Defending Infamous: Second Son’s Character-Driven Narrative
by Christopher Cross
I wrote a review for Infamous: Second Son already, for VGU.TV, and I do highly recommend you give that a read if you want a non-spoiler review which explores more than just the narrative of the game. You can check that out here. This article deals exclusively with plot points and the character arcs of the main characters in Second Son, so do not read this if you do not want those spoiled.
I’ve spent about 16 hours playing both sides of Infamous: Second Son‘s obligatory two-playthrough structure. I, like many others, was extremely disappointed with the narrative feeling overtly cliche and lacking the flamboyant, comic book-esque plot points that made Infamous and Infamous 2‘s narrative so exciting. All of this disappeared when I finally realized what Second Son was doing differently than the previous games in the series. To fully realize my argument here, I will need to go into heavy spoilers for the game, and probably in the previous entries as well, so if you have not played Second Son yet, then I recommend coming back to this afterwards. For those who are ready to dive into the semantics of the story, allow me to begin this deconstruction of one of the most realized video game characters in recent memory.
My first playthrough of Infamous: Second Son was a paragon run, and I had plenty of fun doing it, but the story beats felt eerily similar to the original games – except for one crucial aspect. The people in the city were not a concern for our main character, Delsin Rowe. That isn’t a flaw in the writing, or a flaw in how the game’s narrative operates. It is an implication in where Delsin’s allegiances reside, and demonstrates how he differs from Cole McGrath of the previous two games. The first Infamous was very focused on Cole bringing a city back to life and staving off the evil threatening its population. From its initial binary decision of whether to give food to everyone, or keep it for him and his friends, dictates where Cole’s emotions were tied. Naturally, the good decision was to help everyone else and that’s where Second Son shows that its character is someone completely different.
Delsin Rowe stumbles upon his powers in a similar way that Cole does. It’s completely by accident. However, Delsin is inherently more heroic in the way he receives his powers because he is trying to stop Hank (an escaped conduit that has Smoke powers) from killing his brother, Reggie. It’s a moral action that the player has no choice in, because the fact of the matter is that Delsin cares about his brother. As players it would be too radical to change something so solid as a brotherly bond. There are narrative beats throughout the entire story which never change, despite the player’s moral alignment. Regardless, you will make sure the other conduits like Eugene and Fetch are never arrested by Reggie, and Augustine will always be the villain, even if you become fully evil.
What makes Delsin a more fully realized character than Cole is that when we are entered into his life, we get a complete understanding of where his moral alignment is. He is not a blank slate like Cole was. He can not go evil just because the player wants him to be. He is a good character, with a harmless delinquent past. He spray paints on billboards and “borrows” his brother’s vehicle. But he isn’t the kind of anarchist who will set fire to the world in the name of anti-establishment. He is the younger brother who doesn’t have his life on a predetermined path. That is what makes Delsin so exciting as a character, especially when choosing to go full evil: it’s a constant fight with who Delsin really is. In fact, it is not until near the end of the game that Delsin begins to become a significantly evil person. And when that change finally occurs, it is completely justified.
The problems with Infamous: Second Son‘s narrative is that the good playthrough is a boring story where Delsin frees the city of Seattle from the totalitarian regime of the Department of Unified Protection (DUP), all just because he wanted to heal his tribe. They welcome him back with open arms and he becomes the savior of Seattle. It is as cliché as an Infamous storyline can get, let alone a comic book story. That’s not why Infamous: Second Son‘s narrative is impressive. It is impressive because of how it reinforces a character’s previously confirmed moral alignment through subtle changes. Or in the case of the renegade side of things, it shows the turmoil that Delsin faces as he grapples with his new-found powers and the sense of responsibility that accompanies them.
Complaints have been lunged at Infamous: Second Son for how disconnected and awkward the evil choices feel in relation to Delsin’s character, and I definitely understand where that is coming from. We’ve become a generation of people who expect the character that is seemingly good and likable to stay good and likable. But as shows like Breaking Bad have demonstrated, going rogue is completely plausible and above all else, more exciting. That is what Second Son is trying to do, and succeeds by a long shot. It is about the gradual change into a monster or hero, not the sudden one, from which the previous games have suffered. Delsin’s first decision in the game is whether to admit he’s a conduit, or deny it. Regardless of your decision, Betty and the rest of the Akomish tribe are subject to torture while you’re knocked out by Augustine and her henchmen. It’s a moment that is powerful because it is out of the player’s control. Then it becomes your job to try and save your fellow tribe members from dying, by hunting down Augustine and absorbing her powers, as you did Hank’s.
