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This is a guest article from Edge (opens in new tab), originally published in Edge 315 in January 2018, and republished here with the Edge team's permission.
Back in 2001, Grand Theft Auto III gave players their first taste of the freedom 3D open-world games could offer, and it also laid out a design blueprint that developers are still iterating on nearly two decades later. It was a bullish production that seemed destined to dictate the direction of the entire industry in its wake, such was the glut of artless simulacra that followed. Over in Brno, though, they weren’t having it. Illusion Softworks had made its name with the wildly ambitious WWII action-strategy hybrid Hidden & Dangerous in 1999, and a year after GTAIII’s release it offered a dissenting voice on what gaming’s newfound expanses could be used for with Mafia: The City Of Lost Heaven. Like Liberty City, the game’s setting of Lost Heaven is a collage of familiar east coast bridges and skyscrapers, but it resolutely isn’t a playground bristling with distractions. Instead, Illusion built an enormous movie set alive with 1930s atmosphere which offered almost no diversions outside the main questline, and which hosted a straight-faced homage to mobster movies past and present.
The latter is no small detail. Even in the early 2000s, very few games dared to look beyond Aliens and Black Hawk Down for inspiration from the wider world of pop culture. The simple fact that Mafia has its eyes further afield, on the kind of movies in which you might see people kiss friends on the lips with menace or chop garlic with a razor blade, says a lot about its ambition. In fact it rattles off cinematic references like Tommy Gun fire before even handing control over to the player. Protagonist Tommy Angelo is introduced as a crisp-suited Mafioso snitch offering information to an FBI agent in a smoky pre-war cafe, setting up a central plot conceit that mirrors Henry Hill’s reflective narration in Goodfellas. Then, just as the two are settling into their seats, the game jumps back almost a decade to 1930, to the point when Angelo is first seduced by the power and riches of the wiseguy life.
Mafia is very deliberate about presenting these two contrasting versions of the central character in this order. It wants you to understand how one likeable blue-collar man could become the criminal and disloyal other, and in order to do so it shows you a deliberately dull insight into Angelo’s pre-Mafia life. Before made men Paulie and Sam happen to jump in his cab one evening, his is a life of short instructions from impatient strangers, and repetitive journeys between New Heaven’s boroughs. You know this because you’ve experienced it first-hand in the game’s second mission, which plays out like a version of Crazy Taxi restricted to 25mph. By first establishing a workaday world and forcing you to operate within its constraints, Mafia sets up a later payoff when you get the chance to break free of them, but it also generates plenty of empathy for Angelo and his ultimately questionable life decisions. Would you rather spend the rest of the game ferrying people from point to point on the map, or pulling off nefarious jobs to a score of gunfire, police whistles and jazz clarinet? Well, quite. Angelo concurs.
When he enters the Salieri bar to take Paulie and Sam up on their offer of work, Angelo permanently crosses a threshold into a life of crime. Still, it’s the thin end of the wedge for those first few missions as Salieri assesses how much use this new footsoldier can be. Just as it did in the deliberately pedestrian opening missions, Mafia finds weight in the small-scale criminal activities of Angelo’s first jobs. One such venture is a petty revenge mission which tasks you with sneaking into a car park and smashing up the vehicles within it. The cars belong to the very same goons you saved Paulie and Sam from in the first mission, and who later caught up with you alone, chasing you through the back alleys of Central Island, their bullets whistling by the washing lines to a musical backdrop of Tarantella tunes. There’s no shortage of motivation, then, when given a baseball bat and a Molotov cocktail and told to work the cars over. It might be small-time thuggery, but it’s thuggery to savour.
