It was sold as GTA in the 1940s, but the prosaic depiction of gangster life proved to be the finest quality of 'Mafia II.'
With Mafia III coming in October, and having been impressed by the tangibly grimy portrayal of 1960s New Orleans—or, rather, New Bordeaux—shown in the trailers, I was motivated to go back to its predecessor, 2K's Mafia II of 2010. This is a game that many expected to be GTA in the swinging 40s, but as the fairly middling reviews stated at the time, what ultimately came out was a far narrower experience.
What I found in my fresh playthrough, though, was that Mafia II's very prosaic depiction of the mob lifestyle actually ended up becoming one of its greatest strengths—it was the vehicle through which the narrative crux of the entire game was brought home to me. Mafia II does not attempt to glamorize the gangster life. Instead, it very deliberately paints a picture of brutal mundanity. In fact, it ends up treating the life of a Mafioso with all the pomp and circumstance of a menial day job.
This distinction is important. I think it's fair to say that, culturally, we have a very singular view of how the gangster narrative is supposed to work in our media. Person of low social class sees the surface-level glamour of the mob lifestyle and dedicates his life to it. By the end, whether it's Tony Montana's failure to find fulfillment in his power, or Tommy Vercetti's celebration of having bested his enemies, one thing remains the same: They always end up on top, baby.
But halfway through Mafia II, I was still being forced to sell cigarettes out the back of a truck. That's when I realized that Mafia II might be to gangster games what Spec Ops: The Line was to military shooters. I was questioning my role in the experience, testing my resolve to get my character to work, only to see the profits turned over to someone else. As such, it ends up becoming a wildly deconstructive experience, in a way that I couldn't have predicted going in.
For starters, protagonist Vito Scaletta's predicament and motivations are somewhat atypical for a character in a game about gangsters. Henry Hill he is not—he wasn't born to be a gangster. He fell into a life of crime because, in his words, he was "poor and there wasn't much work around." His proximity to the mob is seen more as a kind of get-rich-quick scheme to save his family from encroaching debt collectors than some personal quest for glory. The hierarchical structure of the mob matters little to Vito—well-dressed characters are not treated with respect because of their position on the ladder, so to speak, but because, hey, they're offering paid work.
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Besides, the mob's hierarchy isn't particularly clear—in fact, it's a cluttered, bureaucratic mess. Vito constantly meets new employers who seem important, but who almost always end up getting whacked and replaced with someone else. This is a game narrative that spans decades and never sees Vito doing jobs for himself—always for someone else, some unknown entity that could turn on him in an instant. The country is away fighting for freedom and the American way in World War II, but ironically this leaves Vito's image of the American dream in tatters. He simply doesn't have time for ambition—in this world, the most one can hope for is steady employment.
What's most impressive about how this subverts tropes of the gangster narrative, however, is how these themes are communicated to you through the game's mechanics. This isn't a game in which you can choose what job you want to do at anytime, like a lot of modern open-world titles. Here, a daily routine is a very real thing. After every mission, you have to feed Vito to heal his wounds, get him to bed, then get him up and get dressed again before getting in a rickety-ass 1940s car and commuting across the city to your place of employment for the day. Once the job is done, you get right back in your car and go home, where the routine plays out over and over again.
This isn't like GTA, in which you can race along at whatever speed you want as long as you don't careen headfirst into the oncoming cops—Mafia II makes you adhere to traffic regulations. Characters called me crazy for skipping red lights, and the game even has a speed limiter that I've kept active most of the time, anything to keep the cops off my tail. Hell, missions often require you to literally perform in-game menial labor—whether it's packing boxes, cleaning floors, or whatever else. This world is not yours for the taking—it's bigger than you as a player and utterly indifferent toward your presence. You've just got to get through it. Everyone's gotta pull together for the common cause, right? There's a war on.
The question you're probably asking yourself at this point is this: How is any of this compelling to actually play? The answer is fairly simple: The mechanics of the gameplay perfectly line up with the ambitions of the character. It's thematically coherent, which is something that so many gangster games seem to put to the wayside in their attempts to make the player feel important. This game isn't about opening up the possibilities of the world to the player—it's about very deliberately closing them off. It makes you relate to the character's struggles in a way that simply would not be possible if the mob was seen as this conquerable force that Vito simply needed to overcome.
Most of us can't relate to being a well-respected Mafioso. What we can relate to, however, is the need to get up in the morning in order to go to a shitty job. I don't want to do it, but we've all got to get by, right? That's Vito's predicament in a nutshell—and that's why Mafia II spoke to me on a level that no other gangster game has done before.
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