Elaboration on why Infamous's moral choice system sucks.
January 04, 2010

First of all, yesterday I wrote and posted reviews for Infamous and Halo 3: ODST, both of which have since been swiftly brushed from the front page, which I guess is what I get for posting them on the night of a contest deadline. So, I'm forced to advertise my work here instead. Do give them a read, if you get the chance.

Now then, I'd like to talk a little bit about why I hate Infamous's moral choice system so much. I didn't want to go into great detail in my actual review, because as I said, Infamous is a great game and I'd rather spend my time gushing over what the game does well. Good thing I've got a blog where I can write stuff like this.

My issue with moral choice systems in games isn't that they're overdone, but that they're so often implemented out of obligation, i.e. to satisfy the developer's desire to be "with it." Developers these days seem to think they're something wrong with a good, old-fashioned linear game. Thing is, if you neglect the whole "moral" aspect of moral choices and refuse to give each such dilemma an actual, contextual weight, all you're doing in creating a linear game that players are forced to complete twice if they want to see everything. (Yeah, I realize Yahtzee said exactly the same thing, but hey, I agree with him.)

[I'm going to pull a specific example from Infamous, and it concerns the fate of a certain character. So while I won't ruin anything major, if you don't want any part of the plot spoiled, stop reading now.]

The main character of Infamous, Cole McGrath, has a girlfriend named Trish. Towards the end of the game, Kessler, the main villain, kidnaps her and offers Cole a choice. Trish is dangling from one very tall building; six doctors hang from another. Cole only has time to save one, and must choose between Trish or the doctors. I was playing as Infamous Cole (which means I'm evil), so I went with the selfish choice and chose Trish.

Then the twist comes: The girl I saved was just some random girl, disguised as Trish, who was actually one of the six doctors dangling from the other building. Kessler's plan was to punish me for my evil deeds should I choose to save Trish, and as such, she died, and the total body count was higher anyway.

Okay, I thought. Fair enough. That's karma.

Now, I've only beaten the game once, but I played it alongside two of my roommates, both of whom were playing as Good Cole (or whatever he's called). So, I saw this event unfold again, under the opposite alignment. And as I found out, when players opt to save the doctors instead, Trish isn't among them. The girl hanging from the opposite building really is Trish. So she still dies.

Let's go over that again: The game literally manipulates the event so that Trish is on the opposite building, no matter whom you wind up saving.

Now, it's generally okay for games with moral choices to be headed in the same direction no matter what. Mass Effect did that with its good cop/bad cop attitude, where Shepard was always the good guy, but players could approach situations with varying levels of aggression. What I don't tolerate is for opposing moral choices to both yield the same consequences, as in this case, when the player is identically punished no matter what. Because what's the point, then? It's not role-playing if our choices don't mean anything.

Anyway. I plan to review Prototype in the near future, at which point I'll have completed the Triforce of superpowered sandbox games (between that, Infamous and Crackdown). And I want to stress one more time: Infamous is sweet. Pick it up if you haven't already.

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