Interview: The Saboteur's Tom French & Chris Hunt


The Saboteur has been catching eyes since its announcement way back in 2007 and now, with the game only a few months from release on December 8th, we got the chance to sit down with lead designer Tom French and art director Chris Hunt to discuss Nazis, their black-and-white recreation of the city of Paris, and killing the one while running around the other.

French did a quick presentation before our interview, where he told the story of William Grover-Williams – the racecar driver-turned-saboteur that the game's protagonist, Sean Devlin, is based on – as well as the cinematic influences on The Saboteur, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Third Man. Afterwards, we sat down with both designers to talk about why you'll find plenty of color, but no ghost guns (you'll see) or multiplayer in their upcoming game.


The first thing was just -- there was a mention in the presentation you just did that echoed what we've heard from readers online, and that is: "Not another World War II game."

Tom French: (Laughs)

And I think a lot of people have discovered since the game has broken out that it is not another World War II game. But what was the reaction of your staff when you said, "we're making a World War II game," and then how did you subvert that, do it a little bit differently?

TF: We kind of gravitated quickly to not making it about the war, and not inspired by war movies, but we're a very cinematically inspired team, and originally, we were looking a lot at like Indiana Jones. Indiana Jones had personal motivations to fight Nazis, and we thought wow, that's a great touchstone for us. So we really started with that, and from there it led to everything else. We watched a lot of cinema for reference more than watching documentaries. Though we definitely did our homework and legwork to learn about the resistance and the world, and went to Paris and did a lot of research in Paris about all that stuff. But originally, it was just going for that big cinematic over-the-top kind of thing, to really seperate ourselves from World War II. A more kind of high-spirited pulp action adventure rather than storming the beaches of Normandy for a kind of gritty gunplay all the time.

Was there anywhere where you kind of bumped up against a trope from World War II and said, eh, let's turn around and go back the other way?

Chris Hunt: Yeah, there were certainly places where we thought of that. I think that one of the things is that when you're thinking World War II, you're thinking of all the things that make you think of World War II. And one of the questions we asked ourselves early on was ok, what was World War II? Was it this? Yes. Was it this? No. And there are many elements, like Tom mentioned, the pulp aspect, we didn't want to just make a factual recreation of World War II -- one, it's been done, and two, that wasn't part of the story we were trying to create. So we took a little creative liberty in certain places, to prolong the story to make it a little more interesting. Especially with the art design -- if you had a tank of some kind, there's a World War II tank that everyone knows about, you've seen it in every movie. But what else could they have done, what other technology could they have created? If they had a little more time, if they had six more months, what would the Germans have made of this tank? What would the French resistance have done if they had won these two victories, and decided you know what? We can do this. They're going to make a resistence corps, where they're going to be more active in fighting the Nazis.

So those are the kinds of liberties that were not only in service to the story, but it's very plausible. We wanted to go with what's plausible, not just stick with the World War II books.

TF: And that helps to keep everything kind of grounded, and for us it was just about how do we turn it up? We're making a sandbox game, it's about having a lot of cool tools and mechanics, and so yeah having zeppelins in a game is just cool, and it's big and it's over-the-top and we saw it in Indiana Jones, so it really becomes kind of part of that fantasy moment. It was really just what's fun, what's cool.

CH: It's also what's good. Because many things that you see in World War II games and whatnot, there's a kind of a predefined look that everyone starts to gravitate towards, and that's just what we didn't want to do. But there are also things, you think about World War II, or you think of movies of that time period, you think about black-and-white. Why not? It's a great game mechanic, it looks fantastic, and it's something we can incorporate to set you right back in that time period, and not only transport you there without having to explain a lot, it justifies it all.

That's one of the things that obviously makes the game stand out so much, that a lot of people have glommed on to. And a lot of that has been about the "Will to Fight," that you change the world into color when you take back over. But I've noticed that, in playing it, even when the world is black and white, a lot of the color reappears in the gameplay, it's almost like you're playing, not a full color game, but you see the blood and different items in the environment. How did you make those choices?

TF: I think there was a lot of give and take, a lot of learning along the way. I think one of our first takes on black and white, it didn't have quite the depth and quite the grip to it. And also, it'd be hard to deny the fact that Sin City was an inspiration on the game, and having those little pieces make the Nazis pop out in the environment, and make those flags blowing in the wind, it just breaks up the monotony of black and white. It makes things a lot more interesting.

And it became from there a great tool. We can use the lights to guide the players through areas. Naturally, light makes the player want to go that direction.

And I was seeing even the pupils on the people you meet, even when there's a black and white scene, are colored. So what was the thinking behind something as small as that?

CH: Color has more of an influence on the human eye and the human psychology more than most people realize, which is why it's used so often. One of the big things is that when you have a sandbox world where you want to go up a building or a monument and see you is that you need to create a sense of depth, and you only have so much range in black and white to do so. Color helps you see that enormous expanse of depth. So if you have something that's colored in a world that's black and white, even if it's only a couple of pixels high, you know that pixel is several miles away, or maybe a mile away, or depending on how large it is, it's two miles away. Color ranges will also help you determine the depth. Warmer colors, yellow, cadmium, orange, and things like that are closer, but when sitting in a world when you have that push and pull you can say, oh wow, I'm going to go that far, it's on my minimap, it's over here. Or I know that I was once over here and I was looking in this direction. It gives you a great sense of scale that you wouldn't have if you just have black and white.

