What if the video game apocalypse — typically the well-worn, grim near-future overrun by irradiated zombies where survivors scrape out a hellish existence — was actually the best party you've ever been to?
That's the premise of Sunset Overdrive, the Xbox One-exclusive action game that drops players into what developer Insomniac Games calls the "rock and roll end times" or, more trademark-worthy, the "awesomepocalypse."
Sunset Overdrive takes place in the fictional American town of Sunset City, the Anytown, U.S.A. metropolis that serves as host to a city-wide party. The occasion is the launch of OverCharge Delirium XT, a new energy drink from megacorporation FizzCo. The consumption of the new drink goes immediately and incredibly wrong, turning revelers into mutated freaks: The OD, the Overcharge drinkers.
That's where you come in, evolving from lowly clean up worker to bad-ass savior of Sunset City.
"When we got off of Resistance 3, which is a very dark, dystopian world, but right for that game, we said, 'Let's do something fun,'" said lead writer John Paquette. "We decided to take the trope of what most post-apocalyptic stories are and turn it on its head. Most post apocalyptic stories, you've got the dystopia, you've got people struggling to survive, trying to do anything they can to find humanity. So we said, 'OK, let's create a character whose life is shitty in the modern world. And when the apocalypse comes, it's like a dream come true.'"
Your role, as hero having the time of his or her life, is to make your way beyond the containment walls of the city and escape the energy drink-mutated hordes. Along the way, you'll battle OD of all shapes, sizes and mutations —including a part-human, part-leafblower creature — and bizarre bosses, like a menacing balloon mascot named Fizzie, and band together with other survivors.
"It's the game we've been meaning to make for 20 years"
Sunset Overdrive is Insomniac's first truly open-world game. It's a kinetic, fast-moving shooter paired with acrobatic traversal inspired by games like Prince of Persia, Jet Set Radio and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. It's packed with the qualities Insomniac excels at: quirky animated characters, strange weapons and bright colors — and the occasional colorful innuendo.
"This is Insomniac being Insomniac," said president and CEO Ted Price at Sunset Overdrive's unveiling. "This is the kind of game that we've all dreamed of developing for a long time."
"It's the game we've been meaning to make for 20 years," producer Bryan Intihar said. "From a style standpoint, the look the colors, it's what we're good at. We're good at stylized games and I think that's what you're going to see from us going forward."
As the hero, a customizable character, you'll get access to an array of unusual weapons, DIY-guns and bombs. There's the High Fidelity, a gun that launches vinyl records at high speed; the Roman Candle, a revolver that sprays fireworks; Captain Ahab, a harpoon gun that also squirts pools of alluring Overcharge energy drink; and the TNT Teddy, a launcher that deploys teddy bears wearing dynamite vests. There's a substantial arsenal, most of which are cobbled together from everyday items (fire extinguishers, air conditioners, toy helicopters, power drills, etc.) for deadly effect.
Sunset Overdrive is the brainchild of creative director Marcus Smith and game director Drew Murray. The two previously worked on the far more serious Resistance series, and combined their shared love of punk rock, pop culture and older Insomniac Games, like Spyro and Ratchet and Clank, into the weird soup that is Sunset Overdrive.
"this is kind of like the game for adults who grew up on Insomniac games, because that's who we are"
Sunset Overdrive marries "what Drew and I loved about Insomniac since we both came here as fans, basically," Smith said. "We wanted to make a world that has this irreverent sense of humor, has crazy weapons, all the elements that make Insomniac games great.
"We've said from day one this is kind of like the game for adults who grew up on Insomniac games, because that's who we are."
Smith and Murray wanted to explore what "fun in the end times" would be like, they said. They wanted to make a game that was about movement, action and style, not hiding behind cover or complicated traversal mechanics. Jumping, running, clambering and grinding through Sunset City is speedy and fluid.
There are few restrictions on movement in Sunset Overdrive. Your character can wall-run endlessly, even (impossibly) around corners. You can jump-bounce off the roofs of cars, off patio furniture umbrellas, off ventilation units. Physics be damned. Don't worry about falling to your death as you leap around the towers and buildings of Sunset City; you'll simply slip through a portal mid-plummet and be teleported back to safety.
If your character does die, you'll almost instantly respawn with an amusing animation, rising from the concrete in a golden sarcophagus or transported in by flying saucer. Why? How? Who cares, basically. Dying, like everything else in Sunset City, is lighthearted fun, and doesn't warrant explanation.
That freedom from justification is one of Sunset Overdrive's overarching game design mantras: "Fun trumps realism."
"That makes our job so much easier," Murray said. "We don't care if it makes sense. If it's cool and weird or unique, but it's awesome, just do it."
The idea for Sunset Overdrive, Smith and Murray said, was something of a disconnected pop culture brain dump. When Price gave the duo the go-ahead to make what they wanted after Resistance 3, the two presented their idea as a mash-up of their own artistic influences: a blend of rock and roll, comic books, cartoons and lo-fi, low brow culture.
