"I was in this riot, actually," says inFamous creative director Nate Fox. "It was awesome."
Fox and his team have just finished three-and-a-half years of work on their PS3 superhero action-adventure for Sony. We're sat in his informal open-plan office in Bellevue, across the water from Seattle - with spectacular views over the drizzly, wooded city - and he's in reflective mood.
inFamous is a very different game from Sucker Punch's previous work on the Sly Raccoon series for PS2. Those were tightly-controlled platformers in a clean-cut, family-friendly cartoon universe. This is a dark, chaotic, mature open-world adventure set in a ruined and lawless city; a huge electrical explosion has destroyed the city's infrastructure and turned bike messenger Cole McGrath into an electrically-charged superbeing.
It seems a world away from Sucker Punch's perceived cheerful outlook. But Fox is a cheerful sort of guy, always ready to see the silver lining. In his world, even riots are awesome. And that's partly why inFamous has taken the form it has.
"It was the WTO riots," remembers Fox, referring to the so-called Battle of Seattle of late 1999, when anti-globalisation protesters clashed violently with police during the World Trade Organisation conference in the town. "At some point, I was watching people bashing store-front windows, and it was lawless, right, because the cops were all off creating these kind of barricades.
"And they were chucking in tear gas, but people could do anything they wanted, because there was no threat of any kind of law enforcement inside of the riot itself; yet people were offering me food and water to clean out my eyes. And no-one offers me food or water around town.
"So when people were being nice to me inside this riot, it kind of said, like, humanity is really caring. Because there were no repercussions, you could be a total jerk and break someone's arm and no one's going to stop you. So making a videogame that had that theme seemed very attractive."
Fox knows better than to force this sunny-side-up view of human nature within the generally cynical world of mature-rated modern videogaming, however. For one thing, inFamous is squaring up against Radical's Prototype, an extravagantly violent and nihilistic take on the same theme (young man discovers mysterious powers in wake of city-wide catastrophe, jumps around a lot), and you don't want to risk looking like the Boy Scout.
Rather, Sucker Punch is staging its own little social experiment, modelled after that awesome riot. If you remove all consequences and repercussions, how do you react? Do you offer food or break arms? Cole's electrical powers make him a god, able to kill anyone on sight, or to help and heal them. Depending on the player's interactions with the confused and broken populace of Empire City, Cole's karma meter will swing towards good or evil, affecting his powers and the city's reaction to him. (You can read about this and more in detail in Ellie's hands-on impressions from GDC.)
"What kind of guy would fit into this city well?" muses Fox. "He should enjoy having superpowers, there should be fun, but at the same time it should be kind of a burden, because it would be a lot of weight on your shoulders. And also, just what would happen to you? If you really had powers right now, no joke, what would be the process that you would go through? And it kind of in a way wrote itself in that regard."
The WTO riot is not the only time chaos has come to Seattle in the last few years, and not the only time Sucker Punch has drawn on the world on its doorstep for its work on inFamous. "Another thing that happened, kind of similar, was that we had six days of power outage during this one horrific winter storm, and it was incredible how this whole east side of Seattle fell apart, because you couldn't get gas, you couldn't go to the store to get food," says Fox.
"Without electricity things fall apart really fast, and people go a little crazy, and so we're making this game with an electrical superhero - that's why we have these blacked-out sections of the city really, because it felt like the jungle, man. People ignore traffic lights! It's just wild. It's wild how close we are to anarchy. So put that in the game, dude. That's an interesting space."
It's not often that you encounter videogame developers making games as a philosophical reaction to the world on their doorstep. Of course, that's not the primary motivation for inFamous. "Well, we wanted to make a superhero game because we read a lot of graphic novels, and after doing eight years of kind of sneaky thief action, we just wanted to blow things up," says Fox.
So inFamous is primarily a work of gritty superhero escapism in the Frank Miller mode, as well as being a reaction against the stealthy restraint of the Sly Cooper games. Empire City is in extreme dire straits, naturally closer to the Gotham of The Dark Knight Returns or No Man's Land than 1999 Seattle. The graphic novel influence is also reflected in the game's superb cut-scenes, which are dramatically animated panes of 2D art by Sucker Punch's in-house comic artist with a growling, terse voiceover narrative from Cole that's pure Miller (as well as being one bit of house style to survive from Sly).
