Thursday, 22 August 2013

Notes on Mafia II

The first time I played Mafia II I had the flu and I played it in one day because I was stuck in bed with nothing else to do. I thought it was okay. I thought the city was lifeless and the story was contrived, and too much of the game was functional rather than emotional. But I also liked the violence. I liked how depressing it all was. I liked the bit when you went to prison.

I'm playing it again now and I like it a lot more. I'm not whether it was because I was too young to care or too sloshed on tablets to notice but I didn't really pick up on Mafia II the first time round. This second go through has shown me a lot more. Despite some flaws, Mafia II is a hell of a game. Here are some initial thoughts.

1. I love the mundanity. I know the intention is pretty obvious, and that Mafia II isn't the first thing to try and demystify gangster life, but I think it's incredibly brave. This game came out two years after Grand Theft Auto IV. It shared shelf space with Saints Row 2. In a climate of fun-first sandbox games, Mafia II had players driving home and going to bed after every mission. It had them visiting diners, answering phone calls from their mother, drinking coffee in their kitchen.

Honestly, it's kind of boring. And I love that. I love how Mafia II doesn't abbreviate, how it makes you stick with your shitty, idiotic, violent character every step of the way. 

When Vito goes out at night and shoots six cops, then wakes up next morning, throws on a jacket and eats his breakfast, it makes him seem all the more malevolent. It's like he doesn't care. It's like that scene in Goodfellas where, after Jimmy has had Maurie killed, he's at diner with Henry. “What about Maurie's wife?” Henry asks. “Fuck her,” replies Jimmy. These guys don't just do terrible shit, they don't care about doing it either. Those workaday moments in Mafia II are a perfect contrast. They show how easily Vito shrugs off the things he does; to put it in mob parlance, they show how he's able to just fahged abarht it. His lack of conscience is scary.

2. The characters are all racist, stupid assholes. One of the first missions has you boosting a car from a poor, black neighbourhood. Vito and his scumbag friend Joe spend the whole drive over talking shit about black people. “These people breed like rabbits...they're only interested in shooting dope and killing each other,” that kind of crap. It's disgusting. The character you play in Mafia II is disgusting. And so, so dumb. He botches a simple robbery and gets sent to jail. When Joe is reciting his crummy pick-up lines, Vito's responses are all “heh, you need help buddy” and witless shit like that.

And he's got no honour, like, at all. One of the early missions sees Vito trying to fake an honest living hoisting boxes at the docks. It pays ten bucks per day and he spends the whole time bitching about how tough it is. 

Eventually, he gives up and walks off, and tells the foreman that he don't need this slave labour. Once the bosses at the dock find out he's friends with the mob however, they ask Vito to help extort money from the dockworkers, and he agrees. He agrees! Ten minutes earlier, this guy was working alongside the stevedores, feeling first hand just how crummy it is to work hard and get paid nothing. Now he's beating them up and stealing from them. He'll do whatever, as long as there's easy money in it. Vito's dad was a dockworker. He never had any money because of guys like Vito. But Vito doesn't care. He's getting paid and that's what matters. 

Later, when his house burns down and his possession are destroyed, he tells Joe that material things are all that matters to him. He's a fucking degenerate. For all the Cosa Nostra bullshit about old countries and omerta and honour, Vito's a guy who'll do anything for a dollar.

Some other quick pointers.

3. The game is beautiful. Not enough games are set in autumn/winter/the fifties.

4. Mafia II is the only game I know to get walking speed right. It's not a drag to walk from place to place and if you're playing the game for the first time, I encourage you to go on foot as much as possible.

5. The sister character is indefensibly shit. Weak, unquestioning, terribly acted - she has nothing to do except be saved by Vito. I wish she'd flip at him or turn him away or something. But no. She's just this little vole of a person with no agency. Same goes for most of the women. Yeah, the mob is a man's world, but since when was this game on the Mafia's side?

6. The scene where Vito arrives home from the war is fantastic. Let it Snow is playing non-diegetically, and it's all kind of pretty, but if you look close, his neighbourhood is a shithole. Some people are lying in the street, others are yelling at each other and fighting. He's glad to be home and, compared to the European Theatre, this place is picturesque. But we know straight away it won't last. Eventually the song will stop and all Vito will be left with is this shitty neighbourhood. Obviously he's going to want out.

Anyway, that's Mafia II for me so far. I'm also linking to my interview with Daniel Vávra who wrote both Mafia games. We talk mainly about the first one and I wrote it a while ago so it's shit of course, but anyway, it's there if you want it.

I might write more about Mafia II in the future.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Gone Home review

Note: Please do click on the screenshots here to zoom in on them. They detail really has to be appreciated. 

I'm standing outside the front door. This isn't my house, but it looks like it. The door is locked. The key is hidden under a lawn ornament. I go inside. Bathroom, kitchen, that crawlspace behind the stairs that dad keeps bags of cement in. They're all here. This is a real place and I've been here before.

And for how many games can you say that? Gone Home is an exception. Independent games, like Braid, Journey and Limbo have all dabbled, or claimed to dabble, in the personal. They're emblematic of something the creators really feel, not at all like that heartless triple-A garbage. They're real, man; they're important.

