Saturday, February 7, 2015

#82: inFamous: First Light: Less is More

One of the things I was told pretty regularly before I finished inFamous: Second Son was that getting the First Light expansion was worth it. Since it was a standalone DLC akin to that of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, this was something that people told me to play without even touching the main game. Because it was free on PlayStation Plus, I took the opportunity to play it after finishing Second Son. First Light, especially when compared to Second Son, is quite interesting to look at. This is because it is in a very unique position with regards to the franchise, which I will detail this week. Hopefully, First Light shows Sucker Punch a new direction they can take the franchise, to help alleviate some of the more common criticisms from both myself and other critics.
Released in August of 2014, First Light tells the story of Abigail “Fetch” Walker, the conduit Delsin takes his Neon powers from in Second Son. It shows how, after coming to Seattle, she finds herself embroiled in gang politics, narcotics dealing, and the DUP. Not only is her capture and transfer to DUP custody explained, but also her descent into anger and rage, resulting in the Fetch seen in Second Son.

The very first thing I noticed while playing First Light is that it is the very first game in the inFamous franchise that did not make use of the Good/Evil karma system seen in every other inFamous title to date. In fact, no morality system exists in this game. This does wonders for the story. Since Fetch has to become the character from Second Son, she cannot take a different path. Secure in the knowledge that the plot only has one possible outcome, the writers are free to delve deeper into the character and why she is making the choices she makes. Fetch is totally free to express her inner thoughts, take stances of her own, and define herself as a character.
Previous inFamous protagonists did not get that same freedom. Because the player could choose between being completely Good or completely Evil, the writers had to take both possibilities into account when writing dialog. The protagonist's dialog had to make sense for both a saint and a devil, with the exception of scenes that take place immediately after a karmic choice. In a sense, they served more as ciphers for the player than actual characters. Because of this, they could not take strong moral stances on anything, because the possibility existed that they would not take the path which they were advocating. Since Fetch can take moral stands, and form opinions of others, it makes her that much more strongly characterized as a result.
The other positive about removing the karma system is that is eliminates this need to allow players to choose between two overly extreme story choices. As I have talked about in the past, inFamous's karma system often makes the player make decisions between normal person or cartoon villain. Second Son had the opposite problem where choices felt far too similar on both sides in some instances. When these get removed, the writing becomes stronger just by virtue of not taking the player out of the experience with these inherently meaningless choices.

Another way in which First Light differentiates itself from Second Son is in the way powers develop. In Second Son, there were four different power sets that all played the same, but had different properties, because Delsin could use multiple powers. Fetch only has Neon powers, much like Cole in the original games only had electricity. Instead of having one template in which multiple powers are used, Fetch has one skillset which gets augmented gradually, over the course of the expansion. As a result, the sense of progression is a bit more pronounced.
What is more important to our conversation is how these powers can be upgraded over the course of the game. In both games, players need to gather some form of collectible. Delsin had to collect Blast Shards in Second Son and Fetch was required to gather Neon “Lumens” in First Light. For certain upgrades, Delsin also had to acquire a specific karma-level, either Good or Evil, to earn the right to purchase them. For example, only an Evil Delsin can upgrade his grenades to have a larger explosive range, while only good characters can heal themselves by subduing enemies without killing them. On the other hand, Fetch only needs to unlock the base power to purchase upgrades for it. Some can only be gained after beating the game, but without karma blocking off development, Fetch develops much more organically.

Overall, the removal of the karma system afforded First Light a number of opportunities not granted to other inFamous games. I know, deep down, that this is because it is only a $15 DLC, much like the Festival of Blood on the PS3. However, it still reveals that the franchise has been held back for a long time by what initially seemed like a necessity. At the time of the first inFamous, moral-choice systems were all the rage. Now, in an era full of choice-based games like those from Telltale, they seem very weak. Perhaps it is time to consider a change of pace for the series, now that we know it can work without such mechanics.

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