December 16, 2009

French's Saboteur takes WWII to the streets of Paris

The events of World War II have provided an endless supply of mythology for video game developers to tap into. Consequently, veteran gamers have probably stormed the beaches of Normandy from every possible perspective. In his latest game, The Saboteur, lead developer Tom French wanted to take on World War II from a different angle. Instead of joining the thousands of soldiers across the battlefields of Europe, the player in French’s game finds themselves in the role Sean Devlin, an Irish race car driver turned resistance icon who takes on the Nazi occupation in France. The Chicago Maroon interviewed Tom French to talk about how popular movies influenced the game, the evolving concept of “sandbox” games, and how the developers went about recreating the “organic” Paris.

Chicago Maroon: I guess I want to start out with the fantasy aspect of the story. Can you talk about how you got the idea to take this approach to Nazi-occupied France?

Tom French: From the get-go we didn’t want to make your typical World War II game. You could hear people’s eyes in the room rolling—they’re like, "no more World War II games, we don’t need it." But what I latched on to more—we kind of had this mantra of more Indiana Jones, less Saving Private Ryan. So from day one that was the rule for us. It’s just something that, like I said, you wouldn’t normally see in a typical World War II game. It can also add a lot of fun gameplay elements.

CM: That’s interesting because I’ve seen many of the game’s cinematic inspirations mentioned, like Indiana Jones and Sin City. What specific things from movies did you think you could transform or put directly into the game?

TF: With Indiana Jones the influence is obvious. We never went too in-depth into that but we definitely wanted to capture that kind of occult that it had. With Sin City you can really tell from the visual style: the black and white and the popping colors inside of the environment. With Die Hard, character-wise, we wanted this character that would be in a cop-heavy situation but, at the same time, could be likeable, who could crack a joke and you would kind of just like him rather than being brooding and miserable. So there’s definitely a lot of cinematic influences that went into the game.

CM: So one last question about movies. I don’t know if you saw Inglorious Basterds. That seemed to also be be playing with the World War II mythology. I’m just curious if you saw that movie and if you saw any relationship it had with what you were trying to do?

TF: It’s really funny. I definitely did see that movie. It’s very similar in tone to our game—it’s gritty, but it’s light-hearted at the same time, and it has that over-the-top nature. It’s just a really weird coincidence that they were working on that at the same time that we were. What I love about it though is it does introduce people that World War II isn’t always about hitting the beaches of Normandy—storming up the shore. There’s a lot of personal stories all about what’s happening in this big, grand-scale war.

CM: Now I would like to talk a little bit about the “sandbox” elements of the game. Sandbox is something that’s very popular now in games like Grand Theft Auto, Crackdown, and Brutal Legends and I am wondering what your take on the whole idea of sandbox is and how you think it can be improved

TF: Two things stick out to me in a sanbox game: the freedom of choice and exploration. And I think those are two things we did a good job with in Saboteur. Like freedom of choice—you have a lot of choices of how you want to tackle a situation. You can go in and break a neck, steal a uniform, and use that to get into your objective and blow things up and then have a big shoot-out on the way. But you can go in purely shooting away. You have to be a lot more careful, but it does give a lot of freedom of choice to the player. And on top of that you have the pure exploration. Most sandbox games will have collectibles around the world that are very passive like trying to get a package or something like that. We have little elements of those in the game, but most of our sandbox is part of the occupation itself. So things like towers and tanks and anti-aircraft guns have combat associated with them. You’re not passively walking over them, you’re blowing them up and fighting them and that can actually impact how you play the game. They’re layered across the entire world—there’s 1,300 of [these] things in the world. And they can shoot you. So it’s like a hidden package with weapons that can fire back at you and let you blow it up.

CM: One of my biggest problems with sandbox games is that there can be too much choice and so the player feels lost. You can feel as if you don’t have direction. So was that something that you thought about addressing?

TF: One of the things we did in the game is the idea of purchasing maps that show where all of this stuff is in the game. So you’re not having to jump on the game FAQs to figure out where they all are. In the game, you can go into the shops and purchase maps to locate all this stuff. You don’t need a strategy guide to play the game.

CM: You were talking about character progression a little earlier. I know two means of character progression in the game: You can buy upgrades, and You can complete challenges like killing a certain amount of Nazis with one weapon. How did you think character progression made the game more fun?

TF: Sean is pretty much a defined character. He’s not a character that you can roll up and decide how you want to play ahead of time. We wanted to let the player start as Sean and then play the game the way they want to play the game. So if you want to become a veteran sniper, or if you’re playing the game like a guy who likes to snipe, you can improve those skills pretty easily by following the perks. And they do become progressively harder and harder as you play through them. So that really allows the player to create their own experience and add on to Sean. What I like about it is Sean becoming better because of the player’s choice.

CM: Sean is really interesting. You guys have a big concern with storytelling, telling Sean’s story both before he become the Saboteur and after that. So how have you approached Sean’s story in the game?

TF: I love the fact that you actually get to play his origin story of becoming a saboteur. In most games you already start off as a superhero. And, in Sean’s story, you start off as a very rough-around-the-edges guy that only cares about drinking, smoking, women, and racecars and through the game he becomes a hero.

CM: That was one part I was curious about, too. So how do you switch between the Saboteur gameplay and the before-the-occupation gameplay?

TF: When you start the game, you start in the middle, or kind of near the beginning of the French Occupation—about three months in the French Occupation. And, Sean’s inside of a bar and he meets a resistance member and then it kind of goes into the Saboteur part for a little bit. And then comes a flashback for how he got there. So you go into Germany for a race before the war happens and then you race and then after the race everything goes totally wrong—Sean’s friend gets killed. So you get this linear progression of missions which flesh out the story which is the origin story of Sean becoming the Saboteur.

CM: I know you guys did a huge amount of research for this project, so I want to know what was the most fun part of researching.

TF: There’s definitely a lot of things that excited me. Because when you think about World War II, you do think about hitting the beaches of Normandy and all of that. We wanted to look outside of that. The first part of that was just looking up the resistance or finding all of these weird heroes—these side side stories that happened in the war. But it was really fascinating and very inspiring. And then, definitely on top of that, is the reality that we went to Paris to research. It was an amazing trip. We got to run around the city—we visited every location, almost every location—that we wanted to put inside the game and really just feel out the area. So getting to wander around the cemeteries of Paris was really inspiring. And just learning how to make Paris feel right—so we learned a lot. We took something like 2,500 pictures. It would be a terrible set of photos for something like a vacation. It had things like manholes, drain pipes, walls, buildings fronts—it was all just the weird stuff in the world. It really helps define everything that we get in the game.

CM: Could you give an example of how you learned from a specific place you visited to make it feel more like Paris in the game?

TF: The way Paris is built, it’s very organic. Before we went to Paris—we didn’t actually want to tackle Paris until we got to visit Paris. We started building all these buildings [in the game], and the problem is you get a lot of repetition. You just have two dozen different buildings you’re going to see in the world. And then we got to Paris and you could immediately see it doesn’t feel that way. It feels, like I said, very organic. And so we’re standing there in Paris, looking at the buildings—we came up with this idea: Instead of building two dozen [different] buildings, we built all out buildings out of Lego cubes. So you can swap them out and make things different in the game. You can take an area and completely change the way it feels like different types of storefronts or balconies or rooftops. And it really makes every block in the game have a unique feel—it was only something you could have got from being in Paris.