Except Gone Home actually is. Braid and the rest may attempt to extol some personal philosophy on behalf of their authors, but they're all mired in fantasy, set in colourful non-worlds and sprinkled in magic. In Braid you can stop time; in Journey you can fly; in Limbo, you're in Limbo. These are not really real, really – they're daydreams. They might attempt to process real emotions through abstract or playful illustrations, but compared to Gone Home, that's shite. Gone Home is to those other indies what Studs Turkel is to Max Brooks. It's better; it's a more potent truth.

It's set in the mid-nineties and you play Kaitlin, a twenty-something high-school grad who has just returned home to Portland after a year away in Europe. Arriving back at your (big) house, you find mom, dad and your sister Sam missing. The place is empty and no-one's left a note on the fridge. Where is your family?

To find out, you need to rifle through their drawers, their bookcases and their diaries. You need to look beneath their lawn ornaments. In the process, you uncover armfuls of 90s artefacts, from VHS tapes of X-Files episodes recorded straight off the TV, to music magazines, compilation tapes and self-help books. Some people will accuse Gone Home of deliberately playing on nostalgia. As a matter of fact, it's well observed. It's a wonderful, nuanced period piece, lovingly placed together by a design team who lived back then. I lived back then, too, and I can tell you, this is real. This is what my house and my bedroom looked like. There's a bit where you find a “zine” your sister has pasted together. I made zines too. My mum had old X-Files episodes on tape.

This is the other thing about Gone Home which is so precious. If I wanted to teach my kids a thing or two about the nineties, I could play the Smells Like Teen Spirit video, or give them a NES or put on My Own Private Idaho. Or I could give them Gone Home, and let them walk around and see it for themselves. This is a non-fiction game, a non-fiction game that isn't some poxy CD-ROM sellotaped to the front of an encyclopaedia. There's real life in here. I wrote before how The Last of Us represented a new genre for videogames – character drama. Gone Home is a step further. It's a heartfelt and honest family story that doesn't need guns or zombies to hook you in. To lure in dim players, there's some tertiary bumf about the house being haunted, but it's ignorable. This is the story of the Greenbriars, a nuclear family living in mid-nineties America, and it's real true.

Though perhaps I've been suckered in. Maybe I'm just falling for the aesthetic, the well-written gay characters (finally) and the fact that Gone Home is just so different. Maybe I'm easily pleased, so here are some criticisms.

First, the voice-over. Your sister, Sam, narrates chunks of her journal to you as you explore various regions of the house. It's fine - well-written and well-played - but contrary to Gone Home's ostensible intent. This is a game about discovery and domestic realism. You should be finding these things out organically, by picking up items or reading notepads. Sam's voice-over is an artificial intrusion on this otherwise real world.

Second, the house isn't quite right. There are several narrative contrivances to explain things away. The house is old, it was inherited from a rich and eccentric uncle and the lights go out a lot because the wiring is shot. But Gone Home suffers from that Deus Ex thing whereby everyone has left their password on a post-it note by their computer. Compromising documents about the family's personal lives are strewn all over the place; for some reason, a ticket to an Earth, Wind and Fire concert was tucked in a floor vent in the kitchen hallway. 

Again, like the voice-over, these discrepancies kill the buzz. So much of Gone Home is pitched perfectly, hand drawn from the memory of a very astute design team. It's a shame that honesty is mired with gameplay conceits.

And I guess that affects what I was so excited about in the first place; perhaps Gone Home isn't a totally real depiction of 90s living but, like Call of Duty is to war, a condensed, hyper-real representation. Maybe it's too stagey to be called a documentary. Maybe, rather than the social analysis I want it to be, it's just as contrived and made-up as any other “personal” videogame.

Maybe, but that doesn't erase all the good things about Gone Home. I'll save discussions of the narrative for another post (the dad's revived writing career made me tear up) but there are so many moments, so many drips of micro-story that I can't help but love Gone Home. It's not just the things you find, it's the order you find them in. I found dad's JFK biographies well before I found his pulpy conspiracy novel tucked in the library. The pictures of Jodie Foster and Neve Campbell on Sam's locker make sense only when you know who Lonnie is. It's amazing to think that all these minute, disparate elements can be arranged into a consistent narrative, especially when the player is running around at random, looking at whatever. Perhaps that's why documents and artefacts are plastered everywhere. It's the only way to ensure wayward players will pick up on what's going on in the Greenbriar home.

And this is where games are now. Only last week, I was complaining about Saints Row, GTA and Braid. I was saying that games, despite their advancing years, had failed to mature in any significant way. I was saying that I'd be embarrassed to show a videogame to my parents, and that there was no way I could possibly vindicate a game as being educational. Now I've played Gone Home, and I'm starting to wonder if things could change. The most precious moment for me was when I went into Sam's room and flicked through her collection of SNES cartridges. Space shooters, cartoony platformers, beat 'em ups – these were the games people were playing in 1995. Now, less than 20 years later, we have Gone Home. Game-makers are able to create subtle, nuanced family drama based on their own experiences, and ship it independently to a potential audience of millions.

Nostalgia is nice and cosy and Gone Home works it perfectly, but at the same time as it celebrates the past, it's a manifesto for the future. Games are better now. They can teach us things beyond how to do Chun-Li's helicopter kick. Verily, I loved Gone Home. I can't wait to show it to my family.