Video game designers like to talk about the verbs in their games, and those verbs — jump, shoot, punch, run, hide, talk, listen, watch — are what give their work meaning.
Infamous: Second Son, a new video game that is easily the best exclusive title for the new PlayStation 4 console, has a magnificent set of verbs. Some, perhaps the best, involve traversal. You can turn yourself into a puff of smoke and waft through fences or shoot through the ductwork in a high-rise. You can sprint at speeds that enable you to scale a skyscraper on foot. You can sprout wings and glide across rooftops.
Other, more frequently employed verbs involve destruction and violence. Shoot people with rockets made of cinder. Assault them with chains. Hurl sulfurous grenades. Summon an army of angels or demons to smite foes.
All of this is, as you might expect, totally delightful. Except that Infamous: Second Son — the latest in a series of games about genetically endowed superhumans who are suspiciously similar to Marvel's comic-book characters the X-Men — doesn't seem to want you to take too much pleasure in it.
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I should come clean. I played Infamous: Second Son as a bad guy. The game hands out "evil karma" for certain activities, including beating up advertising-sign twirlers, political protesters and street musicians. Delsin Rowe, the vandal who boasts in the opening scene that he is a "criminal mastermind," seemed like a charismatic jerk. So I played him as such, all the way through his battle in the streets of Seattle with a tyrannical American government.
Also, the game is called Infamous. So choosing the path that was described with that word seemed like the right thing to do, even if the game kept trying to make me feel guilty about it.
Despite what you might have heard about video game players, most of them want to be white knights, not Walter Whites (of Breaking Bad). Many games, including Infamous: Second Son, seem to include a branching-path choice — the kind where you can decide to be a hero or a villain — mainly to make players feel virtuous for having taken the road more traveled by.
In Infamous: Second Son, almost 85 percent of all players select the heroic path at the outset, according to the most recent statistics that Sony makes public on the PlayStation 4. About 35 percent of all players have at least dabbled in the evil path; the numbers add up to more than 100 percent because some players, like me, have tried both.
At last check, roughly twice as many players had reached the highest level of "good karma" in the game — ladled out for healing civilians, rescuing people from angry mobs, busting drug dealers and the like — as had topped out their evil karma. Fewer than 10 percent of players were roughing up a lot of street musicians or sign twirlers, while 60 percent regularly were rescuing people from the "suspicion pens" set up by the Department of Unified Protection, the militaristic government agency that tars Delsin and his allies as bioterrorists.
The game nudges, or maybe even outright pushes, players to behave this way. Those who choose the virtuous path are rewarded with a world full of citizens who cheer their every step. Supervillains like me are punished with street chatter that includes "I hate you," "I'll be glad when you leave, or die" and "There is no God!"
Infamous: Second Son is far from the only game to include a morality system with all the subtlety of an after-school GI Joe cartoon from the 1980s. But it's dispiriting that a game that looks this beautiful — at one point I found myself admiring the rebar in the rubble of a fallen bridge — and plays this exuberantly hasn't made even a smidgen of progress at improving how video games model the complexities of human behavior and ethics.
Instead, Infamous: Second Son is essentially content to convert the points that people have been racking up since the dawn of the arcade age into an illusion that its players are moral actors. Press one button when an officer in riot gear surrenders to you, and you score "good karma" because you've rendered him comatose. Press another button, and you're a heartless murderer. Either way, your tally goes up and you're moving on to your next victim.
More sophisticated models for assessing player behavior were proposed at the recent Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
Infamous: Second Son has no interest in these video game frontiers. But it does provide a pretty place to blow stuff up while feeling self-satisfied.