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Infamous 2: Karma, Cookies and Cherry pie
"Are you here for The Apprentice interviews?" The two girls in front of me grin mischievously and clutch clipboards to their chests as I walk up to them. Clearly, for a gamer, I'm overdressed if they're mistaking me for one of the many narcissistic individuals that have come to volunteer their egos for a public hammering on a reality show. I grin, apologise and move further into this swank Soho hotel. I'm not here to swear serfdom to the Dwarven King Sirallan, I have far more pressing issues. Somewhere in this hotel, the sequel to Infamous, one of the PS3's most original titles, is being laid bare and I plan to witness the occasion.
Creating an original superhero is hard work. If it hasn't been tried before, chances are it's been parodied on The Simpsons. But in the original Infamous, gaming studio Sucker Punch tried and succeeded in creating Cole McGrath, a victim to an explosive blast that levelled parts of Empire City, killing thousands – but also imbuing him with mystical lightning superpowers. Radiation? Jog on son. Thus an original, flawed and immensely likeable new hero was created in a classic comic book style origin story. Critics loved it, so did gamers. And as I sit on the couch opposite Brian Flemming, producer at Sucker Punch, I ask him how difficult creating the much anticipated second story has been.
"The first game was a challenge, because there was nothing that was out of bounds", he begins, with no sign of jetlag. "Now we know who Cole is, we know that his powers are electrical, and we know that this game is about his eventual confrontation with The Beast. So the challenge was 'how do we improve what we've done, capture what was good and increase everything around it?' We beefed up the melee combat, improved the visual quality, effects and rendering, added motion capture cut-scenes… So in a strange way, this is more about execution than design."
And with all superheroes, great power comes with great responsibility. But in Cole's case, only if you could be bothered. As in so many story-driven games these days, the original Infamous provided players with karma-based choices that allowed them to be good or evil. If you were a kitten-kicking civilian stomper in the first game, you'll be able to begin the sequel in exactly the same evil shoes. Although upon seeing the opening cut-scene and witnessing Bad Cole sneer his way off a boat, he really could do with a week in the sun and a margarita or two.
So in true Michael Jackson style, I ask Brian the question: "Who's bad?" He smiles before delivering an answer that comes as a surprise. "When we designed the first game, we absolutely expected 75% of people to go evil. The actual? 85% went good. The same is true now. Every play test we do, we set up ten guys and nine of the ten will go good."
Humans! We're awesome! I start punching the air and celebrating the fact that most gamers are not the foul-mouthed punks who shoot you in the face online. But Brian disrupts my celebrations by offering a different angle. He thinks while people doing the right thing plays a part of it, he also considers gamers are playing the archetype they're familiar with – that they're fulfilling a fantasy of what they've seen countless times in cinema and on TV, of the righteous, up-standing superhero who serves the people, not himself. Whatever the reason, maybe someone should get these figures to a media outlet, so grandmas don't shake in fear the next time someone wearing a Space Invaders t-shirt offers to help them across the road.
But if 85 percent of gamers are playing the game one way, does it feel like Sucker Punch is wasting its time designing all these evil missions? Brian laughs this off immediately: "Not at all. We spend a lot of time thinking about what we wanted to do with karma. There needs to be a cost for every decision. It's not a punishment as such, it's like saying 'Would you like a cherry pie for dessert, or a cookie?' So the choice becomes about what you're not getting. You have to feel like they both sound kinda good, but I can only have one."
He then details a mission in the game where you have two choices for recruiting a bunch of rebels for your cause. The 'good' way is about running a gauntlet, dodging bullets, getting medicine to them and impressing them with your sheer bravery. The 'bad' way is much more devious, involving you staging a dramatic firefight with a friend, 'defeating' her in combat and fooling the rebels into thinking that you saved them. Much like the cookie and cherry pie, both sound fun, but gamers will have to choose, losing a little to get a lot.
To my mind though, fooling the rebels sounds hilarious – but problematic. In many games playing as Johnny Righteous has often felt more difficult, all talk and stealth, less explosions, bullets and exhilaration. Brian agrees: "It should be fun to play good", he says. "We have an expression in our office which is simply 'follow the fun'. So in this game, based on your karma we give you boosts. If you drive your karma up, we'll give you powers to help you play the way you want."
But Sucker Punch is going to do its best to mess with your karma. Brian mentions that most gamers, having made a decision to be good or evil, will then continually choose that path, regardless of what the mission parameters are. His eyes light up as he offers me one of the scenarios Sucker Punch designed to challenge that mindset: "We've got a series of what we call 'temptations.' What if you're running down the street and you see a civilian grab one of the collectables in the game and then he runs off! Now you're one of those guys who wants to collect everything, so what are you going to do? Are you going to fire off a bolt of lightning, drop him and go take it or not? Or what if you come across a guy who is a horrible musician and he's wailing away on his saxophone. And it's like, you could just shut him up! You could just zap him. What you'll find is that people who have been going the good path all the time, they can be a little more flexible on their values."
Blasting musicians? Zapping thieves? Yeah, those are skills I could definitely use in Soho. And as I finish up, Brian promises me one more thing: "In the first game the endings weren't really that different. But here there are two dramatically different endings to the game. Good or evil, there is a cumulative effect that dictates how it will finish up for you. And in Infamous 2 we want you to feel like you've earned it. It's something we're very proud of."
So there you have it: good cookie or evil cherry pie? Very shortly you can decide for yourselves.