This is the first in a series (maybe) of posts labeled "Hindsight" that discuss games you may have thought we were done writing about.
Earlier this year, a couple of game developers let me in on one of their secrets: They intentionally play bad games. They play the stuff you or I would avoid not to learn what to avoid, but to learn what to do and imitate. They told me that good ideas lurk everywhere, and no one else is looking in the bad games.
The game developers who told me their technique do not work for Rockstar Games. As far I know, they've had no hand at making Grand Theft Auto games. But if they did, I hope they would play EA's Godfather II, the most flawed of 2009's big-publisher open-world games.
Godfather II is a broken, sputtering jalopy of a game. To use a more apt metaphor, it is an open world beset by blight, the digital equivalent of a city where the bridges are crumbling and the water mains are about to burst. It has bland graphics, poor artificial intelligence, awkward story, etc.
And yet, after playing through it and THQ's new Red Faction, Sony's inFamous, Activision's Prototype and Rocsktar's Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned, I believe Godfather II surpasses those more enjoyable 2009 open-world games in a crucial way: You matter in it more. It's more alive. It knows that you're in it. And it reacts to you.
Prototype's New York collapses to its red-sky ruin regardless of your actions. You surf its avalanche, chipping at rocks along the way, but the tumble is brutal and inexorable.
Red Faction's Martian colony towers do fall from your sledgehammer swings, but the swelling revolution that brings its citizens to take up arms against the police authority feels no more the product of your actions than a river's current feels determined by how you swipe your hand through the water.
In Grand Theft Auto IV, Liberty City stands unaffected by your mayhem, your impact noted only by new hysteria chattered on its radio stations. Like a good New Yorker, Rockstar's fake New York barely bats an eye at what you're doing in it.
The Empire City of inFamous bears more of your mark. The game comes closest to what Godfather II achieves, but it is still EA's crime adventure that manages to make its location feel most organic.
The method for the Godfather II's best success doesn't sound sexy. What happens in the New York, Florida and Cuba of the game is a property-control simulation. It's a dull-on-paper conquest of gambling dens, auto chop shops and whorehouses, committed sometimes at the hands-dirty ground level of the GTA games it apes. You, a mafia don, walk into a warehouse where a rival mob family runs guns and kill every rival mafioso who shoots at you before shaking down the warehouse's boss, extorting him, adding him to your income ledger and watching his property turning your color on the game's map. Other times, conquest occurs from the map's god view or, more likely, in the background, as the orders you delivered to the men in your mob family are executed off-screen. While you drive to one location for another mission that could have been in GTA III, you're notified that your capo took over a nightclub or that your foot soldiers stormed a waterfront factory. You told them to.
The prize accomplishment of Godfather II is that the mob families controlled by the game try to do all of that to you. They attack your properties. They try to take them over. They recognize your rising influence and push back. They necessitate that you send your underboss, who would otherwise be fighting at your side as a computer-controlled ally, from your ground-level crew to defend a money-making property. A rival capo you've marked for death and planned to throw off a bridge might instead show up storming the brothel you fought hard to take over. He's going at you on his own time.
The result is a game that registers the grand violence you perpetrate in its open world and retaliates. The results aren't smooth. At ground level, Godfather II crumbles. Enemies have poor intelligence; allies shoot at walls. Guns dropped by killed mobsters float in the air. The cities are cartoonishly shrunken, the game's graphics primitive and plain. But what is occurring within that mess and what is occurring off-screen feels like it has breath and life.
This landscape lives. Godfather's three regions are not prop cities or sets of cardboard walls. This New York is not just a doormat on which you may wipe your feet. It is a place that seems to know that you are in it and does something about it.
I'd rather look at Empire City. I'd prefer to drive through Liberty City or fight on Red Faction's Mars. I will, nevertheless, still yearn for the next open-world game that I play to react in the way Godfather II did. I want the game's world to remember the heat and stamp of my actions beyond the conclusion of the given mission I'm playing and to fire back. I want it all to feel alive. And I won't believe such things can be accomplished only or best in a broken-down Godfather game.