Missing Representation and Infamous: Second Son

Infamous AkomishVideogames are fond of constructing imaginary versions of real world locales. The Grand Theft Auto series invites open comparisons between its Vice City and the actual Miami; Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare takes place in an unnamed Middle Eastern nation that is Iraq in everything but name;  The Banner Saga‘s faux-Scandanavian setting is meant to evoke Viking era Northern Europe. Everyone who plays these games knows that the fictional places they’re exploring are only stand-ins for somewhere that really exists in the world. Because of this, it’s possible to, say, offer a new spin on the Norse sagas by breaking away from what we already know about them. It’s even possible to make commentary about the legitimacy of Coalition forces occupying Iraq and Afghanistan by abstracting elements of these nations into a single imagined one. That being said, an unwillingness to set fiction in real locations isn’t always motivated by a desire to make interesting art. In some games it may serve as nothing more than cultural cowardice.

The first Infamous was set in a New York City-styled Empire City while its sequel took electro-powered protagonist Cole MacGrath to New Marais, a location deliberately modeled after New Orleans. Choosing these settings allowed developer Sucker Punch Productions to select what they wanted from the geography and culture of actual cities without having to adhere to realism. It seemed a deliberate concept in the first Infamous, which was likely attempting to do nothing more than pay tribute to the tradition of DC Comic’s and the archetypal Americana represented by its Gotham or Metropolis. In Infamous 2, with the inclusion of pseudo-Cajun Nix, the choice of New Marais was probably motivated by a desire to include Louisiana cultural trappings without having to worry too much about accurate representation. This approach allowed Sucker Punch to have characters who embodied New Orleans and rural Louisianan demographics that the studio found interesting, but either had no desire to properly research or explore more fully that through whatever historical baggage we associate with Nix’ stereotypical accent. The excuse for this missed opportunity is a pretty easy one to make, though: Infamous 2 wasn’t set in New Orleans. No, it was set in New Marais and New Marais doesn’t have to have a history that bothers with Britain’s Expulsion of the Acadians or the Southern slavery practices that lead to the formation of the Louisiana Creole culture. Because the game’s setting was loosely fictional, Sucker Punch could avoid topics that it didn’t care to explore. I don’t think this approach enriched the game by any means, but it does serve as a built-in defense to any accusations of poor or inadequate cultural representation that could be levied at Infamous 2 and its characters.

This isn’t the case with Infamous: Second Son. Second Son takes place on the west coast, the story’s opening taking place at a Native American reservation in Washington before moving the bulk of its playtime to the real-world Seattle (a Second Son Seattlecity very close to where Sucker Punch’s Bellevue-based team created the game). The famous city is represented in lavish detail and the story places a lot of emphasis on the fact that, yeah, this is actual Seattle and not just a stand-in like before. The Space Needle is highlighted in an early mission, there’s a Sub Pop poster on a building, and other landmarks like Sonic Boom and the Elephant Car Wash have been recreated, too. All of this is pretty great, making the city come alive in a way that is distinct from even the most detailed fictional videogame settings. Rather than see a facsimile of their home, residents of Seattle and its surrounding area can play Second Son with the added enjoyment of trying to spot places they regularly visit. The fact that the city is real makes the superheroes who inhabit it even bigger and more bombastic than they otherwise would’ve been. It’s all very neat because, basically, Second Son is the rare game that allows the people of Seattle to see themselves reflected in its setting. Well, most of the people of Seattle anyway.

Delsin Rowe, the game’s protagonist, belongs to the fictional “Akomish” tribe. He lives on the Akomish reservation and is a character defined primarily by his hatred of the game’s tyrannical government and the care he has for those who live in his community. An attack by the villainous Department of Unified Protection that leaves most of the Akomish severely wounded acts as motivation for Delsin’s actions throughout the entire game. All of this would be fine–and potentially even interesting as a commentary on the systematic disenfranchisement of the continent’s Native population–if it wasn’t for the fact that Sucker Punch, for whatever reason, failed to follow through on a sound concept. Rather than research the tribes native to Seattle and the area surrounding it, Delsin belongs to an invented one with no real history or culture to represent. With just the tiniest bit of effort audiences could have played a Duwamish or Suquamish character. Delsin could have represented real people with a culture that is under-served in mainstream entertainment. He could have been a character who, with only the tiniest changes to the game’s script, acted as a subtle reminder of a distinct people. Instead, by making him Akomish, Sucker Punch continues the long tradition of misrepresenting actual tribes and nations as some imagined, homogenous groups of “Natives.”

