Warning: this article contains spoilers for inFAMOUS, inFAMOUS 2, and inFAMOUS: Second Son.
For a game series built around themes of oppression and othering, inFAMOUS has a checkered history when it comes to its depictions of female characters. With every main series installment to date starring a male protagonist, the featured women first struggled for relevance and must now vie for equal representation.
While the recent release of First Light suggests things may be improving, if we're going off of Sucker Punch’s track record, it’s hard to say if this is the beginning of a new era or just an anomaly on inFAMOUS's radar.
Good Karma: Trish was actually pretty interesting when she wasn't being used as a plot device. Her story arc arguably had the potential to be more engaging than Cole's. In spite of losing her sister and Empire City's fall to anarchy, she never considers once giving up or riding out the storm in safety.
She's on the front lines, working in medical clinics, saving lives. Unfortunately, she never completes her own arc because all along she was just a piece of Cole's.
Bad Karma: Trish is essentially the martyred saint of Empire City. Depending on the path Cole takes, she either serves as a righteous figure to which he can aspire or an ever-present judge of his evil actions. Either way, she’s not written to be a real identifiable character.
At best, she’s an idea: first a reminder of Cole’s humanity, then a symbol of what he’s trying to recover, and finally, a memory to be avenged. At worst, she’s an object, designed to be protected or rescued in missions.
Unfortunately, just as she begins to take on a distinct personality – a tenacious woman with an inflexible code of ethics and deep compassion for others – she’s killed off by Kessler for the sole purpose of affecting the protagonist. When she fell off that building, she might as well have fallen right into an open refrigerator.
Good Karma: Female villains can be some of the most progressive characters in fiction because they defy the stereotype that women can only be pure and innocent sideliners in the male protagonist's story.
Sasha takes it a step further by also being depicted as smart (a scientist who developed a mind-control substance) and extremely powerful (a high-level Conduit and the leader of the gang controlling an entire city district).
Bad Karma: Sasha is essentially the "whore" to Trish's "Madonna," a fitting dichotomy for a game obsessed with moral absolutes. By casting her as the evil corrupter opposite Trish's goodness, inFAMOUS villainizes the traits that set Sasha apart from Trish, namely her free expression of sexuality.
Additionally, all of the Good Karma she racked up as a female scientist is devalued after John describes her as a "honey pot," a woman who seduces men to extract information. Ultimately, when Sasha's not being compared to Trish, she's being put in a subordinate role to either Kessler or Cole.
Good Karma: Moya is clever, manipulative, and totally in control. She's never unnecessarily sexualized, always secure in her independence, and deeply nuanced to boot, almost like they treated her as, like, an actual character or something. It's also refreshing to see a woman of color in a prominent role, even if she isn't shown on-screen very often. Unfortunately she doesn't make it past the comics, as she is a stellar character.
Bad Karma: Moya isn't a perfect character, but there's certainly nothing overtly sexist about her portrayal.
Good Karma: InFAMOUS 2 made a much better effort to diversify its cast and give prominent roles to female characters. While Lucy Kuo, an Asian-American undercover agent and cryokinetic Conduit, does represent the "good" path, her morality is anything but one-dimensional. She has doubts, she can be selfish, just like a real human being.
Neutral Karma: The potentially racist implications of her magical blue hairdo are still up for debate. Are they exoticizing her? It's hard to say. While her Conduit transformation does give an in-universe explanation, when paired with her tighter, sexier outfit, the blue hair might also indicate an attempt to make Kuo more appealing to the American gaze. The jury's out on this one.
Bad Karma: The developers still seem stuck in creating dichotomies between their female characters. First Kuo is good and Nix is bad. Then they switch. At this point, women still can't be legitimate allies in the inFAMOUS universe. They still have to present opposing fronts between which Cole must choose.
Good Karma: Nix kicks some serious rear, but that's not what makes her a "strong female character." She's well-written, with a distinct personality and clear goals. Plus, Nix takes on a role usually reserved for brooding male protagonists: the anti-hero, complete with a tragic backstory and morals in every shade of gray. Even better, she's funny. She's not brooding at all. Nix takes tired tropes and burns them to the ground.
Bad Karma: Nix is also one of the most racist caricatures in modern gaming. A black, uneducated woman who grew up on the bayou? Scantily clad in leather and "tribal" ornaments? She's literally described as a "Swamp Witch." Just take a look at the original concept art. It apparently could have been so much worse, but you can tell what the designers were going for.
Good Karma: There's nothing specifically sexist about Celia's character. There's also nothing particularly progressive. The paper thing is pretty cool though.
Bad Karma: Though it's hard to tell in the cutscenes, based on her aliases ("Hitori" and "Saisei"), it's clear Celia is Japanese. So naturally they put her in a school girl's uniform for no reason other than to buy into a stereotype.
Good/Bad Karma: On one hand, she's an incredibly well-characterized villain. Her motivations are complex. She's an authoritarian. She has agency, an agenda. On the other hand, she's meant to be disliked by the player because of how she abuses her power. And since she is one of the few major female characters, this could imply that a woman in charge is inherently damaging to society. Since this is a double-edged sword, it's impossible to draw the line where Augustine stops advancing the quality of female representation and starts hindering it.
Bad Karma: In an effort to end on a good note, let's tackle the bad first. Delsin initially meets Fetch through an elaborate chase scene, after which he knocks her unconscious and stands over her body arguing with his brother over what they should do with her. Afterwards, the player is asked to "redeem" or "corrupt" her. Either forcibly change her morality or sic her on your enemies. Either way, she's objectified. Something to be manipulated or used. Oh, and if you choose the evil path, you get to have sex with her. But in inFAMOUS sexual women are always evil.
Good Karma: Then First Light happened and suddenly inFAMOUS has its first playable female protagonist. In making Fetch more believable as a woman and as a human being, the developers even consulted the voice actress about dialogue and interactions. In the end, Fetch became a "strong female character" in every sense of the word. She's powerful, but there's a lot more to her than just the neon.
If and when Sucker Punch decides to pick up the InFAMOUS franchise again, hopefully they'll remember both their successes and failures when writing for their female characters. With any luck, First Light will be the first of many feminist triumphs of the series.
Did you think some of these assessments were a bit harsh? Or maybe we're still going too easy on them. Either way, sound off in the comments below.