Delsin Rowe, hero of Infamous: Second Son, is a dangerous man. His denim cutoff jacket alone probably makes him one of the most dangerous men alive. If you told him to go to bed at eleven, he’d stay up until quarter to twelve – at the earliest. As Rage Against the Machine said, he definitely won’t do what you tell him.
Unless someone lights up an icon on the map for him to head towards. Or tells him to collect all the blast shards scattered around the map. Or sets him any kind of arbitrary task to open up the next section of the game. In that case, if you asked him to jump, he’d not only say “how high?” but politely point out that his concrete superpower allows a double jump.
There’s a certain conflict, then, between Second Son’s anti-authority themes, and its rigid design. Delsin may flout society’s rules with his satirical graffiti, but the game asks you to adhere to those same rules by helping the game’s antagonists, militarised oppression-cops the DUP, bust drug dealers – helpfully flashing up on screen that drugs are illegal and harmful in case you wondered why you were doing your sworn enemies’ jobs for them.
That tension comes through in the story as well. Later on, the game gives its villain a fine speech that almost justifies her actions as protecting the oppressed minority of conduits, the game’s super powered mutant heroes, from the very real threat of lynch mobs. Her appeal to authority and order carries more weight than Delsin’s vague Russell Brand-ish ramblings; as a lone superhuman, he’s no more accountable than the despots he seeks to depose. And, crucially, he may talk freedom and non-conformism, but he’s a slave to the mission marker sliding round the corner of the mini-map.
Now this plea for order might just represent a cry for help from developers trapped in crunch, but it does raise a question – if games are based on rules, could you ever have a really anti-authoritarian game? After all, authority is what makes and enforces rules, and rules are what stop sweets from containing arsenic. A world without rules would be one where the police can’t investigate the theft of your bitcoins because you no longer have any bitcoins to pay them with, and in any event your subscription to the local militia has lapsed and the next enclave over has annexed your house.
Game worlds themselves don’t run a laissez-faire regime, even when they involve markets the size of countries – your average MMORPG is a planned economy that’s so tightly controlled as to make Stalin weep into his moustache. Even the slightest indication that one player or group of players has an unfair edge is swiftly corrected – not by the invisible hand of the market, but by the very public hand of the developer’s patch notes.
Gamers too are heavily invested in rules – you only have to look at the death threats developers receive when they adjust the invisible numbers on a pretend gun to realise that. Death threats are possibly an overreaction, but games need consistency and a level playing field. Rules are comforting; just as fiction differs from reality in that fiction has to make sense, games differ from reality because they have to be fair.
Could you have a game that subverted rules rather than discarded them? The Stanley Parable prodded at convention, but had its game card torn up as a result. Spec Ops: The Line rewarded players for disobeying orders, but still handed out achievements for doing so – little pats on the head from the developers for being non-conformist in precisely the right way. Earlier incarnations of the 3D Grand Theft Auto series gave players significant latitude to break the rules to complete its missions, allowing them to do an Alexander the Great and cleave straight through the Gordian Knot of the mission scripting to cut right to the mission objective – but even then, you’re still working towards an objective.
After all, a game might ask you to kindly pick up that wrench and in doing so reveal that you’re dangling on the end of the developer’s strings, but that same developer is always going to be reluctant to cut them. A game that lacked authority altogether would be like the worst MMORPG ever – Second Life without any of the things that make it enjoyable, so in fact exactly like Second Life. There’d be none of the empowerment that you actually get in Second Son – these great powers don’t come with any responsibility at all. So embrace authority. Slip on the uniform, dust off your frightening leather gloves, and embrace a life of happy compliance, under the jackboot of the despots of fun.