It rained on Saturday afternoon. It rained and it rained and it rained. It rained so much that I couldn’t go out, not even to the cinema, not even for a walk. I was trapped, so I decided to invest some serious time in a video game. I powered up the PS3, slid the armchair just that little bit closer to the TV and I dipped my toes into the world of Sucker Punch Productions’ superhero sandbox extravaganza Infamous 2.
A few hours later, I unfolded myself from the chair and looked up at the clock on the wall… I registered 5 pm but my joints were screaming. How long had I been here? In something of a daze, I headed upstairs to my computer where I checked my email. My computer’s clock read 7:30 pm. Surely this was a glitch. I googled the time: same problem. I headed downstairs and asked my girlfriend what time it was and she pointed to the clock… the one that I had checked only a few minutes earlier. It now read 7:35 pm.
This experience left me feeling somewhat conflicted. On the one hand, there is something admirable about a game that can hold my attention for all of six hours. But on another hand, that shit is scary. Inspired by Infamous 2’s morality system, I thought I would devote this column to exploring my ambivalent feelings about the game. You see… Infamous 2 is the best of games and the worst of games. It just depends upon whom you are when you happen to look at it.
Infamous 2 is the Best of Games
Set a few months after the end of the first Infamous, Infamous 2 finds Cole MacGrath preparing to confront The Beast, a vastly powerful creature unleashed by the same explosion that changed the world and transformed MacGrath into the electricity-wielding transhuman super-being that he is today. However, despite being the most powerful human alive, MacGrath’s powers are insufficient to prevent The Beast from destroying Empire City. [Wow, really went gentle with the subtext there, didn't they? -- PGR]
Seeking time to prepare for the final battle, MacGrath and his friends relocate to the New Orleans analogue of New Marais, where MacGrath begins again with a clean karmic sheet. With a load of new powers to learn and a city lying before him, MacGrath’s path branches in two separate directions: either he fights to protect the citizens of New Marais and hold back the wave of change that follows the emergence of the super-beings known as conduits, or heturns his back on humanity and rides the wave of change all the way to history’s breaking point. The choice, as they say, is yours.
The strength of Infamous 2 lies not in its originality but in the excellence of its execution. Much like the Saints’ Row, Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed franchises, the game takes the form of a city containing areas to unlock, powers to discover and missions to undertake. The more missions you complete, the more the story advances and the more powerful your character becomes allowing him to do more cool stuff and unlock more challenging missions. Though excessively familiar by this point, Infamous 2’s sandbox structure finds an elegant balance between the simplicity of the Grand Theft Auto series and the increasingly cumbersome and distracting Assassin’s Creed series. In Grand Theft Auto 4, your choices are so meaningless that you might as well not be playing a sandbox game; in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, meanwhile, your array of choices is so vast that you wind up feeling like you are micromanaging an entire city. In Infamous 2 your choices are meaningful, simple and sufficiently well integrated into both the narrative and the experience system that your progress through the city seems varied, smooth and fun.
Infamous 2 displays its profound understanding of gamer psychology with a series of missions and tasks that perfectly balance challenge with reward. For example, every time you complete a mission, the city’s map is updated to show your ‘control’ of the area. Similarly, augmenting your energy reserves and unlocking new powers generally involve hunting for a series of blast shards or killing a number of enemies in a particular way, but these little tasks are always simple enough that you never find yourself giving up because there are too many shards to the next upgrade, or too many enemies to kill whilst climbing a wall. Infamous 2 is a procession of tiny achievements, and each and every one of them is perfectly weighted in order to maximise a gamer’s sense of accomplishment. Similarly impressive is the way in which the game humanises these little challenges by integrating them into the plot. This seems like an obvious move, but when you consider the absurd artificiality of the time challenges in the Grand Theft Auto games, the jokey side-missions in the Saints’ Row games and the miniature collecting in Shenmue, you realise quite how much of an accomplishment this is.
Infamous 2’s plot is very similar to that of the recent blockbuster X-men: First Class, in so far as it features a world waking up to the reality of super-powered individuals, and it tells the story of a group of such individuals who are faced with the choice between using their powers to protect the human-dominated status quo and using them to change the world and force it to acknowledge the presence of transhumanity. Infamous 2 presents this choice to the player in the form of a choice between two well-drawn female characters:
- The swamp-dwelling Nix represents an unconstrained and unapologetic attitude to life. Nix knows that she is no longer human, but rather than mourn her lost humanity she embraces the joy of being more than human. As a mere human, Nix was forced to live in the swamp and cower before the white men in hoods; now, as a conduit, Nix can rid the streets of the men who call her a freak.
