Video Games

Infamous: Second Son Lets You Smash Seattle's Anti-Superhero Security State

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Sucker Punch Productions

Infamous: Second Son, a recently released exclusive for the Sony PlayStation 4 game console doesn't quite deserved to be described as a political video game, at least not in the sense that there's some specific ideological message being delivered.

What's interesting, though, is the way game developers at Sucker Punch Productions have casually incorporated a slew of familiar issues about security state overreach into the story, world, and gameplay.

For the most part, Second Son is a fairly typical open-world action game that casts players as a Delsin Rowe, a young man granted a variety of superpowers that can be charged and activated by interacting with the environment (smoke power abilities require smoke, neon powers need neon, concrete powers use concrete, and so on). In this case, the environment is a digitally mocked up model of present-day Seattle, complete with all the recognizable landmarks, including a fish market, a neon-lit version of the Crocodile Café, and a fully scalable Space Needle. Running, jumping, and gliding around the gorgeously rendered virtual city is a lot of fun, and the game offers the best demonstration yet of the processing power and visual potential of Sony's new console.

But the game's vision of Seattle is informed by newsy security state fears: Rowe, the player's avatar, is a Conduit—one of a rare but growing cohort of individuals who can access all those special environmentally charged powers. In the game's world, the mere existence of Conduits scares a lot of people (protesters are a common sight in the game); they're branded as terrorists by the government and the media, and a heavily armed new agency, the Department of Unified Protection (DUP), is created to keep them in check.

Sucker Punch Productions

Shortly after the game begins, the DUP puts Seattle on lockdown. There are armed patrols and massive security checkpoints everywhere. DUP drones patrol the skies, and security cameras keep tabs on public spaces. In a nice touch, most of the DUP agents have been granted Conduit-like powers themselves—the same ones that they are supposed to be eliminating from the general population. (Indeed, the agency is run by a particularly powerful Conduit.)

In some ways, it's a pretty familiar sci-fi security state scenario. But many of the specifics—the checkpoints, the cameras—are also pretty clear inspired by contemporary concerns about surveillance-state excesses. The DUP resembles a sort of exaggerated, hyper-militarized mash-up of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), with maybe a little bit of the border patrol and SWAT thrown into the mix as well. In the end, the DUP chief's motives turn out to be a little bit complex, but there's never any question that the agency is the game's villain. You spend an awful lot of time moving Rowe through spectacular set-piece battles with the DUP, and many of the game's objectives involving destroying DUP equipment, checkpoints, and patrols. 

I don't think the game, which relies on a fairly typical comic-book-style plot about a young man gaining powers, has a particular political message in mind. But its casual use of security state signifiers does suggest how common those worries now are, how far they've spread, and how deeply and thoroughly they've penetrated the pop-culture consciousness. 

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  1. So X-Men meet The Patriot Act? Sounds like fun.

  2. I don’t think the game, which relies on a fairly typical comic-book-style plot about a young man gaining powers, has a particular political message in mind.

    Pretty sure the views of the game developers are more along the lines of “fuck those cops and spooks for not creating People’s Revolutionary Tribunals to execute the Wreckers and Kulaks who are the Real Enemies of the People.” How about calling them Kinship Guide Builders?

    1. I don’t have a clue what the politics of video games are. Video games, especially RPGs, are sort of inherently libertarian in some ways. You’re generally playing as single person against a crowd. Your main task is to develop yourself and accumulate property. The “authority” that exists is generally incompetent, corrupt, and/or evil. Even the “side” that you work for is often flawed.

      1. I know what io9 wants the politics of video games to be.

        1. io9 are a bunch of writers/ “journalists”. Most of them are leftie twats. Game developers? Who knows, very rarely do they preach at people about politics through their games. Probably because such a game wouldn’t sell worth shit.

      2. I’ve been replaying Knights of the Old Republic II recently and I can’t think of a better example of what you’re talking about. I’d love to see Reason interview Chris Avellone–I’m not sure if he identifies as a libertarian, but there’s definitely a strain of anti-authoritarianism/anti-collectivism in the games he’s written.

        For example, in KotOR II, there’s a scene with the fairly typical RPG trope of a beggar approaching you and asking for money. You can give him some or threaten to kill him to scare him off. If you give him the money, one of your party members admonishes you, saying that what you think is altruism may actually not be a kindness, for by giving the man what he has not earned, you’ve robbed him of the chance to stand on his own two feet…and then you’re shown a scene where the man you helped, while celebrating his new good fortune, is targeted by a mugger and stabbed to death.

        Pretty heady stuff for a Star Wars video game, don’t you think?

        1. there’s definitely a strain of anti-authoritarianism/anti-collectivism in the games he’s written

          Its almost structural, in the nature of constructing a playable and engaging RPG.

          1. And yet, nobody wants to try ordering the real world like that just to see what might happen.

          2. You don’t think a game where you follow orders and take no risks would be fun?

            1. Can I sexually assault people and get away with a paid vacation?

              1. It’s a shame that Kickstarter for a new, modern successor to the old Police Quest series failed. It was supposed to be very realistic, I imagine the main action of the game would have involved a lot of shooting puppies and falsifying reports.

