Mafia 2 Interview: 2K's Denby Grace Pulls Us Back In

There's something very refreshing about 2K Czech's approach to "open world" gameplay with Mafia.

For a game that tells the story of a larger-than-life mobster, and does so over the span of a decade, there's a handcrafted feel about this sequel. The developers are less interested in using the open world as a playground for gamers, and more as a backdrop for the narrative they've crafted--an approach in line with the first, somewhat under-appreciated title in the series.

Recently I sat in on a roundtable interview with Denby Grace, producer on the project at 2K Games. As Grace held court in an Italian restaurant on the edge of San Francisco's Little Italy, we fired questions at him ranging in topic from the game's ambitious narrative, to the series' infamous traffic laws.

What is the sequel doing differently from the original? More importantly: what happens when you shoot someone in the face? Read on to find out.

For gamers that didn't play the original, what makes Mafia II different from other open-world shooters?

Denby Grace: The biggest thing about Mafia for us, and I think for the people that played Mafia, is the story. It is this strong characterization that happens as you progress through the game. The fact that we have an open world is kind of like an additional--I like to compare it to BioShock. BioShock wouldn't work without Rapture. Our story wouldn't work without this open world setting. But ultimately it's all about this strong narrative fiction.. it's this linear game that, ultimately for the fiction to work, it has to have these small sandbox things going on. The city needs to react to the player, and the player has to be able to interact with the city.

Ultimately it's a crime action game.. The big differentiation for people who played Mafia 1 to Mafia 2 is this intense gunplay. It's more like a first person shooter for us. So once you get into these combats, in this interior rooms, and the exterior [areas], you have so many dynamic objects going around. The way people use cover, the way you use cover, the way the weapons handle, it feels more like a--we put much more focus on the actual gunplay. Cops would give you tickets for speeding in Mafia. Can you go into detail on how the driving system has changed in the sequel, if at all?

Denby Grace: Absolutely, and I started talking about it earlier--the whole police system, the driving is naturally different because it's the 40s and 50s, and it's much faster and more exciting. But the police system to me--it had this love and hate feel about it. You loved it for the first couple of missions, and then some people continued to love it, [but with other people], by the third or fourth mission, and you're getting a ticket, you're like, "I'm done already, I'm done, come on."

So there's different ways we deal with this. We have this fat cop scenario. If you happen to pull out a gun on the street for instance, and you don't fire at anyone, the cop will be like, "Stop right there!" And if you run off down the street two or three blocks, and the fat cop is going to weasel away, and you get away quite easily.

Or what if you shoot someone in the face? Then naturally he's going to radio in more people to help him get you. And where it works in traffic terms, you're still going to get a ticket if you drive through a red light, you're still going to get busted if you're speeding. But they're not going to sort of horrendously track you all the way across town just for a ticket. One thing that we do play with which is quite interesting is, what turns into a traffic violation can quite quickly get a lot lot worse. Imagine you've got a body in the boot and the cop sort of turns up, pulls you over for a traffic violation. And he's like, "Mind if I search the car, sir?" And you're like, "Oh shit. I've got a body in the trunk. This is turning into a murder charge."

So also, as the game is set over 10 years, as we progress through the fiction, it kind of helps us deal with some of the problems that in Mafia, by mission 10 or 11, you'd get pretty sick of. You can buy your way out of it by the fact that you're a made man. They're on the payroll, so at the same time you can kind of call in and get cops off your tail.

Can you talk about the decision to move the game into the 40s and 50s?

Denby Grace: The game is set across two eras. It starts in the 40s, it starts in 1944. So the first third of the game actually happens in the 40s, just as the war's ending.

We wanted to sort of change the themes considerably. Prohibition was the big thing in the 20s and 30s. As well, when you think about things from a gameplay perspective, cars being faster and things like that. I don't think it was a conscious decision made--Vito is a war hero, so it's just a good part to start off. And from there it was, how long is it going to take for these things to play out?

We want to control that stuff. We want to make you feel something. We want to create that mood.
And for us as well, the 50s as a setting is a really exciting time. It's James Dean, it's Marlon Brando, the birth of rock and roll. Cars are actually being made for enjoyment, rather than purpose of driving from A to B. So naturally it's a nice, cool setting. The music from the era is really cool and really iconic. Americana was getting super huge, TV was born--this explosion of all kinds of stuff. The 50s was a cool time in American history, and it's really interesting some of the stuff we've done in the game, and you'll see that as we progress.

Will the developer be releasing modding tools for the PC version of the game?

Denby Grace: It's not decided at this time. I couldn't possibly comment. We're too far away right now to decide that. I know the developer is very keen to support things like this, but right now as a publisher.. we're very, very aware of our fan base, and we're very, very aware of what the community wants. And we're going to do what we can.. but it's just too early.

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How is Mafia II's cover system different from other games' take on the mechanic?

Denby Grace: First thing with the cover system, we think they get a little bit of a bad rep in the games industry. The way we look at it is, if I was to take you outside and fire a paintball at you, the first thing you'd do is get in cover. So we think it's realistic that you have a cover system in the game. The way ours is a little different--it's very simplistic. It's very easy to enter cover, to move from one plane to the next, is a very simple maneuver to make. It's not overly complicated. We allow you to shoot around corners easily.

