The first inFamous vociferously demanded a sequel. Its conclusion was a clear setup for a followup, foretelling the arrival of an enormous adversary, referred to only as “the Beast”. As I wrote in the first part of this series, this foreshadowing also undergirds the story’s unique obsession with the mechanics of superhero continuity, setting the stage for an escalation of the first game’s stakes. But, as I argued in the piece linked above, inFamous‘s stance on continuity is troubled, framed by the realization that the mechanism underlying superhero continuity is a never-ending cycle of escalating violence. As such, inFamous 2 is a response to the call of the original inFamous, an attempt to resolve the insoluble paradox of circular time illustrated by the earlier story. What is particularly interesting about this response is that the franchise resolves to completely annihilate itself, namely, through a conceit that eliminates superpowers from its world entirely.
Starting With A Bang, Again
inFamous 2 is framed around Cole’s efforts to amplify his own powers in the hopes that he can defeat the Beast and prevent him from ravaging the world. However, before Cole can begin this effort in earnest, the Beast arrives in Empire City, forcing Cole to confront him. Cole proceeds to unleash the full force of his abilities on the Beast but, inevitably, it’s not enough. The Beast defeats Cole, who is forced to flee to another city, New Marais (a stand-in for New Orleans), in order to seek a means of becoming more powerful and defeating the Beast in the future.
Of course, what this means is that the second game is both a repeat of, and an uncomfortable reckoning with, the first game. The first story perpetuated the superheroic cycle of escalating violence by sending Cole on repeated missions to expand his powers. The second game consciously and explicitly doubles down on this conceit, but the sequel cannot slavishly reiterate the plot of the original; otherwise, it wouldn’t be a sequel, but a rewrite. So inFamous 2 doesn’t inherit a plot so much as a double bind; how do you tell a new story in a universe designed to preclude new stories from being told?
inFamous 2‘s answer is an obsession with this paradox, illustrated through several meta-narrative conceits. One of the first new characters Cole meets is Dr. Sebastian Wolfe, the scientist primarily responsible for much of the research conducted by the First Sons. The First Sons was the organization responsible for initiating Cole’s journey of mass slaughter in the first game. Wolfe, in kind, provides the necessary exposition for Cole to continue escalating his powers, an effort which revolves around collecting “blast cores”. These Macguffins were created by ill-defined “radiation” from the same technology as the Ray Sphere, the First Sons-created device that gave Cole his powers and killed thousands of people in the process.
The Shooting Gallery
But of course, Cole is hampered by nefarious actors throughout this new clime. The latest big-bad is Joseph Bertrand III, a Southern oligarch who funds a uniformed militia that enforces its own form of martial law on New Marais. He holds large rallies, delivering speeches about ferreting out “freaks” with superpowers in the population, a not-even-veiled analogy for white supremacy and the Klan. The militia form the bulk of the faceless goons to be cut down in this installment, like racist wheat at harvest.
Bertrand does far more than supply the evil, faceless goons. A major revelation in the course of the plot revolves around the fact that Bertrand himself has superpowers, making him a hypocrite in his incessant calls to root out “freaks”. Moreover, his powers include the ability to turn people into massive, feral, venomous monsters who thrive in the swamps on the fringes of the city. Not only does he direct the militia to hunt Cole, granting him a dehumanized army to mow down; he also literally dehumanizes people, granting Cole an army of feral subhuman monsters to mow down.
But Bertrand’s role in providing fodder for Cole’s adventure extends even further. His schemes include a plot to grant super-powered soldiers to a South African private military contractor, to be sold around the world. The mercenaries end up occupying large chunks of the city and wreaking havoc with their powers, putting them into direct conflict with the protagonist. At every step of the way – as head of the militia, as a monster-maker, and as a collaborator with mercenaries – Bertrand creates the necessary conditions through which Cole can perform his superhero status by carrying out massive violence against these faceless hordes. Interestingly, a series of side missions involves an alliance with a super-powered mercenary working against the rest of his colleagues. By the last of these missions, the merc has been driven insane by his powers, physically indistinguishable from his colleagues and driven to attack Cole. The mob of goons is so dehumanized, none can differentiate themselves from the rest, even if they try.
