After having stayed up til 4 last night to finish Mafia II I want to suggest folk give it a go in the strongest possible terms. It won't be for everybody-it's more or less the definition of a game you have to play for hours to know where it's going-but it pulls off a vastly ambitious intention with maturity, subtlety and by very much pushing the concepts of what gaming narrative can and should deliver.
It's a game about lost potential, the mundane, identity, lack of meaning and the illusions of the American Dream and postmodernism. Really. It tells it through the lens of a Mob story but that's only because it provides great opportunities to examine the above. It's the story about pursuing work and business and opportunity and the essential emptiness and pointlessness that doing so for it's own sake fosters. And crucially, it's not just a story about these-it's a game which makes you feel it through how it plays.
At the start of the game the world seems big-you can go anywhere you want, it's full of things to buy and try out, through the music and presentation and aesthetic the game presents you with a world on the cusp of total capitalist and modern fulfillment. Thing is, those things are unavailable to you unless you steal them. You need money.
So you follow the narrative to get it. And it's a narrative of talking about working men being saps, and eschewing an honest living for quick money. About the mob being shorthand for the American Dream, these immigrants who without status and who are of low birth can still climb the ladder and make it to the top and have all of these things.
But you just drive around and do menial tasks and watch other people talk, hearing about bigger jobs, seeing them get cuts that you don't. You feel tantalised by opportunity but constrained by neccesity, But it's the full game, not just the dialogue, through hours of hard work, which is what is telling you this, through both narrative and what it allows you to do, and you suddenly get it, and realise the open world is both big but empty for a reason, and the plot linear and tedious, and that you are feeling involved in it all in a way that you never could in any other medium.
Just as you get bored of it the tone changes and the plot does-your characters is going to make a try at some bigger stuff, put his neck on the line more for the sake of more money and more action. There's more shooting, more violence, more adventure, more money. The plot and the world more or less hit a peak in terms of "fun" or excitement at this point. You can do more stufff in the open world-buy clothes, soup up your car, buy better weapons.
As the plot suggests you're a pretty powerful young guy, so to does the game. It' easy to now treat the world as more of a GTA alike if you want, you have the powers and money to smash cars up, rob shops and get away quickly, you have more choice and the world seems only contained by your imagination and potential. Mirroring the plot line, you're on top of the world right now, it's your oyster, and that of your friends who all join you in the giddy cocktail of violence, comedy and adventure.
Then something happens and you lose all that. I'ts not like you start out again though-You're in too deep, the plot pulls you under. But you can't choose to go back to a menial life. You made your choice, are now without it's rewards, and facing all the grim consequences of it regardless. The working man may be a sap, but at least he has family and safety and something to rely on apart from his gun. All that killing, for nothing.
The world is now back to being bigger than you. There is an upping of the violence and action, but you don't have your wealth or ability to deal with it as well as you did before. You're fighting for your life. The open world becomes actively more hostile and the only way to get things is to rob or steal again and drive through it like a fugitive, because the cops are after you. The ending of the game doesn't resolve this and makes it clear that in choosing business and money and status, things which would never have been possible for you a generation previous, the American Dream, you have eschewed community and friendship and normality for a life of empty ruthlessness, best exemplified in the character of the man who tells you it, who at that point reveals himself to be the same.
And the game tells you that. You've gone from walking around wherever you want, doing whatever the game has allowed you to, going to various friends houses, to being nothing more than a getaway car or gun on legs. You've gone from seeing family leave you or you leave them, made that choice even, and at the time it didn't seem so big because you could still do what you wanted. You were cocksure because of what the game let you have. But it has taken that away, while leaving the consequences of that, and now there is nothing left for you in the world but material things and violence.
This is a game which fundamentally ties the environment and it's narrative together in such a way to make you really play that story. It's done in such a way that takes a while to reveal itself, and it does take investment and for you to buy into it at the start. But if you do it's a game which is fully commited to mechanically letting you really play that story, rather than watch it or have it as a subtext. It is a game or simulation of the dark side of the American Dream and the failure of material prosperity and greater status to replace old concepts such as family and existential purpose and it really makes a crack at letting you play that arc rather than just tell it.
GTA aims to tell you that story but what it lets you play is a murder simulator. In spite of what it suggests, those games are all about the potential rather than the dark side, the ability to be powerful and live out those fantasies. At no point do you feel repercussions for your actions or involved in something bigger than yourself. You define the world with your desires.
Mafia II is the game about the world and plot and fate defining yours. You try to live out GTA, and the game gives the conceit that you can do this, for a time, but it also makes it clear all along that this is a stupid fantasy, a waste of a life, and of course you can't have your cake and eat it. You only want violence and material things? Take em! They'll fuck you quicker than you know. That's how the story goes, that's how the game plays.
I wasn't expecting much for my £3, just a guns and cars lark, but give it time and respect and it will reward you with one of the most immersive narrative efforts there is going, and something which a lot of games should be seeking to emulate. It's engine, physics, audio (music and voice acting) graphics and design are some of the best going, and I highly recommend you give it a shot if you have a computer to run it as is a superb and stunning narrative gaming achievement.