The important thing to gather from Delsin’s actions are that he only cares about his family and his tribe. When he is given the choice to corrupt or redeem other escaped conduits like Fetch and Eugene, it is because they are powerful and have not wronged his family or tribe. The only people he kills in the actual story, on an evil playthrough, are Hank and Augustine. Hank is killed because he inadvertently causes Delsin’s brother Reggie to die, and Augustine is killed for the torture she inflicted upon his tribe. Delsin does not ever demonstrate a large care for the citizens of Seattle, even as a paragon. An early moment in the game where he is told by Reggie that he cannot ride the bus with him because the people in there are scared of him, he expresses complete disinterest in their well-being. No moral choice changes this, because it is a part of who Delsin is. The reason the totalitarian set up which the DUP has in Seattle is largely ignored in the grand scheme of the narrative is because Delsin is a selfish person. If the DUP and Augustine did not torture the Akomish tribe and left everything alone, Delsin would not have done anything. Instead, he was propelled into a situation which would create a winding path that would lead either to being good or evil.
You can tell that characters were the focus of Infamous: Second Son as opposed to the large-scope narrative because of how much time is devoted to each conduits history. When Delsin absorbs a power from Hank, Fetch, Eugene or Augustine, he is subjected to their story as well. We as players see the inner turmoil that they succumbed to once given powers, and realize the decisions they made are what turned them into what they are now. Fetch is a bad person, but she is a bad person because she was forced into a situation with few chances for redemption. Even as a person doing bad things, she is at least doing those bad things to bad people. It is when Delsin (by way of the player) decides to unlock her true potential by corrupting her, and subsequently joining her in targeting protesters of conduits, that she becomes evil. Then there is Eugene who was bullied as a young kid. Eventually he was pushed too far and accidentally attacked everyone around him with his powers. Then he was locked away. Delsin (once again, by way of the player) encourages him to stand up for himself and punish the bullies in his life, which leads him on the path of going full evil. The point is that these characters are at the tipping point and could go either way from one decision. I listed the bad karmic decisions a player could make, but they could also choose to redeem these characters and let them do good instead of evil.
Regardless of the decisions made, they are done in service of Delsin’s quest. As a renegade, he wants more powerful people on his side so he can kill Augustine and take over Seattle. As a hero, he wants conduits on his side to show that they are human too, capable of being just as good as anyone else. When Hank misleads Delsin and Reggie, bringing them to Augustine where she eventually kills Reggie, Delsin then hunts down Hank. When realizing Hank’s motivations, you could sympathize with what he did and let him go, becoming the person your brother would have wanted you to be. Or you could kill him, as his daughter calls out his name, effectively showing the desperation in Delsin’s struggle with these powers. Not only has his tribe been tortured, but now he’s lost his brother, and the only thing left is for his tribe to be healed so he can go back home and live peacefully. He doesn’t want to destroy the world, he only wants to get his revenge.
If you’ve played the game as an evil character, you know where this is going next. For every evil action you did, and despite the fact that you have the ability to save the last people in Delsin’s life that he cares about, they deny you. Betty has that incredible moment where she disavows Delsin, explaining that everything he has done was a disgrace to both the Akomish tribe and Reggie’s legacy. The tribe accepts the fact that they will die without Delsin’s help, because dying is better than being associated with the monster that he has become. And with that, Delsin has lost everything. We watched as he used his powers to manipulate other conduits into joining his cause, killed the conduit who inadvertently killed his only family member, and killed the woman responsible for Reggie’s death and the torture of his people. We have already established who Delsin cares about, and it is not the other conduits that he has corrupted. They are his soldiers. So when he performs an Orbital Drop onto the Akomish longhouse and kills his entire tribe, it is because they were all he had left and they turned their back on him despite all he did to save them.
I made the comparison earlier to Breaking Bad, and I think that is an apt comparison. I did not watch that show for the story. It wasn’t exactly the deepest of plots, but what mostly occurred in the show was results of a character’s personality and actions. We watched Breaking Bad for the characters. We watched it to see if Walter White would become good after his slow descent into evil; if Jesse Pinkman would ever be able to escape the clutches of evil; and ultimately whether good or evil would win. The point is that we watched that happen. With video games, we are at a point when a player can make a Walter White or a Jesse Pinkman character arc. That their gameplay can dictate their moral alignment, and though story-related decisions were binary, they were still made by the player. And with Infamous: Second Son, it allows for a more nuanced character arc that many games will not even attempt.
There is this stigma that a better narrative is what video games need in order to be regarded among films and television as great pieces of art. While I agree that narrative needs to improve, I think what video games truly lack are complex characters that can dictate and create an understandable narrative because of that character’s motivations. Infamous: Second Son is a character study, not a story about good and evil or the government’s oppression over civilizations. It is about how one man can become a hero or a villain through the decisions he makes at crucial times. The inner turmoil Delsin faces is what makes him one of video gaming’s most exciting characters and what makes Infamous: Second Son a beautiful exploration of that age old saying, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”