Nonetheless, climb to the game's rooftops (that's the other vestigial bit of Sly Cooper, you spend a lot of time on roofs) and look out over Empire City, and you'll notice a striking resemblance to the view from Sucker Punch's lofty HQ. It's an exciting vista in any open-world game - seeing the town spread out before you and knowing you can go anywhere within it - and one that's been ably exploited by everything from GTA to Spider-Man 2. Fox reckons it's a particularly perfect fit for the superhero game - "I don't know if you've ever played Grand Theft Auto and thought, 'This is awesome, I wish I could fly'." Or looked out of your office window and thought that, Nate?
After a couple of hours spent playing four missions from inFamous, some from later in the game, it's clear that this is one thing Sucker Punch has got absolutely right. InFamous combines the nimble parkour style of Assassin's Creed or Mirror's Edge with Crackdown's exaggerated, brutish exuberance to brilliant effect. Cole is fast, his movements are fluid and urgent but predictable, his ability to climb anything is completely unrestricted, and in later stages his jumps are assisted by an electrical glide power that allows him to soar through the air for vast distances.
Jumping off a high ledge and sweeping across the city, picking landing points at will, is a big thrill. Cole can also "grind" at terrific speed along any electrical conduit, such as train tracks or the power-lines strung between buildings. This is a big boon when it comes to getting around the city's three islands quickly, since you won't be using vehicles in this game.
The open-world exploration I did was a little forced, though, and the city itself somewhat empty, since I was deviating from instanced missions and the game's world wasn't available in its natural, open state. The detail packed into the city and your freedom to climb across any of it is impressive, although its relentlessly grim and broken state seemed a bit oppressive and not all that inviting. Nonetheless, properly cutting loose with Cole in Empire's "playground of destruction", as Fox puts it, is undoubtedly the most exciting prospect in inFamous.
The four missions presented were a good spread of the kind of action you can expect from inFamous. In the first, the game's mysterious villains - cloaked and hooded and kind of mechanical, like cyborg wraiths, but bearing very real firearms - are polluting water towers with tar, and Cole's feisty paramedic ex-girlfriends tasks him with tracking down their devices. This was slower-paced exploration and platforming with pockets of combat, and moral choices to be made when choosing how to deal with the citizens and the threat of the tar.
Another had Cole apparently siding with some of the hooded characters - in white cloaks this time, and with teleport powers - in an unexplained attack on a police station. This was a fast platforming run followed by intense combat. Cole's combat powers are all electrical, but blend standard "shooting" and "grenades" with shields and a very satisfying "force push" which, on rooftops, often offers the quickest kills. Melee doesn't seem that useful, it's mostly a ranged combat game. Once he has the appropriate power, you can zoom in with up on the d-pad for a high-power, sniper-style focus kill, which is somewhat slow and fiddly to execute.
The third level was a boss fight on a ruined bridge. It's dramatically staged, with Cole picking off enemies and leaping from girder to girder as the bridge groans, cracks and collapses underneath him, and eventually facing off against a giant monster that seems to be made of scrap metal. It's pure Zelda stuff, Cole using his force-push power to return chunks of debris hurled at him by the monster and landing attacks during openings. It's also, like much of the game we've played, quite tough.
The final had Cole and his comedy sidekick Zeke - a conspiracy theorist, Elvis fan and willing support with a revolver - ascending Transient Tower, a giant spire looming over Empire that's assembled from scrap. This was vertiginous vertical platforming (I should probably be using that "traversal" word instead) with occasional combat.
Cole would have to use his powers to electrify generators to get the elevator working so Zeke could follow, and the summit of the tower presented an enjoyable, arena-style skirmish with waves of enemies - mechanical spiders, snipers and rocket-launching thugs, and finally a giant robot. Visually it was exciting, as the ascent provided breathtaking views over a smoky, sunset Empire, but returning to checkpoints when you fall is an old-school trial-and-error platform-game dynamic that feels at odds with inFamous's open-world style. Does it prevent frustration or create it? It's hard to say.
Although it's finished and so close to release, it's still hard to get a feel for inFamous, because it's hard to satisfactorily demo any open-world game; the missions played well but felt out-of-context because, well, they were. Context is everything, and inFamous will stand or fall on the character and atmosphere of Empire City and its troubled inhabitants.
That being the case, it can only be encouraging that Fox and Sucker Punch are so keenly aware of context, so plugged in to the city on their monitors and the city outside their windows. If they get it right, inFamous will be an awesome riot.
We'll know very soon if they have; inFamous is released on 29th May, exclusively for PS3.