Mafia III: Art Director Dave Smith on the its look and feel
16 Sep 2016   Home » Features » Interviews » Mafia III: Art Director D... Share

Mafia III: Art Director Dave Smith on the its look and feel


Period, en pointe.

Stevivor recently sat down with Dave Smith, Art Director on Hangar 13’s Mafia III to discuss the look of the game… right down to its suit design bible.

You read that right.

Read on to find out the level of detail that Hangar 13 is putting into 2K’s upcoming open world crime drama.

Nathan Lawrence, Stevivor: I actually just wanted to start with the look of Lincoln. It’s such a big part of how the world reacts to you, how characters react to you, out of the gate, but not just his ethnicity, but I also noticed that there seems to be this kind of real innocence and naivety about him in his face that I couldn’t quite pinpoint, even though he’s a Vietnam veteran, and I’m wondering whether I’m completely off the mark there, or whether there was something that you’ve done to make him a bit more relatable?

Dave Smith: Honestly, full credit to Alex who is the actor who plays him. He is amazing. He’s an incredible actor and he… a little bit behind-the-scenes stuff, Lincoln is two guys. Alex delivers the emotional centre of him, but he’s not six foot four, and we have Kyle Kingsbury who’s an MMA fighter who deals with the in-game animations, so he’s sort of this amalgamation, so what you’re picking up on is that Alex brings this humanity to the role and then when you’re playing Lincoln in-game, the physicality is really important to us to bring it from someone who is obviously as big as we’d intimated. We didn’t want to have to be hand fixing anything or making stuff up on the fly. Lincoln ultimately is a guy who… his dad and his brother get killed and he’s a kid who’s come back from Vietnam and he’s seen some really messed-up stuff over there, but at the heart, we wanted him to never feel like a monster, although you can the game in a way that presents him as such, absolutely. It’s… trying to drop cues and little clues for the player as to, this is how we envisaged him.

[At] Hangar 13 we don’t want to be too prescriptive about how you play, but certainly in our hearts and minds there’s a version of Lincoln that acts a certain way. So when we see him come back from ’Nam and he’s picked up from the train station and his hair has grown out a bit, he’s just happy to be home. And then when the stuff goes down at the end of Act I, it’s literally, ‘Well, I know how I deal with this and I deal with it the way I deal with everything else,’ and it’s like he goes to war. The jacket comes on, the boots change, he shaves his hair back, we see the scar from the [betrayal] night writ large on him. That look is also, we wanted it to have additional resonance because Lincoln represents a disruptive force in the city. The Mafia has had a strange hold in here for a while. We designed the Mafia to feel a little bit anachronistic and most of their suits and the way that they dress are a little bit pushed towards the tail end of the ’50s and the earl ’60s. Lincoln’s guys, we wanted them to feel cutting edge, ’60s even pulling into the ’70s. Lincoln wears a military parka which has resonances with all kinds of things, like Taxi Driver and stuff like that, so there’s these little counter-culture revolutionary things that we wanted to put into the look of him, as well.

Mafia III

Stevivor: Touching on pop culture at the end of your answer there, were there a lot of iconic films from the era that you went looking for and stuff beyond iconic that you had to find to find these visual cues for what players might perceive as being something that is set in that era?

Smith: To step back from the characters. Trying to get the look of the screen, like, what’s the finish of the game. What’s the grade? What’s the style? All that kind of stuff. I didn’t want it to feel like an early to mid-’60s technicolour movie. I wanted it to feel like a French Connection, like a Bullitt, like a tail-end of the ’60s kind of look. I was pulling in a lot of references from early ’70s, specifically for Lincoln and his crew, just to give them more space between the design. I wanted it to be a little bit knock on the head, obvious for people. For a long time, I was watching the crap out of French Connection. But then going beyond those things, I mean, it was, honestly, a lot of the reference stuff was very, very deep nerdy eBay, ‘Oh, that person has a whole bunch of slides that they took in 1965 in New Orleans.’

I was mining people’s personal history for that stuff. And it’s amazing the amount of stuff that’s on there. You kind of feel a bit guilty, but the family is selling it, so you get these amazing snapshots of what it was actually like, the things that you did. It wasn’t shots of the famous monuments and architecture in the city, it was people out on the lawn having a cook-off, and you get all of these wonderful little details about, y’know, I didn’t want everyone to feel like they’re either a stick in the mud or a hippy. A, that wasn’t really New Orleans at the time. We wanted to represent this melting pot of cultures and this broad economic social strata that was in there at the time, tying right back into the civil rights and all that kind of stuff back then, we wanted it to feel like it had been built 100 years ago and the whole thing had grown up over time to get to where we are.

