The Seattle Sound of Infamous: Second Son

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Seattle’s a rock town, and has been forever. When you think about Seattle rock, though, one specific time probably jumps out. The town’s got Heart, sure, which matters, and you might remember Hendrix is from Seattle, but that guy skipped town early. The Sonics are from Tacoma, which is close, but unless you’re granddad old or a decades-long collector you probably didn’t pick up on them until well after the fact. No, when you think of Seattle rock you probably land on grunge and Sub Pop and Nirvana, Soundgarden and the Singles soundtrack and Marc Jacobs’ 1993 line for Perry Ellis (Uh…) When you think of the Seattle sound the dream of the ‘90s is alive, or some such.

The ads for the superpowered Infamous: Second Son remember the ‘90s. From Dead Sara’s cover of Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” to the omnipresent TV spot with Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick”, the newest Infamous game proudly reps the rock of its home town. (Well, kind of: Like Eddie Vedder, Dead Sara is actually from California.) It makes sense: Like the New Orleans-(ish)-based Infamous 2, Sucker Punch wanted to ground its game in the culture in which it is set, and for Seattle that will inevitably include grunge.

Except that isn’t really what happened.

Infamous: Second Son was unique compared to Infamous 2,” Brad Meyer, the Audio Director at Sucker Punch Productions, tells me. “For Infamous 2, the locale (fictitious New Orleans) defined and shaped the music. For Second Son, rather than having Seattle define the music, we let Delsin [Rowe]’s character drive the direction of the score.”

Meyer admits that “Touch Me I’m Sick” and the “Heart Shaped Box” cover were picked by the game’s marketing team. The marketers “really wanted to use Nirvana, Soundgarden or one of the other old grunge bands since that still resonates with lots of people when they think of Seattle,” he says. Second Son isn’t a period piece, though — it takes place in 2016. Sucker Punch wanted music that didn’t tie the game so closely to the past, but respected the game’s setting, so, as Meyer describes, they “compromised and got Dead Sara, an up-and-coming band, to record a cover of the Nirvana song.” Sucker Punch liked the cover so much they wound up putting it in the game.

Mudhoney doesn’t make an appearance in Second Son (although Mark Arm would’ve made a great mentor for Delsin), but the tough sounds and sarcastic smirk of “Touch Me I’m Sick” fit the game’s character perfectly. ”’Touch Me I’m Sick’ just did a great job of representing the feel of Delsin enjoying his powers,” Meyer says. “The fact that it was a Seattle band was a secondary consideration, but a very happy accident.”

Still, Second Son doesn’t run from its Seattle influences. They’re just one part of what inspired the game’s score, which was composed by Marc Canham, Nathan Johnson and former Primus and Guns ‘n’ Roses drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia. “Seattle has an amazing musical history,” Meyer boasts, “and you can hear elements of all of that within the score. We started with a style guide for our composers … featuring a wide gamut of music from Neil Young’s soundtrack from Dead Man to crazy noise rock from Austin, TX to Sacramento hip-hop band Death Grips to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ work on The Social Network and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

Those references didn’t box Brain and company in. As Meyer describes, “although we started with this style guide, our composers crafted a sound completely unique from any of our initial style guide tracks. They did a phenomenal job creating something unique that totally encapsulates Delsin’s personality and his journey.”

Second Son might not feature the full tracklist of Sub Pop 200, but this is a videogame. It’s not a Wes Anderson movie. You can’t just drop licensed songs throughout a game and expect it to reflect or match the choices and experiences of a player. A movie director chooses how long a scene runs—a game designer usually only has that ability with cutscenes. The length of almost everything else in a game is dictated by the player. So expecting an open-world sandbox like Second Son to sound exactly like a college radio station circa 1989 would be a little foolish.

Matching a game’s score and soundtrack to the player’s actions is, as SCEA’s Senior Music Manager Jonathan Mayer describes, “one of the biggest challenges working in games.” He’s confident Sucker Punch pulled it off.

“We designed our adaptive music system to be as seamless and unnoticeable as possible,” Mayer says. “Sucker Punch and our music team at Sony headquarters in San Mateo, CA worked very closely together throughout the project from pre-production through the final mix. There were instances where our music team worked directly with mission designers and animators to create musical moments within missions. They also worked directly with programmers on the team to fine tune our adaptive music system so that they had granular control of the music tension based on enemies’ awareness states in regards to the player. To pull this off we really had to play the game as much as possible and really understand what our users are going to experience. The end result was that having such an integrated music team made the music much more impactful throughout the game.”

You can argue that Second Son would have more impact with at least a tiny taste of Tad, or some of his other grungy brethren. It’s hard to disagree that Canham, Johnson, Mantia, Sucker Punch and Sony succeeded at creating memorable music that effectively fits the game’s scenarios, though, while also paying some tribute to Seattle’s rock history. It might not embrace ‘90s nostalgia as much as that “Touch Me I’m Sick” ad indicates, but then that song’s from 1988, anyway. Nostalgia is a dead end, and anyone old enough to remember the ‘90s will probably agree that it isn’t a dream you’d want to live in, even with Second Son’s superpowers.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section. He’s old, but not that old — his first Sub Pop record was Velocity Girl’s Copacetic.