The phrase "world-building" gets tossed around quite a bit these days, and it's interesting to think about what it really means. After all, every game needs a space to occupy, so usually it's someone's job to actually go in and build one. As I mentioned in my column last week, videogames take us places. But no matter how real those places may feel, the fact remains that they are constructs, controlled digital spaces created by humans.
Over the past few years, I've been happy to see the variety of real-world locales in games steadily diversify. Although I have crashed through more digital versions of New York than I can count, I've also relished my time poking about the spooky pacific northwest of Alan Wake and Deadly Premonition, the irradiated wastelands outside Chernobyl in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Pripyat and the rooftops and aqueducts of Rome in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood.
New Orleans is a city that is very close to my heart. This may be in part because I am a jazz musician, or because I have attended several fantastic jazz festivals there over the years, but I have to give some of the credit for my NoLa-love to famed game-writer Jane Jensen. Back in 1993, I was utterly swept away by Jensen's point-and-click adventure game Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. Set almost entirely in New Orleans, the game spun a fantastic yarn about murderous voodoo cults, hard-boiled detective work and one family's ancient destiny, and it used its Big Easy backdrop to great effect.
Gabriel Knight's world-map was simply a map of New Orleans itself, and much of the story focused on adventures in and around Jackson Square. It was through Gabriel Knight that I learned what Gris-gris was, where in the city to get a good beignet, and that underneath Jackson Square there is in fact a secret voodoo crypt full of deadly mummies. Let it never be said that videogames aren't educational.
I recently returned to New Orleans for a jazz convention, and once again I was struck by how much character the city has, how much heart. There really are street musicians on every corner, and three out of every five kids I saw walking down the street seemed to be toting one brass instrument or another. My previous visits had been before Katrina, before the BP oil spill and before everything in the city became so much more difficult and complicated. But while those catastrophic events changed the city forever, it was impossible not to get the sense that some of the best things about New Orleans will endure forever.
Last year I watched David Simon's HBO drama Treme with obsessed fascination; here was a tribute to New Orleans such as I had never encountered in popular culture. Simon nailed the tiniest details of life in the Big Easy, and even went beyond that to somehow capture the ephemeral vibe of the town as well. As Kill Screen's Chris Dahlen noted on his own blog when discussing Simon's work, "Sometimes, you want a world that gives a meaningful backdrop to a long-running story. And sometimes, the world is the story."
So what would happen if a modern-day open-world videogame were to try to capture that same vibe? We may be about to find out. Sucker Punch's upcoming PS3 superhero action game InFamous 2 isn't actually set in New Orleans, but its fictional setting of New Marais is all but entirely based on The Big Easy.
I really liked the first InFamous, which traced the origin story of electricity-charged superhero (or supervillain) Cole McGrath. But one of my biggest complaints about the game was that its setting, the vaguely New Yorkish Empire City, felt somewhat generic and uninspired. As much fun as it was to ramp Cole about, skating over power lines and soaring across rooftops, the city itself didn't make much of an impression.
Clearly the team at Sucker Punch aims to remedy that problem in the sequel, which is due out sometime in the spring of this year. Last week I spoke on the phone with InFamous 2's creative director Nate Fox and art director Mathias Lorenz. We talked about about their inspirations for the setting, Nate's own father's stories of growing up in New Orleans, the beautiful and destructible architecture of the game, the unavoidable influence of Gabriel Knight, and whether or not Cole would be able to eat a beignet without electrocuting it.
Paste: Could you talk a bit about the decision-making process that led you to New Orleans?
Nate Fox: There were a lot of reasons we did it. First and foremost, our game is a giant three-dimensional jungle gym, it's totally about the freedom to touch and interact with this huge sculptural city. If you're going to climb every wrought-iron fence, if you're gonna use every piece of filigree as a handhold, New Orleans is the coolest city in America, architecturally speaking, to explore. I mean, it's got hidden courtyards, it's got every side of every building with bricks jutting out at weird angles… it is the perfect setting for a superhero who can climb and who does most of his work on rooftops.