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The Bleak Arc of Mafia II

Creating a mafia game that stands out is difficult -- even more so, it turns out, when the field is crowded by your own publisher. Here, 2K senior producer Denby Grace discusses the unique creative decisions that have lead to the specific experience of its upcoming Mafia II.

The crime genre has expanded in games so much so that one publisher can support multiple games -- and each has its own creative vision. Take-Two is parent of both Rockstar (which has Grand Theft Auto and LA Noire) and 2K Games, which has the upcoming Mafia II.

Here, that game's senior producer Denby Grace explains the approach that's been taken to this game in terms narrative, visuals, and gameplay design, to set it apart. This includes the fact that the game embraces more linear gameplay than other crime games -- something he sees as essential to presenting a polished, shooter-like experience -- yet still retains the freedom of movement players expect.

He explains also the narrative chances the developers are taking with the title -- a "bleak arc" which features an early climax and ups and downs; one he hopes can deliver unexpected twists and show gamers the true complexity of the life of a made man.

You guys are releasing this game, and we're starting to see promotion of LA Noire, which is the same parent company. GTA IV obviously came out a little while back. Where do you see Mafia II in the spectrum of this open-world crime genre?

DG: It's interesting: They sit in a little bit of a different space. GTA IV's whole schtick -- and I'm speaking from a fan's point of view, not a consumer's point of view -- is do anything in the world. Go there; do this.

And on the side, it has this great storyline, great multiplayer. It does everything pretty good; it's a big open-world game. LA Noire -- I don't know anything more than you guys do about it, so I can't really talk about that.

But Mafia's whole schtick is this cinematic experience, you know? It really is more like a third-person action-adventure game shooter than an open-world game. This open-world backdrop exists because it is needed for our story; we need the player to be able to get into the city, get cars, and do these things. But the actual gameplay itself -- the story, the way the story's presented, the linear sort of nurse of the story -- it's all more like a third-person shooter.

So I think the experience is a more cinematic experience. That's the easiest thing to say. It feels less of an open-world game and feels more like Uncharted or Gears of War in a lot of ways, but then you have these cars that you can drive around in an open-world city. I think you'll get that.

And it's one of the reasons why we've had to do this sort of two-pronged approach because, [for example] this mission, we wanted to focus on people getting their teeth into the gunplay -- something that we spent a lot of time on is making the gunplay behave more like a third-person shooter. We worked on sort of auto-aiming stuff; we've got like a cover system and a really fluid system, so I think that hopefully paints some sort of picture.


And, of course, obviously, it's not the first time; Mafia had a similar structure. Is that a challenge from a design standpoint when the core of the game is you're going through this story -- you're going through this very compelling experience -- marrying that with that backdrop that, as you say, is not the same focus as sort of an open-world, open-world, open-world game? Is that a challenge to marry those two in a way that doesn't feel overlapping?

DG: It is, and it isn't. What we sort of do -- the linear-ness of the game, the scope, was something we embraced. It allowed us to spend our time in the other areas, making sure that the other areas were really spectacularly good: things like the combat, the cutscenes.

So finding the right balance? Yes, absolutely. Everything in the city that you can do, in the backdrop, supports the fiction, so we don't give you really weird things to be able to do -- go bowling, go play darts. It just doesn't support the fiction.

We do give you the ability to go into restaurants. We do give you the ability to go where you meet people; go into clothes shops and buy clothes because you need to change your appearance -- the player might want to change their appearance, but that's how the police system works, so.

When we sat down, we really embraced these things. We looked at Mafia 1, obviously; we looked at everything else that was about at the time. We really embraced the linear-ness of the game. We don't do real-time day/night cycle, and people are like, "Ugghhh!!!"

But the reason why we don't is I want to present you with a mood and a feeling while you're playing this level. So I want it to be rain now; I want it to be dark, like a film.

Sometimes, when you're doing an open-world game, you can kind of get to these points when you're like, "Uh?" You're doing something really weird, and it's kind of like the middle of the day; it doesn't have the same feeling... Again, it comes back to that third-person sort of attitude towards it.

And then the open-world, again, we spent a lot of time making it feel really authentic. There's two versions of our city: the winter city and the summer city -- '40s and '50s. And then, in the '50s, you kind of have a summer and an alternate version, as well. So as we progress through different time periods we kind of hit these things.

The really nice thing is the seasons kind of reflect the mood of the story. At the start, it's really a sort of bleak existence; everything has this winter. And then, as you're kind of getting up, the point where you were playing today was just before you become nearly a made guy. You're getting some of these bigger jobs; Joe and Vito getting a lot more respect -- well, apart from Eddie kind of giving you shit for losing that truck, but.

