One might say that “ludo-narrative dissonance” has become somewhat of a buzz-word of mine of late, and one would be very correct in saying so. The issues presented in video games when ludic (game mechanics) and narrative expressions do not compute has become a particular interest of mine. So much so that is has become a central part of my Master’s Thesis: “In order to create a cohesive experience of play and story, ludic and narrative elements must align in meaning and expression”.
As the title insinuates, I have an issue with the pacing of Mafia 3. This is a real shame, because the game actually has one of the better narratives I have experienced in a while. That is to say, the beginning and ending is great, and the middle part of the game presents the problem.
The following will not present any overt spoilers, however in talking about the pacing it may inadvertently reveal some elements of the narrative. Nothing specific will be spoiled, that much I promise.
Mafia 3 reveals its narrative to be ambitious from the very beginning of the game. We take the role of Lincoln Clay, returned from the Vietnam War, visiting his father and brother in New Bordeaux (a fictional but recognisable rendition of New Orleans), before wanting to travel to California where he has a job waiting for him at a shipyard. The game carefully constructs its narrative through flashback gameplay, cinematic scenes of conversation and social interaction, and the introduction of an overarching documentary (recorded after the events we are about to play) that interviews various people concerning Lincoln’s life and reveals clues as to the coming events in the game. Juggling multiple timelines in video games is a difficult task, due to the medias inherent emphasis on present tense through interactivity. Nonetheless, the developers Hangar 13 manage to deliver through a tightly controlled narrative where we play out Lincoln’s actions following his return to New Bordeaux.
Far from everyone will agree on this approach to storytelling in video games, the tight control of action that is. However, whether or not you agree on the approach, I would argue it at least achieves its goal – i.e. establishing the characters in the game, their personal connections to each other, and ultimately Lincoln’s (and the players) motivations that will carry most of the gameplay leading to the conclusion of the game. All these elements are closely linked. If we didn’t establish Lincoln’s connection to his family and friends, and understand their importance, we wouldn’t empathise with him later on or thereby feel motivated to carry out the actions required to propel the game forward.
As you can probably tell, I quite enjoyed the beginning of the game, and enjoyed the way Hangar 13 unapologetically took me through a tightly constructed narrative in order to deliver a story that created genuine emotional responses when this song came on:
I am keeping this spoiler free, but trust me, you will know exactly what I am talking about when you play the game – Or already know if you have played it.
However, you remember I mentioned this middle part that wasn’t so great? Well, let’s look some more into that.
It would hardly be a Mafia game if we did not have to take over the city in order to run it ourselves. Sadly, as strong as the writing in this game seems to be, as weak did I eventually find the mechanics at length. Mafia 3 actually has a very satisfying combat and stealth system. Get caught in the wrong situation with no Plan B and you are most likely dead, but taking out enemies stealthily is a very viable option, and even if you should get caught in the act, it is possible to slip away from your pursuers and thereby slip back into stealth. The transition between stealth and combat is in other words smooth.
To take the city, Lincoln must take over rackets in each district, which is done by causing damage to various operations to lure out the manager of the racket, then move in and take him out. This is all mainly done through a mix of stealth and combat, depending on your approach. As such this wasn’t initially an issue, but 10+ hours into this type of gameplay – Suffice to say it gets somewhat repetitive.
Not only does it become repetitive to act out, but it also disrupts the pace of the story. Now, we are caught up in a revenge plot where Lincoln wants to get his hands on the bad guy who caused him grief. He finds some allies that will help him and assist in controlling the parts of the city they take over. But taking over the city takes such an immense amount of time, gameplay wise, without much development story wise, that the two just become disjointed. This comes down to Lincoln having to take every single racket and district all by his lonesome (This wouldn’t be too bad if the game introduced new mechanics and challenges as we progressed, but that is not the case).
As Errant Signal says in his YouTube video on this passage of the game’s length, “In any film, this would be wrapped up in a montage”.
And with the game’s obvious inspiration from film in its way of presenting narrative, it leaves me wondering why it wasn’t? Errant Signal points towards player expectations: Games should be of a certain minimum length, less than 8 hours and the game is not worth it. However, if this is the only reason, well, it’s a bad one. This part of the game offers very little in terms of story – yes there are interesting parts taking out those closest allies to the bad guy, but not enough to justify the time it takes to get to them – and since the games mechanics offer nothing new either, Mafia 3 simply looses its motivational drive.
My point is this: Mafia 3 shows some great story writing at the beginning of the game, but because of a long slog in the middle that story gets diluted. I have a hard time finding a convincing argument for why this city take-over had to be so extensive. Why does Lincoln have to do everything himself? Surely gaining allies they should assist and do much of the dirty work for him? Hangar 13 would have done everyone a favour by letting the narrative dictate the game’s pacing, and focus on the main story. One way of working around this issue would of course be to offer the city take-over as optional missions, maybe offer bonuses for completing them yourself, but having an option of letting one of your under-bosses do it for you, which would keep the game in line with the main plot, but save us all a lot of time.
Anyway, it seems to me that the developers were afraid of there being too little “gameplay” in Mafia 3, and that whole middle part of the game is a way of making up for it, which is a darn shame. If you have played the game then please let me know what your experience was? I am biased, as I am particularly interested in the stories that games can tell and was therefore particularly disappointed when this game didn’t deliver after what I saw as a promising start.
Errant Signal, “Game Length & Mafia 3”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muYtE3bz7o0