PC / 2002 / Developer: Illusion Softworks / Publisher: Gathering of Developers
Mafia is one of those games that I played through only once, but that single playthrough left a strong impression upon me, even years after the fact. Enough time has passed that it's no longer the specifics that impress me, but a general impression of the tone of the narrative and the gameworld itself. Mafia is one of those games that successfully used every element of the presentation and mechanics to reinforce both the setting and the character arcs woven through the central narrative, to achieve a rare sense of cohesion and gravity.
At the begining of the game, the player character is an undistinguished everyman, a cab driver in the fictional city of Lost Heaven, USA, during the thick of Prohibition and the end of the Great Depression. One night, he has a run-in with a couple of local mobsters, and helps them out of a tight spot. Eventually he is adopted into the Family, and through the game rises in the organization while completing missions in service of the Don. His conscience and allegiances are tested, and he eventually finds that no one makes it out of the Family clean.
The city of Lost Heaven, obviously a stand-in for Chicago, expresses the period believably throughout-- the architecture, cars, music, costumes, and general ambiance all echo what we've seen in pre-war film and more recent period pieces. Lost Heaven isn't outsized, and it isn't a cartoon, unlike the city settings in, say, the GTA3 series. The mechanics also present Lost Heaven as a real place: if a cop is around and catches you speeding or running a red light, you will be pulled over and have to pay a fine. The cars you drive accelerate and handle like the real cars of the period: slow off the mark, without a tight turning radius, and if you beat them up too much they'll grind to a halt. Mafia succeeds in placing the player in a believable space, one that acts like it should, that supports the fiction and creates a tone unique from other games.
Similarly, the characters come across as real people, with their own motivations and outlooks on life. One of your fellow mobsters, the DeNiro type, an enforcer like yourself, demonstrates that his first priority is always loyalty to the Family; another, the Don's personal accountant, has a wife and daughter, and his allegiance to his family and to the Family cause some of the central tension of the narrative; another, the Pesci stand-in, is more in it for thrills and the pay-off, but is endearing in his own way. The Don of the family is both fatherly and somewhat aloof, portrayed as slightly detached, but a figure that the younger mobsters can look up to in that anti-heroic way. The central conflict of the story revolves around the concept of Loyalty-- loyalty to whom, under what pressures, and what that means. What happens when the natural inclination towards compassion collides with the obligations of loyalty? When one is disloyal to the Family, can they ever truly outrun their past?
Mafia is somewhat like GTA, in that there's an open city, and driving, and shooting. But the game achieves an effect much more in line with my desire for a "GTA with gravity." It places you as a living actor in a believable city, wherein your actions have consequences, and the overall thrust of the game propels the player toward a comprehensive conclusion to a satisfying narrative arc. There are certainly more mechanical constraints on the player's actions in Mafia than in GTA, but that's what gives the actions performed impact, and maintains the cohesiveness of the setting. I remember thinking at the time that Mafia was the first truly "mature" action game story I'd ever played through, and while other games have tried admirably, Mafia still stands apart. It achieved this by consistently showing restraint instead of going over the top. Every developer should be so committed to fully realizing the game space they set out to portray.