By Nicholas Nicou
Few games have managed to fuse art and game-play as impressively as The Saboteur, the final title from developer Pandemic which arrived on the scene in late 2009.
Set in occupied Paris during World War Two, it was perhaps the first game to employ black and white as its main colour scheme, creating a bleak, tense atmosphere which evokes the sense of dread and fear engendered by occupation under the flag of the Nazi war machine.
Inverting the conventional representations of Paris as a city of love and life, The Saboteur transforms France’s capital city into a lifeless hollow.
Indeed, its monochrome buildings have none of the charm that the ‘city of light’ is regularly said to possess, as storms rage in the skies above and torrential rain patters down onto the pedestrians below.
With the entire environment painted black at the game’s start, the game echoes archive footage of Nazi troops entering Paris through the Arc de Triomphe, a visual trick which offers the feel of a flashback and, thereby, immediately cements the period feel of a city under occupation.
Simultaneously, the AI directly reflects the visuals, with the lifeblood of the city stifled when colour is drained out of the environment.
Pedestrians are few are far between, having retreated into their homes in fear of the invaders; those that do decide to walk the city streets are hassled by German officers or beaten by the roadside, while other passers-by either look on powerlessly or turn a blind eye to the bleak horrors of occupation.
This sense of oppression even bleeds into the game’s sound-scape. You will hear the screech of ravens and crows as street-level speakers bark out propaganda messages and German marching bands blare out on public radio. When other songs do briefly come on the radio, they are downbeat numbers which fittingly match the morose mood.
Regardless, flecks of colour do remain in the all-encompassing darkness. A la Sin City, the soft whites and deep blacks are punctured by the blood red of the Nazi flags which flutter in the gales, while the armbands of the foot-soldiers who line the city’s streets also glow in the monochrome surroundings.
On the black canvas, these vibrant strokes of red offer a constant reminder of the suffocating grip the Nazis hold over the region, visually emphasising their supremacy in a city sorely lacking hope.
Accordingly, the mood of the scene perfectly fuses with its aesthetics: just as the environment is plunged into darkness, so too are the hearts and minds of its inhabitants.
Style and substance merge as one, with art direction and AI combining to reflect the bleakness of the environment back onto the psyches of the city’s inhabitants, and, simultaneously, emphasise the dominance of the Nazi invaders.
Regardless, the gamer soon realises that they possess the power to literally bring the colour back to Paris through a system coined ‘the will to fight’.
As the game’s protagonist, Sean Devlin, you are a race-driver-come-saboteur intent on weakening the Nazi stronghold on Paris after a close friend of yours is brutally murdered.
As you progress in the game, you are tasked with helping the resistance attack the Nazis by destroying encampments, army bases and broadcast antennas, in a bid to weaken their grip on the city and its population. If you eliminate the Nazi military presence in an area, the ‘will to fight’ will rise there, signifying the populace’s desire to resist against the invading forces.
As such, completing objectives in the game has a much more profound effect on the environment than a simple ‘mission complete’ announcement at the end of each act. Upon completion of a sabotage mission, the dark surroundings are suddenly enveloped in light, with colour bursting across the landscape and decorating the previously drab locations to once again fill them with life.
Although the German forces will never be altogether eradicated in the timescale of the game, civilians are more willing to act against the ruling regime in those areas which are plunged into colour, while resistance fighters will be at hand to help in combat.
The power of this visual transformation cannot be overestimated: by weakening the Nazi stronghold on the city through your in-game actions, you have a visual representation of the change you are achieving in the city.
Stand atop a hill in the occupied zones and the inspired areas will be visible on the horizon, representing a flicker of hope in the suffocating darkness.
In these colourful pockets of the map, the mood is also a world apart from their monochrome counterparts.
With the sun now beaming in clear blue skies, greater detail is revealed in the city’s brightly coloured buildings and cobbled streets; meanwhile, the poignant sounds of the black and white locales give way to vibrant jazz tunes and the gleeful chirping of birds, lending the scene a visual and acoustic sense of release.
By using the aesthetics of the game as a visual map of the feelings and emotions of the city’s inhabitants, Pandemic forged an intuitive visual marker of the player’s progress while also making the gamer eager to push on to the end as a means of totally uncovering the map in colour.
Just like the challenge of uncovering the vast maps in games such as Grand Theft Auto or Civilization, the sense of achievement in The Saboteur is directly linked to aesthetic progression, an astute choice which helps the game function on an artistic, rather than purely functional, level.
While the game-play itself borrowed much from other titles (there are touches of Hitman here, aspects of Grand Theft Auto there, and even a hint of Assassin’s Creed in the ability to scale buildings) its visual style was, and still is, strikingly unique, bringing the style of Sin City to a gaming environment for the first time.
As such, it achieves a compelling fusion of form and content which shows that art itself can be a core element of a game’s mechanics.
The game was to be developer Pandemic’s swansong, but by positing the gulf between occupied and inspired worlds as a literal struggle between darkness and light, Pandemic’s decision to paint Paris black was an inspired design choice which lends The Saboteur an inimitable and timeless style and, simultaneously, makes for a unique and refreshing aesthetic experiment.