Launch titles are in a notoriously tricky position. As much as they function as a showcase for new technology and increased graphical fidelity, they can also often be a time capsule for the idiosyncrasies of a new console generation before developers and publishers alike decide the gimmicks are better off largely ignored.
Such is the fate of Infamous: Second Son, a launch title and console exclusive for the Playstation 4. Although technically a sequel to the earlier games in the Infamous titles, it shares very little connection with them. The premise remains the same though, urban superhero antics with a hip young protagonist in a major American metropolis. Where the first two games focused on Empire City and New Marais (a comic book style interpretation of New York and New Orleans respectively), Second Son is set in Seattle, a comic book version of… Seattle.
Our protagonist Delsin Rowe is a typical rebellious hero type – he wears a beanie and a denim jacket with art stencilled on it, so you know he’s cool. His powers to turn into a cloud of smoke or a burst of neon make him a part of the urban landscape as much as a person. They also, coincidentally, show off the impressive (for 2014) particle effects of the PS4. But the other way that Second Son demonstrates that its main character is a cool young hip dude is that he does graffiti.
This is where the game’s position as a first party launch title are most obvious. When you find the part of the open world map designated for a mural, you enter a special minigame, designed to showcase the full limits of the PS4’s motion controls! First you rotate the controller through 90 degrees and shake it like a can of spray paint, complete with authentic clacking noise from the controller speaker. Once you’ve oscillated the controller to the game’s, and presumably Delsin’s, satisfaction you then hold the trigger button down to spray the paint and move the controller to trace the stencil on the screen.
Of course, the Playstation controller’s accelerometers being what they are, you really only trace the barest edges of the outline. Then the game cuts to black and fills in the rest of the detail and colour for you, saving you time and effort. The graffiti is just another thing to find scattered across the open world, ticking off percentages towards a 100% completion. But in building the clunky minigame into the process, it becomes more more memorable than a hundred radio towers or collectible knick knacks.
The purpose of motion controls is to remove the distance from the player and the game, using the entire arm or body to dictate the actions of the character on screen rather than the remove of a controller button. This doesn’t always work – for every Wii Sports there is… almost any other Wii game. Although the graffiti art minigame doesn’t mirror the intended actions perfectly, the process is just slow and clunky enough to feel like an analogue real world motion. It slips into some kind of inverse uncanny valley, where the fact of being slightly unconvincing makes up the difference. The Plausible Canyon, if you will. You feel more of a sense of ownership. Delsin finishes the art, but he needs your help to start it.
There’s also a choice to be made whenever you find a fresh spot to tag. Wrapped up in the superhero theme is the game’s Karma system, where your actions and their consequences shape not only how Delsin is perceived but the state of the world around him. Delsin faces a moral choice throughout Second Son, whether to be a hero to the downtrodden of Seattle or a brooding avenger indulging his own bloodlust on a quest for vengeance. Almost every action accumulates either good or bad karma, whether it’s healing a bystander or ripping out their life force to regain hit points. The same is true of the graffiti you create. You can create optimistic tableaus to uplift the spirits of the beleaguered citizens or edgy art to wake up the Sheeple, man!
I am not any kind of visual or graphic artist – in fact, the ability to create art through hand-eye coordination is something I regard on par with actual wizardry. But creating art is a fantasy that not many video games will let you indulge. Destruction and violence are their own kind of art, especially when you have superpowers and the best particle effects 2014 could buy, but actually expressing creativity is much rarer. For all the teenage angst and faux-Banksy rebellion captured by the art pieces, you get an insight into the Delsin’s mind not just through the exposition he delivers but by his actions and how he chooses to express himself. And that’s worth all the particles and high definition textures in the world.