Superpowers and meaning in Infamous: Second Son

Sucker Punch aims high with an ambitious superhero story about real-world issues.

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Brian Fleming has been with Sucker Punch since it was founded in 1997. He's helped pull the company through its toughest moments. If anyone is able to recognize an important time for the developer, it's him. And E3 2013 is an important time.

"This is the first time in seven years that we've had an E3 that mattered," Fleming says. "Through the past console generation, Sucker Punch has only ever had a trailer or a small demo. "Infamous 1 and 2 weren't going to ship for a year after E3."

But this year Fleming and crew are leading the charge on showcasing Sony's powerful new PlayStation 4 hardware. Their latest superhero game, Infamous: Second Son, is less than a year away, and it's one of the most exciting next-gen demos on display — nearly as exciting as Sucker Punch's promises for what's in store in the full game.

In the beginning

Infamous: Second Son sets itself apart from previous entries in the series immediately with its new main character. Taking the place of old protagonist Cole MacGrath is Delsin Rowe, a young, frustrated graffiti artist who discovers he has superpowers.

"There's a reason why they rebooted the Spider-Man franchise," lead designer Jaime Griesemer says. "The origin stories are the most interesting and especially [in games] the most interesting to play. The player and the character are growing together."

"The player getting used to controls parallels what the character is going through," Fleming says. "That relationship being similar really makes the story immersive."

Game director Nate Fox believes that Delsin also connects to the players in his desire to have fun using his powers. "Delsin is, in my mind, a real representation of how we see people playing in playtests," he says. "He's cocky. He's playful."

"...We felt like a video game about a guy with superpowers was also a good way to investigate some real-world issues."

"Cole was always kind of tortured about that," Fleming says. "A lot of the genre is heroes that are not that excited about having powers, but Delsin loves it."

But in the Infamous universe – now seven years past the traumatic events of Infamous 2 – superpowers are not only fun, they come with consequences. Griesemer says he wouldn't call Second Son more serious than previous games, but he does call it "a more grounded direction."

"Science fiction is often about exploring political or ideological or philosophical ideas in a remote way," Griesemer says, "because it's obviously not true. We felt like a video game about a guy with superpowers was also a good way to investigate some real-world issues."

Infamous: Second Son is most concerned with one real-world issue: the tension between security and freedom, a popular theme for post-9/11 media. With what Fleming calls "echoes of Homeland Security," the government uses the events of Infamous 2 as an excuse to create the Department of Unified Protection (DUP), a militaristic organization that captures and suppresses superhuman threats (now termed "bioterrorists").

When Nate Fox revealed Second Son at the PlayStation 4 announcement event, he seemed on the verge of breaking down as he described getting tear-gassed at a protest. After a dead serious monologue about how the government limits freedom to achieve greater security, Fox said, "Now imagine how things would change, how the world would react if a handful of people suddenly developed superhuman abilities." The sudden shift in tone was uncomfortable, but it's the same struggle Sucker Punch faces in attempting to create a superhero game that still has a message.


Second Son's Delsin Rowe is "playful"

With great power

"It's not like we want to dwell on the theme in every moment of the game," Fleming says. He calls the social issues at the heart of Second Son "the backdrop," but says, "fun and the superhuman experience trumps the themes."

Griesemer takes it one step further by explaining how the serious issues being explored can actually be aided by the wish-fulfillment gameplay. "A lot of the meaning comes from a choice of what to blow up, and a lot of the consequences of your actions come from having a permanent effect on the world," he says.

Delsin's ability to reshape the world through destruction is shown off in Second Son's E3 demo. He shoots a fireball at a guard tower where several DUP soldiers are positioned, and its support beams melt, causing the tower to crumble. As he runs across a bridge, a more heavily-armed DUP officer shoots a rocket at Delsin. He jumps away just as the rocket hits the bridge, blowing it to pieces.

Later, in the demo's spectacular finale, Delsin finds himself surrounded by the DUP in a park with a skeletal dinosaur model in the middle. To make his way out, Delsin pulls off a special move, shooting high into the air and then slamming down, bathing the area in flames. The DUP forces are defeated, but the fossils also turn to dust — a landmark destroyed.