Stevivor: Given the emphasis on historically grounding the Mafia series, even though they’re in fictional cities, they’re based on real places and have that real-world history. How much room do you have to get creative outside of the era?

Smith: It’s actually kind of surprising. I think it’s actually trickier to do the opposite. It actually is amazing the things that trip you up. Things as simple as, I use this example all the time, but we found this amazing dumpster that was perfect. It was vintage, 1960s dumpster, loads and loads of reference photography of it. It got in the game for about two months before I was, like, ‘You know what? That’s a recycling symbol,’ and 1974 was the earliest recycling. Those kind of details, like, electrical boxes had a different iso[lation] thing on them nowadays, so the latitude that you have is fine, particularly when you’re designing things that were inspired by real-world things. But it’s like, you don’t get those little things right, maybe one in 10 people will spot it, but that’s a complete break from reality, and it’s like, I never want people to feel like they’re popping out of that immersion.

We do wrap the whole thing in a documentary format. You see flashbacks and jumping around in time. That, for us, was another mechanism to make the player feel like they were never being jerked out of the experience, because I need to understand how a radio system works so that Lincoln can use it mechanically in the game. I don’t necessarily need that to be a bit of exposition that’s delivered by a character that feels kind of forced in the moment, so guess what, we’ll go to a senate hearing, and we’ll have Donovan talk about what he was doing back then. We deliver the same information in a way that feels more natural to the player. I think, latitude, once you understand the broad rules is an easier problem to solve than the specifics of not breaking the immersion.

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Stevivor: You mentioned, right at the beginning, the design of the mafia characters being a bit more dated. Does that mean you’ve gone back and kind of looked at the first two games, I guess especially more the second game, which got into the ’50s, for those visual cues?

Smith: Yeah, I mean, there’s Vito [Scaletta]. He’s still around and we have the jacket. We do call back to that thing. There’s references to [Mafia] II to [Mafia] I but, yeah, the design, particularly of Sal Marcano and his brothers, we went after the ’50s things, the little details in the way a suit is cut, pleated front, pleated pants, a cuff on the thing. We had these two spectrums of, ‘How old is the character?’ Because the younger character was going to dress a bit younger, but also, in the design of some of the Mafia characters, we deliberately gave them, like, ‘Well, let’s make this guy kind of more like a ’50s greaser style character, just so that maybe the haircut’s more ’60s,’ but it keeps you grounded in something that feels a little bit anachronistic all the time.

Suits were an area of diligence that I wrote a surprising amount of documentation about, which is just like, as soon as you get into the late ’60s early ’70s, the collars start to rise, and the wings are a little bit bigger, and then the three-piece becomes a thing. Don’t even get me started on vents in Italian and European suits. It’s mindboggling.

Stevivor: The suit design bible?

Smith: Exactly.

Stevivor: Was there anything outside of the fashion that you were able to look to, from the first two games, for inspiration? I guess, especially because it’s been such a long period between games that, visually, it’s going to look chalk and cheese. Like, the fidelity of Mafia III compared to I and II, even though they were at the cutting-edge when they came out, they look really different. But has there been anything else that you’ve been able to take as a visual through-line for the series?

Smith: There is a surprising amount of Mafia II stuff in the game. It actually is. We grey boxed the city with Mafia II assets. We had them. It’s there. We’ve since gone back and replaced an awful lot of that. But there’s little nods to things like certain brick patterns, certain buildings. If you’re looking really closely, you can see some of the Empire Bay stuff as a through-line a little bit. I mean, nothing that’s overtly conscious.

Definitely the car designs, not talking too specifically about those, but in general, the Mafia car designs are big old 50s boats. We wanted to keep them, like, you were going to get motion sickness when you got into them, and then muscle cars become almost the exclusive domain of Lincoln and his guys, and Burke’s gang is the hot-rodding gang, so they have that sort of thing. The Mafia vehicles, you’ll see some of them pop up if you’re diligent.

Mafia III heads to Windows PC, Xbox One and PS4 on 7 October.

Nathan Lawrence

Nathan Lawrence