I Am The Mob: Mafia II, Subjectivity And Story

By Kieron Gillen on September 29th, 2010 at 6:02 pm.

I wasn’t really following the Mafia II is-it-good-or-nob controversy, for the simple reason that I thought it was probably a little bit nob. When the initial reviews came in, there was a clear division between people who thought it was a bit of a disappointment and people who thought it was supa-dupa-fly. To be honest, I presumed that the people who liked it were presumably just not very bright and had fell into the AAA-game + pretty + a bit of hype = 9/10 trap, because I can be just as judgemental as any reader when I put my mind to it. Quinns didn’t like it much. John felt similarly. Both particularly singled out the narrative for eye-rolling, with Walker noting it “should be damned is for its banal story” and despite the perhaps-best-ever acting “the lines they’re delivering, however, are blabber.”

So, no, none of this exactly put it on my To Play list.

Then a couple of things turned up in my RSS churn. You had people like The Escapist’s Russ Pitts saying things like… oh, I have to quote this one in full:

Mafia II is rich with the kinds of attributes that we rarely see in entertainment anymore, and which may be unfamiliar to modern audiences. It has a meaningful story, well-paced plot, mood, a living setting and carefully crafted performances from artists, actors, writers and directors. It is, in other words, the evolution of the art of storytelling. It is to videogames what Hamlet was to theater, an introspective tale of the burden of human existence wrapped in a layer of easily-digestible entertainment. And just as Shakespeare’s play transcended the medium of theater to now be considered art, so too, I would argue, has the work of Daniel Vavra and the rest of the team at 2K Czech.

At a similar time, one of my favourite game bloggers Bill Harris wrote

Here’s the first thing you need to know about Mafia II: Daniel Vávra is the best writer in gaming today. Period. He’s sitting in a room, and no one else belongs in that room. No one else is even knocking on the door.

Even though Bill went back a little on that as he finished it, neither of these are stupid men. But neither are Quinns and John. That basically smart cookies could disagree that vehemently made me want to get to get to the truth of the matter. This was something I had to have an opinion on. I installed Mafia II.

By the time I’d finished it, I could see where people were coming from. It’s a story about a low-level made-man who never really rises about his original station. He starts as a man lifting boxes and that’s how he remains. He sells everything he has and can’t hold onto anything. What his friends do to their friends, he ends up doing to his own. The acting really is incredible for a game – though it’s somewhat lucky that there’s so few female characters considering how glassy eyed and sub-quality their models are to the men’s. The lines themselves… well, there’s a laconic, fairly grounded approach to it, which I can see fans of a certain strain of crime-writers going for. My actual problem is the flip of Walker’s – it’s not profane enough. For example, how the writing steps around the worst of the racial epithets seems almost quaint to anyone who’s read any Ellroy. There’s characters I liked and ones I thought were enormously heavy-handed, and the beats loomed so obviously that you may have well called a character Master Tragic-Death-Kid. Oh – and I’ve got a theory that Vito’s actually gay, because he shows so little interest in the women he’s presented. He backs away when they hit on him, he avoids touching them, he pretty much lurks at the sidelines at the strip joint, he doesn’t end up with a girlfriend let alone a wife and only seems to care about his male friends. Bar that, I sat between everyone. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it. I thought narratively-speaking it was okay, and so a couple of notches higher than most games.

How could John and Quinns hate it this much and Russ and Bill like it so much? It doesn’t seem possible. It’s almost as if it’s subjective or something.

Yeah, this is stating the obvious time. Obviously our preferences in such things are pretty subjective. However – and this is the key thing here – we understand narrative as being a more subjective experience. It’s just more culturally accepted. There’s always a few 1/10 reviews on metacritic even for the most popular films. Yeah, it can be an accepted classic, but you can hate it and that’s fine. And while spend a lot of time saying that’s also true in games, the evidence is against it. Review scores are relatively tightly bunched and those who head away from the metacritic average are barracked with that fact in a way which doesn’t happen nearly as virulently for film or music reviewer. Unless you’re dealing with dense Placebo fans or something, in which case you were probably baiting them. I certainly was.

Anyway: many reviewers take pride in their ability to be objective – to step back and rate a game objectively in terms of standard, accepted genre feature sets and all that. This is what the market expects? Then this is the mark you get. Story isn’t easy to mark like that. And when a game has so much story in, it can’t help ending up influencing the game’s score. I’m suggesting a major element in why Mafia II has got this review spread is because it weighs so heavily on the story aspect. And since our response to story aspects is more “naturally” subjective than our response to the mechanic aspects, it creates a modifier on even the most straight-laced of games-journos. Did you like the story? +1-20% to the score. Did you hate it? -1-20%.

It also affects the mechanics. One of Story’s purpose in games – I’d argue the main purpose – is providing meaning to otherwise meaningless actions. In Mafia II’s case, it tries to basically put you in the shoes of Vito. As such, you do a lot of driving about to get to wherever you want to go. If you’ve imprinted on the character and story, this drive across town becomes meaningful as you’re worried about the destination you’re going to and what you may find there. If you don’t care about the story, the journey is meaningless padding. The bad stuff gets worse if you hate the story.

You can see other aspects of this recently. Take the furore over the Abbie Heppe’s review of Metroid: Other M, where – as well as taking apart the actual mechanics – she was particularly critical on the frankly somewhat sexist rebooting of the Metroid Fiction, with robo-fighter Samus basically spending her time obeying men and simpering. Clearly, the misogynist brigade had a field day, but the real point was whether how much you can let your subjective disdain of one small part of the game effect your review of the whole thing. The problem being, as I explained earlier, the way a game is narratively framed affects your enjoyment of even the most mechanistic-based tasks. If you don’t like it, it doesn’t go away. It’s always there, affecting it. To choose a purely hypothetical example, if Tetris was released and every time you made a game it showed an animation of someone being lynched, it would totally change how much people would enjoy it. If it is part of the game, and affects how you feel about it, it has to influence your final verdict.

