I picked up a Playstation 4 this weekend, along with Infamous: Second Son. I loved the first one, and it took me a while to pin down exactly why. It’s not because of what it does well, but because of what it doesn’t do. One of the most interesting aspects of superpowers, to me, is their limitations. An example: Locomotion in the first Infamous. They could have just bullshitted their way through it and had your character fly, but instead, you ran from rooftop to rooftop, jumped on powerlines or railroad tracks, and hopped on top of passing trains. You could coast a bit in the air, sure, but it wasn’t flying. It was much more satisfying for its limitations. It’s why Spider-Man’s web-swinging is so beloved, but nobody gives a shit about Superman or Iron-Man or a thousand other superheroes flying about.
That’s probably indicative of why I couldn’t get into Superman and Iron-Man in the first place. It’s not that they’re too powerful, or uninteresting characters, it’s because their powers are too varied. There was always the sense that they had a million tools for any job that might come along. And if they didn’t, the writers would just write them a new one. That’s some lazy storytelling right there. I always thought superpowers worked best when they were confined to a single theme: You can control electricity. What do you do with it? Do you just shoot lightning bolts, like Thor? Thor’s a basic bitch. Why not take it a step further and control power to machines? Or you could really push the envelope, and realize that thoughts are just electrical impulses in the brain, and damn – your one limited little power just became godhood.
I loved what they did with Magneto in the ’90s and onward – he went from flinging sawblades at people to manipulating the iron in their bloodstream. I wrote a whole story-arc about this kind of thing for an animated series that got caught in development hell, and will probably never see the light of day. It was a parody pop culture reference show, so we got to use existing characters. In one arc, I had our heroes tutor Aquaman, the Wonder Twins, Hawkman and Robin on how to be actually useful. Playing around with exactly what a character cannot do is some of the most fun I’ve had while writing.
Now, I’m not terribly far into Second Son, but so far it’s doing things pretty well. There’s a sort of smoke-based system of movement, where you duck into vents and get launched by fans. It’s not quite as fluid or intuitive as the powerlines from the first game, but it’s better than just generic flying. However, I get the sense that, based on what the story has revealed so far, the hero is about to get a lot more powers. He’s not going to use the existing ones in increasingly interesting ways, he’s just going to get loaded down with whatever new ability the writers want to confront the situations they throw at him. I could be wrong, but that’s the sense I get. And if that happens, that’s where they’ll lose me a little bit. It’s something I try to keep in mind while writing, and not even necessarily about superpowers: Sometimes the limitations are what make it interesting. Without them, you’re writing generic infallible protagonists, rather than human beings.
And now, if you will excuse me, I am going to blow up a truck with a heat missile.
If anybody asks, I was talking about the game.