While at the Mafia II event I got the chance to talk with Jack Scalici, the Director of Creative Production on the game who helped manage the writing, casting, and voice over for the game.
Why did you pick this era for the game? Did the potential for Mafia III work its way into the decision?
Maybe. Mafia I ended in the 30s. So we said, "What's the logical progression?" Why skip over the 40s and 50s? That was amazing. The FBI was still ignoring organized crime back then. J. Edgar Hoover was like, "Doesn't exist! It's a figment of your imagination. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."
There were no cellphones, Internet, no communication. It was a completely different world. If you had a telephone in the 40s, you were like, "Ooh look at this guy!" To skip over the birth of rock 'n roll would have been a major mistake. We really wanted two eras that felt very different from one another. The WWII era of the 1940s and 1950s? That was it. We further enhanced that. We chose to set the 40s levels in the winter time because colors are more muted, and things are quieter with the snow on the ground. It's a little more depressing. Then when you get into the 50s it's bright colors, sports car, rock 'n roll, summer time, sexy girls, yes! That's why we chose the 40s and 50s.
What kind of design challenges do you face with having an open world game set in the 1950s?
One of the things that make it cool that there are no cellphones, is that it makes it hard that there are no cellphones. Whenever you need to be able to talk to someone Vito has to be near a telephone, you have to force him to pick up that telephone, or it has to be in a cutscene. Or the other character has to already be in the car. It wasn't just that you are driving, and you get a phone call, "Oh my god! Get back here, quick!" That can't happen.
We didn’t have all the luxuries we take for granted in telling stories that take place after the 90s when cell phones were everywhere. Every game you play, the main character goes [puts fake cellphone to ear], and hears a magic voice that tells them what to do. Vito can't do that. He has to know what he's doing at all times. We have to remind him with other players in the world telling him what to do. Or, if we absolutely need to, on-screen text: "Jackass, you're supposed to go that way!" We can't have Cortana come in, "Chief!" It doesn't work.
What kind of research was done to ensure authenticity of the vehicles, music, etc?
Vehicles: the Czech guys got super geeky with. They actually found the physics and got the schematics for all the cars from back in the day. They have a system where they enter in the data, and the cars behave realistically like they would from back then. It was to the point where it was so geeky that we were like, "Oh my god, they have to stop." We needed it to be fun.
There are two different driving modes. There's simulation, and what we call normal. Normal is more arcadey. They'll still behave like the cars behaved back then, but they'll be a lot more - for lack of a better word - fun to drive. If you're really into the simulation of driving a car from that era, you could put it in simulation mode and it's incredible.
Music: I handle all the music licensing for 2K. When this massive script came across my desk, I was just like, "Holy sh*t this is going to be huge." So I called all over musical licensing departments. I told them, "Send me everything you have before Phil Spector.” The girl groups were the defining sounds of the 60s, then Phil Spector started working with the Beatles. So I said, "Everything before Phil Spector, and the girl groups, and the British invasion. Send me everything you have before that in your entire catalog."
We narrowed it down to 1500 tracks, and then Denby Grace (the game's producer) and I sat there (more me than Denby) for literally years when we were working on this together, just listening to these songs over and over and over again. If it got annoying, we cut it. And I ended up with about 300 that weren't annoying that you could listen to forever and ever, and you won't get sick of it because in the game you have the chance to hear a song more than once.
Personally, I hated it in a game when I'm hearing the same damn song over and over. I won't mention any names, but it has really taken away from the experience in a lot of games. So for this, we had the budget, we had the disc space, we had all this stuff that we were able to do it. We looked at it and said, "Now let's categorize each one of these songs." What mood, what kind of feel, what does it invoke? If it had one word that could describe the song, what is it? And when we had the script written we said, "The mood or the tone of the scene is x. Let's find a song that matches x. Let's plug it in here." We ended up with about 120 something.
How did you come up with the characters for the game?
Those were actually mostly created by the original writer, Daniel Vavra. He's a very talented man. He was the original writer of Mafia I, and he wrote and designed everything about Mafia II - the early version. What we're shipping now is quite different than what he had in mind back then. I think almost all the characters have survived.
At 2K we really put everything through the ringer, especially story. This is a story-driven game, and it will suck if your story A) isn't good, and B) isn't told well. I think almost everything he had in there held up, and the characters right from the get-go when Daniel and I collaborated on the script. He said, "Here's what I had in mind." I worked with him and said, "Ok, let's tweak this guy a little bit here, do it this way, this is the way he speaks indicating he's not very intelligent." Little things like that. I do this with all of our developers. We work with characterization, and everything we need to cast a great actor to really bring a character alive.
Do you have a favorite?
Joe. Joe is the most fun. We said, "None of these guys are going to be stereotypes." But, you need one guy who is the stereotype. Not saying that Joe is the stereotype. He's interesting in his own way, but if there's going to be the big, loud-mouthed, goombah who causes trouble all the time, that was Joe.
When I met the actor who plays him, Bobby Costanzo, I was like, "Oh my god, you're Joe. You are the guy!" I handed him the script and he was like, "[Italian accent] This is good dialogue!" Thank you, thank you for proving to me that I'm not crazy and I could find someone who could play this character! There was no one else who could do it, it was incredible.
How do you balance Vito's moral standing with his involvement in the crime family?
I think of him as a good guy in a bad world. Nowhere in the game do you hear the words, "money, power, respect, family, honor." That's all the stereotype crap you hear when you think about the mafia. We threw that out; ripped it out of the story. It doesn't appear anywhere. I think “respect” happened once, but no one says “honor” ever. When Vito says “family,” he's talking about his mom or sister. It's something you can identify; that you need to protect your loved ones. Everyone has a family, or almost everyone has a family or people they care about.
That was Vito's motivation early on in the story that you see and play in the Home Sweet Home mission. Yes, your father is a dead beat and he left you with this debt and now you're the man of the house. It's the 1940s. Momma and Francesca aren't going to go out and get high-paying office jobs. Women were expected to stay home, raise babies and make babies back then. No one was going to pay them anything. They were screwed without him, so you have to do this.
If I gave you a job and you get paid a million dollars a year, and then all of a sudden you paid off your debt and then I said to you, "Ok, you have to go back to being a video game journalist. Yes or no?" What are you going to say? It's the choice everyone would make. Do you live the life that every young man wants to live, and keep doing what you're doing even though you might die one day? Or are you going to go work at McDonald's? What would you do in that situation? That's what he does, and he tries to get out in some way.
Empire Bay takes inspiration from NYC, San Francisco, Chicago, etc. What pieces of these cities were you trying to replicate?
It's based on NYC from back in the day, during the 1950s. Most of it is New York, but the artist took a lot of inspiration from Chicago and a little bit of San Francisco. There are no hills in NYC; you can't jump or anything. It's also not the most efficiently designed city. When you get into lower Manhattan, the streets start going everywhere. No city is the most efficiently designed city.
We want a city that we can create great gameplay around, especially great driving gameplay, and intuitive driving. If you replicate NYC people are going to say, "Oh! Look at the map here! You deviated from this!" Yes, because that sucks. I don't want to drive that way, I want to drive this way! So that's why we based it on NYC. You can see the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler building; you see these iconic landmarks. We didn't go super geeky and get down to make it NYC.
We'd like to thank Jack Scalici for taking the time to discuss Mafia II's development with us.