Interview / John Calhoun, story designer for The Godfather II

It takes a lot of guts to sit down and basically rework one of cinema’s most beloved films, but John Calhoun had to do just that as the story designer for the The Godfather II game. Of course for the new game he didn’t just have to retell the story, he had to insert an entirely new Don into. That Don of course the player, and inserting the player into the movie isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but the The Godfather II team seems to have done an impressive job of doing it.

At the The Godfather II community day, I got a chance to sit down with Calhoun and discuss working the new ideas present in the game into the film’s storyline. Luckily, he let us branch out a bit and work in some questions about how the game developed over time and if the AI was truly smart enough to back up a Don. Most importantly though, we found out his favorite way to bludgeon a man to death.

That VideoGame Blog’s Matthew Razak (TVGB): So let’s start with the obvious: the story. It seems a lot less linear than the first games. How did you go about expanding a linear movie into an open world setting?

John Calhoun (JC): Well the game isn’t truly a very linear story in that there are a number of progressive points that we know all players will go through, and we know that they’ll go through them in a certain order. But it is very non-linear in that many of those progressive checkpoints can be completed in any number of ways any number of times. So for example, the point in the game where you meet Hyman Roth and he says he is at war with the Granados and he says he needs your help and your family to help wipe them out, it could be the case that you’ve already done that. Perhaps you take out one of their main men before you meet him or you’ve taken out the entire family, and so the game recognizes what you’ve done and changes the story at that check point accordingly. So the way we tie the story in is that in each of these key scenes it may be set up in a way that you are familiar with from the movie. So it may be the classic meeting of the Dons in Cuba before the revolution or any other famous scene. So these progression checkpoints are actually tied into the film fiction.

TVGB: The game is spread out over three cities. How was that more or less challenging than doing just one giant city.

JC: Probably one of the most challenging thing is the amount of art assets we had to create. So when you’re dealing with just one city, say New York, you are dealing with brick, you’re dealing with brownstone, you’re dealing with asphalt streets, you’re dealing with skyscrapers. Now you can make a lot of variety out of just New York, but you take that out into Miami and Cuba you’re talking completely different architecture. It’s all totally different. So the different cities was a real challenge for our artists first and foremost and they did a really great job of recreating the three locations. You can hear it too, everything is different.

TVGB: Let’s talk about the family trees. That’s a lot of AI going on and AI can often cause problems. How have you gone about creating AI that doesn’t get annoying and doesn’t get in the way. Do you think you’ve succeeded?

JC: There was a sort of bottom up approach. So at the very most basic level of the AI they run off of what we call a motive system. So we actually had some designers from The Sims come over and work on these. So the Sims work off a system where they know when they need to go to the bathroom or need food. Our guys have the same motive system in them except they care about safety and they care about bravado, they care about protection. So at any given time every single NPC is alive in the game and they’re trying to fulfill their motives according to their personality.

A mobster, if he sees something that tells him this thing is on fire and he is equipped to deal with that he will out of those motives. What this allows us to do is really focus on the bottom layer and when we start to put on additional layers like environmental objects and additional AI, they can all deal with it relatively intelligently. It’s an easier system to tune than one that works from the top down. Did we succeed? I absolutely think we did, because the AI has been in development for the last five years starting with Godfather and the special editions and now The Godfather II. We’ve had a lot of time to smooth it all out and get the AI in a perfect place.

TVGB: The Godfather films are some of the most powerful and dramatic films around. Do you think the story in the game lives up to that power? Do you think you’ve succeeded in transferring over the whole family dynamic?

JC: I hope so. We looked at the movie dozens and dozens of times and we pulled every memorable scene and every memorable quote and every memorable personality and we tried to put them in the game. To create a powerful emotional experience and also give the player a lot of freedom is kind of challenging and so what we wanted to do was not try to recreate the film scene for scene, but try to recreate the life that these guys are living. We wanted the player to experience everything while they play the game and if you just jam through the game you’ll see a lot of action and emotion, but if you play through the game and check out the world it really creates a fuller, rounder experience that is pretty emotionally compelling. One of the things that people say about story writing is that you can’t keep the tension high all the time, which is what a lot of games do if it is just linear. We wanted to make sure there were peaks and valleys and that the player would experience these.

TVGB: So was it hard to work Dominic (the player’s character) into the story? How did you go about choosing where he would take lines and stuff like that?

JC: So it was pretty hard to work Dominic in because he isn’t a character from the film. When we approached Paramount about our idea of having a player who is the Don and creates his own family within the Corleone empire, they suggested casting Michael as sort of the mastermind who is trying to go legit, and he needs someone to fill the gap. That’s how we first came up with Dominic’s roll; he’s the shadow boss. He’s respectful to Michael but he’s also independent of him. The hard part about getting him into the story was inserting him into the memorable scenes. So what we decided to do was we broke a character’s dialog up into two halves and gave half one character’s lines to Dominic and that really worked. It was a lot easier than we thought it would be, we just changed a few words around. I think what we’ll see when players play the game they will start to think that it’s really familiar and that he fits right in.

TVGB: You aren’t going back to old New York in the game. Are there any plans to do DLC or anything like that with that as a feature?

JC: I can’t talk about that.

TVGB: Gotcha. But even the modern part of the game is a little shifted around. How does that all work?

JC: Well in the first Godfather we were very loyal to the movie, but in The Godfather II we actually start in the middle of the movie with Cuba, which means that 50 percent of the scenes now need to be brought forward. We pretty much inserted that whole chunk in later as a whole and then there are just a couple scenes that we reshuffled because in the movie there’s scenes at different locations and they can easily jump back and forth. The movie focuses on more than one character, but the game is focused on just one so you always have to be at the right place at the right time. In order to accommodate that we had to move some scenes around. I think most players will be very, very happy with the way we respected the fiction and definitely Paramount is very excited with our take on the franchise.

TVGB: You guys kind of got a second chance at the first game with the Blackhand Edition on the Wii and the PS3 version. Both games sort of showed off an early Don’s view that is in the game now. Was that an idea you guys had always planned?

JC: Actually the Don’s view was something that came up when we started putting the whole strategy together. We really wanted to recreate a top down, almost table game perspective. The things that were carried over from the special editions of Godfather were the crew. That’s when we first experimented with that and we really liked it.

TVGB: Was it hard to implement a strategy game into a sandbox style game?

JC: It’s funny because we don’t view it as a sandbox game. We don’t feel we’re competing with GTA. We call ourselves an action strategy game. You can see it from the clarity of the objectives. Our game is very clear; you are supposed to eliminate the other families by killing their main man and taking over their territories. The way you do that is by getting into the strategy. So in that sense it wasn’t that hard to meld the two. We weren’t trying to go after GTA and be this huge emergent world. We carried all our systems over so it has many of the same trappings and can definitely stand next to those games, but gameplay wise we’re pretty much in the action strategy realm. Once we kind of identified that as our goal it was pretty easy to make our gameplay systems support it.

TVGB: Who got to come up with all the eliminations (violent death moves) and what is your favorite?

JC: Some of them are returning from Godfather, those were our favorites from there. There are around 40 new ones. My favorite is one that always makes me cringe and it is when you take the crowbar to take someone out while they’re already on the ground. I actually cringed and closed my eyes the first time I did it. It’s bloody disgusting and awesome.

TVGB: I gotta ask about Godfather III, but more importantly are you franchising past the movie series?

JC: Yes, can’t really talk about either.

TVGB: Booo, well we’ll just have to wait and see. Thanks for talking with us.