‘The Saboteur’ Made A World Feel Alive
The Saboteur is one long con. From the top of a rain-soaked Parisian building, I try to line up a shot. I’ve been at it for a while sneaking through Nazi encampments but this shot, should it meet its target, would mark the end of a long fight. It’s hard for these accomplishments to feel this tangible but this shot will be massive…if it lands.
PvE. Environmental destruction. Environmental storytelling. Each of these is a way the gaming industries have been able to quantify and refer to the way players interact with an environment in the game. PvE has generally meant that as you explore a space, you encounter foes within it. Environmental destruction became popularized in the previous generation of consoles as a display of technical power and environmental storytelling came out a field of game makers with less than ideal resources to add flavor to settings. While these remain valid methods of interaction with a play space though, there’s something missing from them: Impact. A sort of permanence, that even if it doesn’t permeate outward, is unavoidable. The Saboteur, the final game out of Pandemic Studios nine years ago, was pretty good about it.
The Saboteur was a game about black and white, and I mean that quite literally. You were an agent of destruction for the Allied forces in Nazi-occupied Paris where the game, quite crudely, is colored in black and white exclusively. This decision, done in order to convey the oppression of the Nazis, worked miracles. It was your task to liberate district after district and return color to the world. Not only would color return but all sense of vibrancy would too. Music would play, NPCs would be joyous again and even join on occasional fights on their reclaimed streets. In a way, it was environmental storytelling, but the environment was reflective of and telling your story rather than telling a story you had no power over.
The way you liberated these districts was…well you blew shit up. And you shot Nazis. A lot. But that was sort of the beauty of the game? The simplicity made the game as approachable, empowering and as bold as it was for the time. In this way, the game tied in its storytelling to your capability for destruction and change.
These features aren’t just for show, they inform and justify continued play. But only if you make it matter.
Battlefield 4, at the height of its promotion, was trying to make “Levolution” the new “fetch.” Just like the latter, the former didn’t quite catch on. “Levolution” was a buzzword in reference to a series of seismic events that once triggered, would “drastically”alter the playing field. The most popular examples became the dam that could be blown and effectively reduce the map to a water level, which has never been a good idea, and the skyscraper that could be knocked down, reducing the building to rubble and filling the map with a blinding smog.
While in theory and practice, these were titanic changes to maps, the amount of steps standing between you and one of these events meant that often it was impractical to play the rogue tactician. Even once they were accomplished, the change carried so little benefit, it became unworthy of the hassle. Then by nature of the multiplayer game, the next time you went to the map, you’d be aware of exactly what would happen, the effects and how to sidestep them. Destruction was leveraged as a tool to convey agency but in its complexity, monotony, and predictability, never became an effective one.
The Saboteur, being the latest at the time in a string of open world action games with a focus on destruction gave me my first experience in a reactionary game world. By embracing a very binary and dated method of representation, The Saboteur adopted a polarity games often skirt on. Instead of focusing on the self, The Saboteur forces you to consider your environment and do what you can to help it. Then, the game gave you the tools to do it and let you loose. What followed was the most expressive cacophony of mayhem and all in the name of fucking up Nazis.
It may seem puerile to bolster a game for playing with color in the way that The Saboteur does, but the truth is games don’t do enough like that. It’s why environments and play spaces in games have faltered in garnering my attention recently and its why there’s a perceived “open world fatigue.” The attention to detail is fine and the intensity that goes into making every granular detail come to life is immense. However, the more that has become the focus the more I’m impressed and the less I’m immersed. Instead of making worlds feel alive, maybe the attention should be placed on making the player feel alive in the world.