And then also, the AI and enemies will use the same system. We're not the sort of game that throws a massive amount of enemies at you-- that's not our goal. What we want to do is have less enemies, but less dying. They're going to utilize the cover, and sort of use the tools to take advantage of you and take you down. As well as, we have a whole ethos of deadly combat. You shoot someone in the head, they will die. You get shot in the head, you will die.

Can you finish the entire game non-violently? And if not, how far do you take the non-violent option within missions?

Denby Grace: First question is, no. You have to break some eggs to make an omelette. There are different situations in every mission. It's hard for me to sort of say yes, we do it here, here and here..

There's going to be different ways to do things to achieve the same result. And in specifics, and I can't go into too many details on the missions, but in specifics there are going to be non-violent routes to take. Or maybe there are routes to take where you have a stealth option. What would happen is, if you get detected, it's not going to be a big "game over." But now I'm going to have a massive shoot-out, which would have been much easier if I had got in quietly, get in through that door, do what I need to do and get out.

So we give players options available to them, and players that want to take the gun-shooting route, they can do that. Players that want to take it a bit more slow--for instance, just cars alone is a good example. Break into a car, smash through the window and drive off. Or use a lockpick to open the door and attract a lot less attention. It's a very simplistic minigame--it's not sort of finalized yet. But that's a good example of that.

Will there be side missions or optional content within the larger linear missions? And how linear is the storyline?

Denby Grace: So the main story is linear to an extent. There is a big, big branch about two thirds of the way through, and then the story ends. So we get to a position where we ask the player to really make a choice.

As for how we integrate side-missions, we don't look at the game like 20 missions here, 30 missions there. We have this whole entire story, and then how it plays out and how we break it down--how we integrate side quests and sub missions is, it all comes back around to the fiction. There's no red flag, here's a side mission--it just happens in the story or not.. We have some side quests that are really, really interesting and involve the main characters, and if you don't do them, then different things happen later on. But again, it's largely linear.

What sort of effort went into researching the period? And will the radio feature real music from the era?

Denby Grace: First thing is, how did we go about researching. We sent our team of writers to New York. Also one of the big advantages, and 2K Czech will be the first to say this, is that there's a 2K Games that can really help those guys. We've got a director of production who handles all the music licensing. He turned the Czech script--it's been rewritten and all the dialogues have been massively rewritten throughout the course of two or three years. All the branding and stuff, it's all been--2K Czech's art team is obviously prepping this stuff, but the research and stuff is, it's.. about [allowing] them to sort of express themselves within the realm of reality.

There's a great mission in Mafia 1 where you get to the farm. It's raining. Everyone knows the mission, yeah? And there's this orchestral score, and you're like, whoa. You open the car door, a body falls out, you're like, "Oh my god, what the fuuuck!" And so it's a really, really cool moment in the game, and so one of the things that we stayed away from--obviously there are lots of open world games doing weather, time of day. We were like, look, we want to control that stuff. We want to make you feel something. We want to create that mood. When you watch a movie, the director really controls the atmosphere, the feeling of everything. We want to control that in our missions. We want you to be driving a dark, dusty road, raining, and a body in the boot, and the music's playing a real song--and the radio sort of feeds into this.

The dynamic radio system that we have, it allows us--we know at any one time what the player is doing. So whether you're playing the game, or you're just driving around the street, or you've had a pretty successful mission, whatever that song is it's going to be pretty chill. All of a sudden you get in a car crash, and some mobster might start shooting, and you're like, "Alright, I'm going to have you." You start chasing after this guy, and obviously the intensity rises. What we'll do is we'll kind of break the radio with a news report. Something that's not relevant to you, but it allows us to break the radio. Or we'll tune the radio station.. and all of a sudden it sort of matches what you're doing in the world.

So that's how the radio works, and interestingly, as you progress through these 10 years of the game, what you hear in the 40s obviously is going to be massively different to what you hear in the [50s]. And the dynamic radio is a really cool system. It allows us to feed information to the player, new stories, all sorts of things. Licensing, it's the biggest soundtrack 2K has ever done.. and then also there's going to be a huge orchestral score as well. It's going to be recorded by the Prague Philharmonic orchestra.

How are you keeping the game fresh as the player progresses?

Denby Grace: One of the things that works really well, that not only works for the fiction, but progressing over the 10 years--it works really well for the gameplay. Naturally Vito starts off as a low-level criminal, he's doing low-level sort of missions. He's stealing cars, he's doing low- level racketeering. But then he becomes a made man. He's not stealing cars, he's got brilliant cars. He's got money now. He lives in a nice part of town.

So all these things keep it fresh. We expose different areas of the town to people. For example, this mission we showed today to take out a mob boss, it's pretty hardcore and very far away from the stuff where you started out. So I think the area and the fiction itself actually drives that.

And again, all the content--as we progress through the.. different parts of the 40s and 50s, it's not that you'll go through your orders and magically a shotgun appears on level three. It's like, no, we can introduce this because this is what happened in the real world.. and the same with the vehicles, you get introduced to new vehicles as you progress through the game.

Mafia II will be released on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 this fall.