Mafia 3 and an open-world malaise.
A couple of weeks ago, I finished Dark Souls. I covered it extensively on here and on my Twitter thread, where I pretty much live-tweeted the entire game during the couple of months it took me to haul my ass through it. Finishing it was hard but felt like reaching the summit of a mountain - and it left me wondering what the hell I was going to play next. Some people stick to certain genres of games, or even a single game. Once I was much the same (cough DESTINY cough), but these days I tend to seek out variety as much as anything else. The idea of hopping straight from Dark Souls into Dark Souls 2 or even Bloodborne left me utterly cold, in spite of how much I'd enjoyed the experience I'd just had. No, what I needed was a palette cleanser - or maybe even a couple of them. I took a good look at Gamepass and at my pile of shame, and spotted Mafia 3. It had been sat on the pile for a while, ever since my sister-from-another-mother decided she was having a clear-out and passed it to me. I weighed it up for a moment. The gameplay would be a complete change of pace. As would the art style, the music, the tone... everything. Perfect.
So it's been installed, and I've been working my way steadily through it for a couple of weeks. It does some things extremely well, and some things incredibly badly. As a game that's been out for a while and which courted some controversy on release, there are a lot of things that could be said about the game that, to be honest, I'm not really going to go into. Yes, it's violent. Yes, it confronts the subject of racism in civil rights movement-era USA in an unflinching way that diminishes in its impact as the game progresses. Yes, you will hear racist language, and yes it's there for a reason, and yes - removing it would make one of the core messages of the game that much more difficult to convey. All of this was quite eye-opening for me, a middle-class middle-aged middle-income privileged white man. However, those elements of the game aren't really the ones I want to discuss - they've been talked about extensively by people far better qualified to comment on its accuracy/fairness etc than I am. They're really important - but I don't think I really have anything to add.
What I do want to talk about though is narrative and the size of the game spaces that open worlds offer - and how the structure of the game acts against the narrative. We've had lots of good open world games, and very very few of them have managed to tell a good, cohesive story... and some of them have tried incredibly hard. Mafia 3 hits that category in a big way.
The early missions of Mafia 3 are entirely linear, with you travelling through the city of New Bordeaux (a facsimile of 1960's New Orleans) and bringing with you the chaos of a man with something to prove. Without wanting to spoil anything (because despite all its problems, to be clear this is a game you should definitely play), a series of events transpire and your situation changes dramatically. At that point, the tale switches from one of ingratiation to one of revenge and the game opens up - and everything just kinda grinds to a halt from a narrative perspective at the exact same moment that the gameplay opens up to reveal pretty much everything it has to offer.
The more I consider this, the more I realise that this is is a real "thing" with so many open world games - even ones with more RPG-leaning sensibilities like Fallout 3 and Skyrim. It's not so much that these side quests being present is a problem - it's more that if they fail to meet the quality of the main story line that propels a player through the game they can end up feeling like filler, and this is where Mafia 3 falls down. It actually puts a lot of these missions - repetitively structured and often requiring you to visit the exact same locations multiple times - on the critical path by forcing a certain number of them to be completed before the next story mission becomes available. Not only are the actions that they force you to complete unfulfilling, but the actual stories that they tell just feel far less interesting than that of the main thread. The game's dragging you away from the good stuff to make you experience the less good stuff... for no discernible reason other than to presumably make the game feel longer. I don't know, it just feels like a design decision that makes almost no sense at all.
I was driven nuts by Red Dead Redemption 2 - currently the bar that all other open-world games are measured. That game created dissonance by allowing my version of the main character to behave in whatever way I saw fit while outside of main missions, while the scripted version of the character that I was forced to experience every so often was very different. I always thought that RDR2 would have been better served as a fully fledged RPG because of that weird feeling of disconnection that it fostered. Mafia 3 doesn't really suffer from that - because like Grand Theft Auto V before it, it doesn't ever offer up an illusion of choice. The behaviour of protagonist Lincoln Clay is at least consistent across the whole game - by not giving the player a chance to stamp their own mark upon his personality, he can never behave in a way that seems out of character.
This dissonance even carries through into the size of the world itself. There is a general trend for open-world games to be getting larger and larger - and it's at the point now where every time a developer announces "our new world is (x) time bigger than the one in (insert previous_game_name)," I roll my eyes a little bit. Going back to Fallout 3, the world was a key part of the game. The Capital Wasteland was a world that required some thought and effort to navigate, filled with nooks and crannies to discover - always with the feeling that something lay just off the beaten path. Once you'd spent some time in it, you could guess with reasonable accuracy where you were by looking to the horizon; Tenpenny Tower on one horizon, the Washington Monument and Capitol Building on the other. The worlds were smaller in games of the previous generation, but they brought with it a sense of place that more recent massive games have just entirely lost. Even though I've been playing Mafia 3 for several weeks, you could drop me ANYWHERE in it and I wouldn't be able to tell you which way to go to most effectively reach a single one of my bases or rackets. The map is big, but feels almost completely anonymous.
In spite of the problems, I'm enjoying Mafia 3. I'm going to finish it in the next week or so. What I wasn't really expecting though was to so quickly feel kinda frustrated by a game in a genre that I used to love. Maybe one day an open-world game will come along that manages to tackle narrative in a way that it doesn't end up feeling roadblocked. For the moment though, in the same way I wish RDR2 had embraced its obvious desire to be an RPG, a big part of me is wishing that Mafia 3 could have been a smaller, tighter, linear experience. In this case, it really does feel like less would have been more.