The trend this year in video games, only about a decade late, is to let players repel an attack on New York City. See Crysis 2 this spring, Modern Warfare 3 this fall, and other games that put a virtual gun in their player's hands and some fantastic evil in their sights. The enemy isn't explicitly Al Qaeda, rather invading aliens or resurgent Russians.
Video games are slow to get to the news of the day, if they ever get to it at all. It takes at least two years to make a big budget game and longer still for game creators, artists, engineers and executives in the most toothless medium in American entertainment, to make a statement about anything.
Major story-driven video games of the past 10 years have had little to say about terrorism or the recession, gay marriage or immigration, but they are getting around to giving New York City a figurative hug.
Infamous 2, the best-selling home video game in America last month, is four years ahead of its competition. It's the medium's most significant post-Katrina video game and also, of course, one of its first. It has a message, if not about Katrina, then about what video games can mean in the nation in which they are played.
It's not that Infamous 2 has much to say about Katrina or the politics that surrounded an American tragedy. It doesn't. The post-Katrina game does something else, something important, something that it performs arguably more effectively than post-Katrina documentaries and TV dramas. In a way only a video game can, it puts you there, on the roofs above the drowning waters.
Infamous 2 is an argument that games can perform a valuable enough service. They can be virtual reality, or, really, virtual tragedy, simulators. That may excuse them for having so little to say about our modern world.
Judged by its cover, Infamous 2 is a super-hero adventure. It is set in modern times and casts the player as Cole MacGrath a man who gained, in the first Infamous, the power to shoot electricity from his hands and skid along power-lines the way a teenager skateboards the railing outside the public library. Under the control of the player, Cole spends most of his time in the Infamous games climbing buildings and fighting bad guys. These are urban games, set in large modern cities full of civilians living their lives and looking up in the sky to the bird, the plane, no, Cole MacGrath. The player gets to choose whether Cole is a nice super-hero or a jerk. That moral disposition determines which powers Cole develops and whether, when he approaches them, cops shoot or people cheer.
Video games are about places. They earn their worth in proportion to the quality of the obstacle course and jungle gyms they establish. In Cole's sequel, the terrain is New Marais, a busy New Orleans imitator edged by swamp and infested with street-corner saxophone players. Cole arrives in New Marais early in Infamous 2 after fleeing from—where else?—a wrecked simulacrum of New York City. He's come south to gain more power and prepare for the onslaught of the evil giant called the Beast who rampaged through that New York, called Empire City in this franchise.
The Beast approaches New Marais like a hurricane. Several times throughout Infamous 2's dozen-hour adventure, the player's TV goes black. From silence, white text announces how many miles closer this storm of evil is. The Beast's path is shown every time the game is paused. A widening swath of destruction smokes down the eastern seaboard, tacking toward Louisiana with the dark inevitability of the Category 5s tracked in late 2005 on the maps of the Weather Channel.
Some sort of disaster had already happened in New Marais by the time the game begins. A portion of its New Orleans has been flooded. That doesn't limit the game's impact. The storm wasn't Katrina's worst horror. Its aftermath was. And some of that aftermath is in the game, in the third of New Marais that is flooded and dubbed, naturally, Flood Town.
The player reaches Flood Town a few hours into the adventure, after they have maneuvered Cole MacGrath across the rooftops of an intact, populous and vibrant introductory section of New Marais. By that time, they've been trained to prefer leaping across uncrowded rooftops, to keep above the citizenry and spot bad guys on distant roofs and in the alleys below. They've been told that an oil man has a militia that exploits a power vacuum in New Marais. They've encountered the cops and a band of rebels as well as regular people enjoying a visit to the theater or a stroll in the park.
Infamous 2 is an argument that games can perform a valuable service. They can be virtual tragedy simulators.
Beyond that opening section of the city, after a few missions have been accomplished, the player can use Cole's electric powers to lower a draw bridge and glide to Flood Town. That place is the game's 9th Ward, a flooded ruin of clapboard houses and soaked stores. People wander through it. Living room furniture rests on roofs above a tide that has covered roads and spilled through doorways. Some roofs are spray-painted with pleas for help. One roof bears the telltale markings that were painted on the sides of homes during the post-Katrina search for survivors and dead bodies. By the time Cole reaches Flood Town, that training to keep him on roofs as much as possible has sunk in. So has the reminder, echoed from the first game, that puddles are harmful to a video game hero whose body courses with electricity. Contact with the flood means pain or the end of life.