- The former government agent Kuo represents a far more contrite and self-controlled attitude to humanity. In a touching scene, Kuo realises that, while she may no longer be human in the strictest sense of the word, her powers need not necessarily make her inhuman. Right from the start of the game, Kuo tries to remind MacGrath that the price of humanity lies in recognising the moral responsibility that comes with super-human powers
By framing the game’s political choice as a choice between two strong and well-drawn female characters and by flawlessly integrating that choice into a series of expertly balances challenges, Sucker Punch have created a gaming experience second to none. From climbing buildings to riding tram rails through to making decisions that will change the course of millions of lives, Infamous 2 is fun, fun, fun.
Infamous 2 is the Worst of Games
Having coaxed a goodly number of gamers into fretting about the fate of Empire City in the previous game, the makers of Infamous 2 begin by summarily wiping the city from the face of the map. Transferred to a loose analogue of New Orleans (when I say loose, I mean that there are swamps, street musicians and people who occasionally sound a bit like Gambit from the old X-Men cartoon), vest-wearing everyman Cole MacGrath stands before the city of New Marais with a blank slate and the opportunity to make a fresh start. Here is a new city to protect or destroy! Here is the chance to change the world! Here is the chance to accomplish something and feel good about it… until Infamous 3 comes along and the slate gets wiped clean again, presumably.
Finding an effective balance between the narrative simplicity of the Grand Theft Auto series’ sandboxes and the cluttered micromanagement of the last in the Assassin’s Creed series, Infamous 2 deploys a cynical arsenal of doggy treats designed to coax the player through a series of sub-missions. Every time you complete a sub-mission, a screen flashes up informing you that you have won a number of experience points; furthermore, the next time you check your map of the city you will be informed that the area surrounding the sub-mission has been permanently cleared of enemies. The more sub-missions you complete, the more territory you control.
These two feedback devices prove remarkably efficient at encouraging you to play the game: present gamers with a map to conquer and they will want to conquer all of it. Present them with an opportunity to win XPs that allow them to unlock powers and they will grind until their teeth fall out. We have been conditioned into this since childhood. We cannot help ourselves. As beautifully integrated and weighted as Infamous 2’s feedback mechanisms may be, their implementation is breath-taking in its cynicism: none of these metrics actually mean anything. You are just as likely to run across a militia war-band in a free zone as you are in a cleared zone, and your capacity to accumulate XP rapidly outstrips your capacity to spend them (as there are only so many powers in the game, and they’re only unlocked as a result of your attaining a level that has absolutely nothing to do with experience points). To play Infamous 2 is to be reminded that years of gaming have transformed you into nothing more than one of Pavlov’s dogs: ring the XP bell and a-drooling we will go-go.
Infamous 2’s manipulative side is also evident in the plot’s dramatic beats. Drawing on the same broad metaphor for social change as the recent blockbuster X-men: First Class, the game boils the fate of humanity down to a somewhat sexist choice between two hot babes: would you rather hump the unpredictably atavistic African-American Nix, or the button-down Asian goodie-two-shoes Kuo? Aside from the casual sexism inherent in this sort of narrative device, it is hard not to be struck by the shameless manner in which Infamous 2 uses broad racial stereotypes as a means of framing the debate. By using a black woman to represent the path of accepting MacGrath’s radical posthumanity, Sucker Punch are drawing on a long tradition of presenting black people as primitive, atavistic and sexually promiscuous. This identification even suggests that there might be something radical or even evil about a white guy choosing to date a black woman.
Similarly, the use of an Asian woman to symbolise the more conservative path of protecting the human-dominated status quo, Infamous 2 is tapping into the image of Asians are hard-working, disciplined and cerebral – the same image that helped Amy Chua to sell millions of copies of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011). Aside from the outright sexism and borderline racism of framing a political decision in such crudely sexual terms, Infamous 2 is also manipulating its audience by drawing on their latent social prejudices as a lazy alternative to proper exposition and thoughtfulness.
To play Infamous 2 is to have one’s buttons pushed. As my lost six and a half hours demonstrate, the game is so very adept at pushing my buttons that it left a bitter taste in my mouth. Infamous 2 treats its players like mindless junkies, and is more than happy to provide them with a constant stream of fixes as long as they continue putting in the hours and chasing those blast shards. However, by failing to either make its sub-missions meaningful or ground its emotionally manipulative narrative in a wider engagement with political ideals, Infamous 2 is a timely reminder of how shallow and soul-destroying video gaming can be. Forget Manhunter 2, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat or any of the other games whose graphic violence have called forth the ire of the moral majority, it is games like Infamous 2 that are really damaging our culture.
A Game of Infinite Jest
Taken in isolation, neither of these reviews captures how I actually feel about the game… and yet I cannot help but agree with both of them. For example, I was genuinely impressed by the way that Infamous 2 used both XP and marks on a map to lend my actions a sense of consequence that encouraged me to keep playing. However, I am also very much aware that this sense of consequence was entirely engineered, and so amounted to nothing more than an ability to manipulate me into spending more time with the game. But what is fun if not the characteristic that makes us want to spend more time doing something? Given that I am not so much resentful of the time I spent with the game as I am horrified by its capacity to draw me in and hold my attention, my unease can probably best be summarised as the fear that Infamous 2 may simply be too much fun.
