Sam, Tommy, The Don, Paulie

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?

Car driving through countryside road

Rhianna Pratchett, This Is Your Example

I was told the story was great.

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.

Tommy looks concerned

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28 thoughts on “The Don of Cutscenes

  1. Mass Effect gets the cutscenes right. Mass Effect 2 gets the cutscenes and the gameplay right. I played both recently and was thoroughly impressed. I really *cared* about these characters. Every interaction was a joy.

  2. I’m looking forward to them – I bought them ages ago, in a sale far, far away. But I wonder if I do play them whether the internet has left me anything to write about.

  3. You’ll like them, I think – especially since you like Babylon 5, and there’s a definite B5 influence there. And I know I’d appreciate your perspective.

  4. Rhianna nailed the point – cutscenes are not inherently evil. It’s just that no one does them right. Kind of like streamlining RPGs. In theory, it should make for a more smooth and rich experience, but it just makes things awkward.

    Although Mafia-like cutscenes (e.g. the ones focusing on the everyman aspect) would be nice, I’m not as demanding as you. I’ll settle for clever writing and good pacing. Just don’t treat me like a little kid, and don’t put cutscenes in the middle of a gunfight. It’s unsavory.

    On a side note: Mafia’s driving problem is a common cold compared to that of Mafia 2. That one just went over the line.

  5. Joel, this is your gamer’s conscience. You need to play Mass Effect. Seriously, this is getting embarrassing. Next time you have a chance to sit down and play something, just install the game and go; you won’t regret it, and I seriously cannot take another month of sharing your head with some squidfaced alien and a bunch of eight-bit Marvel characters–not without some Asari to keep me company. Sheesh.

    Heheh…”uncanny tool.” Remind me to high-five your imagination for that one.

  6. Well said. I agree that there’s still a place for cut-scenes in modern games, and I think you nailed it when you mentioned the problem of games writers shying away from proper exposition. I think the typical game narrative is so insecure about losing the attention of its audience that it never really grabs it in the first place and renders itself an inconsequential piece of the experience.

    Are you going to try to work Cart Life into every post this year? That’s a resolution I could get behind.

  7. @Ketchua – Yeah totally agree. I just wanted to focus here on the something that seems so “wrong” – long, quiet cutscenes that don’t advance gameplay – yet prove that cutscenes have a place. I’d heard that Mafia II seemed to somehow make things worse…

    @Veret – How did I know you were going to appear at the merest hint of Mass Effect? Incidentally, this should have been about Mass Effect. I tried installing it in August last year and there was a problem with DRM authentication: I was in a bad mood and switched to Mafia instead of toughing it out.

    @AlexP: Going back to the Thief example, one of the terrible things about the last Thief, Deadly Shadows, is that they replaced the mission briefing collages with a pageful of text. My heart sank when I discovered this. I absolutely adored those cutscenes which really amped up the anticipation and, sometimes, anxiety.

    Not sure if Cart Life is going to be mentioned every week this year but I will surely try.

  8. Heh, I’m just predictable like that. If you say “Neptune’s Pride” three times out loud, I’ll materialize right in your living room.

    As for the actual content of this piece (which I was going to mention earlier but it would have been out of character), I agree, as usual. I think cutscenes were the go-to method of exposition for so long that writers picked up some bad habits and games started using cutscenes when they absolutely shouldn’t; this gave the whole idea a bad image, and everybody jumped ship to environmental narrative, dialog wheels, Half-Life’s non-cutscenes, etc. And for good reason: Most of these options are better, most of the time. But some games have forgotten that there is a right way and a right time to do cutscenes, and that just means there’s one less narrative option on the table. Pity.

    Oh, but that video you showed was painful. Good cutscenes need good production values; I’m sorry.

  9. Actually, I was thinking about that as I posted, and I probably should have made it clearer that I wasn’t criticizing your choice of cutscenes, just the general badness of most production from that era. Obviously the graphics are going to look 2002 no matter what, but so many studios were still hanging on to the idea that you could just get some of your less-busy programmers to double as cinematographers, sound engineers, voice cast, etc. Lest anyone think I’m joking…

    About the only exception I can think of off the top of my head is the original Halo (2001). Sure, the character models are all comically low-res, but they hired actual professionals to voice the characters and compose an original soundtrack, and it makes a world of difference.

    At least, I think it does. Maybe that’s the nostalgia talking. I dunno, what would you hold up as the best/worst cutscenes of the era?

  10. In 2002, we also have GTA III and Vice City. There’s also NOLF 2. These have pretty interesting cutscene work.

    But the exchange between Frank and Tommy in the video is well done: these are professionals. The problem is in the editing – there’s too much pausing between the two characters, which leads me to think they weren’t acting off one another and all those pauses come from the editing room.

    You’re always going to see something wrong with the motions and graphics in 2002 but, aside from the pacing, I think the voice work in Mafia is pretty good.

  11. Cutscenes are not bad rewards. They are not the best rewards, and they’re often not even used as such, but they have their place. Metal Gear Solid 2 becomes much more enjoyable when you realize that the game has built-in snack breaks. Meal breaks, even. Just nothing too crunchy so you can enjoy the ludicrous dialogue.

