I'm just going to come out and say it: Mafia is not a great game.
If I'd run through it in 2002, I probably would've had fun. But this is 2012. Mafia is another title that shows how fast games are ageing - or rather, how fast game design and audience expectations are surging ahead, throwing a harsh spotlight on the crude, medieval designs of our gaming past. In 2022, will the next generation of kids claim Minecraft is a bit rubbish?
But It’s The Truth
I cited Mafia in last year’s essay Those Honeymoon Hours, describing how an early mission in Mafia was exciting because I was oblivious of the game's constraints and hadn’t yet learnt how to master – or perhaps game – its mechanics.
Pretty soon, though, the frustrations break through and its wonderful façade crumples like a mobster taking a baseball bat to the head. I'm not going to whine about the Mafia "sandbox" not being interesting enough as I recognise it is neither a sandbox nor an open world - it is merely an enormous set upon which a gangster-themed third-person shooter plays out.
Mafia-haters commonly point fingers at the tricky driving. Now, Mafia’s serious storyline would not be a good fit for the antics of the Keystone Kops so the game flat out refuses to tolerate GTA-style larking about. Speeding, crashing into other cars, jumping the lights or hitting pedestrians will all get the police's attention. This makes for an entirely different driving challenge and it's interesting... at first. The problem is this thin driving “mini-game” acts as a tedious bridge between each shooter vignette. You long to hurtle down the roads of Lost Heaven just to get to the next mission but no: the game impels you to drive conservatively again and again and again.
And sadly the shooter parts are also underwhelming – there is nothing special worth a recommendation. Even the climactic shoot-out was a couple of hours of groaning because it required tight skills that, frankly, I hadn’t developed over the course of the game. Sudden deaths were frequent and Mafia's reliance on checkpointing was almost enough to send me to YouTube for the closing sequence. You win through learning the level’s script like the boss moves of a pot boiler console shooter, instead of rolling with the blows through instinct.
I’m not saying Mafia is a complete bore but, at this point, you should be wondering why I didn’t just uninstall and move on. This ain't no Cart Life, right?
Rhianna Pratchett, This Is Your Example
You have to bear in mind that when gamers say "the story is great" what they're actually saying is "the story is great for a game". Mafia's story is a straight-to-DVD release that plots strictly by the numbers. It's definitely several notches above similar fodder, but turn it into a movie and it's not going to be memorable. (As for a game story which could win accolades, well... I think Planescape: Torment is rich, complex and presses some interesting emotional buttons; that shit is tight, as they say in Hollywood.)
Mafia’s revelation, however, is that it is one of the few modern games that champion the cutscene. I admit it: I kept playing this game for the cutscenes. I've become so immune to them over the years that few remain in memory after a game fades away. I remember everything in Thief, that Andrew Ryan moment in Bioshock and the short, unsettling S.T.A.L.K.E.R. WTF flashbacks.
The formulaic structure of the modern cutscene – fast story dump, return control to player ASAP before Raph Koster gets all steamed up – has led to them being condemned as cheap story writing. But by being so self-conscious and apologetic about in-game cutscenes, developers end up proving the right-wing cutscene-sceptics' case. In the IGDA talk I attended last year, only Rhianna Pratchett stuck up for them, saying that players didn’t hate cutscenes but bad cutscenes.
Okay, so I haven’t engaged recent releases like Uncharted, Mass Effect or Heavy Rain so I dare say I'm missing out on some prime rib cutscene. But Mafia sticks out in my mind for caring more about small scale character development than crazy SPLOSIONS or mission briefings.
Take a look at this. Aside from some dodgy editing - it sounds like the voice actors were recorded separately and spliced together - this is solid viewing.
Of course there are plenty of mistakes.
The highlight is a ridiculous storyline where the don expects you, a new Mafia foot soldier, to fill in for a top racing driver and… win. This fits poorly with the other measured storylines that make up the body of the story. Another example is the handling of the climactic mission where the notorious head of the rival Morello family goes down: something is missing here and taking out the rival don is as satisfying as a Christmas cracker without the crack.
Although when one mission ended up as a complete massacre – the shooter signature of mowing down hordes of bad guys raising its head – this was treated like a major event and the story took you out of action for a few months due to the trouble it stirred up. It was unfortunate to discover that future missions also resulting in high body counts weren’t revered in the same way. One step forward, two steps back.
In the video above, Mafia stresses the importance of companionship and there’s even a sex scene with Sarah, the protagonist's wife-to-be, preceding this (I always find in-game sex scenes slightly uncomfortable to watch, the uncanny tool entering the uncanny valley and all that). However, once they’ve done the business, Sarah never appears again. Neither does his daughter who goes unnamed. These omissions seem strange, as if certain cutscenes were excised, but the end result is a story where women and children are treated like crutches to service the plots of men.
Nonetheless, it’s a testament to its execution that Mafia’s final powerful cutscene moved me – moved me despite being spoiled of its content in advance.
Don't Cut The Cutscenes
So while I found myself increasingly distanced by the gameplay, I persevered just to watch cutscene after cutscene. I enjoyed something more sedate and introspective than something that’s supposed to get my blood boiling to shoot people in the head.
I miss cutscenes of Mafia's ilk that are set in a low-octane everyday world. A couple of people just having a chat, maybe someone clearing up their backyard, I’d like to see more of that. Writers are currently fleeing from the galaxy of the expositional into the seductive arms of nuanced environmental narrative; this is fine, but that doesn't mean we have to view cutscenes as the automatic enemy of story in every single game forever and ever and ever.
Go see the don of cutscenes, he’ll set you right.
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