ConnorCompare Sucker Punch’s timid approach to creating a Native American protagonist to Ubisoft Montreal’s work in Assassin’s Creed III. Instead of white-washing the American Revolution, players are asked to consider the position of the United States’ indigenous population occupied while foreigners fought over colonial rights. The assassin is a man named Ratonhnhaké:ton who later takes the name Connor. He is firmly identified as a member of the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) tribe and, with the attention to historical detail common to Assassin’s Creed, this character background is used to educate and inform players. The end result of including a real tribe is a game that, while maligned for its repetitive play structures, still presents the medium’s best exploration of the birth of America to date and an impetus for players to further their understanding of Native history. On the other hand, Infamous: Second Son does little more than provide a half-baked attempt at a worthwhile narrative. The disconnect between Sucker Punch lovingly referencing Seattle’s architecture and urban culture while inventing a fictional Native American tribe is profound. Although Second Son is a lot of fun to play, the experience is tainted with the tonal whiplash that must necessarily arise from this strange mixture of realism and fantasy. Not only does the invention of the Akomish diminish the quality of the narrative, but it also stands as a terrible missed opportunity to offer mainstream representation for people who rarely ever receive it. Second Son could have been something great. Instead it’s just another way to have a good time that doesn’t live up to its potential.

***

Reid McCarter is a writer, editor, and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist, and C&G Magazine. He is also editor-in-extremis for videogame site Digital Love Child. He tweets tweets @reidmccarter.

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  1. #1 by Nick on March 30, 2014 - 3:46 pm

    While I understand your gripe about not representing an actual Native American tribe, I believe your hate for the game is a bit over-exaggerated due to your apparent aversion to Sucker Punch’s “laziness.” And through this “laziness,” you tried to draw attention to yourself by making some profound statement about “cultural cowardice.”

    You cited examples from past Infamous games where Sucker Punch conveniently represented influences of areas and people without including these actual influences. But this fact alone betrays your premise to expose Sucker Punch’s “laziness.” You used those examples to prove your point (you even parenthetically mentioned Sucker Punch’s nearness to Seattle as if this made their job much easier, even though the pressure to accurately represent a real location probably increased). And although it would be hard to refute this argument as it is evidenced through your article, you use Sucker Punch’s laziness to try and make a statement (“cultural cowardice”) to draw attention to yourself.

    You basically said that Second Son’s inclusion of Seattle, bought upon an additional burden to accurately represent the main character’s ethnicity. But I don’t believe just because you include an actual location, you have to accurately represent the people there. This is, after all, a fictional video game.

    There does need to be more diversification of video game protagonists, but to take offense against Sucker Punch for not including a real Native American tribe just seems like reaching. Black protagonists are just as under-represented as Native Americans, but no one is raising a ruckus over not including any of our cultural specifics. What matters is that these different ethnicities be represented.

    No one has to feel like they need to send a message all the time. If Ubisoft wanted to show how Native Americans were affected in the American Revolution, then that is their prerogative. Diversification is what matters, but if the creators want to go that extra mile with specifics, then by all means, go ahead because I enjoy it. But to assign responsibility like this seems wrong.

  2. #2 by digital love child on March 30, 2014 - 4:52 pm

    I don’t hate Second Son at all. It’s a really fun game on a moment-to-moment level. I just think that the decision to invent a tribe in place of portraying a real one is a real disappointment. That’s not a profound statement, just an honest reaction to what I see as a missed opportunity. Featuring a Native protagonist in a mainstream game is great and I applaud that decision. This wouldn’t have been problematic if Sucker Punch didn’t also want to attempt a portrayal of Native American culture. But they did, and by making the reservation and tribe itself a central part of the story–part of a story set in the real Washington–they made the decision to involve the cultural specifics of an actual people.

    Using the actual Seattle, landmarks and all, without properly representing the people indigenous to the region is both tonally confusing and culturally irresponsible. If they didn’t do the research on actual tribes because they just didn’t care then that’s indicative of a pretty worrying viewpoint as to what matters in society (accurate Sub Pop logos or accurate representations of a marginalized American people). If they didn’t do it because they were afraid of getting cultural and historic details wrong then that’s due to fear. Either way, I think it’s a shame that changing a handful of proper nouns wasn’t an important enough priority for the developer.

