Think the art designers on Mad Men have it tough? The makers of 2K Games’ new shooter, Mafia II, had to create an entire world set in the 1940s and 50s. The sandbox game, a sequel to the 2002 cult smash, casts you as a WWII veteran rejoining your familia of mobsters in postwar America. Your criminal (and moral) battles unfold in the most meticulously-realized urban epoch since Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which brilliantly engineered Miami in the 1980s. “The more authentic you are, the more credible you are,” says Mafia II senior producer Denby Grace.
This isn't the only game that ambitiously recreates a period of time. The Call of Duty franchise (which hit huge this month with the release of Black Ops) has meticulously reconstructed famous wartime episodes. BioShock, while fantastical, evokes a kind of retro high-tech wonderland. On one hand, quicky experiences like Angry Birds are redefining play for a new generation of mobile gamers. iGames are relatively cheap to make compared to the multimillion dollar blockbusters on Xbox and PS3. But this trend toward micro-gaming leaves room for full-blown period pieces like Mafia II to wow players - and give them reasons to still shell out $60. Here's how the whizzes behind Mafia II did their magic:
2K’s team of Czech-based geometry builders and texture artists took research trips to New York City and Chicago to study the differences between American and European architecture. Historically-accurate tenement buildings and outdoor cafes fill the fictional city of Empire Bay. But the developers took artistic licenses with widening the streets. “Thin roads don’t make for good gameplay,” says Grace.
Mafia II’s developers scoured vintage car showrooms in San Francisco, studying the fins and headlights of classic postwar rides. But after four months of talks with the automakers, they hit a roadblock. “There are restrictions on what you can do with their cars,” says Grace, “especially when you’re making a mob game and you may put a body in the trunk.” So the team invented a fleet of over 50 retro cars instead. “Our guys had to become car designers,” says Grace, “you’ll recognize the details and see their inspiration.”
2K Games created billboards and print ads for fictional products to bring the era more richly to life. “I really had to think like I was designing for the 40s and 50s,” says 2K Games art director Lesley Zinn, “what would be appealing to people back then? Newness and invention.” Brightly colored ads for Swift Cola (“Swift for Victory!”) and Beverly cars (“Beverly - It’s Heavenly”) are as Sterling Cooper as it gets.
Music and Radio
Along with over 135 licensed songs from Sinatra to Peggy Lee, the radio programs in the Mafia II push authenticity to the geekiest extremes. The developers had DJs record voice-overs with 1940s gear such as the RCA Type 77-DX microphones and stand way back from the mouthpiece just like they did in the old days. “We made sure the delivery was different,” says Jack Scalici, director of production at 2K Games, “it sounds like they’re 10 feet away.”
David Kushner is the author of many books, including Masters of Doom, Jonny Magic & the Card Shark Kids, Levittown, The Bones of Marianna, and Alligator Candy. A contributing editor of Rolling Stone, he has written for publications including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine.