[No Clip is an experiment in player interaction, where I return to popular games and play them with a set of critical restrictions to rethink what we thought we knew. Note: this edition contains MASSIVE SPOILERS for Infamous 2.]
As I perform the gruesome act again -- a thing that had begun to disturb me in such a way that I had stopped counting how often Iíd used it -- I couldnít help but wonder if I was that thing dying uncles and kindly butlers tell their superhero counterparts to be careful not to become. In a fictional city built to mirror our very own Big Apple, Cole is a scrappy, agile hero often misunderstood by the people he fights to save. But as I turn him into a terrifying killer, I wonder if the gameís main enemy, a violent, boisterous evangelist, is right when he calls me an abomination against God and nature.
Beyond his incredible powers of bending and wielding electricity, there is another trait that draws players to Cole MacGrath. Like all the best superheroes, heís incomplete. His weakness is reality. Though his ability to somehow throw electricity from his hands like grenades certainly makes him formidable at stopping an average knife-wielding mugger, heís no more than a man when it comes to guns and knives. Bullets will still meet his flesh with unfortunate consequences. He canít fly or teleport or surf his electric current into the atmosphere. In fact, Cole can only boost a faint few feet of the ground not unlike a toy gyrocopter. We like Cole because he struggles just like everyone else.
But there is something else that lurks below Cole MacGrathís electrically conductive skin and iconic messenger bag. An element that, when exaggerated, could be a much worse, even traigic, weakness plaguing him. You see, the designers at Sucker Punch included something very disturbing right at the heart of Coleís suit of powers. Its use is only mentioned for a half-second in the first gameís tutorial section, but remains as a widely available choice straight through the third game. In Empire City and later in New Marais, there is another abundant source of electrical power in these bustling cities that outnumbers parked cars and streetlamps. Human beings.
A strange inclusion allows the Ďheroí of the series to hurl an NPC character to the ground, clutch his hand across their face, and drag the bioelectric current from their body. With a loud rush of crackling air, the electric current comes out with such force that the victimís skeletal system glows through their skin. There is no limitation on who the victim may be, as it useable on stunned enemies and weakened civilians alike. A strange ability for a 'hero' to use.
Of course, the game doesnít ask you to ever use this power and most donít, as itís significantly more time-consuming and complicated in comparison to the simple button press to yank a few volts from, say, a rooftop air conditioning unit. But what if this wasnít how Coleís power worked? What if he was prevented from simply pulling electricity out of soda machines and power lines? What if he had to fuel his great powers at the cost of others? If Cole MacGrath was forced to find a ghastly, parasitic alternative source for his powers, could he still be the hero?
Cole follows the path of nearly ever superhero preceding him, with the usual prerequisite to obtaining great powers simply being his own disinclination. He probably wouldnít have agreed to gaining his powers had be been asked, considering the result was watching his city explode around him. Itís this very genesis of his powers that starts his character at the bottom of the pit, figuratively and literally. Cast as the scapegoat for the explosion and the ripple effect of Reaper gang activity, Cole is a lightning rod for all that becomes wrong with the universe he occupies.
Like any experiment of limitations, the difficulties became clear very quickly. Without the chance obtain quick infusions of health during the gameís more grave moments through the act of drawing upon the cityís electricity, Cole is a sitting duck. A single enemy given free range to fire even just for a few moments will end everything. This meant a huge change in strategy over my first playthrough. Brazen, unplanned head-on assaults were replaced with guerilla tactics. Striking enemies unaware, hurling them off rooftops with an electrical wave, and hurling whole cars and buses without discretion became the chapters of my new playbook. I ambushed enemies with quick, lethal attacks. Mercy took no part in it.
This also meant I could no longer be concerned with collateral damage. Though the act of throwing an entire car at a pack of enemies was an efficient solution, Iíd slanted away from it in my first playthrough for fear of hurting whole crowds of civilians that often ran about during conflicts. This time, though, I couldnít wait for them to get clear before I launched a salvo of grenades when I was working on a limited cache of energy. Conflicts had to start and end in an instant.
Because of all this, one thing became very clear; my hand would be forced to the dark side. Inarguably, the act of draining a personís life-force would be a pretty bad thing to do, especially in the abundance that would be necessary. In todayís video game morality system model, the extremes are where the action is. That is to say, you have to be very good or very bad to access the really cool stuff. Infamous 2 is no different, with the major suites of powers located on both branches of the karma meter. In for a penny, in for a pound, I suppose. Strange, though, that it turns out the karmic shift of scaring off a bucket drummer is identical to draining the very soul from an innocent civilian.
Of course, the bio-leech couldnít be something as ghastly as stealing a personís actual
soul, right? Unfortunately, my morbid curiosity confirmed that, yes, it is plausible. If one were to absorb electricity out of the human body, in whatever form of pseudo-science lets Cole MacGrath do such a thing, it would likely be from the plethora of neurons in the human body. These are the things that compose your nervous system, which sends electrical impulses to trigger muscles and interact with nerve endings. There isnít a whole lot of electrical current in the human body, relatively, but if it came from anywhere, it would be the nervous system. Of course, humans are always more complex and thatís precisely where it gets rather interesting.
