By Phil Campbell
When I did the first pitch of the game design to Paramount over two years ago, I remember thinking how Francis Ford Coppola almost uncannily seemed to have extracted EXACTLY THE RIGHT BITS from the Mario Puzo novel. Long chapters on various uncomfortable-sounding medical procedures and dying Consiglieres were conspicuous by their absence. What more, I thought, could be gained from the source that hadn’t already been emblazoned across the big silver screen?
Yeah, exactly the RIGHT BITS. The story as collated and constructed, devised and designed by Coppola was THE story, the story of the Godfather as we remember it now.
Which presented a problem. Because we knew we weren’t trying to simply create ‘The game of the movie’. We knew we were attempting to create a ‘living’ Godfather world, where the events of the movies played out against and amongst events chosen and created interactively by the players themselves. The movie story was just one of the “million stories in the naked city…”
So we knew we had to revisit the book and the movies, we had to deconstruct them, put them together again – and it all started with the chronological timeline.
Both the book and the movies share similar structures when it comes to the playing out of their narratives across many different events and eras. Time is malleable as the stories jump back and forward, the shock of the present colliding with the suddenly-gained knowledge of someone’s past. But what if the story is played out in sequence – what character does it take on then, what new depths are uncovered?
My first port of call was the Godfather Saga, where the events of the first two movies were played out in chronological order – and, surprisingly, this version works very well. So in dissecting and reconstructing the book in the same way, we started to get a good sense of the epic span of the chronological timeline, and especially the part that currently interested us, the events in the years between 1945 and 1955. All the major movie scenes could then be keyed in, and all the characters backgrounds pulled from the fleshed-out versions in the book and fused to their ‘present’ in our decade of choice.
What emerged was a ‘timeline of opportunity’, a framework where everything could be seen running its course, every narrative dead-end could be unclogged, every famous scene could be tracked as it emerged though the passing of chronological days, minutes and seconds. This was the backbone to the story WE were going to tell.
The first Godfather movie, plump now with all the connective ‘tissue’ from the book, would form the strong ‘spine’ of our interactive journey. This story is linear, unchangeable, has a well-defined start, middle and end. This story has a destiny that it charges unfailingly towards. Sonny will always die at the causeway, Michael will always shoot Sollozzo. But it is STILL JUST ONE STORY…
Because now we must let the player tell his OWN story, and let that story play out in the spaces that the movie story has left for it in our Living World. Weaving around in the city of New York like a snake, this story twists and turns as it is freely constructed by the player, before crashing into the movie story when a major event occurs – in fact, at arguably ALL the best moments. Suddenly the player is there – he’s there interacting with and participating in all the scenes that have made the Godfather movies so legendary. Up close and personal with all the characters that make up one of America’s most famous ‘Families’!
We realized early on that we dare not ‘fear’ working on this book. Working on this famous movie. We knew we must respect them - but that didn’t mean we had to be in awe of them…
Right away the Timeline approach had characters’ pasts, presents, and futures suggesting themselves – and in good conscience we could begin to draw these new stories together. What was Luca Brasi’s relationship to Don Corleone? What was Paulie like BEFORE he got ‘greedy’? How exactly DID Sonny take the ‘war’ to the enemy, and why did Tom Hagen place so much faith in the art of negotiation?
Ultimately, the book and the first movie have been inspirational ‘jumping-off points for us—a way in which to frame, inspire and construct the new stories we are telling.
With those new stories come new characters. Because the Player is not playing as any of the famous movie characters, and is not even a Corleone, it’s important to expand his “circle of acquaintanceship” beyond that of the immediate “movie” Family. That means new friends –- and of course new enemies, too. Some enemies from the established fiction play larger roles and interact with the Player’s life in a more meaningful way. Someone like Bruno Tattaglia, for example, goes from being a man who was killed off in a mere few sentences in both book and movie, into a classic game villain.
New friends like Marty “Monk” Malone become part of the new fiction we are establishing and hopefully will become as memorable and as “cherished” as anyone in the Godfather mythology. By sharing in many interactive moments with the Player, we would hope that some kind of emotional bond can be formed, which would be a true step forward for a video game. Of course, there are also some new female characters, and who knows where that might lead!
The next big game design challenge was integrating the Player’s “journey” into all these well-known, memorable moments from the movie. Everyone who has read the book, or seen the movie, KNOWS what they’ve seen -– how can we serve that up a little differently?
Here’s an example. Hypothetically, let’s say we were in a certain scene, leading up to a certain bloodied and detached horse’s head. Now, let’s say that in order to actually HAVE that hypothetical horses head