Adolescent Male Power Fantasies Indeed!

Posted on: March 30th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

I liked the original Infamous (despite the wonky character animations and the campy story), and I really, really liked Infamous 2. It addressed all of its predecessor’s visual problems full-heartedly, and its story, while still campy, felt endearingly so. Frankly, I’m a sucker for tales of genuine bromance.

The most recent installment in the series didn’t exactly disappoint me. Yes, the side activities could have been a bit more engaging (I’m all for Banksy style stencil art, but pretending that my controller is a spray can and waggling it about for a few seconds doesn’t really a mission make). Also, I personally would have liked more challenge and did sort of miss the cover system. Still, Infamous : Second Son essentially delivered exactly what I had expected it to.

It is a solid Infamous sequel with absolutely astounding graphics: a comfortable, if not especially innovative, experience for the fans, and an excellent demonstration of next generation capabilities for the world at large. I mean, you really have to see it to believe it. At points, it felt as though the Patron Deity of Video was repeatedly punching me in the face with the full and awesome force of her magnificence. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Second Son’s story is decently written and, more importantly, extremely well acted. That Troy Baker has serious range. The game itself is a bundle of superhero fun, and I absolutely love the fact that you can, almost from the very beginning, take the baddies down without killing them, and that this proves to be a fun and challenging alternative to the standard slaughter-everybody playstyle.

In short, I really, really, really like Second Son. There is one thing, however, that bugs me, and just won’t stop bugging me. The karma system I’ve made my peace with. It is what it is. The uninspired side missions, and the fact that I am no longer being swarmed by baddies from every direction (something that I rather enjoyed about the earlier installments), only bother me enough for a quick grumble. The one thing in the game that really makes me uncomfortable (warning: feminist soapbox ready to deploy), the one thing that I truly found to be disappointing (in that it neither met nor exceeded my expectations), is the dialog spoken, in passing, by the randomly generated female denizens of Second Son’s virtual Seattle. Do bear with me here.

Before I launch into it, I ought to emphasize that the core game is a far cry from the outright misogyny of the GTA franchise or a Seth McFarlane cartoon. It isn’t exactly bringing down the patriarchy, but it does feature several interesting female characters who, at the very least, aren’t overtly and gratuitously sexualized. It could be argued that Betty, the grandmotherly Akomish tribeswoman, does play the role of a rather unconventional damsel in distress, but then so does the rest of the tribe. From a narrative perspective this McGuffin really does work: it makes for a much better, more interesting, and more understandable catalyst/motivating factor than the infinitely more common “save the world” scenario. Brooke Augustine, the obvious villain of the piece, manages to avoid becoming the stereotypical Ice Queen mainly due to the excellent acting and animation. She doesn’t have many lines, but their delivery is impressively nuanced. The performance is a melange of vulnerability, strength, fear, and conviction. Fetch is a bad ass in her own right, and clearly has a fair amount of agency. I suppose I could nitpick, but the fact that everyone is dressed in believable outfits is, sadly, still an achievement in it’s own right, and must be recognized as such (positive reinforcement and all that).

The random civilians, though, really do get my goat. Allow me to explain. If your Delsin goes about his business as a “hero,” subduing enemies instead of killing them, choosing to do the right thing (displayed in bright blue, of course) during the few big-decision-moments in the story, and decorating the walls of Seattle with happy, whimsical graffiti, the common townsfolk will take notice and start yelling out positive encouragement. Not a bad idea, that. As an aside, I actually enjoyed the fact that some of the citizenry spoke flawless Russian (my native tongue).

It’s more than a little disquieting, however, that the developers seemed to have given the female citizens of Seattle a single primary theme to speak on, namely how much they want to jump Delsin Rowe’s bone. Not every female citizen feels this way. mind you…just the vast majority of them. Even at full positive karma, one or two voices will still occasionally call him a troublemaker or a bioterrorist, just to balance things out. The Russian female voice calls him a “Hero of the People,” which is refreshingly neutral praise, but this almost feels as though the developers simply didn’t want to waste a perfectly good sexy line on a voice over that only a small portion of their player base would understand. Otherwise, just about everywhere you and your Delsin go, you hear a sultry female voice trying desperately to assure you of your sexual desirability, masculinity, and virility. “Now there goes a real man,” is among my favorites. The clips range from the relatively tame to the risqué, but the theme stays about the same throughout. Eighty percent of the women in Seattle don’t only want to have sex with Delsin Rowe but are willing to shout it loudly on the street. I mean, I sort of get it. He’s young, he’s handsome, he’s a bad boy, and he has super powers. I probably wouldn’t have minded one or two catcalls of that nature here and there. I’m sure the Beetles and Tom Jones have had to deal with worse. It’s the sheer volume of them, however, the fact that they seem to completely dominate the ground-level chatter, that’s problematic.

Obviously, this choice is insulting to women in that it casts them (at least those of them not lucky enough to be major characters) as disposable, interchangeable groupies. The iterative nature of the Open World crowd doesn’t really help the matter. It only makes the whole deal creepier. Additionally, it seems to implicitly exclude female gamers (and just about everyone who isn’t a straight male, for that matter) by very clearly telegraphing who the target audience for Second Son is “supposed to be.”

It is also insulting to men in that it seems to assume that most of them will not merely tolerate but actively enjoy this kind of blatant (and blatantly sexist) fantasy fulfillment, which, in turn, assumes that all the men playing the game are insecure perverts and are either physically or emotionally thirteen years of age, or younger. Personally, as an adult biological male, and a member of the age group that’s most likely to purchase and play video games, I am getting rather tired of being perceived, either by developers or the fine folks at the marketing department, as some sort horny Peter Pan.

In a game where I can leap over a skyscraper in a single bound, where I am charged with singlehandedly dismantling a well armed military organization’s grip on a major city, where I can turn into the Smoke Monster from Lost and whoosh from rooftop to rooftop, I really don’t need to be told that I am, at least in the fictional universe that exists beyond the screen, eminently doable. This barrage of sexualized catcalls does not in any way enhance the game. If anything, it severely detracts from the verisimilitude that the developers have clearly worked very hard to establish. It just plain feels like a careless, and sleazy, stain on an otherwise beautiful product.

It is difficult to reconcile this amateurish pandering with the game’s otherwise high production values and the obvious talent and intelligence of the Suckerpunch staff. Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong. Could this, in fact, be a brilliant meta commentary on sexism? It is possible that Suckerpunch, far from making an embarrassingly hamfisted artistic decision, is quite intentionally attempting to simulate the continuous harassment that most women go through on a daily basis. It did make me feel rather uncomfortable on several occasions, like my Delsin was being unfairly objectified by all of those sex starved, grunge listening, coffee drinking Seattlites, like he was being perceived as nothing more than a super-powered fodder for their twisted fantasies. If this really was their intention, I’m impressed by the concept, but unconvinced by the execution. I think that some of the digital admirers need to be brasher, cruder, more persistent if Second Son is to succeed as a true street harassment simulator. Otherwise, it’s just sort of feels disrespectful, to women and men both. Street harassment is, after all, a serious problem.

I only bother writing about it because I really enjoy most other aspects of this game and the series at large, and because I think that Suckerpunch can do better than this. It may seem as though I’m complaining about something very small, but this small thing is symptomatic of something quite large, and awful, and pervasive. We can all do better than this.