A similar suspicion about the addictive nature of entertainment pervades both David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest (1996) and his article “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (1996). While Wallace considers many forms of addiction and muses over the myriad pitfalls of humanity’s unquenchable thirst for fun, his ambivalence to entertainment finds its most eloquent expression in the form of a film that is so entertaining that anyone who sees it is instantly compelled to spend the rest of their lives watching and re-watching the same succession of images. Helpless before this onslaught of pleasure, people eventually give up sleeping, eating and bathing; they simply stop living.
I would like to devote the rest of this column to exploring the unease we feel about the sort of narcotic joy that films such as “the entertainment” or games such as Infamous 2 might provide. It is my contention that the source of our unease about these forms of entertainment lies in their capacity to challenge the flattering images we have of ourselves both as individuals and a species.
The Arbitrary Distinction: Mindless and Mindful Fun
The problem that I am seeking to confront is quite neatly encapsulated by the use of the phrase ‘mindless fun’. While we may read Hamlet or Infinite Jest because ultimately those works entertain us, we are eager to distinguish between the sort of amusement and entertainment they provide and the sort of entertainment provided by works such as Zack Snyder’s 300 or Michael Bay’s Transformers. Bay’s films are mindless, but Wallace books and articles are mindful.
On a purely psychological level, this distinction strikes me as arbitrary. What are plots and characters if not the tools that writers use in order to elicit emotional reactions from their audience? We feel the tragedy of Hamlet’s futile and self-destructive pursuit of vengeance but we also feel the titillation involved in Bay’s frequent juxtaposition of the female form and classic cars and bikes. Both are attempts to cause certain parts of our brain to fire, and both sets of firings are entirely artificial, taking place as they do not ‘in the wild’ but in the artificial environment of a theatre or a cinema.
Much like Transformers, Infamous 2 is a highly effective piece of art, made with a superb working knowledge of how people interact with a particular medium. Michael Bay knows that people will enjoy seeing giant robots talk about sacrifice in front of a tattered American flag; Shakespeare knew that people would see the pathos in a man who destroys himself and his entire family in a futile quest for vengeance; Sucker Punch understand that by updating the map of New Marais, gamers will get a real sense of accomplishment from completing a series of meaningless side-missions. The arbitrary nature of the distinction between mindless and mindful fun is even more obvious in the clear double standard surrounding audience manipulation.
The Soviet film directors Eisenstein and Kuleshov were interested in how the human mind engaged with film as a medium. In particular, they noted that when presented with a series of disconnected images, humans tend to construct narratives linking the images together (an effect known as the Kuleshov effect):
Given this fact about human neurology, the Soviet Montage Theorists argued that it was possible to manipulate audience emotions in particular ways by choosing a certain succession of images and presenting them in a particular way. An excellent example of this sort of manipulation can be found in Alan J. Pakula’s political thriller The Parallax View. Note how the changes in music and the growing disconnection between images and captions manipulates us into changing our emotional response to certain words and images… so while we may feel warm and fuzzy towards images of mother and home at the beginning of the montage, we feel dread and hatred towards those same images by the end of the sequence:
A similar attitude towards audience manipulation can be found in the work of the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. Films such as Funny Games, Hidden and The White Ribbon work by using an audience’s skill at reading film against them. For example, in Funny Games, Haneke invites us to be horrified by the villains’ treatment of a middle-class family. He then engineers a situation where the audience are hoping that one of the family will turn the tables on the villains. Violent retribution achieved, Haneke simply has his character rewind the tape: Bad audience! No cheering at acts of violence!
The last time I addressed some of these issues in a piece about Bayonetta, I suggested that the distinction between mindful and mindless fun was entirely the product of snobbery. While I still think that snobbery accounts for a lot of the pushback against sensationalist forms of entertainment, I now realise that, far from being arbitrary, the snobbery is in fact linked to our perception of the motivations behind the manipulation.
When I wrote about the art house gaming, I suggested that art house cinema works by engineering a series of cognitive crises in its audience. By showing us characters in certain situations and engineering emotional reactions to those situations, art house films can prompt us to reconsider our attitudes towards what it is that we are seeing on screen. For example, Last Tuesday’s use of a post-apocalyptic setting along with elements from point-and-click mystery games suggests that the game is all about finding out what happened to the world. However, by refusing to fill us in on what happened to the world and creating an emotional landscape grounded in unease and disconnectedness, Last Tuesday’s creator Jake Elliott is forcing us to question how we might feel about our place in the world and that world coming to an end. Meanwhile, films such as Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and games such as Jake Eliott’s Last Tuesday are mindful because they serve to encourage us to think and to reappraise many of the assumptions that underpin our existence. On the other hand, games like Infamous 2 and films like Transformers, simply keep our minds occupied for a few hours.