If I’m right on this, there’s a few subtle implications…

1) A game with weighs more heavily on narrative is probably going to score lower than a game that weighs more heavily on mechanics. If a game would score 9/10 normally, and it’s being reviewed leaning “objective”, then most of the scores are going to come in at 9/10. If a game is being reviewed leaning “subjective” due to narrative content, the scores are going to come in a little higher and a lot lower, leaning to a lower average. In other words, if you care about your metacritic score, a heavy narrative leaning is just giving critics a weapon they’re going to hit you with.

2) This appears to be only true in games where the narrative could be an appeal. There’s as much narrative screens to painfully click through in Mario or Zelda, but since the stories have always been shit, to mark the game down on it would be unthinkable. I find myself thinking about Edge being particularly hard on Bioshock for having its currency in dollars when Ryan seemed to hate America, which – even without engaging with it missing Bioshock’s historical position regarding the New Deal – struck me as somewhat unfair in a world where they’d never question Zelda’s use of the Rupee when there’s no real influence of the Indian Subcontinent in Link’s adventures. However, the more games are criticised for their stories, the less this may become true. There’s no reason why a family narrative can’t be brilliant, as anyone who’s gone to see a Pixar film will testify.

3) If we start seeing more subjective review scores due to the influence of narrative, I wonder whether it’ll actually be the thin end of the wedge. Once we start accepting that game reviews may be actually-no-really subjective in one area and being rated accordingly, it’s natural for it to spread into the other aspects. And rightly so. We all know that we hate games which a good chunk of people love. That doesn’t mean that those voices don’t get to be edited out of existence in mainstream reviews. I’ve said before, but as game reviewing matures, the reviews are only going to get more unreliable, not less. Because the accepting of unreliable (i.e. not one which you agree with totally) reviews by an audience is the sign of a mature audience dealing with a mature creative form, leading to the searching for writers who are most like you and speak to your concerns, rather than blankly trying to force everyone doing the reviewing thing to serve one bland monoculture.

We are all different. We all like different things. And maybe Mafia II’s review response is a small step to getting the gaming world not to just say it – but to actually believe it.

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121 Comments »

  1. Novotny says:

    I had no idea people thought it was nob

  2. AtomicB says:

    I agree completely, apart from the tetris bit. I’d still enjoy it just as much. Though of course I take your point on that one too.

  3. Bowl of Snakes says:

    While maybe not as much of a ‘score focus’, movie guys get shit for going against the critical grain just as much. Hell, you have folks constantly petitioning Rotten Tomatoes to completely remove Armond White.

    • KillahMate says:

      While I agree with you in principle, it’s important to note that Armond White is a troll. People want him removed because… well, why would you want to keep a troll around? (The answer, of course, is page hits, which is why he’s doing great, and trolls prospering gets under a lot of people’s skin.)

    • battles_atlas says:

      I know nothing about Armond, other than that list you link to. It says he hates Gran Torino, which makes him a worthy human being surely? The fact that that film makes it into the IMDB Top 250 is the single most embarrassing thing about being a human.

      Regarding Keiron’s peice: yeah, I said this the other day. Wasn’t anyone listening?

      Its surely time now for all games mags to drop the % score system. It implies an objective accuracy that any grown up entertainment genre/art form can’t possibly support.

  4. Unaco says:

    “It is to videogames what Hamlet was to theater”… Does Russ Pitts drink a lot? I get the point of the article… that what one man loves another can hate. But, seriously… Hamlet? Come on. And I suppose West and Zampella taking Activision to court is like the barons forcing the Magna Carta onto King John… Derek Smarts words are like those of Lao Tzu… and realistic breast physics is like discovering fire, pasteurisation and electro-magnetism all at once.

    • John says:

      Firstly, Pitts didn’t say Mafia 2 and Hamlet are equal in quality, just that they achieved the same things.

      But even if he does think they’re equal in quality, so what? Hamlet is a story written by some dude. That’s all. It’s not a holy work written by the hand of god himself as generations of high school English teachers have often tried to suggest. It’s a historical accident that most of western society worships Shakespeare, instead of innumerable other writers of equal or greater talent. No one’s disputing Shakespeare was quite good, and important, but he’s not the Don Bradman of English literature (i.e. measurably just plain better). He’s just a dude who wrote some stories.

    • JackShandy says:

      Yes, but to say Mafia 2 achieves the same things hamlet did is to suggest that this game could eventually be taught in highschool and described as some of the best writing of all time, ages and ages after it was made. That’s what hamlet has achieved: I find it hard to credit the idea that mafia 2 could do the same.

    • Komus says:

      Unaco you nearly made me spill my coffee…

  5. Chris Remo says:

    Unfortunately I think it’s less true these days that the objectivity-enforcing mentality is not as prevalent outside of games. It’s definitely baked into gaming’s critical apparatus to a much greater degree, but with the emergence of sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, which aggregate scores for nearly all major mass media entertainment, you can see it everywhere.

    Just look at any time Armond White reviews any film, for example. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the man about anything, the sheer volume of bile and hatred directed at his reviews–which tend to be one of very few low-scored flies in the Rotten Tomatoes ointment–is really frightening. Most baffling (to me), this reaction tends to be most common when it comes to big, successful blockbuster films–as if those movies really need yet ANOTHER person convincing people to go see them, on top of their astronomical marketing budgets and near-total media penetration.

    I think the distinction for games is that so many games fall into that category. This kind of online review war rarely happens with low-key dramatic or experimental works, regardless of medium, because they have a lot less money invested in creating big armies of dedicated fans–it’s just that hardly any games are that, and the ones that are tend to be smaller indie affairs.

    Film and music and literature are full of those kinds of experiences that span the budgetary spectrum, and it seems to be more expected (as you indicate) that those kinds of works inspire a broader range of personal reactions. But the more high-action and explodey you get, the more of the work is dependent on craftsmanship, which can be evaluated more objectively, and I think that for many people, that “craft” aspect can really overpower whatever the other part of the equation is, be it artistry or whatever else you want to call it.

    I feel like what’s really needed for games to start moving the needle more towards where other creative forms are, it’s going to be incumbent on game creators to actually make experiences within the “big successful gamer’s game” sphere that span a wider spectrum. I don’t see gamers themselves expecting anything any different without that happening.

