games reporter

'Ratchet' game maker helps with the healing

In the fall, when "Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction" from Insomniac Games ships for PlayStation 3, there will be an unlockable playable character in the video game that pilots a well-armored, hovering saucer through the 3-D game world. Not much unusual there.

There is, though. The character is 9-year-old James Westbrook of Lawton, Okla., who is in the game thanks to the producers of ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," which reached out to Insomniac to make it happen. The story of the passionate gamer and his family is told in Sunday's scheduled episode.

The Westbrook family has been hit hard. In April 2004, father Gene Westbrook was hit by mortar fire at an American camp mess hall in Baghdad and was paralyzed. Then, during a trip in Oklahoma in July, the family van flipped into a ditch. James was paralyzed, and one of the two Westbrook daughters later lost a kidney. The day after the accident, Gene suffered a stroke, leaving him with further damage to his right arm and memory loss.

Mom Peggy Westbrook recovered quickly from the accident but faced the daunting task of trying to rehabilitate her husband and son while raising the rest of the family. The task was made more difficult because the family had to maneuver two wheelchairs around their ranch home, which was not designed to be wheelchair-accessible.

"We were immediately moved to do something special for the Westbrook family when we learned about their tragic situation and James' passion for video games," Insomniac Games founder and CEO Ted Price says. "For all of us at Insomniac, this opportunity to help such an amazing family with our game-making experience was a real honor. We've never inserted a member of the public into our video games, and we think it's incredibly appropriate that James will be the first gamer to enjoy that unique experience."

As part of the episode, viewers get an inside look at Los Angeles-based Insomniac and how a team of 10 essentially squeezed one month of design work into one week to create a digital replica of James.

"One of the biggest challenges for the team was that we had limited reference to use for James," Price says. "In fact, we didn't even meet him until the big reveal in Oklahoma. We only had a couple photos to use. Normally, we'd work from detailed scans, but they just weren't available — which made sense since the whole endeavor was a huge secret. Despite this, our guys did a fantastic job creating, texturing, animating and programming a model that is unmistakably James. And now that we've had a chance to meet James in person, we'll add even more polish to the model for release in the final game."

Ryan Schneider, marketing director at Insomniac, says the game studio will play a significant role in the episode. Principal game artist David Guertin and Schneider were in Lawton to tape on-camera segments with the show's host.

Insomniac received a tip that the show was seeking a game company to help with the episode. Multiple studios pitched the show, and Insomniac came out on top. "From what we were told, Insomniac responded the quickest and offered the best opportunity: to integrate James Westbrook as a playable character into an actual PlayStation 3 game," Schneider says.
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