Sex and ‘The Saboteur’: Dev Talks Nudity in New Game

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Will sex sell a video game?

Electronic Arts sure hopes so. There was a bit of controversy last week when it was discovered that those who purchase The Saboteur, a third-person, open-world title set in World War II, will receive a code that allows for the girls of the game’s Belle de Nuit, a Parisian strip club, to be completely topless.

And if you rent the game, buy it used or borrow it from a friend? That peep show will cost you three bucks.

Barenaked ladies aside, it’s a precarious time for The Saboteur. Electronic Arts just consolidated the studio that made it, and following the barrage of strong November releases (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Left 4 Dead 2, to name just a few), it’s got a lot of titles to contend with as the last triple-A game of the year.

Techland got lead game designer Tom French on the horn to discuss the thinking behind the downloadable content, the game’s nudity, the lead character’s supreme Irishness and what else is in store for The Saboteur.

Techland: The main character, Sean Devlin, is like the most Irish dude I’ve ever seen.

Tom French: (laughs) The original inspiration for Sean came from William Grover-Williams, who was a driver for the Bugatti team back in the ’30s and who eventually became a saboteur. That’s a really cool idea for a character, but we wanted to create our own character and create our own story… When we started working on Sean, we wanted to make him the cool action hero that we all wished could be in our hearts.

So he’s a little bit like a drinking buddy, but we also referenced a lot of like what we felt were some of the greatest action heroes of all time — Indiana Jones, John McClane from Die Hard. And we also wanted to imbue him with that classic cool action hero, like Steve McQueen. He’s good with women, he smokes, he drinks and so we really wanted to have all those character traits. I think we came up with a really strong lead action hero character for our game.

Techland: If Wikipedia reminds me correctly, William Grover-Williams was English. So why go with an Irish character?

French: We went with the Irish character just to separate ourselves from the typical World War II game. Everybody’s played the soldier story game, and there’s been a lot of fun games, but we wanted to make it Sean’s story. If we made him English, and gave him this vengeance goal, he would still be distracted with the kind of the political motivation of the war that’s going on. So by making him Irish, it really makes him a man without a home inside this this occupied country.

One of the toughest things was actually finding Sean’s accent. Or just defining Sean. We knew who Sean would be as an action hero and as a personality, but getting his accent and his look were two of the hardest things. And finding somebody who sounded Irish — but not so much where we would have to subtitle the entire game — was really important for us.

And the guy that did his voice, Robin Atkin Downes, he’s been living in the States for a long time, so his accent has thinned out a bit. It does make him easier to understand, especially to American folks. It was a tough challenge, but I think it paid off. I think some people have mixed reactions to (his brogue), but a lot of the Irish people actually support it. It’s mainly a lot of people from outside of Ireland seem to think that it’s wrong, which is funny to me.

Techland: But the Irishness isn’t what’s most talked about. I have to ask, why all the nudity — or near-nudity with the pasties — in the game?

French: Paris has this inherent sexuality about it. I mean, Paris is really famous for its red-light district, and the Moulin Rouge… Paris is like the early 20th century version of Las Vegas in a way, and it has that kind of hustle and bustle to it. So having that in the game really puts Sean in kind of the seedy underbelly of the world, and that’s what we really wanted. That’s the mood and the picture that we wanted to paint that the resistance lived in, hiding from the Nazis in these strange little places.

And so it kind of just made sense, and on top of that, there’s a lot of film noir influence in our game, from the modern films like Sin City or the classic movies like The Third Man, and those movies have a kind of inherent sexual undertone to them as well. It just makes it a more mature game, and it’s definitely something different and unique.

Techland: Can you tell us about the “Midnight Show” downloadable content and clarify exactly what players will be getting with that?

French: The Midnight Show is an area of the Belles de Nuit [translation: "beauties of the night"] that we put in the game because we wanted finish flushing out the Belles de Nuit experience. There’s a back room of the Belles de Nuit where there are some mini-games that you can play to earn contraband in the game, which you can use at the blackmarket to get different weapons and things like that as well. And then there’s also some dancing and some shows that fills out that burlesque club experience.

Techland: Looking back at the game now, did you feel that some of the nudity was gratuitous ?

French: I don’t think I would say it’s gratuitous. There have definitely been examples where it’s gone way over the top. But there’s no interactive sex mini-games or anything like that. We definitely wanted to show it and use it… I mean, if you watch the Sin City movie, our use of nudity is very similar to the movie.

What I liked is that we created (the nudity) as an opt-in feature. You can have it with the full topless nudity or with the pasties, and there’s a whole area you can get access to in the game. But you don’t have to do that stuff. Like I said, we made it more of an opt-in feature rather than forcing you to have to deal with it all the time.

