Seattle has long been a battleground for the big video-game companies, which all have a presence here in software city.
Now one of them has given Seattle a starring role as the battleground in an actual game.
Called “inFamous: Second Son,” it’s a provocative action game that will be a flagship title for Sony’s upcoming PlayStation 4 console. It also showcases how the medium has advanced technically and artistically to deliver political messages as well as virtual thrills.
This week, the game is expected to figure prominently in Sony’s presentation at the annual E3 game conference in Los Angeles, where the major players are pitching their holiday lineup and plans to revive the $25 billion console-game industry.
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“Second Son” couldn’t be more timely.
It centers on a rebellious Native American who discovers he has superhero powers, bringing him into conflict with an authoritarian police agency that has blanketed the city with surveillance equipment.
Action unfolds in several neighborhoods around the city, from the stone facades and ironwork of Pioneer Square to the modern towers of Belltown.
Sony’s local studio, Bellevue-based Sucker Punch Productions, lovingly created the city and filled it with icons and landmarks, including the Space Needle, Monorail, The Crocodile nightclub, Lincoln Toe Truck and pink Elephant Car Wash.
“It’s really a character in the game, the environment that you’re going to be in,” explained Brian Fleming, producer of “Second Son.”
Fleming is one of three Microsoft veterans who started Sucker Punch 16 years ago. Their first “inFamous” superhero game, released in 2009 for the PlayStation 3, was a hit, leading to a sequel in 2011.
Sony then acquired Sucker Punch, even though Sony was cutting back elsewhere. It closed a Bellevue studio working on online games and later shuttered its Zipper Interactive studio in Redmond.
Now Sony is counting on Sucker Punch for an exclusive that helps launch its console and compete with Microsoft’s upcoming Xbox One and Nintendo’s Wii U.
All this shiny new hardware may get people excited about traditional video games again. PricewaterhouseCoopers expects spending on console games to grow 5 percent a year through 2017, reaching $31.2 billion globally.
But the key to sustaining the console business, and fending off competition from iPads and other devices, is to produce ever more dazzling games that can be played only on high-end gaming machines.
Seattle was a natural setting because it gave Sucker Punch opportunities to showcase the next-generation rendering capabilities of the PS4, Fleming said.
“We really wanted to do wetness on the ground, atmospherics, the reflections and the details of all that really fit well with Seattle. … We thought it was a city that would look really good,” he said.
Being local has advantages. Game artists and designers know the city and easily check to be sure they’re getting little things right, like the width of sidewalks, where moss grows on walls and where water tends to pool in the streets. About 40 percent of the studio’s 117 employees live in Seattle proper.
“A lot of that detail comes from reference-gathering trips downtown, looking for just those little bits of truth you can find and bring into the game,” Fleming said.
Even people populating the city’s virtual streets are authentic. Dozens of local residents were photographed at Sucker Punch and used as three-dimensional models in building the game.
It’s not the first time the area has appeared in big games. Early versions of the Xbox hit “Halo” featured the evergreen forests and snowy peaks that awed designers at Bungie, when their studio moved here from Chicago.
Microsoft also published a moody mystery game for the Xbox called “Alan Wake,” which was set in a fictional town in the Cascade foothills.
Sucker Punch is using Seattle for more than visual effects. This was highlighted in February when the director of “Second Son,” Nate Fox, showed a preview during a Sony media event. On stage, he related how his notions of liberty were affected by being tear-gassed by police during the WTO riots.
“Our security comes at a high price — our freedom,” he said, before showing a sequence in the game with the Space Needle turned in to a fortified police-surveillance station.
That was before the latest news about federal monitoring of phone and online communications, which enhances the zing of “Second Son” and another surveillance-themed game called “Watch Dogs,” which Sony highlighted in February.
“We do think on a personal and professional level about the conflicts between surrendering our freedoms increasingly for security or at least for the promise of security,” Fleming said. “The administration’s response is that it’s needed for security. I think there’s a very legitimate debate to be had about where that line should be drawn.
“This game is our way of exploring that — maybe at a little bit more extreme level — but I think it raises those questions that are super relevant for what’s going on right now in the world.”
I’ve got a hometown bias here, but it looks like Sucker Punch may deliver a jab, a hook and an uppercut this time around.
Fleming said “Second Son” has an exciting character in a city they love, plus “an overall theme that makes it worth exploring.”
“It’s not just about blowing stuff up. There’s a reason for the story to take place, a reason for this journey,” he said. “For us, they all kind of come together.”
Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org