  12. Thanks Beam. I am still waiting for someone to pipe up and say “in the future, there will be no cutscenes” which, you know, is a plausible position to take. I’m not convinced the cutscene will live forever.

  13. Hi Luis and welcome!

    This is an excellent point. Mafia is not an FPS! It’s a TPS! Good lord, I can’t believe I didn’t notice that through the zillions of edits. I need to hire an editor.

    I’ll revise this tonight so I refer to it as a third-person shooter. Thanks for pointing that out. Catch me later, I’ll buy you a beer!

  14. You seemed so sure all the time that I even did research before calling it out. ^^

    I think narrative, not really plot, but the whole background-theming-atmosphere element, is important and can make not only for better experiences but actually better games. But it’s not that simple to make this happen, having a good story is a start yes, but still not enough, because the techniques to blend the symbiosis together aren’t well developed yet.

    Very few games actually nail it right.

  15. Ah right, that’s all the FPS references fixed. Now I should probably delete Luis’ comments so the whole mistake is erased from history…

    Luis, you’re right of course, it’s a tricky thing to pull off. You can have all the right ingredients but after putting them together to make a magical story cake, but somehow what comes out of the oven is not what you expected.

    It’s one of the reasons I think cutscenes might eventually vanish altogether. They’re not that easy to get right and are clunky in many instances. Perhaps when some of the environmental narrative techniques become better developed the need for cutscenes will eventually disappear. I don’t know. Maybe we’ll always like something that has the feel of an interactive blockbuster movie.

  16. Hey HM,

    Isn’t “vanish altogether” maybe a bit to harsh of a measure? I’m not a huge fan of cutscenes, specially in-between important gameplay, but probably enjoy most intro and ending scenes. Maybe we’re looking for less intrusive and more seamless cutscene transitions, if there’s justifiable need for them in the first place.

  17. Luis, I don’t know. I’m thinking longer timescales, say fifty years. How will games be structured then? If games are more responsive to player activity, will we need cutscenes in the same way if they can integrate themselves so well into the game environment?

    You can get cutscenes with some 2D puzzle games where it’s not possible to integrate plot into the workings of the game. But I wonder if colouring a puzzle game with a plot is actually that successful a thing, anyway.

  18. Fifteen years, you’re right, probably smart built-in directors, manipulating the gameplay events, looking for the perfect opportunity to funnel the events towards the desired outcome, until they can blend the planned scene into real-time gameplay.

    If the results will actually pleasing it depends on implementation and developers bias. Current games already have rubber banding, aim assists and bullet funnels, so it’s probably a tendency anyway. As a player I don’t really like any of those systems in any current implementation…

  19. It depends on what “interactive movie” means. FMV games were called as such. So were games like the Resident Evil series. The developers of Outcast said they wanted their game to feel like a movie. And now games like Call of Duty are both praised and criticized for their Michael Bay tendencies.

    Mass Effect felt more like a TV series, though.

  20. I don’t mean interactive movie in the derogatory sense, like er Metal Gear Solid, more of the feel of playing a blockbuster movie which often seems to require cutscenes.

    Half-Life 2 had a movie-like quality for me, though, and that survived without cutscenes.

  21. A lovely read that reminded me just how silly those iron laws of gaming everyone seems to be proposing can be. It does seem the Koster-esque schools of thought have been presented with a list of what games should be by a most powerful being. Hopefully they’ll soon enlighten us by revealing what literature, poetry, film and painting should be and ofrever ban the cut-scene.

  22. Hello gnome! I’m going to wade into that ludology/narratology thing sometime in the next couple of months.

    I was discussing it with Doug Wilson on Twitter and dropped in Raph Koster’s “narrative is feedback” article into the mix and next thing I knew we had a moderately-heated discussion with Raph himself. Ed Key, George Buckenham (@v21) and Michael Brough (@smestorp) piled in at various points too, and Michael wrote about it on his blog over here.

    If I remember correctly Ricky Haggett of Honeyslug (@kommanderklobb) was amused at the whole thing. All these people getting over-excited over theory.

  23. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the necessity of theory, but not a theory that’s removed from daily praxis; not a theory that ignores its dialectical relationship with reality. I’m afraid, though, that this is exactly what quite a few game theorists do. They remind me of the early 19th century idealists. So blind, so fascinated with delicate, clear, yet non-existent concepts.

    BTW, Michael’s blog was very interesting and I can’t really wait for you to write more on the subject. Hopefully, I’ll have the time to properly contribute to the discourse…

  24. I’m still aggregating information at the moment. I’m doing my usual thing of “oh I’ll just write about that, sounds easy” which soon turns to anxiety over whether I know enough to write about it and finally ends up with ridiculous amounts of research for what might be just 1,000 words.

    You do seem pretty busy recently gnome – hope everything is well?

  25. I’d dare say that everything is more or less well dear HM. It’s that I’m actually incredibly busy building sites, publishing books, translating stuff and a ton of other stuff, that I hope will save me from starvation. It’s a set of cunning plans 🙂

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