    I didn’t write this piece in order to take shots at Sucker Punch. I wrote it because I believe games criticism is valuable in sparking the kind of discourse that leads to a more interesting and socially responsible medium. Second Son is a pretty good game and Sucker Punch is a talented developer, but I think they could’ve done better.

  3. #3 by Nick on March 30, 2014 - 6:14 pm

    Although I don’t disagree with what you are saying, I don’t understand why you believe Sucker Punch should be decried for not including a real Native American tribe.

    If anything, they do somewhat accurately represent a group of Native Americans in Seattle. (I just recently researched this, so I won’t act like I always knew this. It’s from Wikipedia) But there is a term, “urban Indian,” describing people of Native American descent who “may or may not have direct or active ties with a particular tribe, but they identify with and are at least somewhat active with the Native community.”

    Delsin identifies with the Akomish, and he is active (although minimally) with the community. This can be seen at the beginning of the game, when he is seen skipping a community event to spray paint a billboard. But as the game progresses, his mission is to help the people of his tribe, strengthening his ties with his people. It was Betty who first told him after Delsin acquired his powers to take pride in the person you are, possibly referring to his being a Conduit and a Native American.

    If this is to be taken as acceptable evidence, then Second Son does represent a small group of the indigenous people of Seattle. It doesn’t represent the entire Native American population of Seattle, but that’s a good thing. You never want to generalize a people as there is a risk of stereotyping.

  4. #4 by digital love child on March 30, 2014 - 9:13 pm

    I don’t think Sucker Punch should be decried so much as encouraged to do better in the future. It’s tough to talk about matters of representation without it sounding like condemnation when calling someone out for missing an opportunity–it’s sensitive subject matter. I think it’s commendable that they deviated from the white dude template for big budget action games. I just wish they had done it a bit better.

    The “urban Indian” identification is interesting, and it seems like that’s the kind of portrayal they were going for with Delsin. I don’t see why they couldn’t have accomplished this while using an actual tribe from the Seattle area as the basis, though. This wouldn’t involve representing the Seattle region’s entire Native population. That’s not the point. Simply representing one real tribe is enough. The issue is with making any real Native nation from the area visible, not all of them.

    I’d be really interested in reading/listening to Sucker Punch’s reasoning for making up the Akomish. If they wanted to blend several tribes into one that makes a certain kind of sense, even though I think it still comes off in kind of a crummy way. I definitely see your point, but I think the approach Second Son takes perpetuates exactly the kind of cultural generalization and stereotypes Sucker Punch may have wanted to avoid just because it reinforces the notion that all Natives are a homogenous group.

  5. #5 by arrownoodle1116 on April 4, 2014 - 10:09 am

    Before you wrote this review, shouldn’t you have consulted someone or a few folks who actually are Native American? Not to say your opinion is invalid or uninformed, it’s just that I feel that this article would’ve covered more depth if the voices of the people being represented was included.

    Native representation is paramount. Not everyone has the same opinions or preferences as to how the media should treat their images.

    Lastly, there is no ‘Native American culture’. Native Americans are not monolithic people. With over 500 federally recognised tribes and 200+ distinct languages, there are many Native American CULTURES.

    • #6 by digital love child on April 4, 2014 - 10:41 am

      Yeah, that’s definitely a good point. I wanted to write about what I myself saw in the game, but an article written from the viewpoint of (or in collaboration with) a Native Canadian or American would certainly enrich and improve the argument. Essentially, I wrote this after finishing the game and wanted to address the issue immediately. I typically write these Digital Love Child articles as personalized, highly subjective criticism. I would very much like to expand on this article with a collaborator who can lend personal experience to it in the future. This is also a topic that different people will have wildly different opinions on, Native or otherwise. I can only write from my own viewpoint for now and I wouldn’t claim that my take on the Akomish is the “right” one by any means.

      I don’t believe I wrote that there is anything like a single “Native American culture” and if that was the impression anything in the article gave off then I’ve messed up. One of my primary issues with making up the Akomish is that it reinforces a misinformed viewpoint that many different indigenous nations and their respective cultures can be condensed into a single one. This line from the article states that: “Sucker Punch continues the long tradition of misrepresenting actual tribes and nations as some imagined, homogenous groups of ‘Natives.'” If I referred to “Native American culture” in the singular at some point then that’s purely a syntax goof that is subtracting from the heart of the argument I’m making.

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