While I was playing an early PlayStation 3 version of EA's December World War II game, The Saboteur, yesterday, I was told not to worry about running over certain characters. The game's developers, see, had to decide whose death matters.
Cory Lewis, a producer at Pandemic Studios, which is making the game, was directing me through a missions called The Zeppelin. I was the game's Irish Nazi-fighting protagonist, doing a deed to help the resistance in the game's Nazi-occupied France.
The first task of my mission was to steal a truck, adopt a Nazi disguise and drive into an enemy based. I was gingerly driving through some French streets, near Nazi checkpoints and out of the way of French pedestrians.
It would be okay to run those pedestrians over if I wanted to, Lewis told me. At least, it wouldn't blow my cover or anything, because the Nazis don't care.
I asked him if he was covering for an artificial intelligence glitch, because, sure enough, running over an innocent Frenchman didn't stir the Nazis a bit. Not at all, Lewis told me. "It's meant to recreate the world of the era. These people, [the French], were getting their asses handed to them." The Nazis, simply, didn't give a damn.
Lewis explained that, elsewhere in the game, I might come across Nazis lining up French people for execution. I would be able to save them or just keep on walking by. That's the mood of occupied France Pandemic wants to convey. (No word on whether hurting the French will make them less willing to help in later fights.)
[UPDATE: An EA spokesperson contacted me to say that the development team has incorporated some repercussions for French deaths caused by the player: "There are a couple of different stages of punishment for killing civilians and without giving too many specifics here and spoiling it, the punishment ranges from disabled hiding spots to closed weapons shops and garages and more." The Nazis still won't be bothered, but it appears that the French, understandably, will not ignore the death of their countrymen at your hands.]
When you do blow your cover, by bumping a Nazi or blowing up a gate or brandishing a gun in front of them while you are in civilian clothes, they react in force.
Our conversation reminded me of a chat I had with another EA official, David DeMarini, back when the current head of EA Partners was overseeing the development of The Godfather.
Like The Saboteur, The Godfather was an open-world game. And like The Saboteur's creators, the developers of The Godfather had to determine what kind of mayhem would be permitted and what wouldn't be.
This is what I wrote about that conversation in early 2006:
Some of the possibilities of who you might be have been tempered. Police aren't easily available to fight. At the game's start, violence against innocent women attracts police heat at twice the rate of violence against men. "There are not any benefits to killing innocent people," said DeMartini, rattling off a list of limits that he says are in the spirit of the "Godfather" fiction. They also, of course, provide a roadblock to the police and prostitute violence that has steered "GTA" into controversy.
Chalk this all up as one of those development decisions I don't often think about when I'm playing a game. Who can you kill or hurt and why? In the Saboteur, the rules are a little bit different.
I'll have more impressions of my session with The Saboteur in the coming days.