"For us, literally the first pitch we did was nonsensical," Smith said. "It had no mechanics, no gameplay at all. It was Drew and I coming in, like hoarders, with our giant bag of loot, throwing it down on the ground and saying 'This is what it's going to be like.' There's going to be people like the African hyena men and there's gonna be aesthetics like punk rock DIY flyers and fanzines.
"This game is the melting pot of all our experiences."
Smith and Murray name-checked cultural icons like Iggy Pop and Popeye cartoons; Krazy Kat and British sitcom The Young Ones; vintage Halloween masks, The Gorillaz, Scott Pilgrim and The Misfits.
The response from other Insomniacs after their pitch, Murray said, was, "What the fuck are you guys talking about?"
"But it made perfect sense for us," Smith said. "These are feelings that we want to evoke. So from right off the bat we want to go with these big themes and these particular ideas about what executes these feelings. It took some time for the team to get that, what that means. For a while we described it as the rock and roll end times, because we thought 'What would Iggy Pop do?'"
"He would die in like three days but it would be this crazy awesome three days that would be great to participate in," Murray said.
That loose idea, "the rock and roll end times," took some time to gel, Murray said, and some time for other Insomniac staffers to grasp what Sunset Overdrive was going to be. But bits and pieces of the game's design started to click into place. An explosion shaped like a teddy bear head, the gun that shoots colored vinyl LPs, the wacky respawn animations — these were the "A-ha!" moments, Smith said, when Sunset Overdrive's aesthetic, its attitude, started to coalesce.
Fourth wall-breaking elements, like blood sprays that spelled out "headshot" or explosions that say "BOOM" in flames, also helped establish the game's tone.
How the game would play was another story.
Smith, Murray and other Insomniac staffers, credit level designer Cameron Christian with helping to define how players would move through the world, with high-speed, fluid traversal mechanics inspired by Tony Hawk and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
"Prince of Persia had some wall running, had some clambering, had some jumping, and Tony Hawk a little more of precision and purpose for each button press," Christian said. "We didn't want it so mechanically hard as Tony Hawk, but we didn't want it as easy as, say, Assassin's Creed, where you just hold one button down and run.
"That was really big for us, trying to find that balance in between not too hard, not too easy."
Movement through Sunset Overdrive is a combination of running, jumping and grinding. Players will skate, a la Jet Set Radio, on railings, the edges of rooftops and power lines. The city is laid out in a fashion where players will always have something to jump onto, climb up, slide on or swing from, a chain of movement for players zip to along at high velocity.
The city itself spans several districts, reaching far and wide. But it also reaches great heights. In the demo area we played at Insomniac's headquarters, we had to scale a massive radio tower, bouncing off of transmitters and grinding upward on wires, culminating in a boss battle in the sky.
"It's stacked, it's layered," Christian said of Sunset City's design. "It's not quite like any city people have played in." It's also carefully plotted out by Christian and the game's level designers, ensuring that players can consistently connect a jump with a rail slide with a wall grab.
"I remember there were times when there were very few people who thought that was actually gonna work," Price said. "But thanks to people like Cameron, people like Drew, who had this vision for this city where you could freely roam and perform unusual moves for an open-world game, they kept at it and kept pushing different approaches, and it finally worked. And when it did, everybody got it. And then we started integrating combat and ended up with something that we think is pretty unique."
Players will pair fast traversal mechanics and third-person shooting together to boost their Style Meter in Sunset Overdrive. As you leap around the world, kill enemies and switch weapons in and out, you'll be awarded style points as an encouragement to keep your character on the offensive. Level up your style meter, and you'll unlock Amps, modifiers that alter how your character and your weapons behave.
The goal, the game's directors say, is to reward players for playing aggressively.
Insomniac showcased a handful of those Amps, including one that forms an energy shield around your character as she or he dodge-rolls along the ground. Another adds a flame effect to your melee weapon, an aluminum bat. Others change how guns behave. Add the "Twist of Fate" Amp to your automatic rifle and you'll occasionally fire a round that unleashes a mini-nuclear blast. Even your jumps can cause destruction, with one Amp letting you shoot fireballs from your feet on every bounce.
Amps are crafted items in Sunset Overdrive, something that, like guns, players will unlock over time. And Insomniac wants players to mix and match weapons and Amps, letting them customize how they want their guns to behave.
Like Sunset Overdrive's traversal mechanics, gunplay is fast, fluid and forgiving. You'll quickly flip through a weapon wheel to find the right gun for the right job, but rarely do you have to worry about your bullet — whether it's an explosive teddy bear or a Roman candle — finding its target.
"It's kind of a hybrid between some of the things we've done in Ratchet, [like] very wide auto targeting, and more traditional third-person shooters," said lead gameplay programmer Doug Sheahan. "One of the reasons we did that was trying to marry this idea of having the player move very fast, dealing with lots and lots of enemies while also being able to address those enemies at once. And we wanted to keep you moving; we didn't want to have a game where the one-on-one engagement was the point of the game.
"We're definitely not playing the game for you, but at the same time, we're helping you out when you need it so that you can still be effective while playing extremely fast."
