GP: Saboteur is based on the real life actions of William Grover-Williams, a racing driver who assisted the French Resistance during World War 2. Was the design of Saboteur built around this character from the outset, or did you come up with the concept of a WW2 sabotage theme, and then decide to place this historical figure in it?
French: The game itself was inspired by Grover-Williams’ story. One of the Pandemic co-founders, Andrew Goldman, was on an international flight and read a book about the Bugatti racing team. The book also mentioned William Grover-Williams who was a Grand Prix Champion racing for Bugatti but eventually fled France during the invasion and was later reinserted by the British SOE to infiltrate the Nazis and help foster the French resistance. So it was really the story itself that inspired the game and not the other way around. We just fell in love with this almost ridiculous idea of a race car driver turned saboteur in Nazi-occupied France and took it from there. We changed a lot of things, obviously. We made Sean Irish to not give him a political side in the war and pretty much invented the entire story of The Saboteur but the core idea remained.
GP: Just how big is the game world? Are we restricted to a few blocks in Paris, or will we get to travel outside the city?
French: The Saboteur is pretty big and covers much more than just Paris. The city itself is already a huge part and makes up about 60% of the game. But outside of Paris the game takes you all the way up to Northern France to the coastal town of LeHavre as well as to the East, all the way across the German border into the town of Saarbrücken. In between Paris and these towns our world is filled with French countryside where you can find a ton of things to do, like blowing up Nazi-tanks, V2 rockets, or the occupation at chateaus, for example.
GP: Seeing as the protagonist is a mechanic, how does he manage to learn what is required to fight against Nazis? Is there any kind of RPG/leveling system to manage this?
French: In the beginning The Saboteur is very much the origin story of our hero Sean Devlin. He’s an ordinary guy as you pointed out. He cares about cars, racing, booze and women and it is only through the events and extraordinary circumstances he finds himself in that eventually lead to him becoming The Saboteur. Gameplay-wise we used this character development as well. We have a perks system that also affects Sean’s abilities and we are treating it very much like “learning through doing.” So, for example, in the beginning, Sean isn’t that great of a sniper when he finds the first sniper rifles. There is a lot of drift and recoil when he shoots it. Once Sean has sniped a certain amount of enemies, the player unlocks a perk that takes the drift off the rifle. This is just one example of the perks we have in The Saboteur that will develop Sean’s abilities over time.
GP: The first thing we pictured when this title was announced involved stealth bomb planting and huge explosions, is that an accurate description of the type of game you’ve created? What other action scenes can we look forward to?
French: The Saboteur is first and foremost and action game, so you’re right. There’s lots of shooting, climbing, jumping, running, racing, punching and obviously sabotage that involves different types of explosives. But we definitely have a variety of different types of missions in the game so it’s never just explosions, just shooting. Sabotage also kind of implies stealth already but I like to point out that we always use it as a tool for the player. The Saboteur is definitely not a stealth game in the strict sense but rather uses it as an option. Most missions involve several of Sean’s skills and you can certainly use all of them when wreaking havoc during the freeplay parts of the game. We are big fans of those big action moments and put plenty of those into The Saboteur – from blowing up fuel depots, to derailing trains and running through burning zeppelins, you will always find yourself in these big moments in our game.
In addition to our over-the-top action we have created an intense story that will suck you right in and complement our action moments, so I think The Saboteur offers a great deal of variety and something for everyone.
GP: Approximately how long is the main story, and is there an incentive to play the game through again in the form of special achievements, additional adventures to explore etc?
French: It’s always hard to pinpoint the time down but I would say an average player will take about 20-25 hours to play through the main story. Our testers could finish it in about 15 hours but they also knew exactly what they were doing. In addition to the main story arc, there are also smaller side missions in The Saboteur. We used to say “everyone has their own problems”, which basically means that there are a bunch of side characters in the game that will have additional missions for you. On top of the actual missions, we also offer players a ton of freeplay time. We have added an entire layer of what we call ambient occupation to the game. These occupation items are things like sniper nests, AA guns, propaganda speakers, tanks etc. There’s more than 1300 of them scattered throughout the entire game and destroying them gives you contraband (our currency in the game) but will also alert the Nazis and raise the alarms. The ambient occupation is basically our collectibles mechanic but instead of just running around and collecting something, we wanted the player to use gameplay mechanics and just make it plain fun to find and destroy these items. Our black market also offers maps that will show you the exact location of each of these, so by destroying them, you can earn contraband which in return you can invest into maps to find more. Overall, The Saboteur offers many additional hours of fun even after you have finished the story.
GP: The last big title Pandemic worked on was Mercenaries 2. What lessons from that game have carried over to the production of Saboteur?
