Digitizing the Don How the Godfather film trilogy is going interactive

 CBC Arts Online, May 31, 2005

Now that video game revenues rival the movies, it seems they’re developing artistic ambition to match their earning power. Electronic Arts, one of the major software developers, is leading that push with The Godfather: The Game.


EA’s challenge is ensuring the game (due out in November) is a big enough hit to justify the money it’s spent on licensing and production. (The company won’t divulge numbers.) The objective is to make the Godfather game a “killer app,” something that gets people who’ve never played video games to start; ideally, to make it so irresistible that consumers will buy a Playstation or Xbox for this title alone.


For EA, rendering the saga of the Corleone crime family has meant rethinking interactive entertainment.


“Other people’s approach might have been to build a level-based game with 12 of the missions associated with the film,” says EA senior Godfather game producer David DeMartini. “Put the logo on the box and you’re going to sell millions of units. Our approach has been to take a property that’s heavily revered, where people doubt anybody in the interactive space can possibly live up to the book and the film, and take a chance and try and do something innovative.”


Paramount, the studio that produced Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia trilogy, licensed The Godfather because it admired EA’s work in turning The Lord of the Rings movies into a video game. EA has had to recreate the streets of New York from the first two Godfather movies as obsessively as Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot 1998 remake of Psycho — more so, in fact, because they’ve had to simulate Coppola’s vision, Dean Tavoularis’s art direction and Gordon Willis’s cinematography frame by frame, pixel by pixel. They’ve also had to devise new screenplays that contain all the ambition and agita of the original pictures, as well as dozens of plausible narratives for new characters, narratives that audience members can determine by playing the game. Players must make choices: whether to solve a problem with violence or through negotiation; whom to make an ally, whom to oppose; which orders from the Don to carry out and which to delegate — or avoid.


Philip Campbell’s task as creative director of content is to make all that come together. The job draws more on Campbell’s pre-gaming experience as an architect than his work as the author of two volumes of what he calls “very bad poetry.” The architectural background helps him think spatially about the interconnected stories in Mario Puzo’s novel and screenplays and Mark Winegardner’s 2004 sequel novel, The Godfather Returns.


“I always liken it to ‘bullet time’ in The Matrix,” Campbell says. “They take a scene and freeze it and they zoom around it. The way I approach something like the scene where the Don gets shot on Mott Street in Little Italy is that I freeze it in my head and look at it spatially, look at all the threads that come into the scene. How can I have my characters cross that scene and how do they impact it? Where they bump in space is where you have to have an interaction. It’s a very untraditional way of writing a story, but the story develops from that interaction.”


The narrative of the novel and the movies is like a spine, Campbell says, and the story that each player will write and “live” virtually as he or she plays follows its own path, intersecting with the established story at key points. Making that varied and rich enough to encourage people to play more than once means writing a number of different possible courses of action. But following that impulse too far could mean an infinite proliferation of stories, and could bog the narrative momentum down in tangential dead ends.


“That’s the age-old design dilemma. Creating a branching-path design, you never can satisfy everybody; not only does it mean you’re making all these bits of game that somebody may never see, but it also means you’re always going to end up making people unsatisfied if it branches endlessly. We have a very strong story that we need to tell — the story from the original Godfather movie — and we have to get to the end of it and hit all those points along the way.”


He invokes another film to clarify. “Groundhog Day is inspiring for the way you can configure a story over and over and over and over again in different ways,” he says.


Moral ambiguity and grown-up drama are still relatively new concepts in video games, which raises the question: are the traditional shoot-’em-up scenarios in video games what button-mashers want, or the result of limited imagination?


James Lileks, a 40-ish blogger and columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, has written about his yearning for a truly immersive game experience. But he’s realistic about the hurdles the Godfather game will have to clear to connect with his demographic.


“How are older people — folks in their 50s, who don’t read gaming magazines, who aren’t gamers — going to find out about this title? How [is EA] going to reach that demographic, and would those people really be willing to buy a gaming console for $200 to play one game?” he asks. “But then, I bought a gaming console for one reason, Halo 2, so it could happen.”


In addition to mimicking the trilogy’s palette and art direction, EA got conductor Bill Conti to record 100 minutes of new musical score, using composer Nino Rota’s original melodies. Quite miraculously, EA also got Marlon Brando to reprise his role as Don Vito Corleone, recording new dialogue six months before his death. Robert Duvall and James Caan also reprised their roles (as Tom Hagen and Sonny Corleone, respectively); sadly, Al Pacino, who played scion Michael Corleone, wasn’t intrigued enough by the prospect of a game version to partake.


Capturing and digitizing those performances was the responsibility of Dan Michelson and his motion capture team at EA’s Vancouver studio. “This really is a marriage of film, video games and motion capture,” says Michelson. “You’re focusing more on specific performances and trying to get the emotion out of the character, not just the movement.” Doing motion capture for a sports title like EA’s Madden NFL series can mean recording 200 moves a day; the Godfather work was slower — about half that number in a productive session. First, they recorded the voices of Brando, Duvall and Caan. Next, they found body actors who could match the facial and vocal performances. (“Stage actors are generally better at that than people with more film experience,” Michelson says.) Often, it takes as many as three thespians to create a single character; one actor does the voice, another the facial expressions and a third the body movements.


Back in April, Coppola made his feelings known about EA’s endeavour. “I had absolutely nothing to do with the game and I disapprove,” he said. “I think it’s a misuse of film.” (Audiences who endured The Godfather: Part III could make the same charge.) EA’s DeMartini maintains the game builders met with Coppola and that he was “gracious”; while the director did not want to be involved in creating the game, he did share archival material. And his objections can only help sell the game.


The Electronic Arts crew took on The Godfather because of its enduring power as a work of art, its cultural impact and the breadth of its appeal; there aren’t many movies that resonate equally with hip-hop stars, teens, people in their 50s, as well as both genders.


The Godfather: The Game has just come through its first public test, a truncated teaser version shown to select industry people at this month’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles. The reviews were positive. Of course, because the members of the EA crew are working on a classic mob story that embodies some of the oldest dilemmas regarding ambition, they’re aware of the potential pitfalls of hubris.


“One of the things we showed at E3 is how the player interacts with the famous scene where the Don gets shot in Little Italy early in the movie,” Philip Campbell says. “One of the choices the player could take is not to get involved, to walk away.” Shifting the discussion to the real world, Campbell says, “But in our industry, in our business, that [choice] has to be a failure state.”