BITMAPS 87: Infamous’ Small Failures

"Nasal drip".

This phrase will be forever lodged in my memory. While I don’t remember too many sermons from my childhood church days, one stands out in particular due to its elegant euphemistic skill. Our minister described a moment from a movie in which an actor accidentally lost some "nasal drip" during a dinner scene – our minister knew more ways to smile than dirty words, and utterance of the word "snot" was far beyond his sensibilities. As he described, the drip fell off screen to lands unknown, but he postulated that had it fallen in anyone’s drink that they’d steer well clear. He then broadened the idea, stating that even if a man had the cleanest, clearest cup of water on the entire world, the smallest bit of "nasal drip" would contaminate the whole lot.

Knock knock! …come on folks, perk up! This is a good one! KNOCK KNOCK!

The ultimate point of this allusion was that any amount of evil would corrupt an otherwise upstanding person. While that may or may not be the case, I’m going to apply the same idea to something I’m far more qualified to talk about. It was playing Infamous that summoned up recollections of this quaint phrase and its associated lesson. Infamous is an altogether capable game, fun by all traditional metrics. But even though upgradable powers, free-roaming environments, cool superpowers, and great looking cut scenes provide a cup of crystal clear water, a nasal drip’s worth of voice acting spoils the whole thing.

This caused me no shortage of dismay, but not because I’m particularly attached to the game or its creators. For many reviewers/writers/denizens of message boards, Infamous is one of those games that people use to prove that the PS3 is really good at playing games really seriously. I tend not to care. I have, however, held that if a game’s core mechanic is fun enough to play, players can and should overlook niggling little problems; if the water’s good enough, overlook the nasal drip. Why is it that I’ve been able to overlook small problems in games like Assassin’s Creed, Prince of Persia, and Mirror’s Edge, but now I find Infamous’ niggles untenable?

First I suspected that inFamous’ transgressions were merely more severe; that its annoyances simply pushed it over that line of toleration. inFamous isn’t short on niggles, the voice acting chief among them. Cole sounds like a 14-year-old that really, really wants to sound tough. The man’s growl is more forced than a male attending Twilight. The absurdity of his voice caught me by surprise every time. I couldn’t help but mock every word out of his mouth. It’s like someone made twenty genetic clones of Christian Bale and they surround me all doing that ridiculous Batman growl.

Would YOU want this Elvis impersonator reject to be YOUR friend?

While Cole sounds like an overreaching pre-pubescent, his buddy Zeke takes the cake by channeling a cigarette-addicted Foghorn Leghorn. His level of southern caricature would be more fitting for a one-off comedic relief character, possibly killed seconds after his introduction to prove just how serious things are. Yet not only is he established as a confidant for the ostracized Cole, but he sees fit to chime in after every side-mission. These status updates for the city thoroughly would annoy before they are punctuated by a redneck yee-haw and several cracks of a pistol.

To make things even worse, these characters seem to have nothing in common, yet they make the pretense of being longtime friends at the outset of the game. Cole looks like he stumbled out of the mosh pit at a Rancid concert while Zeke spends his nights batting a goose egg on bar skank runoff at the local gas station after the clubs close. The characters are offensive to both one’s ears and sense of logic.

Yet, all told, the characters and voices are a small part of the whole experience. inFamous offers the ability to shock a man until his heart explodes, heal him back to life, then yet again light him up like Time’s Square. Climbing buildings is effortless and enabling – merely hopping around buildings is an exploratory delight (though I really wanted my jumping ability to upgrade). These in themsleves should be enough to override any defect.

As stated previously, I generally pride myself in my ability to overlook minor problems in a game. When the masses decried Prince of Persia too easy, I found such issues neglegible. When players complained about the linearity and difficulty of Mirror’s Edge, I again dissented. What makes this instance any different?

A world of infinite goons.

The answer is found in Far Cry 2, a game that suffered a similar small problem that completely destroys the experience. Guard posts constantly regenerate annoying guards and roaming baddies irrationally fire at first sight without provocation. These seem like small gameplay hitches, yet they completely derail the experience. The common thread here is immersion. The issues in Prince of Persia and Mirror’s Edge annoy, but don’t destroy immersion, while those in Far Cry 2 and Infamous do. They reach out and slap the players in the face just as they start to have fun, and remind them that they’re playing a video game, and not living an adventure.

Why does this guard station regenerate every time I see it? Why does this annoying man prattle at me every time I finish a mission? Because this is a video game. The lesson here is an obvious, but vital one; no matter how many things a game does right, all of its minor annoyances will destroy the experience if immersion is broken. A man can tolerate all sorts of things in his drink – dirt, dust, hair, even a tiny dead bug – but the smallest bit of nasal drip sours the whole lot. The upside here is that maintaining immersion allows designers to get away with murder (as seen in practically any MMO). Instead of ensuring that the entire game is glitch-free, developers can reach their goals more easily by not blowing snot.

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