According to Griesemer, that destruction will last. "It was very difficult in a PlayStation 3 timeframe, where you don't have enough RAM to store information about every object in the whole universe," he says. "The areas would just be refreshed when you leave and come back. But now we have a lot more to work with."

"Delsin certainly represents freedom. He represents the choice to do what you want and cast off this yoke of always being watched by Big Brother. But in my mind, it's absolutely a debate."

Griesemer says that some destructible items will come back. Sucker Punch wants to make sure that areas always have cover available, for example. "But the memorable stuff," he adds, "that's the stuff that goes away."

That permanent impact on the game world may be how Sucker Punch attempts to add some subtlety to Infamous: Second Son's message. "For what it's worth, it's not a one-sided statement," says Fox, despite his real-world connection to the issues at hand. "Delsin certainly represents freedom. He represents the choice to do what you want and cast off this yoke of always being watched by Big Brother. But in my mind, it's absolutely a debate."

Fox mentions the recent Boston marathon bombings as an example of the increase in security arguably being used for good. "Security cameras helped out with that, " he says. "We try to look at both sides and be very honest about it."

Fleming agrees. "The point of the theme isn't to say, 'Hey, we have a specific opinion that one side of the debate is right or wrong.' If we really play our cards right, you'll think both sides have a valid point. If we make some players think, that's a really great bonus."

But Fox thinks it's more than just a bonus. "Fun matters enormously. You've got to do that," he says. "But the soul of the game, the thing that you remember is the larger statement or feeling of purpose."

Even if it's just a superhero game, he believes that larger statement will be memorable.

Reaching out

Sucker Punch also has aspirations of reaching a larger audience with Second Son, which may explain the move to a new protagonist.

"It's a new platform," Griesemer says. "It's going to be a lot of new players we can reach. We don't want to have hours and hours of backstory that they need to understand."

That new audience will also find a much more welcoming control scheme. "Over the course of a couple of games, you can really start building a complicated control set," Fleming says, referencing how the last two games required players to hold down buttons in order to open up new powers accessible on other buttons. "We've taken a step back and said, 'What if the real variety and the really novel aspects of the game come through developing other powersets?'."

"We don't want to have hours and hours of backstory that they need to understand."

Though Sucker Punch is only showing Delsin's initial fire-based powers during E3, we're told that he will have the ability to grab other superhumans and absorb their abilities. Griesemer isn't ready to explain how this works, but he hints that Delsin will be able to swap between powersets at will. "It's an open-world game," he says. "It's about giving the player as much freedom as possible. It's not about locking them in a room and saying, 'Hey, you have to use this power.'"

Griesemer points out that Sucker Punch's E3 demo of the game has the UI turned off entirely. This is partially because Sucker Punch isn't ready to show off the look of the UI and partially because they want to show off how streamlined the controls are. "It would be pretty tough to play Infamous 1 and 2 without UI," he laughs. "Our goal is to make the controls disappear."



Big talk

Compared to Fox and Fleming, Griesemer is a new addition to Sucker Punch. He left his job at Bungie two years ago to come work on the Infamous series, and as he describes his new home, there's a satisfied smile on his face.

"They want to stay small," Griesemer says. "It's an 80-person team, which is tiny compared to most studios. They're really small, and they hit way above their weight class. They're in there throwing down with the best teams in the world."

If they've hit above their weight class before, Infamous: Second Son has the opportunity to be the knock-out punch. As Sucker Punch describes it, it's a beautiful game with elegant controls and an ambitious, developed story. Fleming says it will be a step forward for the developer "in all things — visually, effects, sound, mechanics, controls." And let's not forget thematically.

"It's an 80-person team, which is tiny compared to most studios."

Fleming refers to the debate about security versus freedom as something "floating in and around the zeitgeist," something that has become an even bigger topic in the months since the game's announcement.

If Infamous: Second Son can manage to add something meaningful to that conversation, it could end up as more than just an entertaining use of the PlayStation 4's increased power. Babykayak

Video: Adam Barenblat, Andrei Zakow, Tom Connors
Editing: Russ Pitts
Image Credits: SCEA
Design/ Layout: Warren Schultheis
Camera Gear Provided by: - Camera and Lens Rentals