It kind of reflects as it goes through summer, you know? It's the bright existence, the '50s, "the birth of cool" as marketing likes to term it; loads of different stuff, fashions, music, and stuff. It's a cool change, you know? Again, like the stuff, we embraced the date changes we go through, you know? It naturally lets us... [explore that through] cars and guns and music as you go through without having to refer to some sort of goofy fictional explanation.

What kind of research did you do on those two periods and the Italian-American experience particularly?

DG: The research we did came from anywhere and everywhere. Speaking specifically about the story, first-off, the big influence for us was obviously Goodfellas, Godfather. Dialogue-wise, it was probably The Sopranos. Dialogue-wise it was -- actually walking around [here] you can see [2K director of production] Jack Scalici. He's actually an Italian-American New Yorker himself. His grandfather was in the police force in the '40s and '50s, so he actually talked to this guy a lot -- well, he was his grandfather.

But, as well as that, the type of language they used and the way they talked to one another and the way they are with each other -- a lot of that is pulled from Sopranos and all these films that we know and love.

Now, the other stuff, we looked anywhere and everywhere; that's the honest truth. One of the big influences for the art teams and a good reference point for me is Mad Men. I'm not sure how big that is in the general public right now because it's quite new, but it's a good reference point for me when I'm reviewing the art.

Their actual reference -- they'll literally pull it from anywhere and everywhere. You can see hints in the actual look of the game, especially in the summer, of Road to Perdition, for the art style, is a real big influence as a film. But, as well as that, we look at things like other movies, other things from the era, Maltese Falcon, any Marlon Brando film from the era of the '50s, James Dean/Rebel Without a Cause for vehicles and stuff like that; so, yeah, we pull reference from anywhere and everywhere, really.


My grandfather and his brothers were all Italian immigrants who came over and actually fought in World War II and went through the same sort of cycle -- well, they didn't join the mafia. (Both laugh) It was interesting seeing the initial cutscene and sort of bringing that to mind.

DG: Yeah. There's a lot of things in the story that we kind of hope you get that real sort of connection. Joe and Vito -- like I said, it's a buddy story -- the connection between these guys... Inherently, a best friend asking you to do something or getting you into strife is something that most of us can relate to, I think.

As well as that, the motivation of the main character to do anything to get this money for his mama and his sister -- again, that motivation is really powerful. It's not some random guy going, "I have a problem down on the thing. You need to go kill him; I'll give you one thousand dollars."

Alright, we have that. we obviously have that when you go to the mafia guy, but the overall motivation of the act is -- the reason why I want to earn the money, the reason why I want to get out of this -- it's something that we strive to do, to play with the character's motivation and make you really connect with that, you know?

As you progress through, you kind of go up. The first act is sort of dictated by his father's death and getting out of there, and as you progress forward -- at the stage you're at now -- you're kind of becoming a made man.

At that point, you're becoming a bit more selfish. You're loving the glamorous lifestyle maybe that the mafia brings; but then, quite quickly, you kind of reach a height, and then we kind of -- not to go into too many spoilers, but -- then we kind of reveal to the player it's nowhere near as glamorous as it seems. People start really getting hurt and stuff like that. It's an interesting slant on the story. It's classic in a lot of ways, but at the same time there's some definitely good twists I don't think people will be seeing.

That is obviously the classic arc for gangster films and stories, but in games you rarely have a peak that isn't the very end of the game. Games traditionally are power fantasies; they tend to want to point the player to the highest point, and that's where you end.

DG: One thing we don't have is... The story's about the guys who don't have aspirations become the don. They have aspirations to become wiseguys. I don't think I'm spoiling anything as I've talked about it before: By about 60 percent of the way through the game, you are a wiseguy. You're a made guy. At that point, we start stripping things away from you.

Obviously, there is a crescendo, but then there's quite a few peaks along the way -- or low points, even. So we don't aspire to the end point, which I think -- say "mafia story," and the end point is people naturally think, "Don. Boss." -- and it's like, no, we don't do that. There is an ultimate peak, obviously, but it's more like a movie-like story. Again, the big influence is Goodfellas for us, the way it's kind of like these guys get all the way up and then all of a sudden it's like, holy shit; get greedy, stuff happens. It's kind of interesting.

Well, that's a bleak arc. (Laughs)

DG: It's a very bleak arc. The story's a pretty bleak arc. I worked on The Darkness before, and that was a pretty bleak arc, (laughs) although I have had nothing to do with writing either of the games. It's kind of where I'm just connecting with these bleak stories.

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