French: It was tough because technically both Mercenaries 2 and The Saboteur were being developed at the same time. In a way I’d say I learned more about making an open world action game from my stint on the original Mercenaries game rather than the sequel. While there are similarities between the way you get missions, stuff to do in the sandbox, and the over the top nature of the action in the games, they’re still different beasts. When we were even first developing The Saboteur we started by sharing tech with their team but soon realized we were making something very different; while Mercenaries is all about blowing everything up, The Saboteur is much more of an intimate story telling experience and we needed to make sure our tech would support that so we ultimately separated our code bases. Not having everything in our world be destructible allowed us to put more detail into the world up close yet at the same time our tech needed to support allowing the player climb on the top of anything and see across the huge expanse. A huge technical, art, and design challenge that I’m extremely proud of how it came out in the final product.
GP: Did your team spend any time in Paris for inspiration?
French: Absolutely! Our goal was to capture the spirit of the city so a research trip to Paris was obviously on the top of our list when we started. Before we went, the prototypes we were doing just weren’t looking right. Paris is one of those cities that you can’t really grasp until you have actually been there, I think. We didn’t have a whole lot of time only a little bit over a week, so we crammed as much as we could into the couple of days we had there. Aside from the major monuments and landmarks, we also visited tons of locations where real resistance events took place and locations we were going to have missions. We brought back suitcases full of reference books, notepads filled with scribbling, and more than 2500 photographs of everything we saw. And not just the exciting stuff; we really took pictures of everything - walls, drainpipes, doorways, rooftops, signs, people, chairs, benches etc. All of this really went into building the world in the game – from the overall look of the city down to how we built the buildings.
GP: Just how accurately does the story arc follow the real events of the war? Was there more a focus on telling a story ahead of historical accuracy?
French: I always like to say The Saboteur is “historically inspired” rather than historically accurate. Our mantra was always “More Indiana Jones and less Saving Private Ryan.” While the story was inspired by a real racecar driver turned saboteur by the name of William Grover Williams, about the only things that remain are racecar driver and Nazi occupied France. We really pushed things in our own directions from there. While we did our research in learning every bit we could about actual events, those were just starting points for our designs and from there we wanted it to get as big as we could make it. Our goal was to capture that almost pulpy high-spirited adventure fantasy of the war. Great examples to show how we went for fun and action rather than historical accuracy are our zeppelins. They’re flying around in the world and will be called in by the Nazis as reinforcements when you raise the escalation level. The zeppelins will chase you down like police choppers and you can even shoot them down with an RPG gun. Zeppelins were actually decommissioned during the war and never existed the way we portray them but they were such a great part of the fantasy and make for some awesome over-the-top action moments in the game.
GP: Is this Sin City-inspired art design a way to satisfy those who may be put off by another World War 2 game? Has humour been injected for the same reason?
French: When we first came up with The Saboteur and Andrew proposed his idea to the studio back then, you could literally “hear” people rolling their eyes – “not another WWII game.” So we clearly approach The Saboteur with the idea of not recreating what’s been done so many times before. There are some great WWII games out there but we wanted to create a different take on the genre and the era. When you play The Saboteur you will soon notice that we are separating ourselves from the classic WWII game in many, many ways. Our colour treatment and Will to Fight mechanic, which transforms the world from b&w back to colour once you’ve completed objectives and inspired the people, are just two examples. The Saboteur is not your typical soldier story storming the beaches of Normandy. It’s an intense personal revenge story will take you behind the regular soldier scenario right into the heart of the French Resistance and its “ordinary” people who become heroes eventually.
The art design actually arose from a simple necessity. We wanted to let the player feel the occupation, the oppression, and you can’t really achieve that by just putting down a bunch of Nazis into a vibrant and colorful city like Paris. We literally wanted to let the player feel like the life had been sucked out of the city, so we came up with the idea of sucking the color out, which is how the stylized b&w look came into existence.
Humor was an important part in developing Sean as a character. Despite Sean being caught in the middle of a “heavy” situation, we wanted him to be fun so that people would want to root for him rather than being brooding and miserable. It helped really looking at the a lot of great classic action heroes from film to find this for him. John McClane, Bruce Willis’s character from Die Hard was really a perfect fit. One of the mantras we used to use was literally “a Die Hard hero in an Indiana Jones world” which I think is a pretty accurate description of the game we made.
GP: Without giving too much away, can you tell us what aspects of the game or the story that you are most proud of?
French: For me, it’s always been about Sean. I have spent such a long time with this character that, by now, I almost feel like he’s real, he’s my buddy. I always joke that it feels like I’ve had drinks with Sean, which you will probably understand once you’ve played the game. I love how the character evolved throughout the development time and how the player will get to experience him in the game now. He’s definitely the type of guy you want at your side when getting into some serious trouble. Another thing I like about Sean is his journey of going from a more selfish individual to becoming a hero. It was something that we kept discussing early in the development to make sure we hit that as a point in the story. It’s not overly pronounced at times but by the end of the game you do feel he’s grown to care about more about the world around him than just himself by the end of the story.
Our thanks to Electronic Arts New Zealand and Pandemic Studios for this interview. Keep an eye out for our full review of The Saboteur shortly.