  6. Linfosoma says:

    I found your theory about Vito’s sexuallity quite interesting, being gay I never really picked it up (I was often distracted by Vito’s friend though, but that was just me).

    Im on the “dislike” group when it comes to Mafia II, love the engine and the attention to detail, but the mission design was often incredibly annoying.
    I also found it very hard to care for Vito, perhaps because he didnt seem to care for anyone but himself (expept that one part where he does care about an “old friend”, which never particullary made sence to me).

    • Berto says:

      I think your not supposed to care for him. He’s a selfish son of a bitch that only cares for money and life style. The scene with Tommy was very clear, he’s not a nice guy, he’s a killer.

  7. Kyle says:

    I think I would probably play lynch-tetris. Y’know, “to be a part of the discussion.”

  8. skinlo says:

    I don’t like Tetris, so watching someone getting lynched wouldn’t affect me at all probably.

  9. Giant, fussy whingebag says:

    Do the Mass Effect games have wide spreads of scores on metacritic? What about Planescape: Torment? Or most of the other Bioware games?

    They’re pretty heavy hitters, story-wise, and so fall into your ‘subjective-leaning’ category. Or are they gaming’s equivalents of The Wire; nigh-universally accepted examples of excellent story telling?

    • Jockie says:

      PS:T didn’t get amazing reviews on release, read Kierons retrospective (he posted it again a couple of days ago on RPS) where he mentions how initially it was quite divisive.

    • Wooly says:

      I didn’t like The Wire…

    • Wulf says:

      Not that Planescape: Torment was Bioware’s doing, or anything. I personally find Bioware’s writing incredibly dull compared to some of the better offerings out there. The only one of their games that caught my eye was Mass Effect 2, and that was primarily because of unexpected curveballs like Mordin’s ethical dilemma and Legion (just Legion). If nothing else though, ME2 shows that they are learning how to tell a good story, and I think that if they can break away from crowd-pleasing, populism, and fan service enough then one day they might tell a story so great that I would have to hail it as one of the best of the medium.

      However, I find that most of their back catalogue before Mass Effect 2 was pretty trite, especially Dragon Age: Origins which I felt was absolutely dire from a plot/character development standpoint, very shallow indeed, had the depth of a puddle after a light rain, that one did. It was stiff as a board too, almost terrified to challenge those who played it, it tried to be as normal as possible in every conceivable way. I wasn’t disgusted by it by any measure of the imagination, mind you, it was a competent game barring some AI problems, but I was put to sleep by it every time a story event occurred, I snored through cutscenes, and any of the party opening their mouths was a better depressant than counting sheep. The combat scenes were a sharp relief, truth be told, and this is from someone who’s usually turned off by such mindless violence, craving the moment where it ends and people start talking again. So that was an eye opener for me.

      Anyway, have to run. I’m about to prove Chris Remo’s post true as about a hundred hacked and homicidal Bioware fans are preparing their torches and pitchforks (failing that, getting ready to mail me anthrax should they discover my real world identity). :p

    • Giant, fussy whingebag says:

      Yeah, when I read my post after posting I realised how ambiguous a lot of what I said was. I’m lazy, so I didn’t elaborate.

      So, my point was regarding lasting acclaim. I should have just picked Mass Effect 2 (out of the Bioware lot) and Torment as my examples. Obviously it is too early to say for sure whether people will still think ME2 is good 5-10 years from now, but I would happily bet on it.

      Now, with regards to my comparisons to The Wire. I was purely talking about the numbers. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t like it, most people who watched it did; if you look on IMDB, 85% of people who rated it gave it 10/10. (For reference, the top 3 films on IMDB only have 45-60% 10/10s).

      Metacritic unfortunately doesn’t put out such detailed stats (without having to work for it, at least), but my original point was suggesting these games may have a similar sort of spread as of now, rather than on release. Of course, if Kieron’s right, maybe their stories aren’t as important as they seem.

  10. Freud says:

    I liked the storytelling more than the story in Mafia II.

    Some of the clichés were so old that rigor mortis had set in. A young, very enthusiastic innocent happy wannabe mob guy ending up joining us for a mission. I do wonder if he is going to make it out alive. Throwing in an informant for no obvious reason than a mafia game having to have one. And the story skips large chunks of what I only can assumed lost narrative, that would make it more believable. It would be interesting to hear from Daniel Vavra about what was cut from the game.

    I like that we play somewhat of a sociopath without a big plan. He takes orders and never really gets ahead all that much. That is an unusual way to go.

    • Jimbo says:

      You’re right there. Even if Daniel Vavra is as good as they say, I still got the impression that significant chunks of his work were left on the cutting room floor. The quality is evident in what remains, but the whole has suffered to the point where it really doesn’t come to much. It’s still enough to put it into the ‘good for a game’ category, but – unlike Mafia 1 – I feel it does require the dreaded ‘for a game’ caveat.

      A great writer can just be a great writer, but a great games writer can only ever be as good as the studio around him allows him to be.

  11. noobnob says:

    “…if Tetris was released and every time you made a game it showed an animation of someone being lynched…”

    Well, if I get to choose who gets lynched, I’d buy 10 copies.

    This was a good read though. Me guess this is why some people just discard the story even in games where the story is an essential part of the game’s pace. After all these gaming years, you just realize how awfully difficult it is to convince gamers to immerse themselves into the world, the story the developers created for them. If the game depends heavily on the story and there’s one or two things that the gamer doesn’t like, the whole thing is ruined.

    Because of this, we get more and more gamers caring less about the story someone made and focus more on the game’s mechanics and their own exploits in virtual worlds, be it online or offline, and narrate them in a variety of media for the whole internet. Why follow someone else’s narrative when you can make your OWN? I am itching to say “MINECRAFT MINECRAFT MINECRAFT” here, but MMOs are a good example of how gamers end up creating interesting stories for other gamers. Damned EVE Online…

    I know it sounds like I’m deviating too much from Kieron’s point in his article, but in the end, reviewers are also gamers, and this is affecting them. You’ll find out that many of them prioritize the analysis of graphics, controls, sounds and whatever other technical aspect over the story.