It also unlocks some different hiding spots in the world too, adding to the gameplay mechanic of hiding in the game when you’re escaping the alarms.

Techland: But do those additional hiding spots give more advantages to the players who opt for the DLC over those who don’t?

French: The hiding spots came from the idea that you’re in an occupied country and so just trying to escape line of sight from the Nazi isn’t always your best option, because there’s basically somebody everywhere. You’re going to keep getting caught unless have a lot of different hiding spots.

I wouldn’t say it’s too much (advantage in the DLC). If you buy the game, it’s essentially for free. And it’s only the people who don’t purchase the game and have the code with it that would actually have to purchase the content. It’s enough that it adds a couple of bonuses here and there as far as gameplay, but a big part of it was flushing out that Belles de Nuit experience and selling that fantasy a little bit out into the world as well.

Techland: It’s definitely unusual to have this kind of content as DLC. How was this decided?

French: EA definitely likes to have that day-one DLC and for us, it ties back into the whole idea of opting into it and having that choice in there. Especially since we knew there’s the potential of some people finding the nudity offensive, and so we wanted to really make that something that you can turn on and off. It did become this idea of “sex sells” to a degree. So that might encourage people who maybe just rented the game to at least opt into that kind of content if they want it. They can actually buy into it and support it.

Techland: That was actually one of my questions. Do you think that sex sells and that the DLC will earn the extra cash from used game sales or even prevent used game sales?

French: I don’t think if you’ll ever be able to really stop that market. It has its own merit and purpose. I don’t know, it’s tough to say. It’s an interesting experiment, and I’m curious to see what the outcome is in the end.

Techland: Do you think games in general shy away from nudity and sexuality too much? Or do you think that some games use it in a way that’s not helping the game?

French: I think it really depends on the game. Like if I was working on a Marvel superhero game, it wouldn’t make sense to have a bunch of naked characters running around. And for our game, it serves a purpose. It helps set a tone and a mood and an adult theme. It’s a mature game. You don’t belong here if you don’t get this.

Techland: We’ve seen other EA titles, like Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins, stir up controversy for featuring sex. What do you think needs to happen for mature content to be accepted in gaming and by the mainstream public?

French: I think it is just nudity, to a degree. There are definitely moments in our game where we allude to the idea of sex, but we never actually take it to that level. We’re never actually seeing the whole act of sexuality, but we’re imbuing that sexuality into the world.

I think it’s really on how you use it in the world. And it’s created some controversy with some past games, like you mentioned. But the reality is that the average age of a gamer nowadays is 35. And so, we definitely are moving into a much more mature time. We do make these things for adults because this is the type of game we were designing to make. I hope that the world doesn’t sell this to minors and really treats its with the respect. It’s like seeing Inglourious Basterds. I love the movie but it’s an extremely violent film, and I wouldn’t take my kids to see that. (The Saboteur) is an M-rated game. I wouldn’t let my kids play my game even though I made it because it is an M-rated title.

Techland: It just seems that when games they have mature content, even if it’s compelling and part of the story, it gets criticized versus if it were in a movie. Do you think society just needs to catch up on what gaming’s all about?

French: I would kind of agree with you on that, about how society needs to catch up. If I asked my parents or their peers who they think plays video games, and they would be like, “little kids do.” The market’s maturing, but the perception of it outside of the market that understands it, isn’t quite grasping it yet.

Techland: I’m very sorry to hear about the closing of (Saboteur studio) Pandemic, but what does that mean for you personally and for The Saboteur moving forward?

French: As far as Pandemic goes, EA is really behind Pandemic as a brand and the franchises we’ve created. There’s a team of people that were brought over to the EA LA studios to keep working on some of the brands and franchises that came out of Pandemic.

I’m not really sure what that all means to me; I’m still trying to figure out where I’m going to fit into this. We’ll see what happens in the future.

Techland: Do you know how EA is handling Saboteur from here on out? Are there any plans for more DLC?

French: Nothing announced for DLC. Things will come down in the pipeline, and you’ll hear about it then.

Techland: The reviews are starting to trickle in. Have you been reading them? What do you think so far?

French: I’m definitely watching that. It’s kind of polarizing. It’s really interesting to see the different reactions to it, so I’m really curious to wait and see more. I haven’t formulated too much of an opinion on it yet, I’m just letting it soak in and see where it goes. There’s always going to be negative criticism of every game, and even the ones you read that are negative say the game is still fun. The team is really proud of the game we made, and we stand behind the fact that we made a fun game.

The Saboteur is in stores today for the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

More on Time.com:

The Top 10 Everything of 2009: Video Games

Tech Buyer’s Guide 2009

Time.com’s Holiday Gift Guide 2009

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