Nate Fox joined Sucker Punch in 1998, months after it was founded, to work on the lighting and environmental art of N64 platformer Rocket: Robot On Wheels. He moved on to co-designing the Sly Cooper series before being promoted to game director for Infamous. We meet him in London to discuss Second Son’s astonishing visuals, getting combat just right, and why everything good stems from Half-Life 2.
Second Son is a beautiful game, but it’s the lighting that stands out. What did you do to capture it?
We were very fortunate, because Sucker Punch is located right next to Seattle, so we’d go into town and take light readings at different times of the day and put those directly into the game. We have shaders that have true physical parameters of how light bounces off of an object to try to make it as realistic as possible. We’re always drawing on the world as much as possible, either through sampling or creating models that represent the way the actual world around us looks. I’ve got to give credit to [rendering/tech art lead] Jason Connell. He’s a master at figuring out how to best bring into focus the emotional quality of light in the world. It’s a weird, subtle speciality – I mean, there’s ‘I’m a major in lighting’, but he understands it on a citywide level, and you’re reacting to one guy’s great work.
The enemy AI is a pleasant surprise. Was it a challenge to get the DUP’s behaviour right?
From my vantage point it was easy, because we hired some really talented combat designers who had a lot of experience – largely from FPSes. They worked very hard weighting encounters, with every fight being authored for differentiation and to take advantage of the terrain, making sure the enemies maintain ideal distances from the player. I think it works in the game, but it’s because we had people who knew what they were doing. And in the past, we haven’t had that on Infamous games.
Without his powers, Delsin doesn’t feel very connected to the world you’ve built. Are you disappointed with this aspect at all?
We certainly wanted to keep that core climbing ability that we had in the first two games, but because we wanted to make buildings of much greater height and variation, we wanted to give you powers that gave you the freedom to move very quickly up and down them. And while you can climb, we didn’t think it was going to be a primary mode of interaction. I mean, particularly once you get Neon, it just stops happening. So we decided that people would probably get more joy, ultimately, if we refined what we call ‘supernavigation’ – moves like when you smokedash through a vent and it pops you out – and make that feel good. We thought that would bring people more satisfaction than trying to meticulously scrutinise every windowsill, although we did try to make them good. As you can imagine, there are many, many thousands of windowsills.
The performance capture is particularly nuanced. Was it done in-house?
Yes. Really all credit goes to producer Brian Flemming, who hired some talented people to find a way to take the raw data from all these points on actors’ faces and create an algorithm that would then interpret that information into something you no longer view as points on a mesh, but start thinking of as a person – someone who’s suddenly encountering self-doubt or scepticism. I love it, because I think it helps draw people into the story. It’s a more human connection, which I think a lot of videogames lack.
How do you feel about the state of writing in games?
I think story in games is just getting better, right? People recognise it now as an integral aspect of an interactive experience. It’s not something that’s slapped on to make level one, two and three hang together; now it’s the centre of what you expect the interaction to be. Now it’s, ‘What’s the emotion of the level? Not the theme, but what I am supposed to feel while going through this level?’ And it’s impossible to imagine a future of videogames where we don’t see improvements and narrative integration moving forwards in big strides. I mean, the technology for the facial capture you see in Second Son isn’t something that we alone have access to. All games will be doing that, and that’s great, because it means actors will have more presence in games and there will be more great examples of interactive storytelling. I think Naughty Dog, frankly, is the best at it, and they keep making these great examples for the rest of us to learn from. The industry will follow. But, for me, Half-Life 2 is the Bible; everything good comes from Half-Life 2, and [Valve is] excellent at making integrated narrative.
The way the DUP’s concrete structures encroach on Seattle makes it feel a little bit like City 17.
Oh, yeah! And our kind of faceless martial law guys, who you can’t understand what they’re saying sometimes? I’m not bullshitting you, I had never thought about them in relation to the Combine before, but certainly they have a similar feel. But we went with the concrete, because we thought it’s a strong thing that you cannot break. And, frankly, it’s everywhere in the urban landscape, so if you had command over it, you would have command over cities themselves.