  12. Justin Keverne says:

    Subjectivity exists very clearly in games that are not as focused around a clearly defined narrative. Take the range of opinions surrounding Far Cry 2 for example. A number of the systems in that game have been designed to evoke an emotional reaction, even if the narrative layer covering those systems is very thin. The entire thematic conceit of that game relies on players feel like the environment is hostile, that their buddies are not particularly pleasant people and that in the end they themselves are basically complete assholes. However in order to achieve those thematic goals the game systems had to be designed in a way that, to an observer striving to compare it to other similar titles within its genre, makes Far Cry 2 appears fundamentally broken.

    It’s not a focus on narrative that provokes a subjective response so much as it’s a focus on attempting to evoke an emotional response; which can be done purely through game systems. Consider the reaction to “art” games like Passage or The Marriage the very fact they are trying to evoke and emotional reaction leads to a highly subjective range of responses.

    • Fraser says:

      Justin: I think you and Kieron (and I) agree, but you’re interpreting “narrative” differently. Narrative is not just the dialogue and plot, but also what’s expressed in the game mechanics and rules. The polarising game systems in Far Cry 2 are part of its narrative, and the workings of Passage and The Marriage are their entire narratives.

      A player’s interpretation will also be affected by how they interpret the mechanics as a story. Those who love Far Cry 2 are the Quinns and Chris Remos of the world: people who enjoy suffering a hilarious, unpredictable disaster two hours into their game, because they process the whole experience as an ongoing story rather than focusing solely on the immediate situation.

      Undoubtedly it’s a far more common trait among writers than the rest of the population. I don’t have that quality; I get too frustrated by impediments to my progress in a game, even if it makes a good yarn. I wish I did, though.

  13. Danington says:

    I don’t know, Mass Effect was kind of in ‘ above average episode of Star Trek’ territory I thought. Then again I got bored after season 2 of The Wire so am perhaps proving the original point here.

    • Kadayi says:

      Personally as big an advocate of the Wire as I am I’d say the first 2 seasons were stand out Vs the rest. 3 & 4 were good, but 5 was pretty turgid. Still tonnes better than most of the dross that was washing up on the TV shores at the time though.

    • Cheroke Jack says:

      You’re nuts, season 4 was the show’s absolute peak, 3 was pretty excellent too, and 5 wasn’t anywhere near the downward slide contrarian types make it out to be. (I think… I might have to watch it again though, this point of view seems more common since the show’s end).

      Also I really, really hate whoever brought Mass Effect 2 into this, thus turning what could have been an interesting discussion of Kieron’s point into the umpzillienth “Did you love/despisewiththefireofathousandssuns” ME2 debate the internet so desperately needed.

  14. Adam says:

    I thought Mass Effect 2′s plot was rubbish. I really enjoyed the first, but spending 90% of the second building this team that seems to contain so few specialists (and so many of whom are redundant) only to cap it off with a fight against a giant metal skeleton has permanently soured my interest in the franchise.

    This is a 100% subjective response to the story; all my friends loved it to death. I hated the story so much that all other merits of the game (and I admit there are many) were overshadowed. If I had been a reviewer giving the game a score, it would have gotten a 5/10 from me and a scathing write-up.

    So I’d say the subjective-leaning theory holds, but may be skewed by the sampling of data.

  15. Jack says:

    A lot of people hate/dislike/are indifferent to Planescape: Torment, while a lot of other people declare it to be the best game ever. The difference here, though, is that most of PT’s fans feel like they can safely assume that the haters are a bit thick, and just didn’t get it. Having one intelligent person say that a game is just another macho bullocksfest and another, seemingly equally intelligent guy say it’s a modern-day hamlet is- well, odd. I’m almost convinced to check out the game, now.

    Not even The Wire is universally accepted.

  16. Sagan says:

    It’s nice to see this evolution so active in process. Had Mafia II been released a couple of years ago, it would have probably received not a single review under a 7/10, simply because it’s the sequel to a much-beloved title.
    Or a better example would be to compare Metal Gear Solid 4 to Metroid: Other M. Both are games that could have been good, which were ruined by their story. But two years ago nobody was even allowed to say anything negative about Metal Gear Solid 4. I think had it been released now, you would have at least one 4/10 among the reviews, simply because the reviewer fell asleep during one of the god-awful cutscenes.

    And yes, we need more reviewers who disagree with the mainstream opinion. For even the most popular games there are a lot of players who simply don’t like it. Why are there no reviewers who dislike, say Left 4 Dead 2? As someone who didn’t like the first Left 4 Dead all that much, there were simply no reviews which told me whether I would like the second one. I expect that I also won’t like it, but I don’t know from the reviews because they are written by people who loved the first one.

    • Kadayi says:

      A reviewer friend of mine once said that half of reviews is about delivering on audiences expectations, more than reviewing the title. It’s rare if ever that a review of an existing franchise seriously bucks the trend. Even today I doubt MGS4 would of received anything other than utter adoration reviews wise simply because the existing fan base have such high expectations of it, and it’s such a high profile franchise (Metroid isn’t quite up there in my view).

      Consider Rockstar. GTA IV received absurdly high scores across the breadth of the reviewer range, but in reality I think most people would admit that it’s really not that great a title when you get down to it (a lot of people I know never bothered finishing it). Certainly a great sandbox world, but one lumbered with a dismal schizophrenic storyline, lazy criminal clichés, often idiotic and impotent dialogue and a desperately tired (dead horse flogged) approach to parody. However the public expectation (coupled with a small fortune spent on marketing) really meant that GTA IV could never be seen as anything less than a 9/10 game at the end of the day.

    • FunkyBadger says:

      GTAIV’s easily one of the best games of the last 5 years though.

    • Kadayi says:

      @FunkyBadger

      Care to elaborate why you think so?

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      “A reviewer friend of mine once said that half of reviews is about delivering on audiences expectations, more than reviewing the title.”

      Your friend’s a shit reviewer.

