Q: What is the relationship between Hanger 13 and former Mafia developer 2K Czech?
Bill Harms: Hanger 13 is a brand new studio – this is our first game. We actually brought a lot of people over from 2K Czech to work in the Hanger 13 office in Nevada, but we still have 2K Czech in Brno. There’s a lot of artists, engineers, and our media team there, so all the cinematics we mo-cap at our mo-cap stage in Petaluma here in California, but they’re actually assembled and edited at 2K Czech in Brno.
Q: Are you able to share open world expertise with Rockstar, given that you are both Take-Two subsidiaries?
Bill Harms: We’re only talking about Mafia III.
Q: What do you believe are the fundamentals of Mafia, and which are you keeping and discarding?
Bill Harms: When we first started working on it, we really wanted to identify what are the franchise pillars. A very important one – if not the most important one – is that we take what we call a gifted anti-hero and then place them within a specific time and place. So the first game we set in the 1930s, II was set in post-war America, and Mafia III is set in 1968 in New Bordeaux, our version of New Orleans. The Mafia franchise is known for a rich narrative and cinematic experience, so we’re keeping all of those things. We’re also for the first time in the franchise adding an open world, so it’s truly an open world game.
Q: All of the games seem to have a relationship with war.
Bill Harms: In the case of Mafia III, it distils down to who we saw Lincoln as, and his character arc. He grew up as an orphan, and lived in an orphanage until he was 12. Then the city shuts down the orphanage, and he is basically put out on the street. He falls in with Danny Robertson who heads the black mob, and Delray Hollow. But Lincoln, even though he loves them, never really feels like he belongs anywhere – he’s an outsider. He joins the military in hope that he finds his place. He’s not drafted into the army – he joins. He serves four years and goes to Vietnam. And when he returns that’s when Mafia III kicks off. On the gameplay side it ties in with how he carries himself and how he moves through the game space, and the weapons he uses harken back to Vietnam as well.
Q: The southern US setting is extremely evocative. As a writer, what made you choose that area?
Bill Harms: It’s just cool! [Laughs] A crappy answer, but it’s true. New Orleans is very diverse, it’s robust. It also has a very rich history – you know, dating back to the Louisiana Purchase. At the mouth of the Mississippi River, it’s a collision of different worlds. The real New Orleans also has a rich history with the Italian mafia. It was one of the first American cities that actually had Italian mafia, and that goes back to the 1800s, and carries all the way through to the ‘60s, when this guy Marcello ran the city. He was so prominent and powerful, the crime families from other places like Chicago all left him alone. He was the only mafia don who was allowed to do what he wanted and didn’t have to report to anybody. So it really shows the power of that.
Q: How did you get on this project?
Bill Harms: I’ve been in the industry for about a little over 12 years. I worked at Gas Powered Games, I wrote the first Infamous. When Hanger 13 was being founded, they needed somebody, it sounded really interesting, and I love crime fiction. It ties with horror as my favourite genre. To have the opportunity to really dive into this world was one I couldn’t really turn down.
Q: How has your writing process evolved as you’ve worked on more games?
Bill Harms: One of the big drivers is that a protagonist is only as good as the antagonist, and one of the challenges of video games is giving exposure to the player’s enemy. It’s difficult, because games are about gameplay. But in this case, we put in a concerted effort to develop Saul Marcarna – who is ultimately the object of Lincoln’s vengeance – and make him a fully-developed character. And you know, villains don’t think of themselves as villains. They don’t wake up one day and go, ‘Yes I will be evil today!’ To them, they are the hero of their own story. The player probably isn’t going to agree with what Saul does, but at least they can understand it from his point of view as a character in this world. And one of the cool things we’re doing with the game is framing it as a documentary, so there’s sections of the cinematics that are set in the present day – characters reflecting back on the events of 1968. A lot of that provides additional narrative content.
Q: How much push and pull is there between you and the gameplay team or rest of the studio?
Bill Harms: It’s striking a balance. Games are about gameplay – about moving through the space as a player. So, it’s about being collaborative as much as possible on both sides. The riverboat mission started of with a germ of ideas: it’s New Bordeaux so there’s a bayou, so we have to have a riverboat. That mission has changed so many times I can’t even count, but it starts with that germ of an idea. It has evolved as a mission in a gameplay space while still maintaining its importance within the narrative.
Q: Mafia III is set in 1968 and you have an African-American protagonist. Do you touch on the more uncomfortable themes of the time?
Bill Harms: Issues of race come up in the game – it’s 1968 in America. It boils down to even how the police react to Lincoln. But our big focus was authenticity, and we put a lot of time and research into that. As long as it’s authentic, it is what it is – you know what I mean? There’s research on our end: reading books, watching documentaries, reading interviews. There’s a football player named Jim Brown, who played for the Cleveland Browns, my favourite football team. He gave an interview in Playboy magazine in 1968 and told a story about how he was driving through the South and they were pulled over because his car threw dust on white people. And the only reason things didn’t take a bad turn is because another police officer arrived – at the time Jim Brown is in college – and recognised him and said, ‘Hey this guy plays ball for Syracuse’. So they let him go.
So there’s stuff like that. There’s a civil rights activist named James Baldwin who did a couple of documentaries, wrote essays, and wrote books, and watching his interviews is just this window into another world. And then there’s documentaries like Fires of the Mississippi, which is about various government entities trying to infiltrate the civil rights movement. Then there’s the criminal side, which is like Mr. Untouchable. Documentaries about criminals. And even moving forward into the modern day, Cocaine Cowboys is obviously about the cocaine trade in the ‘80s, but it’s about criminality. So it’s about bringing together these various elements and creating as authentic an experience as possible.
Q: Did you do a similar thing when crafting Lincoln? Or is he based on someone in particular?
Bill Harms: I can’t say he’s based on a specific person, but he draws in various elements. There is a narrative intent behind his design – to try to get the player to empathise with him. He’s an orphan, he’s never really had a place to call home, doesn’t know where he fits in. Regardless of circumstances, I think everyone in their life experiences that: ‘Where do I belong in the world? What should I be doing?’ And obviously, he suffers a devastating loss when what little he does have is taken from him. That kind of loss is universal.