Games get really interesting, I think, when designers start to think about what the player won’t be able to do as much as they think about what they will be able to do. It’s all a bit topsy-turvy. In my head, at least, games start with lists of possibilities and positives. What if you could eat a mushroom and grow really giant? What if you could move in every direction and shoot in every direction at the same time? But there are games out there that I really suspect were built in a very different way. And it turns out I’ve spent the last month playing one of them, and the last week playing another. They are both rich in joy, and they’re both by the same developer. Jeepers!
Let’s look at the game I’ve been playing this week first. In an attempt to step away from Spider-Man, I’ve returned to Sunset Overdrive, another recent(ish) game by the Spider-Man developer, Insomniac Games. I really liked Sunset Overdrive when it first came out, and in the time since I played it, I’ve started to realise I probably love it. Sunset Overdrive sits so well in the memory, where all games ultimately end up anyway. It’s a wonderfully addled open-world game about a city on zombie lockdown following the botched release of an energy drink that turns out to have Hyde-like properties. It’s a game that’s defined by gymnastic, exuberant traversal, a try-anything sense of forward momentum that sees you grinding rails, swinging beneath telephone wires, bouncing off cars and running up the sides of skyscrapers. If you’re looking for games built around things you can’t do, this looks like an unpromising place to start, in other words. Insomniac’s design seems to have taken the kitchen sink approach.
Or has it? Loading the game up post-Spider-Man, I was surprised by the pace. Sunset Overdrive now seemed a much slower beast than I remembered: I would try to rush around, but I’d be in something of a lethargic funk, and even riding the rails didn’t have quite the zip I expected. The thundering, bubbling, slobbering hordes of mutant soda-drinkers the game sends lurching after you at every street corner seemed much better at surrounding me and doing me in than I remembered. I died a lot, and I don’t really remember dying a lot in Sunset Overdrive until the third act when things get almost implausibly hectic.
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