        2. Ah, KOTOR, one of the last great console RPGs to ever bless this earth. Sometimes I google “KOTOR 3” hoping to find something, anything, a sliver of hope…

        3. That’s pretty awesome. Though in Dragon Age, another Bioware game, there is that encounter early on with a price gouging merchant. I think you get bad boy points for anything other than robbing the guy and redistributing the goods to the townspeople.

          1. Not to sound like a really nerdy pedant, but since I’m a really nerdy pedant, I feel obliged to point out that:

            1. Bioware didn’t make KotOR II, only the first game in the series. Obsidian Entertainment developed the sequel.

            2. I actually really liked the way the “morality system” in Dragon Age worked precisely because it didn’t just give out “good guy/bad guy points”. Instead of a single sliding scale, you had “Influence” with all of your party members, and they would all judge you independently based on your decisions. So allowing the merchant to operate unimpeded may dock you a few points with, say, Alistair , because of his moralizing and idealistic personality, but you might simultaneously gain respect with other party members for your dispassionate approach to the problem.

        4. My favorite thing in KOTOR II a part of the game where you have to option of stopping a couple of muggers or thieves (I forget which) by using the Jedi mind trick to convice them to jump off a cliff. They even end up rationalizing it. “Well, that would be the fastest way to the bottom, let’s do that.”

          I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe for a couple of minutes.

          1. I remember that mission! Haha, God, the writing on that game was superb. I’ll never forgot the dialogue with the assassin droid on that snowy planet, where he responds with a category before every sentence. “Query: but master, where are you going? Irritated answer: master, I cannot allow you to do that.”

  3. In a nice touch, most of the DUP agents have been granted Conduit-like powers themselves?the same ones that they are supposed to be eliminating from the general population.

    So like the NSA specifically trying to eliminate hackers?

    1. Sort of like the police complaining about being “outgunned” and therefore requiring military surplus to do their jobs.

      1. *ahem* Well said, coward.

    2. Or the Police using assault rifles and tanks to try to disarm the populace?

      1. Whoa whoa whoa, hold on there guy. I’ve been thoroughly reassured via pinkie swears by many progressives that they we don’t even have a right to own guns because theyre dangerous. It’s all a big mistake on our part and the government is just trying to correct the problem. So stop resisting.

  4. a neon-lit version of the Crocodile Caf?

    Is it as annoying as the real Crocodile? Is the line to get in as long?

    This makes me think of Chronicle, where some Seattle teens get super powers, but without the security agency. Good movie, by the way.

    1. Yeah Chronicle was pretty good, although even with all the superhero stuff I watch, I often have a problem with the way flying is portrayed in these movies. Just tends to look kind of goofy.

      But I did love the talent show scene. “HOW IS HE DOING THAT?” “I don’t know!”

      1. I often have a problem with the way flying is portrayed in these movies. Just tends to look kind of goofy.

        PUMA MAN!!

    2. I thought Chronicle sucked donkey balls.

      Re: the game – did they include Epi’s torture/crashpad/coffeehouse among the “realistic sites” from the Seattle area? The Doomcock Worship Temple? Anything like that?

      1. The Doomcock Worship Temple?

        Isn’t that the real name for The Space Needle?

  5. …a variety of superpowers that can be charged and activated by interacting with the environment (smoke power abilities require smoke, neon powers need neon, concrete powers use concrete, and so on). In this case, the environment is a digitally mocked up model of present-day Seattle…

    Does it constantly rain in video game Seattle, like it did on that terrible TV show The Killing? If so, a superhero with water power would be unstoppable!

    Anyway, I don’t own a PS4, but I don’t think I’d bother with this game even if I did since Infamous on PS3 bored me to tears.

  6. The most important question in open-world games like this is: how much can you torment innocent bystanders? That’s pretty much all I do in GTA and Skyrim.

    1. I remember playing GTA a couple times with my son, and the hardest we laughed was when he turned and set me on fire with a flamethrower while we were walking down the street.

      So, yeah, mayhem FTW….

    2. In fact, if you choose the “evil” karmic path, you get extra points for certain types of civilian kills, and one of your constant side-objectives is to kill hippie-dippie anti-super protesters.

      1. That seems a little short-sighted. Who will do the shitty slave jobs? How will you divide the norms into groups that fight each other instead of you?

      2. Ooh, now you have my attention.

      3. By contrast, one of the “good” karmic activities involves you making drug busts, with the mission commencing caption: “Drugs are bad and illegal! Destroy them for good karma.” Sarcastic, right? Well, not exactly. The rest of the game focuses on one of the characters “terrible” struggle with drugs and how she even killed her own brother in a cracked out rage, and you “help” her by killing drug dealers around the city and destroying their stashes. Sounds like someone at Sucker Punch has beef with teh drugz.

  7. The Philip Seymour Hoffman version was better.

  8. the Department of Unified Protection (DUP)

    They should’ve come up with an acronym that spells out “DERP”.

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