Sep 222010

Mafia II borrows so much from GoodFellas that 2K Czech probably ought to give Scorcese and Pileggi co-writing credits. Direct references to the film appear in a couple of specific scenes, but the real influence is more fundamental. GoodFellas depicts the mafia as a group of buddies, and Mafia II is built around the same idea. Although family matters motivate the game’s protagonist, Vito, when it’s convenient for the plot, the real impetus for his journey through the Empire Bay underworld comes from his friends. Unfortunately, the game’s vision of mafia life falls apart because of its ill-considered adherence to gaming convention. Mafia II devolves into a series of increasingly ludicrous and bloody shootouts, even though a realist mob drama in the vein of GoodFellas would be an amazing game.

Consider, as a baseline for such a design, Henry Hill’s closing soliloquy from GoodFellas:

Anything I wanted was a phone call away. Free cars, the keys to a dozen hideout flats all over the city. I’d bet twenty, thirty grand over a weekend, and then I’d either blow the winnings in a week or go to the sharks to pay back the bookies.

It didn’t matter. It didn’t mean anything. When I was broke I would go out and rob some more. We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges. Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking.

What Hill found so intoxicating about being in the mob was the power it gave him. Yes, he had plenty of money, but the money itself meant nothing to him, “It didn’t matter.” What mattered was that he had the ability to get whatever he wanted whenever he wanted it.

In Mafia II, money is valueless for a different reason — namely, that there’s not really anything you can do with it. Sure, you can buy a few different colors of identical suits and customize your cars somewhat, but notably you can’t buy a car or even rent a different apartment. Mafia II also continually denies the player a feeling of power, even though this feeling is precisely what attracts Vito to the mob in the first place. Instead, the player is constantly jerked around by a linear narrative that seems mostly interested in delivering a tired morality tale about how crime never pays.

Of course, crime does pay; if it didn’t, we’d probably have far fewer criminals. But, crime is also work. You have to identify something worth stealing, develop a plan for taking it, decide how to unload it without attracting too much attention, and then figure out how to launder or hide the money you get. Notably, none of these steps involves murdering two dozen people in a hotel in broad daylight. So, what I am arguing for is a re-evaluation of what one does in a crime game.

Crime games, open-world and otherwise, have done the gun-battle motif to death. This kind of gameplay is tired, overused, and by now it is frankly boring. A shootout where your character takes on a dozen or more gangsters should be a thrilling, visceral, pulse-pounding experience, but conventional crime games make these moments as exciting as afternoon tea by using them as the staple of gameplay, rather than a highlight. Really, these are combat games dressed up with the trappings of crime stories, and they suffer for it. In particular, the tremendous effort that goes into making their settings immersive is squandered by the ludicrous sequences that take place in them.

Mind you, I’m not saying that a crime game should eschew violence altogether. Violence has its place in crime, but it generally doesn’t take the form of extended shootouts leaving behind scores of bodies. Criminals use the threat of violence far more often than they use violence itself. Even when the gun goes off, it usually only means death for one or two guys at a time. Violence should be a means to an end in a crime game, not the end itself.

Building a game around the idea of making crime pay (and making the pay worth something) could produce a richer and more interesting variety of activities, all of which are well-suited to the commonly used open-world design. Truck shipments suitable for hijacking or locations that are ripe for a good robbing could be identified for the player by contacts at particular points in the city. This could then lead to a planning phase, where the player develops a method for attacking the particular problem, decides whether to recruit helpers for the heist, etc. Casing the joint, stealing blueprints, or leaning on another contact to supply you a shipping schedule are ways that mission elements could be nested within each other to turn even a minor job into a compelling and intricate mission.

The actual event would be most like the games we have now, though the focus would be on speed and silence rather than bodycount. This would require a robust system allowing the player to threaten victims with a gun instead of just shooting with it. Then, the player can move the merchandise and process his take through gambling or legitimate businesses. The individual tasks could also be offered as separate missions — for instance, transporting stolen goods across the city to be fenced, helping another crew out on one of their jobs for a cut of the earnings, and so on.

Obviously, this reliance on tips, allies, and fences would introduce a social component to the game. The social side of the mob was something that only worked in Mafia II on a narrative level — the development of friendships was relegated almost entirely to cutscenes. The friend system from GTA IV and the buddy system of Far Cry 2 did a much better job of involving the player in the social component of the main character’s life. An open world crime game should look to those implementations as an outline for participatory friendship.

The player could be encouraged to move around the city or indulge in some variety through the use of police heat. For instance, after a high-value robbery or a hit the police presence in a zone might be stepped up. Or, if the player has been careless about laundering his money or disguising himself during heists, the police might start to tail him specifically, requiring him to spend time doing less openly criminal work (or shake the tail) before getting back to the life. A police crackdown in an area could be an effective and realistic punishment for being too violent in carrying out one’s crimes, and the ability to ease it off using a substantial bribe would still preserve the power fantasy. Similarly, failing to cut in a local capo could result in trouble with his goons.

These forms of pressure could be used to develop the major phases of plot advancement. While the standard crime opportunities would take place in a free-roam format, the player could open up new areas or suppress crews that are giving him trouble by performing major heists and hits. For instance, robbing a high-value target like a bank could convince another family’s don to let the player operate on his turf (for a cut). Or, the player could whack someone from another family who is giving him grief in a particular part of town, thus making that area safer to operate in. These would in turn open up new social opportunities, and therefore new jobs that can be undertaken.

One key component here is making sure there’s something worth doing with the proceeds of crime. This has been a challenge for games besides Mafia II. Niko Bellic’s endless moaning about his need for cash became almost comical in GTA IV, which handed you $250,000 in a single mission, not to mention giving you the option to take over a pretty swanky apartment almost for free. Another GTA installment, Chinatown Wars, handled the use of money much better in some ways by allowing the player to acquire real estate all over the city. Additionally, this served the gameplay by increasing the number of possible save points.

Allowing the player to invest in and either improve or liquidate businesses would also be a way to soak up the money while factoring into the gameplay through money laundering. One could, for instance, include something like the hostess club that Kiryu could manage in Yakuza 2. The player could also gain the goodwill of the ordinary people in an area of town by contributing to public works like parks or churches.

The main idea here is to let the player invest in the world of the game. The mobster’s claim to be “a legitimate businessman” is a cliché, but it is also more than just bluster. Lots of mafiosi really do own legitimate businesses, which they use to disguise their illegitimate business, and this isn’t only true of the capos. Real-life gangsters run protection rackets, but they also receive protection from the people in the neighborhoods they come from by gaining their good will. Pablo Escobar was hated in America, but plenty of ordinary folks in Medellín loved the guy. Proceduralizing that dynamic wouldn’t necessarily be difficult. Moreover, by allowing the player to really alter the gameworld you support that feeling of power, the feeling that made real people like Hill and fictional characters like Vito join the mob.

Of course you could include a large shootout in such a game, but it should be a climactic set piece, not a workaday mission. Games have tried to make themselves compelling by stacking violence on top of violence, but that’s a losing proposition because each mission desensitizes the player to the content of the next. The genre deserves better than the present tendency to generate amazingly detailed worlds that serve as little more than a backdrop for a slaughter. I believe that compelling play will result when the player is invited to involve himself in the world, when he has transformative power over it, not only to destroy but also to build. Will anyone make that crime game?

  One Response to “Crime isn’t just shooting people”

  1. Awesome post, generating much food for thought. The way you came up with the mission layout for a hypothetical real crime game was by analyzing actual crime scenarios, not other crime games. The challenge, of course, would be to make such a game engaging and entertaining, but with the ideas you put forth, it's certainly possible.

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