This creates something of a dilemma for the narrative; the game needs Bertrand in order for there to be an adventure, for Cole’s super-heroism to even be possible. But Bertrand is the villain, and in a world where all problems are resolved with gratuitous lethal violence, Bertrand must be resolved similarly. It turns out Bertrand’s powers also allow him to become a massive monster, resembling the monsters he turns other people into, but far larger and more powerful. Bertrand is a figurative and literal monstrosity, and the game’s answer to Bertrand’s existence is a boss fight in which Bertrand is shot with missiles and electric shocks until parts of his monstrous form explode, and he topples under the force of the violence against him. One of the major conceits of the narrative is literally blown up under the auspices of a hateful sneer.
We Have Met the Enemy…
The narrative’s ambivalence towards its own mechanics extends far beyond the confrontation with Bertrand. Bertrand’s plan was not merely to proliferate super-humans for profit, but to do so in the hopes that the world would become terrified of, and horrified with, super-humans. He explains – a moment before the final confrontation in which Cole kills him – that people need to grow repelled enough by super-humans to have the resolve to exterminate them. In the moment, Cole counters with an argument amounting to “powers don’t kill people, people kill people” – but it seems the story, in spite of the empowerment fantasy it peddles, does not take him very seriously.
In fact, it seems the narrative is already convinced of the horror of super-humans. Another major plot twist informs us that the plague – transformed from a minor plot element in the first installment to a global crisis in the second – is an incurable epidemic caused by the same Ray Sphere radiation that granted powers to the games’ so-called “conduits.” Dr. Wolfe is able to develop a cure, but a major side effect of that cure is the death of all conduits around the globe. The conceit amounts to a deus ex machina that banishes the Beast, and a death sentence for several of the game’s protagonists, including Cole.
What’s more is that the Beast is an anthropomorphized Ray Sphere; his powers allow him to “activate” conduits, necessarily killing dozens to thousands of people nearby them as a sacrifice, in exactly the same way the Ray Sphere created Cole. Bertrand himself functions similarly as a conceit, albeit more abstractly; he created armies of dehumanized monsters that killed hundreds of people, justifying Cole’s efforts to slaughter them in kind and allowing Cole to continuously generate his superhero identity through violence. At every turn, the mechanisms that make Cole a superhero – the very pillars of the genre he inhabits – are reified in the forms of literal and figurative monsters. Bertrand and the Beast embody Cole’s world, his genre, in the same moment that they embody never-ending human death.
And so, Cole’s final dilemma: he can activate Dr. Wolfe’s device – the “Ray Field Inhibitor” – and kill himself, the Beast, and all other conduits, ending the otherwise incurable plague, or he can destroy the device and side with the Beast, saving his own life in the process. The game is very adamant and explicit that the latter choice is evil, even labeling it as such in a graphic that pops up at the moment you make the choice. But, in choosing to spare himself and the Beast, he sides with both the superhero genre and mass slaughter in one fell swoop. If the Beast is the embodiment of the violent process of self-creation at the heart of the superhero genre, then Cole’s selfish choice, the evil choice, is also the choice to perpetuate the superhero genre. In the “evil” ending of the game, where Cole chooses to scrap the inhibitor and keep his life and his powers, millions of people die from the plague and the physical violence wrought by conduits. He even absorbs the Beast’s powers, becoming a new Beast. Choosing the superhero genre over an end to human slaughter, he literally becomes the embodiment of the mechanism at the heart of the genre he inhabits – effectively, he becomes the genre. In the same moment, he becomes an irredeemable monster, in deed and name.
This brings the moral proscription in the “good” ending into stark relief. If the explicitly evil choice is to side with the genre, then the morally upright choice is to annihilate the genre – that is, to make it impossible for the universe to generate any further superhero stories. This is, more or less, exactly what happens when Cole activates the Ray Field Inhibitor. Thousands of conduits simultaneously drop dead all over the world, whether or not they had developed superpowers, while the plague suddenly lifts, all its sufferers instantaneously cured. When juxtaposed against the alternative conclusion, the moral choice presented to the audience is framed as a choice between human life and superheroics – the two cannot coexist. To choose superheroism – or to tell superhero stories – is to choose stories full of never-ending slaughter and gratuitous human death. To affirm the value of human life, superheroes must be rejected – literally, they must die.