Note: Despite discussing it heavily, this article does not contain spoilers for Mafia 2.
Ownership can be one of the biggest draw cards for a game, and not just in video games. Take Monopoly, for instance. Created in the early years of the 20th century, it first found popularity during the great depression; when people could barely afford dinner and a roof over their heads, fantasies of wealth sell better than ever.
Even genres such as computer role-playing games are more about acquisition than actual role-playing – something as ‘simple’ as a graphical rogue-like such as Diablo can drive players into hours of gaming ‘over-time’ just to acquire a complete set of mythril armour.
For this reason, sandbox video games and many a title focused on organised-crime, whether serious or comedic, often have a mechanic for the acquisition of ‘things’ – from safe-houses, weapons and vehicles to businesses & other properties. This has varied wildly from game to game, and rarely has a particularly large impact on the over-all story.
Which brings me to Mafia 2.
Sure, it’s not strictly speaking a sandbox game, but it does attempt to use the same gameplay elements that make a sandbox game world feel ‘real’, to draw us into the protagonist’s life.
On the surface, Mafia 2 takes the organised-crime-story trope and runs with it fairly directly, only deviating in suitably subtle ways. In the story, Vito starts (in-game, anyway) as an indentured servant to no less powerful a boss than the US Military itself during the height of World War 2. On his return on the United States, his fortunes are only marginally better; Vito finds himself sleeping in his old bedroom, a side-room in a hovel owned by his mother and shared with his sister.
This is, of course, the effective beginning of the game, and under your (theoretical) control he works his way up to more and more impressive homes, peaking with an abode identified early in the game by Vito himself as being his ideal place of residence.
For a gamer, this could be quite a powerful experience – first meeting Vito at his lowly beginnings and working your way upwards, to the very top of what is, based on the genre, doubtlessly going to be the top of a very steep roller-coaster.
… but in the case of Mafia 2, this is the gritty and well-orchestrated beginning to a very un-engrossing story, and while I think that writing is obviously a huge factor in the failure of Mafia 2 as a narrative, one of the least-discussed but most notable factors in its failure is this:
Our hands are off the wheel at every stage of Vito’s financial progress.
I’ve heard the argument that this is, in fact, the opposite of the truth – that you are directly involved in the acquisition of Vito’s wealth. This is true – the game has you controlling Vito doing everything that earns him money. At no point of note do you acquire money in a way that wasn’t a direct result of the actions you, the player, took.
Hell, you even get to spend much of his petty cash on everything from beer & coffee to new rims for his cars and new suits for his wardrobe.
But for every major acquisition, you are not present.
Every new house, whether it’s one in which you’re merely sleeping on the couch, one you’re “borrowing” from friends, or an expensive villa you’d doubtlessly have had to pay off or shake down bankers in order to obtain, is gained either in a cut-scene or completely off-screen, referenced in voice-over.
At no point do you get to drive across town, brimming with anticipation, toward the icon on your map that indicates you should deliver cash here to obtain a shiny new apartment, business, or even share in something of any reasonable value.
As people have pointed out, though, this is not an open-world game. This is a story that happens to take place in an interactive world – the gaming equivalent of a novel or a TV series. A novel or a TV series, however, gives you time with the character. Time to absorb his feelings, appreciate what he’s doing and what he’s accomplished.
The bulk of the game’s time is spent driving from point A to point B, and rarely, if ever, is there any urgency to your transit. You spend almost no significant amount of time in your safehouses – which are the only serious acquisitions Vito makes outside of a few stolen cars (that very quickly become interchangeable when you realise how similar most of the cars perform in late-game).
To add insult to injury, each ‘chapter’ in the game, while occupying a relatively short space of time, is punctuated by a time shift of huge proportions. In one case, it’s seven years, and by the time you’re back pop music itself has changed – to say nothing about what meagre possessions you’ve acquired for your player-character.
Time shift in itself isn’t a huge problem – if only you were given enough in-game time to appreciate your new acquisitions… but you aren’t. In one case, the shiny new house you acquire is really only there for the beginning of a handful of chapters before something happens to see Vito once again moving on to a different and even less interesting safehouse.
While on some level I can appreciate the kind of story Mafia 2 is trying to tell, the major failing is very simply this: in a story about organised crime, you are given no sense of possession – no sense of acquisition.
Vito may own things and have friends, but the player does not. Without the emotional investment in what the player has ‘built’ in a game – whether it’s literal construction, forging of relationships or simply purchasing stuff – the player is yet another step removed from the world, and unable to truly engage.