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inFAMOUS and the Illusion of Choice

I have just finished playing through inFAMOUS and I’m ready to speak my mind - hot as it might be. This piece will spoil a big part of inFAMOUS and even a bit of Bioshock So be warned. SPOILERS below.

Francisco Souki, Blogger

September 6, 2009

4 Min Read

This piece will spoil a big part of inFAMOUS and even a bit of Bioshock So be warned. SPOILERS below.

The general consensus is that it’s healthy to stay away from the notepad when hotheaded, inflamed or when in any other situation when reason might be compromised. But for games, and storytelling, I feel like the exact opposite may be best.

I have just finished playing through inFAMOUS and I’m ready to speak my mind - hot as it might be.

inFAMOUS is a game about freedom. The player is free to roam the world as they please, free to kill or help civilians, free to climb on buildings and drop from any height, free to spend experience points as they wish and free to choose which missions to complete and in what order. One would think, then, that inFAMOUS is a game about freedom of choice. Well, one would think wrong.

Let’s go back in time briefly and consider Bioshock for a bit, as it shares quite a bit of elements with inFAMOUS. Bioshock required the player repeatedly to choose whether to slain or rescue possessed little girls called Little Sisters. Killing them meant more XP and saving them meant less XP but some gifts along the way and, more importantly, peace of mind.

But then it all turned out to be false: the XP vs. Time curve showed that it really did not matter whether the player saved the girls or not, as the XP gain would even out with time. Bioshock made a great job of making the player believe that their choice mattered, when it really only meant a different ending. Bioshock gave the Illusion of Choice.

Back to inFAMOUS then, where choice seems to matter a lot more. They did what Bioshock should have done and made the difference between good and evil behavior more evident. They even created special reflection moments to prompt the player to really think about their choice.

They dynamically changed the art style a bit to reflect player choices, and restricted powers depending on player behavior. This is all nice and pretty, and motivates the player to choose a moral path, stick to it and be proud. But it doesn’t do much for the essence of the game. It’s too game-mechanicky. It feels shallow. Until the unexpected happens.

Suddenly there’s the character, the player avatar, standing between two buildings rigged with bombs. One of the buildings holds six hostages, all doctors; the other, the character’s girlfriend. The player must choose: save the doctors or save the girl? I must say I felt completely shocked by this - never has the fate of a bunch of pixels weighted as much in my hands. I stepped toward one of the buildings… screw the doctors, I love that girl.

I made a choice that I wasn’t entirely proud of, but it was MY choice. The game felt so much closer to me know, I had imprinted myself into it. It had let me imprint myself into it. Except that it had not. A cut-scene explained that I had not really saved my girlfriend, that I had been tricked because she was among the doctors. OK, I thought, I’ll replay the mission and save those guys then, and save her in the process. Hmmm, well no, not really because this time you were not tricked, see? Basically, she was going to die either way.

And I must say that sucks. That moment right there threw every other choice I had made into the dumpster. For a moment, it felt as if all the small choices were in preparation for this big, truly meaningful choice. And when that moment shattered, so did all those other, small moments.

When I reached the ending, I had very low expectations. The ending was surprising, tying the story in a cool, unexpected way. But again, it was identical regardless of any choice the player had made during the game.

In the game’s defense I will say that it could be interpreted in different ways, but the words and the imagery are the same. The only reward, the only difference comes after the credits, when the character makes a final statement that sums up the player’s behavior and how it has affected the world.

Every choice made dies with the game, with the virtual world. When we power the game off, the choices made lose all meaning, they are turned off along with the game. We are never left to deal with the consequences of our actions, never allowed to really care about our choices. We are given the Illusion of Choice. And when the illusion breaks we see the game for the piece of plastic that it is, and go to bed so we may forget about it.

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