The Spectral City and Geographies of Witness

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October 7, 2012 by climagiste

On Setting inFAMOUS 2 in an Impossible New Orleans

In 2011, Sucker Punch Productions launched inFAMOUS 2, a sequel to an open-world action platform, wherein Cole MacGrath explores a Louisianian city, New Marais. There are aboveground cemeteries, balcony verandas, an old cathedral in need of constant repair, busted up shotgun houses, canals, and a street car. The main feature of the inFAMOUS franchise is Cole’s interactions with architecture: he’s a parkour dude, meaning each pipe and windowsill has to be actionable for him to climb, jump, and crawl his way through the city. According to a backstory revealed in-game, after New Marais was destroyed by a hurricane in 2004, the combination of a nearly empty city and an overwhelmed police force meant Cole could parkour in peace.

inFAMOUS 2 interprets Hurricane Katrina as the hollowing out of a city, allowing the pure distinctions of its architecture to function as a site of play. This play extends into Cole’s missions as an interesting counterpoint to art that confronts recent tragedy. Literature of witness, as Carolyn Forché defines it, forces us to face the memory of devastation: “they will not permit us diseased complacency. They come to us with claims that have yet to be filled, as attempts to mark us as they have themselves been marked.”{1} inFAMOUS 2 seems to be as divorced from this idea as one can get, especially when the more recent destruction of Empire City, the series’ New York City, propels the storyline of the game. But I wonder whether, in its obliviousness to the politics of setting a game in a postdiluvian city, inFAMOUS2 formulates a type of material witness through its meticulous attention to the geography of New Orleans as the springboard for play, for the imagination.

In his essay “Nymphs,” Giorgio Agamben explores the relationship between memory, movement, the image, and the imagination. He writes, “Images are alive, but because they are made of time and memory their life is always already… after-life; it is always already threatened and in the process of taking on a spectral form.”{2} Images stay with us. We see them, but when we close our eyes, they still exist, forming the basis of our memory, peopling our imagination, haunting us. This observation not only applies to art, but to images destroyed by disaster. I remember watching the news coverage of my city drowning on August 29, 2005, and I remember the after-image burn of the city I had known, now emptied out by new meanings. With inFAMOUS 2, we get the pathosformel{3} of “The City that Care Forgot,” the touristy nickname that’s been around since 1938, evoking the wrought-iron decadence of the French Quarter, alongside the “pure image” of architecture, which we know intimately through the game’s parkour mechanics, as field of play.{4}

With the form of the images semi-divorced from the legacy of Katrina, the player explores the pure images that serve as the vessels for New Orleanian culture, and wildly enough, the images aren’t that inaccurate: the combination of Bible-belt gun and momma evangelism alongside European architecture and laissez-faire attitudes, the chemical refineries which make the tropical ecosystem a breeding ground for cancer, the run-down a few streets away from neon tourism. The gameplay of inFAMOUS 2 is mostly just getting from one place to another through repeatedly climbing buildings, a fact that deeply acquaints the player with the images and material, if not the cultural and historical significance of those images, of New Orleans masked as a fictional city. This revelry in the image better acquaints a gamer to the physical reality of New Orleans—its buildings, the style of its layout, its proximity to water, the economic randomness of the city planning—than watching the coverage of the storm from afar.

Only one mission directly references the yet ongoing struggle of being in a once-flooded city: “Flood Town,” wherein the gamer must restore power to the poorest area of town. Flood Town, as the cut-scene reveals, is where the poorest of the poor live, and though the “flood” that wrecked New Marais was four years ago in the diegesis, Flood Town is still mostly underwater. In this way, the designers were able to have a vibrant, colorful city, alongside a dangerous one that recalls the images that tore a hole in real people’s live seven years ago.{5} Absurdly, four years later, part of the city is still underwater, and the people who live in this underwater community need electricity. The historical contradiction links the form of New Orleans with an impossible content: at once whole and flooded—suspended in a state between physicality and an ahistorical flood, complete with the orange bodycount Xs on buildings partially submerged in a game where corpses don’t stay corporeal but vanish into algorithm.

X Code from real New Orleans, photo by ercwttmn.

X Code from inFAMOUS 2

Though the designers were insistently apolitical concerning setting the game in a fictional post-Katrina New Orleans, these images become uncannily the site of a play of exploration, of helping and hurting, and of charting a memory of disaster from the roofs as the ground sinks below a water that will kill you.{6} In this way, the experience of playing inFAMOUS 2 becomes a game that serves as both witness to the legacy (and stereotypes) of New Orleans and its tragedy and, devoiding both from their history, allows for the play of the imagination to make new stories, new futures, while not quite shaking off the specter of the past.

1. Forché, Carolyn. Against Forgetting: 20th Century Poetry of Witness. W. W. Norton and Co.: New York, 1993. 32.

2. Agamben, Giorgio. “Nymphs” Releasing the Image. Eds. Jaques Khalip and Robert Mitchell. Stanford University Press: Stanford, California, 2011. 62.

3. This word, coined by Aby Warburg, means pathos formula, a set of aesthetic parameters that might evoke a specific emotion, a concept he chased all his life. What’s particularly interesting with this term for videogames is that the artform is itself a formula, literally.

4. This ubiquitous term seems to first appear in Lyle Saxon’s Federal Writer’s Project New Orleans City Guide, a product of the Works Progress Administration: “Traditionally the city that care forgot, New Orleans is, perhaps, best known for its liberal attitude toward human frailty, its ‘Live and Let Live’” policy. Federal Writer’s Project. New Orleans City Guide. Houghton Mifflin Co.: Boston, 1938. Xx.

5. It’s never mentioned what caused the floods, but being in the United States in the last seven years would tell you what had happened.

6. Also note that Cole is electric, which creates the danger of landing in the water an ever present source of game difficulty. Game designer information from Totilo, Stephen. “inFAMOUS 2 is the Post-Katrina Game America Deserves.” Published July 18, 2011 on Kotaku. Accessed October 5, 2012.


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