The ante is, of course, upped throughout the course of Angelo’s story so that enormous shootouts with the police eventually become commonplace, but the journey from normality to that point is unusually patient and restrained for the era. Along the way Mafia introduces many bold and ambitious ideas, sometimes with bespoke mechanics to facilitate them but usually without. One such moment is the walk home with love interest Sarah. It’s a dramatic change of pace after the car chases and shootouts that precede it, and a laudable attempt to flesh out Angelo’s character without wrenching away control of him. In reality, Sarah walks much slower than Angelo is able to and the uneventful stroll (and series of short sprints) feels mechanically awkward, so Mafia asks you to meet it halfway, calling in a few favours from the motivation and context it’s worked so hard to generate up to that point. The same’s true of A Trip To The Country, a smuggling run gone wrong in which crates must laboriously be loaded onto a truck (a motif the sequel would revisit to better effect) before that truck becomes a driveable health bar, depleted at an alarming rate by enemy mobsters. The absence of bespoke mechanics or animations to convey the particulars of your actions in this mission makes it feel like a chore – until Mafia wins you over again with the incidental details on its streets, the songs on your radio, and the patter between Angelo, Paulie and Sam.
The story can’t be pulled in different directions by the player. It’s firmly about Angelo and the way he decides to navigate mob life, where to place his loyalty and where to suppress that loyalty in order to make a buck. Being locked onto the narrative rails at Angelo’s behest never proves frustrating, though, because Mafia is constantly working to keep you in his mindset. Early on, it instils a fierce dislike of the police in you that’s necessary for you to identify with your character later on. Running over multiple pedestrians might nudge the Liberty City PD out of their slumber long enough to raise a one-star wanted rating in GTA III, but in Mafia exceeding 40mph is enough to incur the full force of the law. Most cars take upwards of ten seconds to reach those breakneck speeds, mind you.
Initially speeding is simply a ticketable offense, so pulling over and standing there while a cop gesticulates for a few seconds is enough to make it go away. But missions are often put under tight time constraints (which is why you were probably speeding in the first place) so your natural inclination is to flee, rather than take the ticking off. Doing so almost invariably ends with police cars boxing in your smoking, punctured write-off of an escape car, and the failure of your current mission. It doesn’t take many of these incidents before the player sees the police through the eyes of an embittered career criminal.
Similar guile is employed when you willingly go against Don Salieri’s orders, setting in motion a string of double-crosses and assassinations that no mob narrative should be without. A call girl at a nearby hotel has been whispering some Salieri trade secrets in the ears of her clients, and when the hit’s put out on her it’s Angelo who arrives at the front desk with murder on his mind. But when Angelo learns that the woman he’s there to kill is his wife’s friend Michelle, he can’t go through with it. Neither, one can only hope, would most players when confronted with a sex worker in a bathtub pleading for their life. There’s no agency in this decision, but at the same time you feel as though you’ve made it with Angelo, not that he’s simply dragged you round by the sleeve while he conducts his affairs.
This process of hardening the player into the criminal, occurring so gradually you barely notice it, moves in tandem with a visible passage of time in Lost Heaven. From opening monologue to credits, 21 years pass by in the city, the cars gradually becoming sleeker and more powerful, the radio transitioning from instrumental jazz and big bands to crooning vocalists. Mafia II would employ the time jump much more dramatically in 2010, when Vito Scaletta was imprisoned in post-war America and subsequently released in the swinging ’60s, but even this initial attempt at simulating the passage of time across an entire city and culture in 2002 is striking. Illusion was clearly enamoured with the many fictional automobiles it designed to create this effect – so much so that they all exist in a ‘Carcyclopaedia’ in the main menu, where their chrome details can be enjoyed in a virtual showroom.
Broadly, the industry chose Grand Theft Auto III’s interpretation of open-world criminality over Mafia’s for its template throughout the 2000s and beyond. And as Mafia’s sequel stuck resolutely to the idea of a city as a piece of elaborate set design, it attracted plenty of criticism for its linearity. Despite the volume of those criticisms, and the wildly different fortunes of the two series, the original Mafia still stands proud. When the backlash against ‘See that mountain on the horizon?’ game design began, the pushback against janitorial duties on an island full of map markers, the veterans at Illusion Softworks (rebranded 2K Czech in 2008) must have allowed themselves a wry smile. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it believe in the journey by simply placing an icon on a map.