As hypothesized by some biologists, clusters of neurons in the brain (particularly the Brocaís area) are known to activate in response to the motions and emotions of others. Specifically seen in animals imitating the body motions of other animals, a hypothesis has emerged that this portion of neuron activity is related to emotional response as well. The idea is that these neurons reflect the emotions of others back at ourselves and trigger our own emotions, which is essentially the definition of empathy. So, the question stands that if Cole MacGrath is absorbing the entirety of a personís neural electricity, could it be that he takes their soul along with it?
Thinking about the real science behind the act only made the idea all the more difficult. There has always been an option for any player to be an evil Cole MacGrath, but tossing cars around offhandedly and knocking down the occasional civilian felt rather passively destructive rather than straight-up evil. The pre-programmed evil sequences werenít really my own actions, but atrocities which played out without my control. Being an evil character within the game's initial parameters had previously just felt dispassionately wicked. This was different and full of moral conflict and it made me feel downright awful.
Many lines were blurred. The Militia, an ultra right-wing militarized collective that ruled the dilapidated city of New Maris, function as the predominant enemies of Infamous 2. They can often be found robbing and kidnapping people and shooting police, which fit them comfortably in the role of Ďbad guys.í But, on an individual level, I had to wonder if each and every enemy could really be an unforgivable villain beyond pardon? Was it Cole MacGrathís decision to not only fight them at any moment -- whether they were robbing a stranger or standing idly on a rooftop Ė but also rip their literal humanity from their dazed bodies that made them so prone to fire first? Maybe itís that same fear which drove these soldiers into the arms of a charismatic evangelical leader.
All this sacrifice is for a greater good, I kept telling myself. The true enemy of the game, the seemingly immortal Beast, seeks to destroy all of civilization. After it reveals itself at the start of the game, it proceeds to leave the literal apocalypse in its wake as it marches across the eastern coast of the United States. Cole MacGrath is the sole man destined to destroy it. My actions are justified because the only alternative is the end of the world. Right?
That became increasingly less clear as the experiment progressed. You see, for what itís worth, experiment or not, the world as written by Infamous 2 is remarkably darker that what I would have given the creators credit for before playing. You see, the moral choices you can take in the game do more than just cosmetically alter your lightning color and open up new power sets. The path of evil karmic actions isnít a frivolous or shallow one, but the route to an entire alternate, disturbing end to the storyline which is leagues different then the good ending.
Instead of defeating the Beast, Cole embraces his plan of igniting the power dormant within the tiny fraction of the population capable of using powers, known as Conduits. This act rescues them from the plague that ravages the nation but, in the process, carves a path of slaughter through the remainder of the powerless civilization. Through these murderous acts, Cole takes on the mantle of the Beast, the near god-like enemy force that spent the entirety of the game burning its way down the eastern coast. The lives of thousands of innocents are sacrificed to make way for a new evolution of humanity, which had become a rather familiar character trait of my perverse version of the character.
As this storyline fell into place alongside my struggle of playing with the handicap of bio-leech, a strangely unifying narrative thread began to reveal itself. Too often, the restrictions in place of a No Clip require me to vie against the established storyline and game mechanics. But, instead, a cursed Cole MacGrath falls into the darker side of the Infamous 2 storyline with eerie precision. A protagonist more fitting replaces what normally would have been a reckless, street musician hating, evil-for-the-sake-of-evil character. This twisted Cole MacGrath enters the finale the same way his story has gone thus far, sacrificing everything but himself with a global event of catastrophic and parasitic destruction.
In all my time playing modern narrative-centric games, the evil side has always been unappealing. Superficial acts of rampant violence powered by nothing more than boredom seem off-color for a hero of the ages. But when given a heady mantle of struggle and limitations, taking the evil course somehow becomes more viable and even authentic to the story. We see a criminal that violates the law for his or her own gain as deplorable, but the person who defies the unfair rules cruelly set for them as revolutionary. Cole MacGrath is still, vaguely, a hero at the end of Infamous 2, despite all my utter disgust for his acts, which is a turn of events that I satisfyingly did not even remotely foresee.
This is what our modern games need when designing morality systems. To provide the player with a storyline that justifies their evil deeds through struggle or, at the very least, give us reason enough for us to show them empathy. Characters that are indisputably good are just as difficult for us to comprehend as senselessly evil ones. Nothing is that simple and we know it. But a person that drifts into good or bad with the right reasons, or for any reason at all provided it is told well enough, is one that is more complex than the black and white morality bar. Emotional choices are something we can follow even if they take place in a world otherwise full of fiction. Morality systems in modern video games need to become complex alongside our protagonists if we intend to keep them as anything more than a gimmick. Evil Cole MacGrath brought me the same amount of emotional response as my original play-through as a good version, which is unique and something to be lauded.