A Tale Of Two Cities

I played Prototype when it came out in 2009, and enjoyed it immensely. But I’ve only recently had a chance to play Infamous, since I got it as part of the PSN Welcome Back package. Infamous was released two weeks before Prototype, and the two games are often compared, because both games feature super-powered player-characters in gritty urban environments. Playing Infamous, the similarities to Prototype are striking, but so too are the differences. The aspect of both games that I’m most interested in is their urban spaces, and the ways the player-characters of the two games use those spaces in very different ways. There’s something fundamental to the player-characters in both games that’s represented in their differing uses of similar urban environments. Since both games’ plots revolve around the player-character’s origins and natures, discussing this necessarily means spoiling both games’ stories, so you have been warned.

Let’s start with Infamous. Cole McGrath has a lot of ways in which he can make use of the urban environment, both in and out of the combat that forms the bulk of the game’s activity. In combat, Cole takes cover, lobs electric grenades to force enemies out of their own cover, and has a limited power supply that forces the player to always keep in mind where Cole can get his next charge. Out of combat, Cole traverses the environment using the features of the cityscape. Cole sticks to the cityscape in a distinctively tactile way. He climbs buildings handhold-by-handhold, runs and grinds along power lines and train tracks, crosses streets and alleyways and bridges. Occasionally he might glide from one point to another, but any aerial manoeuvre is short-lived. Walls without handholds are an impassable obstacle (as are the much-maligned chain-link fences, which makes less sense), and due to his electricity-based powers, blacked-out areas are danger zones, and bodies of water are a death-trap. Running around the city, Cole passes dozens of injured civilians, each of which represents a moral choice (though the game mechanics could do with reinforcing that more), forging a connection between Cole and the populace of Empire City that is strengthened by their responses to him on the street. The posters of Cole that the citizens put up reflect the player’s actions, inscribing them on the physical urban geography itself. This inscription becomes even more pronounced with each area that Cole brings under his control. Cole travels on the train tracks just as the humans of the city do, even if he does so by grinding on them, and this method of fast travel is dependent on the urban infrastructure, like so many of Cole’s abilities. In fact, Cole is just as dependent on that infrastructure as the people of the city are. All of which is to say that the player-character’s activities in Infamous are fundamentally tied to the affordances of the urban environment for humans, despite Cole’s superhuman abilities.

In contrast, Prototype’s Alex Mercer doesn’t stick to the urban environment if he can instead soar above it. In combat, Mercer dive-bombs tanks, kicks helicopters out of the sky, and generally stomps his way through the city. Even the nature of the lock-on system used in combat means that the urban landscape becomes a peripheral concern to the player as Mercer manoeuvres during fights. Mercer doesn’t take cover except to briefly regenerate his health when seriously wounded, and makes extensive use of acrobatic and aerial fighting moves to smash through his foes, who are largely restrained to the ground. Out of combat, Mercer disregards the people of the city, brushing, pushing or even violently sending them flying as he charges down sidewalks. He disguises his identity and infiltrates military bases, then dismantles them from the inside. Mercer is bound by no social order, or even by the physical laws that restrain humans. He scales the vertical surfaces of buildings without a thought, as easily as any horizontal surface, then jumps off the highest points and soars over the streets and buildings. Cole might glide between buildings, or across a street, but Mercer flies for several city blocks with a single leap. Everything in the city is nothing more than an obstacle for Mercer to overcome or run right over and ignore. Unlike Cole, Mercer leaves no marks of his own on the city; any military base or infestation he destroys is restored in a relatively short span of time. Nothing Mercer himself does has any lasting impact on the geography. All of Mercer’s abilities serve to distance him from the urban landscape, to set Mercer apart from the people and the city. Alex Mercer simply does not operate in the urban environment the way the people who live there do. To Mercer it’s not even a city, just a geography of obstacles that happens to include buildings and streets and people.

These two contrasting ways of operating in urban environments represent the fundamental nature of the games’ player-characters. Cole discovers the source of his powers is his own future self, motivated by love and family, the most human of concerns. His destiny is ultimately tied to Empire City (sequel notwithstanding), as its benevolent protector or malevolent overlord. Cole is a regular human who just happens to have extraordinary abilities, and that goes down to his very core. Alex Mercer, on the other hand is not. It turns out that even the ‘Alex Mercer’ identity is a sham, a fiction, and the real Mercer died before the game starts. The player discovers late in the game that the player-character they’ve controlled throughout is actually the sentient virus infestation that took over Mercer’s body and identity. You’re not Mercer, you never were, you just thought you were. Ultimately, the player-character isn’t human at all, they’re an alien sentience that just happens to have adopted a human shape.

Despite the superficial similarities of these two games featuring super-powered player characters in urban environments, both games have player-characters who are very different, and who operate in these city spaces in equally different ways. That one player-character inhabits the city in a very human way, while the other hardly inhabits it as a city at all, turns out to be entirely appropriate to their essential natures.

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