Videogames 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 city 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.”
Compare 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.