'Second Son' Game Includes Political Message


Seattle has continuously been a battleground for the big video game companies, which all have a presence in the software city.

But now, one of these companies has given Seattle a starring role as the battleground in an actual game.

"InFamous: Second Son" is 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.

The game was featured prominently at Sony's presentation at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo _ also known as the E3 game conference in Los Angeles last week, where major players pitched their holiday lineup and plans to revive the $25 billion console-game industry.

"Second Son" couldn't be timelier.

The game 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, well-known neighborhoods around the city, from the stone facades and ironwork of Pioneer Square to the modern towers of Belltown.

Sony's local studio, Bellevue, Wash.-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," said Brian Fleming, producer of the game.

Fleming is one of three Microsoft veterans who started Sucker Punch Productions 16 years ago. Their first "inFamous" superhero game, released in 2009 for the PlayStation 3, was a hit and led to a sequel in 2011.

Sony then acquired Sucker Punch, even though the company was cutting back elsewhere: It closed a Bellevue studio working on online games and later shuttered its Zipper Interactive studio in Redmond, Wash.

Sony is currently counting on Sucker Punch for an exclusive to help launch its console and compete with Microsoft's upcoming Xbox One and Nintendo's Wii U.

As a result, all this shiny new hardware may get people excited about traditional video games again. PricewaterhouseCoopers, a multinational professional services and accountancy firm, expects spending on console games to grow up to 5 percent a year through 2017, reaching a spending total of $31.2 billion globally.

But the key to sustaining the console business and fending off competition from iPads and other devices is to produce dazzling games that can only be played 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," he said. "We thought it was a city that would look really good."

Moreover, being local has its advantages. Game artists and designers know the city well and easily can ensure that they're getting minor _ yet important _ details 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.

"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.

And this is not the first time the area has appeared in the backdrop of big games. Early versions of the Xbox hit "Halo" featured the city's evergreen forests and snowy peaks that awed designers at video game developer Bungie Inc., after they moved from Chicago to Seattle.

Microsoft also published a moody mystery game for the Xbox called "Alan Wake," which was set in a fictional town in the city's Cascade foothills.

But Sucker Punch is using Seattle for more than just visual effects. This was highlighted in February when the director of "Second Son," Nate Fox, showed a preview of the game during a Sony media event. On stage, he discussed how his notions of liberty were affected by being tear-gassed by police during the World Trade Organization 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.

This was revealed before the latest news about federal monitoring of phone and online communications, which enhances the zing of "Second Son" in addition to 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."

Although I have a hometown bias, 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 gamers will 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."

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