      KG

    • Kadayi says:

      @KG

      I’m not saying that was necessarily their approach, but more their explanation of game reviews culture operates at times. When there’s a big enough audience expectation on a title it’s unlikely that the game is going to suffer a bad review (especially if it’s heavily endorsed by a publisher and/or the developers has a strong production legacy). Consider Doom 3: -

      http://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/doom-3/critic-reviews

      Pretty much all the mainstream games press hailed it as outstanding (though crucially just below Half life 2, a genuinely great game) . Yet in all honestly was it really that great a gaming experience? Impressive tech for sure (at the time), but the truth is the game was pretty forgettable, and if its legacy is anything it’s the game that cemented the idea in peoples heads that ID make great tech, but lousy games. So why the hyperbolic emperors new clothes reviews across the board? (Crucially, it’s noted that EDGE, the anonymous court jester of mainstream games reviews actually gave it the 7/10 it thoroughly deserved).

      Starcraft 2 93% metacritic average. For a title that is effectively a polished up version of the original? One that ignores every innovation that other developers have come up with since? …….

  17. Nova says:

    A bit off-topic, but I was under the impression that Rand loved America, at least more than any other country…?

    • Jack says:

      “No, says the man in Washington, it belongs to the poor!” Accompanied by a picture of an eagle savaging an innocent citizen.

    • Hidden_7 says:

      She did until Roosevelt made it all socialist and such!

      Basically the New Deal soured Rand and Ryan’s view of the American Dream.

    • Consumatopia says:

      I’m no Rand scholar and disagree with her about almost everything, but I’m pretty sure that Rand was pro-dollar.

      Atlas Shrugged had people smoking dollar-sign cigarettes and her utopia was built around a huge golden dollar sign on a pillar. She said of her use the dollar sign in the novel:

      “It is the symbol, clearly explained in [Atlas Shrugged], of free trade and, therefore, of a free mind. A free mind and a free economy are corollaries. One can’t exist without the other. The dollar sign, as the symbol of the currency of a free country, is the symbol of the free mind.”

      Atlas Shrugged was written decades after the New Deal. If by the time of her death in 1982 she had soured on the dollar sign, she must have forgotten to tell her followers who placed a six-foot floral dollar sign next to her casket.

      Like I said, I’m no expert or sympathizer, I don’t know if she hated America or just hated some of the things about America (which would make her no different than every other American), and no doubt she would insist we return to a gold standard, but I can’t see how anyone could get the idea that she was anti-dollar. I didn’t read that Edge review, I haven’t even played Bioshock, but a Randian dystopia has to have dollars. It has to.

  18. Dominic White says:

    I tend to gravitate towards games that get divisive review scores, because it usually means that there’s something that challenges the audience in ways that your average gamer does not like. Even outside of storytelling, stuff like Space Giraffe springs to mind – a game which is hailed as a highly refined piece of work by those who take the time to understand it, but loathed with a firey passion by many, too.

    Of course, sometimes it works the other way. The negative reviews of Metroid: Other M managed to pick up on a mixture of stupid design flaws and a deeply unsettling vein running through the entire narrative, The positive ones tended to gloss over everything, and often even take pot-shots at ‘whiny feminists’.

    It’s usually more of the former case than the latter. When a game splits audiences, I usually land on the more positive side of the argument.

  19. Rinox says:

    Good piece Kieron. Now I won’t feel like such a dumb hobo for defending the game on RPS anymore. ;-)

  20. Jimbo says:

    What makes you think game reviewing is going to mature? Nothing at all about the industry (at least the part where Mafia 2 lives) suggests that’s the direction we’re going in. The industry isn’t interested in people liking different things. It doesn’t want to cater to the whole audience. It wants to find the single largest group within the audience and then cater to them, because that is the least risky course of action (see Bioware’s ME2 stat collection for example).

    If they do look at Mafia 2′s reviews and conclude that the narrative focus was responsible for splitting opinions, then the only lesson they’ll learn is not to focus on narrative next time. I don’t think they will conclude that however, because I don’t think the ‘narrative modifier’ effect was what led to the low scores here. I’m sure that such an effect does exist, but I don’t believe it has a strong enough impact in game reviewing to shift the metacritic more than a few percentage points. I just don’t think it’s that big a deal for most people. If anything, an attempt at narrative generally seems to have a positive impact on reviews, regardless of whether the outcome is actually any good or not – just as long as it isn’t at the expense of the rest of the game. And it’s ‘the rest of the game’ where Mafia 2 went wrong for most people.

    Even if all reviewers agreed the story was brilliant, and even if they all enjoyed the game as a result, the game would still be score capped <85% by the actual lack of expected secondary content, the so-so fighting mechanics, the sheer amount of time spent driving etc. Those things didn't stop *me* enjoying Mafia 2, but they're still real issues that exist, regardless of story quality, and that is still how game reviewing works – games are reviewed as a science rather than an art.

    Most reviewers are still trying to pre-empt what their audience and peers will make of a game rather than just give their own opinion (actually, most still seem to be reviewing the purchase rather than the game itself, but that's a different issue). It's a tricky issue though. Should reviewers be writing for themselves, or should they be writing for their audience? If I'm writing for myself then Alpha Protocol is one of the best games of the year; if I'm writing for a general modern gaming audience then it isn't and they probably shouldn't buy it.

    I guess it is kinda linked to the 'Game review or Purchase review?' argument after all. Is the audience asking 'What did you think of this game?', or are they asking 'Do you think I should buy this game?'. They're very different questions which often require very different answers.

    • Shadram says:

      @Jimbo: The last two paragraphs of your response are a real eye opener for me. I’ve never really considered the difference between an “is it good?” and a “should I buy it?” review before, and while they’ll overlap much of the time, it really does affect how one would approach, and subsequently score, a game.

      We’ve all got long lists of games that we know are “good” and we should like, and would recommend to others, but can’t care for them, and reviewers must do the same. Similarly, there’s been reviews declaring a game amazing which couldn’t be given a high score: Kieron’s Vampire: The Masquerade review in PCG springs immediately to mind. Sure, it was marked down for technical reasons, but if the review was entirely subjective, it would have scored into the 90s, rather than the mid-70s (I think, can’t quite remember).

      I’ve pretty much just repeated what you said in your post, and in a much less eloquent way, but if we’re talking about games reviewing maturing, this is definitely something that needs to be considered and highlighted when talking about the motives of a reviewer.

