I’ve come to wonder if, in regards to video games, the more exaggerated a player’s capabilities are, the more severe the limitations feel to that player.
In inFamous: Second Son, the player is capable of taking on the form of smoke, allowing them to climb to the top of buildings through air vents, whisping themselves several feet forward on land or in air, and hovering. Or, by harnessing the power of “neon”, they can sprint forward at high speeds, scale the side of a building, and, once again, hover. Yet these abilities all have their limitations. Once you leave the ground with neon, you drop like a rock. You either have to hover, which severely cuts down on your speed, or wait until you’re back down on the ground. You cannot scale a building at lightning swift speeds using smoke powers if there is no vent nearby. Even when you gain the power of flight, it is in short, limited bursts.
Due to each powers’ limitations, it feels as if the game is limiting the player. Which it likely is! In order to run for an infinite amount of time, for example, the player has to be able to purchase the upgrade for it. They can only run in short, swift bursts when they first gain their neon abilities. Because the player is given limitations to these superhuman attributes, they suddenly feel somehow handicapped.
Yet if you play any other open world game, one where the player is a regular human only able to run at standard human speeds, you understand the limitation. If you get in a car, you understand that your mobility has increased, but you’re still limited by the terrain, presence of other vehicles, and potential in-game laws that govern just how chaotic you can be before an authoritative force shows up. These are the sort of limitations we expect in these games because, even if the ability to run non-stop without tiring is an exaggeration of plausible capabilities, or the ability to run down a pedestrian or two with barely a quirked eyebrow from the surrounding populace, it’s a limitation we’re conditioned to expect from day to day life.
Here, in the world of inFamous: Second Son, all that conditioning is thrown out the window. Screw you, cop, I’m a super human! I can use cars to catapult myself high into the air!
But the power of flight, true flight, still alludes the player. So when it comes time to cross the bridge and reach the far building in downtown Seattle, you forget the convenience of making this trip in just a few minutes. You instead wonder why you can’t make it in just one minute.
To view it from a different angle, let’s take combat into account. Part of the limitations in inFamous: Second Son are based around your behavior. “Good karma”, actions which spare foes and help citizens, will develop powers that are more focused on precision while “evil karma”, merciless actions that slaughter foes and innocents alike, are more about area of effect. It makes sense, as a “good” player would want to be more careful about who they hurt while an “evil” player would have no concern for those caught within the blast radius.
Each of these abilities will thus be limited. Under certain combat conditions, the good powers really shine. When the player is able to keep enough of a distance and afford the opportunity to line up the perfect shots, they can dispatch foes at a faster rate. However, there are several moments when the game places a player in a smaller, closed in environment where stronger close-ranged or area-of-effect attacks would be more beneficial.
In either scenario, the player’s limitations can be felt. Even though they can withstand bullets and drop from great heights, they are increasingly being pushed against larger and stronger forces. The player is continually challenged, and they must fight intelligently if they plan to survive.
Fighting intelligently is a bit counterintuitive to the supposed advantage of super powers, is it not?
I know that’s likely a foolish statement, as super heroes are frequently being placed against unfair odds all the time. It is either up to some miraculous deus ex machina to save them or a convenient flaw in the villain’s plan that our clever and intrepid hero or heroine can exploit and thus emerge victorious. Yet such battles are rarely against your average mook, a horde of henchmen eager to tear our protagonist into several smaller pieces.
In the world of inFamous: Second Son, guns are still a threat. Even regular drug dealers armed with pea shooter pistols stand a chance at slaying our hero. Despite all of the powers at the player’s disposal, the best strategy is to have a plan of attack before leaping into danger.
All of these limitations keep the player from feeling like a proper super hero. All of these limitations are normal, and even necessary, for a video game to be properly challenging, however. As a result, I’d argue that the chosen medium for inFamous: Second Son helps keep it from being just another superhero imitation. It may occasionally be frustrating to deal with each powers’ limitations, but without those limitations the game would be broken.
Instead, inFamous: Second Son manages to feel like a more “realistic” super hero story without falling into the cynical pitfalls of Watchmen or the childishly gritty realms of Frank Miller or Todd McFarlane. Thematically and kinaesthetically, inFamous: Second Son, and all the entries in the series before it, manage to be their own thing.
The only design choice that I feel suffers due to its thematic consistency is how swapping powers has been implemented. In the greater inFamous universe, a hero, or Conduit, must draw from the sources of their power. If your abilities are based on electricity, such as Cole from the original games, then you have to draw from an electrical power source. This means that Delsin, the protagonist of Second Son, cannot easily swap powers at any time. He must draw from a specific power source for a specific type of power.
This is perhaps the greatest hindrance on combat possibilities within Second Son. While thematically consistent, it means the player has to go into combat scenarios with a specific power in mind. They must be careful how close they get lest they be spotted, so noting what power sources are located where is itself a trial, and a potentially impossible one. For the most part, a player is forced into beginning a fight with just one power, and if they desperately need to restore their energy then they could have no choice but to swap to another power mid-fight. This is especially detrimental if, say, the stronger and more area-of-effect focused Smoke would be what the player most needs in that given scenario, but all that is available is Neon.
I don’t know if I have a thematic solution to this. Simply pressing the L3 Button to swap between abilities would make a simple enough gameplay solution, with all powers using the same reservoir of energy. Drawing from any power source would restore what energy is remaining. But how would this logically make sense in the game world? Should better user friendliness override thematic consistency?
In my opinion, the benefits to usability would certainly override the narrative. We already know Delsin is special, after all, so it wouldn’t be too hard to come up with a reason for him to be able to twist and manipulate any power source within his body to be used for any other power. Or perhaps swapping powers mid-fight drains from that energy source a bit, preventing the player from swapping powers too often. Either way, to me, being able to swap from one type of power to the next on the fly would not only make combat more dynamic, it would keep the player from feeling the sting of each powers’ limitations.
By the game’s conclusion, those limitations are only feeling stronger due to the inability to swap on the fly. Navigating the world with one power just makes you miss the advantages of the other powers. Same is true for combat. Each power being different, each being limited, is a necessity. But just as the players’ capabilities become far more exaggerated, those minor limitations begin to feel like massive chasms.
That is what I’d argue cause most of the minor gripes and frustrations with inFamous: Second Son.