In a cutscene following an early mission in The Godfather, Sonny Corleone shoos you away from an explosive argument that he is having with his brother Michael, saying, “What’s with this guy? Watchin’ a movie? Get him outta here.” Before playing The Godfather, I was fearful of just that—another movie-licensed game that I would spend less time playing and more watching.
And to be honest, I was not far wrong in some sense. The game follows the major events recounted in the first Godfather film, albeit with you—the player—taking on the role of an up-and-coming Mafioso who witnesses these classic movie moments. In a way, the various missions and cutscenes that pay homage to the film feel tacked onto the game, and not the other way around. That the movie license feels like an addition to the game says a lot about the game itself: The Godfather is a free-roaming game largely about area control, not a strict retelling of the movie about familial obligations and unwanted destinies.
Five warring Mafia families control New York and New Jersey, and, if you choose to do so, you can spend the game wresting control from the four other factions (you belong to the Corleone family, after all) through extortion and murder. While some of these elements may be familiar to players of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (a free-roaming game which, likewise, allows you to participate in gang warfare and territorial goals), The Godfather is much more old school gangster in its approach to organized crime than Rockstar’s “gangsta” method.
Extortion is the central controlling mechanism, and taking control of neighborhoods begins on the microcosmic level by threatening both legal and illegal business owners into coming under the protective wing of the Corleone family. The game features a robust set of options for shaking down your victims: from simple manhandling to dangling people over ledges, from pressing faces on hot stoves to breaking up their shops with a baseball bat. You are rewarded with more respect for discovering particular “weak spots”—what the owners fear most—so trying out a variety of pitiless tactics on your future “business partners” is encouraged.
This emphasis on creative and efficient ruthlessness is positively Machiavellian. The gameplay is nearly as instructional about ruthless power grabs as a reading of The Prince. Just as Machiavelli cautioned that those you wish to control have breaking points, the game enforces a degree of restraint in your actions by allowing shop keepers to be “pushed too far” and fight you rather than pay protection money.
If this description of torturing subjects efficiently sounds a bit heavy and disturbing for a game, at times, it is. It is also shockingly enjoyable, perhaps in the same way that films like the The Godfather and television shows like The Sopranos often are. While we know that Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano are morally reprehensible, we often enjoy witnessing the lawlessness required by their lifestyle—and even admire their acumen in perpetrating evil since they do so in such a businesslike and capitalistic fashion. They represent a darker version of the American Dream, and a freedom often more ideal than real in American social life.
Additionally, like Coppola’s film, the historical distance of these acts, in part, adds to the allure and idealization of such a lifestyle. While the game may not boast the highest polygon count, its attention to detail in terms of the cars, clothing, and architecture of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s era is brilliant. New York and Jersey look like New York and New Jersey of the era (well, or at least what films like The Godfather have taught us to believe these cities looked like). Interior environments, while often boasting similar layouts, frequently look different due to little details related to the business occupying the space (flower shops, bakeries, butcher shops, etc.). I was especially fond of one nightclub which featured ceiling to floor art deco paintings decorating the dining area. The game does not necessarily follow the plot of the film, but its environment and soundtrack makes it feel like a gangster flick.
The Godfather, in other words, may not reflect its namesake in plotting, but instead in terms of attitude and style. If the film was about giving Americans a peek into the dark alleys of the underworld, this is a game interested in allowing not a voyeuristic view of the way that the criminal element lives but an experience of it. In this sense, EA has done what so many other companies often fail to do when working with licensed material: they have taken interesting source material from another medium and allowed the medium of games to reshape it using its own mechanisms and immersiveness to best tell the tale. The first Godfather film is about the corruption of an earnest and well-meaning young man who initially wishes to distance himself from his criminal heritage, but inevitably discovers that he is determined by his family and blood. This game is about experiencing such corruption more personally, and not seeing it for yourself but in yourself.