One of the things with colors, especially with colors in eyes, is that it tells you a little something about who they are, how you interact with them. And it also tells you about their character and how they react to you. It has a great deal of impact on how you tell the story and what you tell in the story. Everything in color has a whole different significance element in the story or what you're supposed to do in the HUD. Who's and enemy and who's not, who you should talk to and who not, what's yours and what isn't, where you can go, where you can't. Where you should focus your attention and where you don't. Even what kind of mood you're setting -- even though you're in black and white, certain kinds of moods in different places, with red lighting for the Nazis, you know red [snap] automatically grabs your attention and helps you focus on where you are. Not just for flags, but you see those red lights, you know not to go around. You've stumbled upon a place you're like back up, and then you need more ammo or something like that.

Another thing that creates all that depth in the world is all of the landmarks you've put in. You talked about all of the things you pulled out and squeezed down block by block. What were your favorite landmarks to put in the game and make real?

TF: For me, it was a lot of... When we went to Paris, Chris and I had two very different motivations when we were there. We designed a bunch of mission ideas, and my favorite spots were really like the Catacombs, I know Chris is a big fan of the Catacombs, too. It was absolutely amazing how many bones were down there, but we knew we were going to have a mission in there, so we really wanted to explore that. And then for me, the other thing I really loved were the churches and the cemetaries. I wandered around in one of the cemetaries for about three or four hours, imagining firefights happening and like these weird five-year-old fantasies inside there. So definitely really gravitated towards stuff like that. Maybe a little bit off of the tourist path -- the Catacombs are a big tourist attraction, but the cemetaries were just fascinating to me and I really wanted to explore those.

CH: I would say the Hotel de Ville. It's actually the City Hall of Paris. We passed by that so many times and it's also one of the bigger monuments that you can also go inside and play a mission in the interior and also around the exterior. It's a Nazi stronghold. Another favorite, because it's one of the main things outside the Eiffel Tower, is the Sacré Cœur. It's one of the few areas in Paris where there's a monument on a hilltop, so you can use it as a reference and say I'm north, looking south, looking east, looking west. That's one of my favorites because one, it's beautiful, and two, it's one of your main reference points to the city, outside of the Eiffel Tower.

One thing I haven't heard you talk about much is the contraband, the currency that you pick up, and then also the character progression. As we're playing here, there's perks popping up that can improve your character. What kinds of ideas did you have for that system, how your character advances not just in terms of story, but in terms of the way you play the game?

T: So as far as contraband goes, contraband is essentially our currency in the game. Money was absolutely worthless during the war, so we wanted to have that currency in the game. So you break open crates, you find things like prophylactics, weird little items, things that the people needed, but they were hard to come by. So you take those items, which essentially gets converted into a currency, and you take that to the black market, where you can do most of your shopping in our game.

There's two different parts of the black market, there's a vehicle black market and a weapons black market. The vehicle black market is obviously getting vehicles in the garages, but the main black market, what I like about it is that it lets us have weapons outside of the typical German weapons, we can have American and British weapons. We can also get our fantasy weapons in there, what we call our Terror Squad weapons. But it's not just about getting guns and upgrades for guns -- you can get upgrades for Sean, you can get upgrades for the resistance. And it is important to upgrade the resistance, because as you inspire the world, you want them to start showing up and backing you up on the streets and you want them to have better guns so they're not getting killed and they're actually helping you take the Nazis out.

So that's the economy version of the upgrades in the game. And then there's what we call perks in the game, which you've seen. We're not going into details so far of what all the perks unlock, what they are.

[Another producer told us later on that the perks were still being tweaked, and a few we saw were upgrades that kept recoil down for a certain type of weapon, no knockback with explosives, or half price on ammunition for a weapon type.]

TF: But it is an idea of rewarding the player for playing the way they want to play the game. So if you like shooting, you're going to get perks that will make your character better at shooting-type things, and how it improves that and what the details are, we'll talk more about that later. But it is that idea of light RPG mechanics, and little micro-goals and mini-tasks for the player to accomplish in the world to improve their skills.

You talked a little bit about the fantasy of World War II, and obviously Raiders of the Lost Ark is an influence on it. In one of the cutscenes here, there's a chest that they open that has something mysteriously glowing inside. How far do you dive into the kind of occult storylines there?

TF: It's one of those things that we definitely dabble with, we wanted to play with that fantasy of it. The occult is part of the Nazi mythology really, and it was important for us to have in the game. So we definitely dabble with it, but it never gets to a point where you're shooting guns that shoot ghosts, and shit like that, but ...

No ghost guns!?

TF: No ghost guns in the game. [Laughs.] That's a good idea though, we should write that one down. It's definitely something we wanted to touch on as we play, but we wanted to keep it fairly grounded in this game.

In the presentation, you said this is the "origin story" of The Saboteur -- are there other stories about Sean that you want to tell in terms of DLC or maybe even sequels?

TF: There's a lot of stories to tell about Sean. It starts off -- basically there's two parts of this story, there's kind of the birth of the Saboteur, which is Sean going from a racecar driver to become a Saboteur. And then there's his vengeance story, which is intertwined with that, but it's a slightly separate story in a way. So those are basically the two main stories of Sean we're telling in this game. Sean is a character that can grow, he's much like an Indiana Jones, and this doesn't have to be his only adventure in the game, but right now those are the two main stories we're focusing on.

And the last thing is just something that I've heard you say in other places before, but what's the story in terms of multiplayer? No multiplayer at all?

TF: No, there's no multiplayer. It's something that we talked about. Multiplayer, you can have a lot of ideas and we had a lot of ideas. But basically it becomes a separate scene, and we wanted to make the biggest and best action story adventure sandbox game we could possibly do, and the reality is that it became kind of a distraction from Sean and his plight, so we wanted to put our focus on that, so it's not something we're tackling right now.

Thanks for your time!

This article was originally published on Joystiq.