David DeMartini, executive producer of "The Godfather: The Game," faced a quandary when he started working on the project: Who in the Corleone family should the player be?
This has never been a problem for DeMartini's Electronic Arts colleagues who make the James Bond games, and it probably didn't trip up the team working on the company's upcoming Superman game, either. But a player in a "Godfather" game could be Vito or Sonny or Michael. He could play them all, or, as DeMartini's team eventually decided, he could be none of the above.
In an unusual step for an EA movie game, players will essentially be playing themselves — or at least the version of themselves that would have existed if they had lived as New York mobsters in the '40s.
"We weren't trying to create the film," DeMartini said. "We were trying to create the world." And players will be able to live in that world.
DeMartini previously oversaw EA's Tiger Woods games, promoting a robust customization system that tweaked every cheekbone and brow measurement of the player's golfer. But for the transition from the club-swinging world of golf to the bat-swinging world of the mob, DeMartini pushed his team to let players perform customization that was more than skin-deep.
"The next dimension besides making a character that looks like you is to try and give that character some depth and dimension so that your personality actually comes out through the character," said DeMartini. His ambition has traditionally been reserved for role-playing games like "Fable" and "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic," which make myriad hidden calculations about the player's behavior to affect the central character's look and story-line progression.
DeMartini's game is open-world, featuring the same free-roaming experience popularized by "Grand Theft Auto" and aped in the "True Crime" and Spider-Man franchises. Initially as a low-level Corleone enforcer, the player can follow story-line missions or engage in the meat of the game, strolling through downtown New York neighborhoods and shaking down butcher and funeral parlors, taking over backroom rackets and amassing power, income and fearsome respect.
The player can also choose the level of violence he uses to carry out his goals: He can kill the butcher or just smash his shelves to cow him into cooperation. "You could choose to play more of a Sonny path where you're very violent or more of a Tom path if you chose to play more of a negotiator style," DeMartini said.
Either result sticks for good and affects how the rest of the people in the game react to the character. The story won't really change, but only the smooth negotiator, for example, can steal a car and not have the police — theoretically in the player's pocket — care.
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.
DeMartini's big ideas haven't had much time to gestate. "The Godfather" went into pre-production in September 2004 and was originally supposed to ship little more than a year later. For months the team kept "The Godfather" movie playing on a constant loop on its development floor at EA. The team members were creating an open-world game from scratch, a challenge that got them a five-month extension and bumped the game to March.
To authenticate the experience, they tapped more than 20 of the film's actors to lend their voice and likeness to the film.
Marlon Brando recorded voice work in the den of his home during a two-hour recording session, a few months before his death. Most of it proved unusable because of Brando's deteriorating health. His audio director told him that Brando "actually reached for a Kleenex box ... and stuffed them into his cheeks to try to pull back some of that sound and get himself back in that Don Vito character."
The team was forced to rely primarily on Brando samples from the film and from a sound-alike, but DeMartini says Brando's session did make it into Don Vito's dialogue during the game's hospital scenes. DeMartini was particularly impressed with the voice work from James Caan, who reprises the role of Sonny Corleone.
Of the majors, only Al Pacino opted out, though Michael Corleone is in the game. Movie and book-based scenes do appear as well, but only in a greatest-moments way of occasionally intersecting with the player's rise to prominence. "Everybody wanted to play the horse's-head mission," said DeMartini, elaborating that the player gets to be the one who actually gets that infamous equine body part from stable to bed.
The familiar theme song makes it into the game along with 100 minutes of variations from "Rocky" composer Bill Conti. DeMartini had toyed with acknowledging the fiction's hip-hop and pop-culture legacy: "I thought it would be an incredibly interesting idea to even, in the creation of some of the music, take somebody from pop culture today and actually have them rap out some of the songs of that era," he said. "At the end of the day ... it was an extremely controversial topic to mess with 'The Godfather' fiction, if you will, and bring it up to date. And people weren't ready for that transition."
"The Godfather" will be available March 21 for PC PlayStation 2 and Xbox. PSP and Xbox 360 versions are expected later in the year.
For screenshots and video of the game, click here.