Infamous and The Beast

Infamous 2 Cover(WARNING: This post discusses significant plot points of Infamous and Infamous 2 in detail. You are now at the gates of Spoiler City. Turn back if you intend to play the game with a blank slate someday.)

One of the cornerstones of horror is mystery. People fear the unknown, enough so that they will fill in the blanks with their own personal hellspawn when presented with a few creepy clues. Things that go bump in the night don't need to bare glistening fangs or a bloody hook to terrify us: they just have to bump.

This connection is easily exploited to make a good scare even better. It sounds crazy that so many left theaters spooked after the Blair Witch Project, considering the titular monster was never shown, yet that's exactly why the movie was a hit. Cloverfield saw that success and adapted it to trailers and TV spots, depicting a Godzilla-level monster attack from the view of those unable to see the monster directly. Video games are catching on as well, with many praising Amnesia: The Dark Descent for providing scares when nothing's there.

Infamous 2 isn't a horror game, but it makes excellent use of this deprivation technique to ramp up the suspense. The story's core is Cole MacGrath's quest to prepare for the destined arrival of The Beast, a being of such power and wrath that only at his fullest potential could the hero hope to stop it. Throughout the game, chilling reminders of this impending cataclysm are ever present, casting a shadow of despair that even overcasts Cole's considerable predicaments in the here and now. And when the Beast finally arrives, revealing itself at last to the wearied but hardened superman, the suspense is replaced with a dread so thick that it suffocates the player in a way no game ever has before.

Nah, just kidding, The Beast totally just shows up in the tutorial, like two minutes into the game.

Infamous 2 Beast

"I've come to end your world! Also, hold L1 to aim."

And I can't remember the last time a game would have greatly benefit from cutting a ten minute segment.

Let's jump back a little farther, specifically to the major plot points of the original Infamous. Cole MacGrath, bike courier and gravel guzzler, is making a delivery when suddenly the package goes off like a nuclear bomb, killing a few city blocks minus Cole, who is granted electrical superpowers (though his impossibly coarse voice goes uncured). As he adjusts to his new abilities and the changes they bring to his personal life, he fights off other superfreaks -- Conduits, they're called -- that have started showing up in town. One in particular, an old man named Kessler, is especially interested in ruining Cole's life. He drops Cole's girlfriend off a highrise to her doom, lures his best friend into betrayal, and generally wreaks havoc on his city.

Kessler's torment is thorough and seemingly without reason, but he only drops the true bombshell after their final confrontation: his dying confession is that he is actually Cole MacGrath from the future. In his timeline, he lived a content life through adulthood. Eventually, an unstoppable Conduit known as The Beast went on a rampage; Kessler might have been able to defeat it with his own mature Conduit powers, but he chose instead to flee with his family, allowing the creature to grow stronger and eventually ruin the world. Unable to save his family and too weak to stop The Beast, Kessler used his powers to travel back through time in order to prepare his past self, Protagonist Cole, forcing him to acquire his powers early in a violent explosion and removing all of Cole's happy distractions (by murdering them, of course).

Up until that point, Infamous' story failed to excite any emotion from me at all. Suddenly I was engrossed. I thought, "What would compel someone to go back in time and wreck their own life?" It was the one detail of Infamous' story that actually stuck in my mind beyond the credits. I couldn't help but speculate on the nature of this prophesied ender of worlds. Is the Beast literally a beast, some indestructible and unstoppable lycanthrope? Could it actually be some kind of plague, in a terrible Shyamalonian twist? Maybe it's an alternate Kessler, the evil counterpart to the well-meaning tormentor of protagonist Cole (and wouldn't that bring up some more fun questions about morality)?

Chrono Trigger Lavos Shell

Or maybe it's LAVOS! There IS time travel afoot...

So it was quite a disappointment when the third string villain from Spider-Man 3 showed up. I suppose that disappointment was inevitable: an unseen terror makes for excellent suspense, but a final boss that never actually appears makes for a terrible video game (though I'd be interested in what "Peter Molyneux" would say of such a unique idea). Something had to give, I suppose.

So let's take the laughable dust man as a given. It was going to happen anyway. But why did it have to happen in the tutorial?

Most people I know had the same reaction when the Cloverfield monster was finally shown in the movie. All the tension that they had built for themselves was released upon seeing the previously phantom menace. Sighs of relief and the occasional giggle slowed the rollercoaster down to a trolley ride. But at least they got to enjoy the ups and downs for an hour or so: there isn't much left to anticipate when you uncover the game's greatest unknown and final challenge before you've even started playing.

Infamous 2 Beastface

"I was on your TV before you even turned your PS3 on."

The shame is more apparent when you consider how much the rest of the game shrouds the Beast with fearful inevitability. The pause screen shows a map of the eastern United States with a trail of fire and smoke tracing from Empire City, where the Beast emerged, to New Marais, where Cole intends to make his last stand. Every chapter is preceded with the Beast's current distance from New Marais in chilling white letters on an otherwise blank screen. Televisions in shop windows play news reports from just outside the Beast's destructive wake. Deprived of any knowledge of the Beast's form, these could have been ominous images of the first and final clash, rather than mere advertisements for the rematch.

Thankfully, Infamous 2 still has its narrative successes. Cole, Zeke, and their companions are actually likable this time around. And in a wonderful surprise, the game's endings (there are two) are legitimately smart conundrums in an otherwise deficient morality system and, better still, actually endings. When the whole Beast thing came up at the end of the first Infamous, there was no doubt in my mind that this would be stretched into a trilogy. Instead, each of the two finales has an aura of finality to it, each for different reasons.

Indeed, there aren't many games with final hours as strong as those of Infamous 2. It almost makes up for the most regrettable tutorial ever.

Infamous 2 Coleface

You cannot unsee it, Cole. Nobody can.