. The Beast is coming and eventually that battle will be joined, either using red or blue powers. Yes, Red Dead funnels everything towards a conclusion in much the same fashion, but the variety of missions and ability to do nearly anything you can think of in the open-world environment help to at least give the illusion that some contribution is being made to that story’s end.
I suppose the same could be said for inFAMOUS 2, but with game mechanics that seem to make it harder to enjoy the game as a fun, power fantasy and mission variety that leaves very little to the imagination, that conclusion feels like it will be less satisfying and more like a goal that’s just not worth reaching for.