Zany open-world action game Sunset Overdrive — as its creators told me during a recent San Francisco preview event — is all about letting players be whoever they want. I made a very nice bearded lady with tiny mouths for eyes. I noticed something though: you can pick your body type, but you can't pick a heavy one. I was curious to know why, and Insomniac was refreshingly happy to talk about it.
"Be anyone" is hardly a new idea in games. It's a topic that comes up frequently these days, both in terms of possibilities and limits. There's all sorts of reasons why. Technical, narrative, artistic vision, didn't think the audience would care, etc. But with so much of that going on, you'll occasionally find a development studio trying hard to let you play as whoever you'd like to be.
Insomniac is hoping to inject just such a mentality into its cola-fuelled, Tony-Hawk-inspired action game Sunset Overdrive. Earlier this year they even poked fun at Ubisoft for their infamous lack of woman assassins in Assassin's Creed Unity (incidentally, Ubi just announced a new AC spin-off starring a woman assassin; hurrah!), posting a picture of a very... familiarly dressed figure in Sunset Overdrive.
So why draw the line at trim, fit body types — specifically at two per sex, one short/slim and fit, the other tall/muscular and fit? You can change pretty much anything else in the most outlandish ways imaginable — skin tones, wacky costumes, enough bouncily crisp hairstyles to make Kirk flip his lid — but not bodies. Why not follow in the footsteps of, say, The Sims or Saints Row IV, games that allow for nearly anything you can imagine, including characters who aren't chiselled Greek-statue-style beacons of human form, function and rockin' abs?
"We talked about Saints Row and games like that," game director Drew Murray said to me during an interview. "A lot of Bethesda games have weight sliders too. We wanted something more tailored. We wanted a little more control over the style and types of characters players can create while still providing an incredible number of options. We wanted to put our time into wild outfits instead of technology to bloat up people or bloat them down."
"Also one of the things Insomniac has always done really well is tight, responsive animations. I think that fits a lot better if you have specific body types that you're animating to."
How much harder is it to animate a character with more weight on them, though? I mean, Saints Row IV is a pretty acrobatic game, and it all worked out well enough. Murray, though, said it comes down to tiny intricacies, of which Sunset Overdrive — with all its grinding, leaping, and basically never touching the ground — has many.
"It takes a substantial amount of time [to animate more body types] — especially in a high action game like ours," he explained. "In an RPG where you're just swinging a sword over and over or something, it's not as much work. But we have all these traversal moves. The hundreds of animations that go into just flipping up and down while grinding depending on what gun you're holding and trying to make the clothes all work on the bodies, the possibility of things clipping through other things."
Insomniac head Ted Price then got to what is, for better or worse, the heart of the matter. "It's almost like we had so much complexity everywhere else that this had to be one of the simpler constraints for us," he said. "You have so much other complexity in all the things you can wear, the hair, the animations. We had to pick our battles, and that was kind of where we chose to draw the line."
"Ultimately I think that's what it comes down to," added Murray. "We don't have many body types, but we do have men and women, stuff like putting beards on anybody, every skin shade under the sun, the ability to dress the way you'd want if this apocalypse were to actually happen. Would I love to have 16 body types? Sure. But there's a point where you just have to make a choice, and we're doing so many things in this game."
The beard thing, actually, is very indicative of what Insomniac is trying to achieve with its gallery of massive-haired, every-conceivable-surface grinding hooligans (question: when did I become old). Once upon a time beards were the sole male-only option in the game, and then members of the Sunset Overdrive team stepped back and asked themselves a simple question: why?
"At one point it was everything except beards, and then we were like, 'What do you mean? Why aren't beards gender neutral?' At that point we could either have 24 beards for guys-only or, like, 12 for everybody. We went with 12 for everybody," said Murray.
Insomniac, then, was honest about their limits. They decided to prioritise certain things over others, even if that comes at the cost of the ability to play as a heavier character. That part is a shame, but Murray, Price, and co still hope Sunset Overdrive's customisation options — which allow for some seriously wild, over-the-top stuff — encourage people to be creative, even try out new identities.
"A lot of this is creating a fantasy character," said Murray. "I don't imagine many people go around wearing drum major hats or some other ridiculous thing. But we wanted to have more outlandish things in there to encourage people to experiment."
"We tried to really include as many head types and ethnicities as we could," said Price. "There's a lot to play with there. And so what we've seen recently is that people will play types of characters they have never tried in other games. I do that, even. I make characters way different than myself."