As their own take on the comic book genre, Seattle developer Sucker Punch has always styled the settings for its open-world Infamous series after real-life cities. In its initial two PS3 outings original protagonist Cole McGrath clambered all over stand-ins for New York and New Orleans, which seemed appropriate given Infamous’ own Chronicle-esque presence compared to the worlds of DC or Marvel.

When it came time for the PS4’s reboot Second Son, art director Horia Dociu and his team were ready for something different. This time they wanted their hometown’s Space Needle.

“We just felt like it wouldn’t be right if we didn’t have the official Space Needle,” Dociu said. “And if you’re gonna have the Space Needle – that’s a real thing, so you gotta have the real city.”

Now that the game has been out for a few days, fans have doubtless seen that the switch from a fictional backdrop like Empire City or New Marais to a streamlined real-life Seattle isn’t the only aspect that has significantly changed. Aside from the night and day difference between the dour Cole and Second Son’s freewheeling hipstery new protagonist Delsin Rowe (not to mention a blistering new color palette), Sucker Punch has gone to great lengths to capture the cultural and aesthetic feel of the city itself, even beyond tourist landmarks like the Space Needle or the city monorail.

But before the team could settle on a location, they had narrow their discussions from possible foreign destinations down to the Pacific Northwest, a relatively underrepresented setting in games. It all started with comics.

“It’s truly an American thing,” Dociu said of the so-called “superhuman” genre. “There’s the kind of the lore of this country as opposed to different mythologies of different places. It just felt like it had to take place in an American city.”

From there the influence of both the history of the medium – Dociu pointed out that of West coast locations, Los Angeles has been done in games while Seattle has remained essentially untouched – as well as Sucker Punch’s own familiarity and love of their home made the decision really easy. Second Son’s Seattle isn’t an exact 1:1 copy as in, say, L.A. Noire, but capturing the culture is less about specifics anyway, Dociu said.

“For me as an artist and somebody who’s not very technical at all I was less concerned with solving the [problems with graphical] shaders – which by all means is incredibly important – but I think it was more important for me to figure out what the vibe of things was,” he said.

Though Seattle has had something of a recurring role in various films and TV shows over the past few years (the most thematically relevant being Chronicle, which shares some striking similarities to Infamous), Dociu said the primary goal was not to make the city a stereotype.
“We really tried to put the real things that we know and that we experience everyday,” he said.

Take Dead Sara’s cover of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” as heard in the game’s marketing campaign: the updated take on Kurt Cobain’s famous song maintains the city’s long-held cultural association with grunge while contemporizing it for Second Son’s present day setting (Delsin’s anti-establishment sensibilities notwithstanding).

“We didn’t want to have the typical like 1995 grunge thing, you know? That’s 20 years ago now,” Dociu said. “Nirvana’s not playing right now – it’s Macklemore. That’s who’s on TV and who people are seeing and making a connection to Seattle with.”

Dociu speaks of the city as much of a character as Delsin is, and for anyone that’s spent any time in the Pacific Northwest can tell you, the countless screenshots and videos fans are uploading to social media, that character is manifest in several different ways. And while the city’s layout has been tweaked to allow for maximum fun when Delsin’s parkouring off rooftops, everything comes from hundreds of hours of reference.

“Everything starts from some type of photographic reference or even 3D scanning. Even down to the pedestrians, the people on the street. They’re real people from here,” Dociu said. “We had kind of a modeling call for some of our friends and we got a good mix of different racial backgrounds that you find here. And the clothes that everybody’s wearing, they’re scans of actual clothes. It’s not an accident that it feels this way.”

The same goes for the architectural character of the various neighborhoods, Dociu said.

“We’re really elective about the kinds of buildings we put in,” he said. “So [around the Space Needle] there’s a combination of the classic ‘60s architecture that’s been there since the [1962] World’s Fair, which has funky almost whimsical look. And then you’ve got other stuff that’s that super modern and really colorful, like down where Amazon is in South Lake Union. The building types almost talk to each other.”

Of course, Sucker Punch also made a number of “mutual handshakes” to include a lot of well-publicized offbeat local landmarks like the Elephant Car Wash and the Crocodile, a music venue close to downtown, lending Second Son that much more Seattle authenticity. But the PS4 hardware let them experiment with the weather and lighting to a technical degree that made it possible to really nail feeling like you’ve stepped into the often-atmospheric Northwest. (To the team’s credit, it’s an incredible facsimile.)

“We have these exquisite skies that have these beautiful clouds after it rains or before it rains. Every afternoon is like a different light show that’s happening, whether you’re close to the ocean or the mountains,” Dociu said. “And all the different times of day, they feel Northwesty. They don’t feel tropical. Even when it’s sunny, it feels kind of brisk and Autumn-y.”

For Sucker Punch, Second Son’s surveilliance-and-freedoms narrative needed to be set somewhere that players actually cared about, so removing the Department of Unified Protection’s totalitarian presence from such a verdant setting made perfect sense.

“We wanted a city that was worth saving. Something that was a nice, private beautiful town where the DUP force was visible, like a cancer growing on it,” Dociu said. “Walking around in the beginning versus walking around in the end it really feels like breath of fresh air. The birds are chirping and the sun is shining, and you feel like ‘I did this.’”

Bias aside, Dociu said he hopes players would be inspired by Second Son’s rendition of the culturally diverse Emerald City.

“We tried to make it how real place that people might see and actually say, ‘You know, I’m going to hop on a plane and go there for a long weekend. It just seems like a cool place,’” he said, crediting his colleagues for their artistic and technical prowess. “It’s kind of that whole 'quilt of many different fabrics' kind of feel.”