    • Kadayi says:

      @Jimbo

      “Should reviewers be writing for themselves, or should they be writing for their audience?”

      If you are writing professionally for an audience of potential buyers then your commitment should always towards giving them the best advice possible with regard to purchases. I don’t think there is any room therefore in personal predilections at all. If however you are writing for people who have an enthusiasm for a particular genre then I’d say it’s acceptable to stray from that, as long as you make it clear that this is your personal opinion from the off and not try and pass off your commentary as a buyers guide. Generally I think comparison pieces work best in that format because it’s all about the nuance (RTS head to head).

  21. Vandelay says:

    Kind of reached a similar conclusion to Mafia 2 as you, in that I neither loved nor hated it. I did love the first, which made more disappointed, but when thinking of it without this baggage I came away with a higher appreciation.

    The main problem I felt was that the story never felt like it built to its major moments. I always felt the moments themselves (Vito’s time away, a couple of deaths and the ending) were executed with great flair, but it never felt like it earned them. The character relationships were just never developed to the right extent. As it has already been mentioned, the death of the young guy who wants join the family is a complete cliche, but the reaction of the characters afterwards was handled really well. Before this though, I never got any sense that they thought anything of the kid, except for some slight annoyance. Vito could have been trying to steer him away from the life of crime, seeing a young version of himself or similarly with Vito’s friend. The reaction they had to death just didn’t ring true, just as it didn’t in many other moments of the plot. This was a reaction I had to much of the arc throughout the game, where I could see what they were perhaps striving for with the relationships, but never until after key plot points.

    But, the very fact we can talk about Mafia 2 in such ways shows that it is a notch above the majority of other games. The fact that a complaint that is often raised is that Vito is just another Niko (he is better then that,) when the GTA4 story was absurdly highly praised, really hits home the high expectations that were placed on this games narrative, ones that it probably could never have made. Instead, we have a game that definitely tries to push the boundaries as to how much story we can actually take from a game. Russ Pit’s description of it being “interactive theatre” is a pretty accurate one, even if his hyperbolic Hamlet comparisons water down his argument.

    It is also a shame that the huge critical backlash against it (from what I’ve seen, the praise is definitely the minority,) means there probably won’t be another one, where they could correct some of the major faults of this game. They wouldn’t even need to do much to the engine, because what they have already is superb.

  22. asubstanced says:

    I have to say I am on the love/hate spectrum on this game. Generally it was gameplay design decisions that make your decisions and game playing seem to have no consequences that was the problem for me.

    I don’t get the accusations of cliche (up to a point), maybe if it was in the movie world that would be a fair attack. I think that it does something that not many games actually do, and that is not focus on you becoming an ultimate force, of starting from nothing and attempting to ‘win’. Rather it leaves you in the shoes of two guys trying to but failing to make it. Is that not a breath of fresh air in the games industry in general? Even if I would say it fails because it skips too quickly to allow a true acceptance of Vito.

  23. benjamin says:

    Russ Pitts is easily excitable. He writes good stuff although he does tend to go on a bit (he can, he’s the chief editor). I like him though.

  24. Severian says:

    This was an interesting analysis and read. Thanks, Kieron.

  25. JonFitt says:

    Catatonia!

  26. Robin says:

    Differing opinions about the narrative could explain a lot, but I wonder if reviewers being desensitised to pretty open world games could be a factor as well. I don’t play that many graphically top-flight games (batman:aa was the last spangly thing I played before Mafia II), and I was content to pootle around soaking up the atmos. I hope the ‘Joe’ DLC improves the missions though.

    Eurogamer’s review is still bullshit, of course.

  27. DrGonzo says:

    I loved Mafia 2 and both Kane and Lynch games. In fact I would say the Kane and Lynch games are two of the best written and most entertaining shooters ever. I love the fact that games are now getting to a point like films where people are disagreeing about what is good. After all, if it’s not subjective how can it be art?

  28. Jim Rossignol says:

    Mafia II doesn’t work on my PC. Ah, PC gaming.

    • Jockie says:

      On pretty much all ATI cards it has some kind of spasm, especially when you try to return to your desktop after playing.

    • DrGonzo says:

      It’s ok for me on my Radeon :S

    • Jockie says:

      It might have been patched by now, but everyone I know with an ATI card had an issue where the desktop went really dark when trying to exit/alt tab from the game.

    • Vandelay says:

      I had that going dark issue too. The game itself ran beautifully though. The engine was really the stand out element of the whole game (not to say I didn’t enjoy many other aspects of it.)

    • Ton says:

      Uninstall – reinstall Physx

  29. Tengil says:

    “There’s as much narrative screens to painfully click through in Mario or Zelda”

    Not in Mario, surely?

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Play Mario and force yourself to count where there’s an unskippable micro-cut-scene or dialogue sequence. You’ll be surprised.

      KG

    • Ozzie says:

      Ocarino of Time’s story is pretty good, I thought. At least, so far I made it!

    • mrmud says:

      The text in Super Mario Galaxy and SMG2 makes me want to rip my eyes out and while I absolutely adore the game itself I would at the very least mention the atrocious writing (if not mark it down) in a review.

  30. jonfitt says:

    Claiming a review is definitive or objective has always been complete hooey.
    Aside from comments on technical or control problems there’s no way to be objective with an opinion on any game.

    The best you can do is seek the opinion of someone who has had similar experiences to you and holds similar opinions to you on other games, and see what they think.
    That’s why I read RPS, and why I would never bother with a review from say Gamesradar. It is also why Metacritic is useless.

    However, a game which separates normally congruent opinions is interesting and worth exploring. If anything that should make it more important to play if only to provide more data on your peer’s opinions.

  31. Kadayi says:

    Good read. I think it rightly brings into question whether reviewers should consider whether they have an personal issues with a particular game in terms of storyline, narrative & setting and whether they should therefore review it at the end of the day.