These laws of the game concoct a moment: Cole MacGrath jumping to the roof of a ruined home in Flood Town, looking at the water below as a swamp of death.
Video games aren't great at making their players feel the hurt and friction of real life, but in that moment when the omnipresent water appears as an invading sea of danger, Infamous 2 honors Katrina. Maybe it does for goofy reasons. The fear of getting Electric Man wet in the high tide covering the streets can't compare to the mother or father's hungry scramble to survive on a hot roof while waiting for a rescue helicopter. But for a reason nonetheless, the player feels the awfulness of being in a neighborhood ravaged by flood. He or she feels the vulnerability and precariousness of it. This tide doesn't recede. The water never will become hospitable to a hero who is charged with electric. The bleakness hangs.
Infamous 2 never mentions FEMA or whether Brownie did a heck of a job. It doesn't check in on whether George Bush cares about black people or review the work of the Army Corps of Engineers. It doesn't invite a debate on whether it would be better to rebuild or relocate. It is largely apolitical and without any point of view other than that of a vulnerable man standing on the rooftops of a flooded city, on lily pads that used to be homes. The video game deposits its player in a variation of post-Katrina New Orleans and simply provides him or her the opportunity to feel.
Television and movies allow us to be voyeurs of national tragedy. They open windows to vivid spectacles. They re-tell stories. They are witnessed from a safe distance. Video games are a visit to a prepared place, like a painting that can be climbed into. The painting, like the video game (and unlike the photograph), is entirely composed of intentional effort. Its interpretations may be unintended, but every element of the work was put there by its creator(s). The video game, like the painting, is constructed, not captured. It is hand-detailed, not happenstance. It may, as most games do, proclaim nothing other than its existence, but that alone is a statement of human effort: the creators of this virtual place decided this building should be there, the sky should be that color and, in the case of Infamous 2, that there was a flood in a simulated New Orleans, a flood that can reached only when the game designers intended to make the player's life a little harder.
The experience within the chamber of a video game place is engineered and transportive, like a vacation to Disney World. The Disney Worlds of older, more technologically primitive games were the surreal two-dimensional landscapes of Mario's Mushroom Kingdom or the angular caves of the first Tomb Raider that were as abstracted as a Cezanne landscape. Today's technology uses video games to bring players to a more photorealistic Renaissance Rome, to post-Katrina New Orleans or Wall Street, where the gamer will witness at least as much as the game designer intended. They are our culture's virtual reality devices, whether they say anything about the places they simulate or not.
Reviewer Chris Plante thought he saw a message in Infamous 2. "Good is represented by eloquent out-of-towners, evil by poorly spoken locals," he wrote in The Daily. "Cole's most powerful weapon is a vortex that hurls enemies, but often also innocent passers-by."
I discovered, as Plante did before me, however, that the makers of Infamous 2 want to talk of no such messages. They believably explain that the inclusion of a flooded zone in their virtual New Orleans was a game design choice, much as the height of the rim is in basketball. "We'd originally started talking about a flooded portion of city back on Infamous 1 after deciding that our hero would take damage from water," Infamous 2's designer Nate Fox of Seattle-area development studio Sucker Punch told me via e-mail. "We're always looking for ways to make one portion of town feel different from another so that players have a diverse experience while moving around the city. A flooded neighborhood creates an interesting gameplay situation where the player has to stick to the rooftops, while villains can move freely through the semi-submerged streets."
Game design decisions can breed storyline justifications. The excellent 2009 video game Red Faction: Guerrilla lets players knock down inhabited human settlements and industrial towers on Mars, using explosives, a sledgehammer and a variety of futuristic guns. The game didn't offer these options because its creators wanted to make a terrorism simulator. It offered all that tower-toppling because the developer figured out how to program buildings that collapse when beams are buckled, and they realized, like any kid who knocks down a stack of blocks does, that that would make for a fun virtual playground. On top of that scheme they grafted a story of a despotic Martian military and the civilian-saving human wrecking ball of a freedom fighter played by the gamer.
In first-person shooters, players get more credit for shooting at heads rather than torsos primarily because the headshot is harder and, like the bullseye on an archery target, more of a triumph to hit. Design, rather than theme or message, truly can be the goal of a video game creator. That fact is often missed by outsiders who are horrified by the content in video games, just as the cultural impact of such design-for-design's-sake decisions can be underestimated by those who make and play games.