This distinction between the good art that makes us think and the bad art that causes us to gurgle contentedly features prominently in the writings of Theodor Adorno, who suggested that most popular culture is in the business of preventing independent thought in order to protect the political status quo.
Given that there is no psychological difference between the manipulations of Funny Games and the manipulations of Transformers, I think that any attempt to ground the distinction between mindless and mindful fun in human psychology is doomed to failure. Indeed, sensationalist works like Transformers, Sucker Punch and Infamous 2 have all prompted me to think quite deeply about the entertainment I consume and how I consume it. However, while I disagree with Adorno’s attempt to paint some forms of entertainment as hostile to thought, I do have some degree of sympathy with the idea that some forms of entertainment are more politically acceptable than others.
Mindless Fun reminds us of the Horror of the Brain
When we sit down to play Last Tuesday or watch Tree of Life, we are engaging with forms of art that treat us as adults. They assume that we are intelligent, educated and literate beings who care deeply about the nature of the self and our place in the universe. To engage with this sort of art is to engage with something that expects the very best from humanity. Conversely, games such as Bayonetta and films such as Transformers assume the very worst about humanity and turn those assumptions into truckloads of money. To enjoy mindless fun is to be reminded that, far from being rational agents and God’s special children, we are in fact nothing more than ugly lumps of grey matter convulsing to a series of electric pulses.
In a piece from the New York Review of Books, philosopher Colin McGinn puts his finger on what it is that we find so unpleasant and unnerving about the brain:
Neurology is gripping in proportion as it is foreign. It has all the fascination of a horror story—the Jekyll of the mind bound for life to the Hyde of the brain. All those exotic Latin names for the brain’s parts echo the strangeness of our predicament as brain-based conscious beings: the language of the brain is not the language of the mind, and only a shaky translation manual links the two. There is something uncanny and creepy about the way the brain intrudes on the mind, as if the mind has been infiltrated by an alien life form. We are thus perpetually startled by our evident fusion with the brain; as a result, neurology is never boring.
Works that ground their appeal in quirks of human neural architecture challenge the view that humans are self-contained and perfectly rational beings. By playing on deep-seated fears and weird cognitive biases, these works cast doubts upon all of our thoughts and feelings. After all, if Michael Bay can manipulate our brains into caring about fictional giant robots, what does this say about the people we really do care about? Is love nothing but a squirt of chemicals? Is religious transcendence but an electrical fluke? The true crime of mindless fun is not that it is stupid or that it is politically reactionary, but that it reminds us that we are nothing more than an arrangement of neural circuits and chemical ejaculations that happen to produce this thing we call consciousness.
We Like That Which Flatters Us
As my opening reviews suggested, whether a work constitutes mindless or mindful fun is largely a matter of individual perception and predisposition. One can play Infamous 2 and be uplifted by the political allegory just as easily as one can play the game and hate the fact that it manipulates us at every turn. Similarly, there are times (as with the work of Haneke and Eisenstein) when the manipulative character of a work is a source of prestige rather than animosity.
The difference between mindless fun and mindful entertainment is that mindful entertainment flatters the images we have of ourselves. Tree of Life treats us as intelligent seekers-after-truth, and so we praise its disconnected images and music; Transformers treats us as nothing more than collections of base desires, and so we decry its heavy-handed imagery and fragmented inner worlds.
Whether we praise a work as intelligent or decry it as manipulative and stupid hinges upon how that work relates to how we see ourselves as individuals. People who like to think that they have things to learn will enjoy Haneke’s finger-wagging, while those who know that cinematic violence is a bad thing will decry it. Those who are quite happy with losing an afternoon in a game will praise Infamous 2’s capacity to hold their attention and the imagery with which it does it, while those who prefer to think of themselves as thoughtful will be horrified by how effective the game is at pushing their buttons.
Consumerism would not exist if it were not for humanity’s tendency to seek self-definition through the act of consumption. Whether it is the sneakers we buy, the coffee shops we attend or the art we consume, our identities are intricately bound up in our tastes and the aesthetic judgements we make about the world. The things we like are the things that pander to and broadcast our sense of self, the things we dislike are the things that either clash with that sense of self or cause us to question our sense of self in ways that we do not welcome. The unease we feel about real games such as Infamous 2 and fictional video cartridges such as Wallace’s Infinite Jest is really a manifestation of a deeper unease about the fragility of the self.
Jonathan McCalmont is a freelance critic living in the UK. His work has appeared in such places as Strange Horizons, The Escapist, Salon Futura, Gestalt Mash, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Vector. He also maintains a blog named Ruthless Culture where he writes about films, literature and the fundamental hostility of the universe.