While crime isn’t a desirable facet of society, it certainly seems to be an inevitable one. The job of having to corral all humans into a functional system is a painstaking one, and not everyone feels they can abide by the same rules as others. And then we have people who find the risks of working outside the law worth the profit it can generate.
Culture certainly has a fascination with the concept of organised crime, especially the Mafia, to the point where fictional depictions have influenced real life. For example, there have been a few instances of thugs in the areas around New York who were reported to have ditched their sloven ways and started dressing sharp soon after the release of The Godfather.
In addition to the above, we’ve had several works about the mob that have received rave reviews and awards galore – Goodfellas, The Untouchables, The Sopranos, to mention a few. Naturally, gaming has its fair share as well. There may have been a few titles that touched upon mob culture before, my favourite being the hilarious Pizza Tycoon, but my first exposure to the classic mafia story was in Grand Theft Auto (GTA) 3 . The first act of the game is stereotype mob character arc, where you do a few favours for some made men and soon start currying favour with the Brando types by performing all sorts of criminal errands for them. Of course, the game ditched that portion of the story once you were done with it and moved on to other things, but the potential was there for all to see.
The mob and open-world games were a good match. The game Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven came out around a year later. Lost Heaven isn’t just a title metaphor, it’s the name of the city that serves as the game’s setting, a mishmash of New York, Chicago and Philadelphia set in the 1930s around the Prohibition era.
The protagonist is Tommy Angelo, a cab driver who’s struggling to make a living in Lost Heaven, till one evening his life is changed when he’s forced at gunpoint to help a couple of mobsters escape from a rival faction. From then on, he ends up getting integrated into the family, partly for reasons of security and partly because the life is a grand change from his former threadbare existence.
In that respect, it’s not too dissimilar to GTA3, but in other ways it is very much its own. GTA is a quick-fix power fantasy, whereas Mafia takes it a lot more seriously. The time period means that even some of the most high-end cars in the game are clunky rust buckets compared to basic automobiles in GTA. The first mission has you driving a sluggish cab and requires you to escape from a significantly faster pursuit vehicle, and it drives home immediately how much harder than the norm the game is.
Unlike the consequence-free escapades in most open world games, this one has you toeing the line all the time. For example, if you’re involved in a high-speed collision, your character takes damage along with the car. If you’re caught speeding in sight of a police car, the sirens go on and you have to pull over for a fine. Try escape and you could be looking at jail time if you don’t shake off the fuzz. And I’ve got to say, when your car handles like a potato, car chases can be quite daunting.
Bottom line is that the game makes you work for your victories. Early on, there’s a part, before your mob life begins, when you have to make a series of trips as a cab driver. Not only does it familiarise you with the layout of the city, it also gets you into a mode where you have to put your head down and get your business done.
It may seem dated, but I’d argue that games have forgotten something since those days. It’s all about instant gratification these days, with buildup and atmosphere largely delivered in the form of cutscenes. Mafia asks more of the player, and is the better for it.