The Evolution of Superhero Games: The Journey Before Spider-Man’s Success

Movement was key in Sucker Punch’s open-world adventure, Infamous.

By Aron Garst on May 26, 2024 at 5:00AM PDT

Infamous is celebrating its 15-year anniversary today, May 26, 2024. Below, we look back at how its focus on traversal paved the way for modern AAA superhero games.

Soaring over a canyon in an Iron Man-like suit of metal armor in Anthem. Swinging through the financial district as a giant Sandman crushes cars below him in Spider-Man 2. Few mechanics in gaming feel as good as superhuman traversal. One of the most electrifying examples of superhero movement came 15 years ago when Sucker Punch launched Infamous.

Infamous, motivated by Batman Begins, Channel Zero, Shooting Wars, and more, assists you in controlling the electrically powered superhero, Cole MacGrath. The city he defended, or sometimes exploited if that’s the moral pathway selected, also happens to be his power source.

“We strived to present you with abilities that excelled in the context of a video game, which are fantastic for shooting stuff, ranged combat,” Nate Fox, Infamous game director, mentioned in a 2009 interview with Engadget. “Therefore, we anticipated having a lot of that in the game, and electricity was an ideal match because everyone understands what it’s like to fire a lightning bolt into someone’s face.”

Apart from releasing electric blasts, Cole could ride on rails at high velocities, hover across the sky with hand propulsion, and conquer almost any building in Empire City. Infamous’s traversal pace wasn’t as fast as Insomniac’s subsequent Spider-Man series, but it was similarly engaging and dynamic. A climbing system resembling the one in Assassin’s Creed complemented everything Cole could do with his abilities. It created the perception that every area of the city was climbable – exactly what Sucker Punch intended.

“We quickly realized that electrical abilities were incredibly enjoyable and strikingly beautiful,” Fox stated. “Subsequent to that, we had a great deal of development work to accomplish, including developing a streaming world and creating a climbable city.”

Empire City emerged as a playground in every sense. It was adorned with buildings, with each structure featuring pipes for easy grappling. A railway that allowed Cole an easy glide ran across the city, while rooftops presented plenteous climbable objects such as power lines, billboards, and antennas. This ensured that players never lagged in terms of route options while zipping across the city.

This feat was a notably distinguished achievement in 2009, a time when seamless open worlds were not as grandiose as they are in today’s sandbox games. Though similar concepts had been attempted, the scale of Infamous was a technological marvel. It was a spectacle as an open-world sandbox that prevented any slowdown from one end to the other.

Sucker Punch’s co-founder and the programming lead for Infamous, Bruce Oberg, lauded the urban climbing feature in the game during an interview in 2009 on the official PlayStation blog. He observed that players could venture anywhere they visually perceived, free from the interruption of loading screens. It was a true representation of an open-world sandbox.

The combination of rail grinding and Cole’s electrical floating aptitude was a fascinating method of merging city environment with superhero gameplay. The electrical capabilities lent themselves naturally to both the player and the world surrounding them.

Similar to every other prominent imaginary city in a comic universe, Empire City was vaguely modeled after New York City. This wasn’t because of its historic landmarks or profound history, but rather because of the impact Grand Theft Auto 3 had on the developers.

The developers have often cited how aimlessly swinging around New York whilst searching for someone to assist was a big source of inspiration. Characteristics from both games can be observed in the freeflowing gameplay that made Infamous’s side quests and collectibles such a pleasure to finish.

“Everyone who played Grand Theft Auto 3 was like, ‘This game is amazing. I wish I could be a superhero in this city!’ And that’s basically what sparked our ideas,” said the developer. “It’s quite evident when you think about it. That’s the game we started to study and develop.”

Even though Sucker Punch was a well-known entity in 2009, Infamous was new to the gaming fraternity. The gritty, monochrome backdrop of Empire City could have been unimpressive if it wasn’t loaded with remarkable platforming that’s still fantastic to play 15 years on.

The team at Sucker Punch transitioned from creating the Sly Cooper series to crafting a large, sandbox-style comic-book adventure. The studio’s experience in designing a vibrant, cartoon-style platformer with fine-tunely tuned gameplay radiates in the way players control Cole McGrath’s movements across rooftops and highway underpasses.

“What we truly aimed for was creating our own equivalent. I am not in any way equating our work with Miyamoto’s, but we were seeking our Zelda to the Mario,” expressed Sucker Punch co-founder and Infamous producer Brian Fleming in an interview with AOL. “We needed a title that performed better earlier in the lifecycle of the game, of the platform, we needed something that complements, that taps into different skill sets that we possess, but is similar enough that the technology you engineer and things could be forwarded into a Sly game someday.”

Little did Fleming, Fox, and Oberg anticipate in 2009 that Infamous would become a mainstay of Sucker Punch, much like Sly Cooper. Its successors refined its impressive traversal mechanics and made Infamous a cherished title in open-world superhero game design–even if the previous entry, Second Son, released in 2014. Fans have been eagerly waiting for a new installment or remake in every subsequent year.

“We came up with numerous different pitches and the concept of creating a superhero comic universe,” Fleming added. “It seemed like a half step away from that, but still capitalized on some of our strengths in terms of art and presentation. So, you start discussing it, and then we had a lot to learn about implementing realism, character design, and game control with real people. It was a lengthy process. It’s a journey.”

Traversal is the most important element in open-world game design and Infamous is one of the earliest games to make superhuman movement the core gameplay. Insomniac’s Spider-Man–one of the most celebrated superhero games of the last decade–shares DNA with Sucker Punch’s latest Infamous game, Second Son.

Iteration is a huge element in how the entire game industry–not just a single game or series–gets better. Infamous was one huge step in improving how it feels to control a superhuman in a sandbox. While Cole may not be as notable as Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne, he’s a big part of why it feels so good to swing, parkour, and fly around the big city in dozens of other games.

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