Players will encounter a variety of OD enemies in Sunset Overdrive. There's the rank and file OD, the pinkish-orange grunts driven mad by Overcharge energy drink who want to maul you to death. Insomniac has also revealed the Blower, a part-mutant, part-leafblower creature that sprays toxic green pus at you. There's also the Herker, a towering tank of an OD covered in energy drink-filled pustules who has a backhoe shovel for an arm.
Just as Insomniac aimed to shy away from post-apocalyptic gloom and doom with its vibrant, cheerful take on the end of the world, so did it avoid the standard approach to enemy hordes. The OD, the game's artists stress, are not the shambling undead. They're not zombies; they're mutants.
"One of the things that we were thinking about when we first designed ODs was that we didn't want them to look like zombies," said studio art director Jacinda Chew. "So one of the things we avoided was we didn't want to give them clothing. We wanted to also dehumanize them, so we left out their eyes as well. And other than that we wanted to make sure we played up the pustules because they consumed way too much Overcharge."
Players will also come face to face with human enemies, named Scabs, as well as friendly human survivors. Throughout Sunset City, you'll find fellow survivors who've established camps and factions. Those factions will have humorous themes, like the Boy Scouts who set up a stronghold at a Japanese history museum (and outfit themselves with the armor and swords contained within) and a group of role-playing game enthusiasts, or LARPers, called the Fargarths who take over Sunset City's community center.
These factions and other lone survivors you find scattered about town, will give you missions and side quests, activities that will help break up the game's greater narrative. In the demo we played, we undertook one mission in which a comic book store owner asked us to retrieve a quintet of comics he'd lent out to people who were now OD. Kill a couple Blowers, a Herker, and return the comics for some in-game cash that could be spent on weapons.
We encountered another pop-up mission, a short dose of destruction titled "Smash TV." The goal: Smash as many televisions as we could in under a minute or so.
The character you'll play in Sunset Overdrive is you. There is no pre-defined Ratchet, Spyro or Nathan Hale to serve as protagonist, just a wise-cracking avatar that you can customize to your liking.
There's the basic stuff, like gender, skin tone and body type, but Insomniac is stressing "vanity" with its clothing and costume options, giving players a wide variety of rock and roll-inspired outfits, tattoos and accessories to wear.
"What we tried to do is gather a bunch of different archetypes in culture," said artist Gavin Goulden, "so we'll have Tokyo street fashion, punk, rockabilly, goth, hip hop and stuff like that. We basically try to hit all of these different archetypes, and then mash them together. And when they get mashed together that's kind of what our statement is or what our population would be.
"So the idea is, rather than being the end of the world and everything sucks, and our man's gonna wear brown and be fucking miserable, it's like, 'It's the end of the world, I'm gonna do whatever the fuck I want because it's awesome, and I'm awesome. I'll wear that and I'll wear this, and I'll do that and I'm gonna run around the city, kill OD and have a good time.'"
Insomniac drew influence from a wide variety of styles and fashion movements, said Jacinda Chew, to help bring Drew Murray and Marcus Smith's ideas to life.
"Marcus and Drew had this idea bouncing in their head for the longest time, and they had accumulated piles and piles of just stuff that inspired them," Chew said. "By the time I got on the project ... I just had a mound of stuff where they were like, 'This is everything that inspires us.' And I was going through and I was like, 'Oh my God.' So actually the way that Sunset came upon its look is it's pretty much been us whittling down all the things that are in their heads and distilling it to its essence."
From a fashion and customization standpoint, that meant drawing upon couture designers like Jean Paul Gaultier at the high end, as well as seminal Japanese streetwear magazine Fruits and the Sapuers, members of a dandy Congolese fashion movement. Artists took inspiration from diverse cultures and countercultures, like traditional Day of the Dead aesthetics and revolutionary movements, themes that mesh with Sunset Overdrive's setting and characters, Chew said.
"If you think about George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, all those apocalyptic movies ... had some kind of social commentary, whether it's about the Cold War or whether it's about consumerism," Chew said. "And in our game, in particular, it's really about, you know, it's pretty obvious, right. It's FizzCo. It's the man. It's consumerism."
"I think the cool thing about this project is that with other games you're like, 'It's sci-fi, it's western, it's historical,'" Chew said. "So you have a pretty strict standard of what you can put into the game, but I think our game is one of the ones that actually tries to use contemporary culture. Because other games ... it's a specific world you're trying to sell. And it's very divorced from what the player's world actually is, because the player's not a drug dealer ... or the player's not a cowboy. And it's something that I don't think a lot of games can do right now because people want to play the space marine fantasy.
"They don't necessarily want to live their own lives. So it's almost like creating a world where you are living your own life, but kind of cooler."
Living that alternate cooler life, Insomniac says, putting your ultimate version of you in the game, is absolutely crucial to the experience.
"That really came day one, when Drew and Marcus made their presentation, and they said, 'This is who I want to be,'" Price explained. "They actually had a couple character concepts, which were recognizably Drew and Marcus dressed up in some pretty crazy stuff. That struck a chord with all of us because we've all had that desire to express ourselves in game.
"There's some games where you can express yourself, but we really wanted to do something different with our characters and say, 'This can be your game. It's your awesomepocalypse, so do what the hell you want.'"