    I also don’t think this is not a new phenomena though. If you go back to the whole Gherstmann gate situation with Kane & Lynch and watch Jeff’s review (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aBD0cUeeEQc), one of his big issues with the game is about the fact that he doesn’t like the characters at all, and that really colours his take on the game in it’s entirety. Albeit I might be in the minority, I actually thought his review was pretty awful as a result and in a way I’m not surprised that the subsequent complaints from Ubisoft ended up getting him fired (still we have the giantbombcast http://www.giantbomb.com/podcast/ now, so it all worked out splendidly in the end).

    With Mafia 2 I think John really had issues with the period setting (in all it’s social ugliness), the characters, the tacky Playboy tie-in (genuine Vargas style pin-ups would of been perfectly acceptable as collectables tbh) and that coloured his assessment to the extend where in he started finding flaws with the game (lack of female character models) which really were less to do with a ‘misogynistic agenda’ and more to do with keeping the games size down so it would fit neatly onto one MS licensing friendly DVD for the 360. Personally I thought Mafia 2 was a good title, but I kind of wish 2K had given the developers the nod to go multi-disc, meaning they could of added a lot more content to the game in terms of NPC character models, music etc, etc.

    • Jockie says:

      Well, I think it likely 2K were more interested in pursuing the DLC route than going multi-disc (‘nah don’t bother with that we’ll add it in later..’)

      Apart from that I agree with your assessment and you can apply the subjectivity thing to plenty of other games retroactively as well with reasonable results. For instance Dreamfall beloved by John got mid 70′s marks on metacritic, a game that most definately hinges on the players subjective assessment of the narrative.

  32. A-Scale says:

    Mafia 2 was great. Your opinion is wrong.

  33. Philipp says:

    Oh tank gawd, ppl being sober and bright on the internet, stop talking about games etc, let the human swarm sync up and profit from it.
    ty for the read and hopes.

  34. Guildenstern says:

    I doubt Rand was capable of experiencing love.

    • Ignorant Texan says:

      Other than love of self, money, and power, I’d say, yes, Ayn Rand was incapable of love.

  35. mod the world says:

    Objectively speaking, Mafia II is a typical 7/10 game. End of discussion.

  36. Ton says:

    I liked the Placebo part. Quite the unexpected place top bump into them ♥

  37. DevilSShadoW says:

    Great write-up. Unfortunately i can’t bear myself to play mafia 2. There’s something about it that just makes me feel nauseous. Yes, there is some remnant of good narrative buried deep deep DEEP under that huge pile of crap but it’s too long of a dig to be worth it.

  38. JimboJack says:

    According to late news, Vavra left the team early on 2009. That means, rest of studio had lot of time to ruin his work :) If you look backward, there were many things said from Dernby Grace and others about features ingame and when time comes they were gone. I believe same destiny had scenario. From big complete scenario were prepared skeleton only even without bones on hands and legs and used as final scenario. And half of bones were broken …

  39. Shagittarius says:

    As games start being used more and more as propaganda weather or not you agree with said propaganda will weigh more and more heavily on if you enjoy the game.

    Take Bioshock infinite for example. It deals with a current hotbed of issues in the USA right now especially illegal immigration and gun ownership. The game seems to poke fun at nationalism, people obviously out of their mind shout rhetoric against immigrants, making it seem like anyone who believes in controlled immigration is an idiot. As far as gun control goes, in the game there are people campaigning how guns insure freedom yet from the gameplay we can tell that despite what they claim they are no freer than the average joe today, and most likely in worse shape.

    This is the first game I personally looked at an disagreed with the philosophy, its almost created as a character assassination piece for anyone who isn’t a hardcore leftist. The game doesn’t provide you room to be right about your opinions, only beats you over the head with someone else’s rediculous fears of what the future looks like if anyone other than their leftists maintain control.

    Anyways, I can tell this is certainly going to effect my enjoyment of the game. Gonna be as hard to play that and ignore the bullshit as it is to watch the propaganda on TV without getting POed.

    • Harlander says:

      This is the first game I personally looked at an disagreed with the philosophy, its almost created as a character assassination piece for anyone who isn’t a hardcore leftist.

      Gun control and immigration are the issues that make you a hardcore leftist?

      Not, say, the abolition of wage labour or communal ownership of all means of production?

    • Ozzie says:

      I don’t feel that Bioshock Infinite is propagandistic at all.
      Yeah, its theme is about another failed ideology from around the turn to the 20th century, and of course some issues in it are the same than we have today, but I don’t see that it is a close to perfect parallel. Sure, since the game shows the ideology with its failed results, it already made its mind up. This isn’t a deep insightful treatise. But I don’t feel like it delivers its message with a sledgehammer. At least not so far.

    • Urthman says:

      Gun control and immigration are the issues that make you a hardcore leftist?

      Here in America? Sadly, yes.

  40. Alonzo says:

    I agree with paragraphs 1-4, but as for 5; if there are no game reviewers demanding more personal, subjective games (or at least praising/promoting them when they come along,) then why should developers make them? That’s a bit overly cynical perhaps but you get the idea. I think a proper critic is essentially a figurehead for an audience, staking a claim for a group perspective among the masses and essentially demanding their needs are met. Even if everyone else is shouting at you, if you can justify your position it’s perfectly valid.

    I think the current Standard Review Format is one of the main problems here; there is almost nobody writing ‘reviews’ in anything other than a plain, objective, cover-all-features kind of way who has major traction (bloggers tend to discredit themselves as reviewers for some reason.) This kind of format just doesn’t really allow for a proper discussion of anything other than the, as you say, craftsman-like genre pieces, meaning that even as developers get better at telling other types of stories with videogames there won’t be much demand for them in the mass market. If the Christopher Nolan-of-games came along today I think he would get shouted down by reviewers (look at Kane & Lynch 2 for a less-well executed example of this; here is Tom Chick’s brief impressions mentioning the unique visual style that would be maybe a sentence in a review but is the whole point of the game .)

  41. unclebulgaria says:

    Point (3) reinforces why I follow the work of all the PC Gamer crew from about the mid-90s through to about ’04. Kudos to all, I know what you like and I know what I like.

  42. Inglourious Badger says:

    Interesting article Kieron. It is unusual to see such varying opinions on a big release like Mafia 2. Usually anything so hyped is either all thumbs up or a big disappointment. I think it’s good to see a wide spread of review scores for a AAA game as it’s indicative of a maturing industry, both the games being made and the reviewers reviewing.

    It’s always irked me that games are so easily categorised into something out of 10. It suggests there’s a formula to a good game and unfortunately to some extent that’s true, there are a number of things a dev can put in a game (with the right budget) to guarantee a hit, and most annoyingly of all it usually does make for an enjoyable game. You find yourself playing a GTA IV or a Mass Effect 2 and thinking ‘Yes, this is a bit better than the games I previously thought were the best in this genre’. But it kills diversity.

    It also, I think, proves games are still in their infancy as a medium compared to film and music. As you rightly say this level of consistent review scores isn’t found anywhere nearly as much in those formats. I don’t think the fault lies with the reviewers though (though you do see WAY too many 90-something% games on metacritic. You can’t all think they’re that good!?), I think for the same reason game sequels are so regularly better than the first game it’s another indication that we’re still getting to grips with how to make brilliant games, and reviewers are consistently bowled over by how much better each iteration is. “Well, this is clearly 10% better than the first game, but we gave that 94%, so we’ll give this one..95%!”. It’s one reason (of the many) I love RPS so much, you just steer clear of scores altogether.

    We’ll know when we get there when all games can be analysed so subjectively, and sequels aren’t automatically better than their originals (Yes, Deus Ex and X-Com already did that, but it’s hardly become the norm yet).

    • Urthman says:

      Yes. Exactly.

      Imagine trying to give Minecraft an X out of 10 score. It’s a ridiculous concept. Compared to what? On what scale?

      Maybe someday we’ll have dozens of Minecraft clones and Dark Miner will get an 8.4 but CraftDelver 3000 will get a 8.8 because it has 9 kinds of ore, 12 tools, and is 14% prettier.

    • Kadayi says:

      “It also, I think, proves games are still in their infancy as a medium compared to film and music.”

      Well that’s the crux of the problem for sure, though in reality it’s unlikely we are ever likely to see a settling of the medium because it’s not in the interests of Sony or Nintendo to make their hardware platforms redundant, by submitting to a universal game engine that is capable of covering all the bases. Ultimately their interest is in selling boxes & peripherals and generating licensing fees and that requires exclusivity.

    • Inglourious Badger says:

      I’d just like to say CraftDelver 3000 is possibly the best made up game name I’ve ever heard! Bravo.

      And Kadayi: your comments are, unfortunately, quite true and you’re right in saying it impacts the games that are then made, but I’m still optimistic things will change. It might be one of those old wive’s tales but I’m sure I’ve been told the console manufacturers don’t make money on the sale of console units, they only start breaking even from percentages of the games’ revenue. And if something like cloud gaming kicked off there’s your answer: Games could be as high tech as you like but anyone with any PC or a mobile could play it. That’s the sort of technology that could open the playing field and finally devs will have to look at taking risks with story, game mechanics and gamers’ expectations.

    • Kadayi says:

      @Inglourious Badger

      Well if we liken game production to film making, we are kind of in the situation of everyone using different cameras and different film & huge amounts of making games just revolves around balancing the limitations of the various hardware schews Vs the implementation of the vision. Personally I look forward to the day where the rendition is secondary to the experience.

  43. Kieron Gillen says:

    (As a quick aside to people saying “I’d love a game where people were lynched when you did a line” you may note that I didn’t say the experience would *negatively* effect your experience. But, for most, it’d change the character of the game)

    KG

  44. Quests says:

    We’re not a theatre stage, nor cinema, nor comic books. This is videogaming.

    Story, acting, writing. It’s all nonsense, videogames are interaction.

    The above mentioned elements have to pay their respects to this benevolent dictator, they have to BECOME interaction. If they don’t shift their shapes to increase the value of interaction, they’re insulting videogaming and its entire meaning.

    Mafia II has to be judged for its interaction… if one judges it for its writing, he judges it as a movie and he should do it away from me.

    • Jockie says:

      Well by that logic, if someone judges a film for it’s writing shouldn’t they be judging it as a novel?

      A game cannot be purely judged on it’s interaction, it’s about the constituent parts that make up the whole. Same as a film is not judged only upon the flashing images in front of your eyes.

    • DrGonzo says:

      This is why we need a word other than games. Mafia 2 isn’t so much a game as an interactive narrative. It can’t be compared with Tetris.

    • leafdot says:

      Why should we take such a hard line on “interaction”? A lot of great stories are full of “games” – Joyce wrote plenty of riddles into Ulysses, & Finnegans Wake (as near as I can tell) is almost all puzzle. But, hell, even the oldest stories need interpretation. And what’s interpretation if not interaction?

      Point being: even the most linear tale, well told, in fact /isn’t/. To toss out games that favor narrative over play is to throw the baby out with the sewage. Additional point being: I’m not sure which is baby and which is sewage, and anybody who claims that they /are/ sure is a liar.

      Synthesis is the thing! We’re at the tip of of some kind of New Place. (Or, epoch, if you wanna be snooty about it.)

      It has always been foolish to say that /this/ is always black and /that/ is always white. Even more so now, I think.

    • The Colonel says:

      In that case surely Mafia II would have been a 2/10 game? The gameplay is terrible. It’s only the narrative and setting/characters that keep you interested!

  45. Shagittarius says:

    No, those people are plain loony.

  46. PleasingFungus says:

    Ever played the Super Mario Galaxy games?

  47. Saul says:

    Great post Kieron. Articulates something that’s been on the tip of my tongue for ages. I barely look at reviews, except those written by people I trust, and I certainly take little notice of scores. A 9 means nothing to me, if the game doesn’t sound like my kind of thing.

  48. negativedge says:

    You heard it here, folks: there may not be a gaming Citizen Kane, but we have our Hamlet!

    I wish people would stop talking

  49. Shane says:

    The game doesn’t have a good enough story to draw you in and the game play isn’t good enough to keep you occupied. Just like the driving, which i disagree about in the article, you sought of want the story to continue, but you don’t really have any fun driving around.

  50. Dude says:

    So it’s GTA IV without Niko Bellic, gotcha.