Cahiers du Jeux Vidéo is a series of posts comparing the narrative mechanisms of video games and movies with (hopefully) a bit more depth rigour than your average commentator breathlessly comparing Halo preorders to box office receipts. It’s named after foundational French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma , because I’m a pretentious prick.
For the most part, TV shows or movies do not show you how the sausage gets made. There isn’t time, unless you’re Alfred Hitchcock, to show your lead character on the loo in a break between plot beats. You don’t need a forty-minute interlude of somebody driving on a freeway to understand how someone got from one location to the next between scenes. The magic of editing allows time to be compressed, the boring bits skipped over, leaving audiences with a lean meal of all the best bits. This is how it’s always worked. We are all on board with it. We understand that most of the “process” of these character’s lives and stories get skipped over. Video games, for the most part, are free of editing. They’re all about playing the process.
It’s at least part of the reason why video game-to-movie adaptations do not, perhaps cannot, work. Silent Hill, for all its established mythos-bending, remains the most faithful game adaptation, both for fully adopting the visual style of the series and because most of the game is a character running around to different locations and picking up items. It makes for fairly boring viewing. It makes for riveting gameplay when you’re an active participant. Gone Home would make a crummy ninety-minute movie, but it’s an emotionally involving game where you’re an active participant. Editing in games is the preserve of “experimental” titles like Thirty Flights of Loving or Virginia, games which are applauded for their audacity but whose adoption of cinematic grammar is not picked up by the mainstream.
Another comparison: There are examples of TV shows and movies that depict the sorts of processes. Both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are meticulous in their attention to detail, breaking down, on-screen, each individual step of starting up a meth business and changing your name from “Jimmy” to “Saul,” respectively. Most of the fun of the heist genre, typified by the Ocean’s movies, is seeing a group being put together and the planning of their elaborate schemes. But as with watching Rocky training for a boxing fixture with unfeasibly large consequences on the geopolitical landscape during the Cold War or Molly Ringwald being transformed from a unconvincingly-frumpy high school wallflower to an equally-unconvincing homeroom ingenue, most of these processes are depicted in the truncated form of a montage. These take up a couple of minutes of screentime, if that, possibly accompanied by an eighties power ballad.
To depict process properly — sans montage, in the step-by-step manner of Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad before it, forgoes cinema’s ability to transcend linear time and transport the viewers forwards, backwards, and sideways through its established chronology — is a conscious decision. It’s a commitment to showing how the sausage gets made, as Erik Adams wrote in his preview of the latter show’s third season
Perhaps even more than Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul loves depicting process. A motif in the first two episodes of the series’ third season finds characters taking things apart or putting them back together again, always with a meticulous attention to detail. An automobile is stripped to its bare components. Batteries are inserted and reinserted into devices, one scene going so far as to capture the awkward and never intuitive process of opening a plastic blister pack of C-cells. The elder McGill brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), instructs Jimmy on the proper method to remove an adhesive from a wall without damaging the finish underneath. We later see Jimmy taking tape off of a different wall, following Chuck’s technique for a few seconds—before finishing the job with one violent yank.
In video games, editing of the cinematic sort has yet to be adopted by the industry at large. Triple A games have borrowed plenty of other storytelling tricks from the movies, from flashbacks to plot twists, orchestrated music cues to just flat-out stealing plots from films and presenting them in pre-animated cutscenes, even hiring directors, actors and writers straight from Hollywood. Most video games, even the ones which purport to have blockbuster production values, are instead focussed on process. Even given that context, I’m not sure I’ve come across a game that’s more process-focussed — sometimes to a fault — than Mafia III.
Mafia III is a game where you forcibly take over every criminal racket in the fictional Louisiana setting of New Bordeaux, from a prostitution ring to a union extortion scam. Controlling the character of Lincoln Clay, betrayed by an old friend and left for dead in the smouldering wreckage of your also-murdered adoptive father and brother’s bar, you play through every single step of this hostile takeover of territory. This includes not only the car chases and shoot outs that you would expect — and which are one of the main things that would allow you to tar the game as a simple GTA clone — but also meeting people for a chat, stealing shipments of rival contraband, and “intimidating” informants into giving up information.
There’s not a montage of these events, skipping over a significant period of time, Goodfellas-style. It doesn’t show one example of a shakedown, enough for the audience to understand this is a regular occurrence for low-level mobsters. You not only see the sausage get made, but you’re there for every single part of the manufacturing process. And not only do you witness it, but you’re actively involved with the entirety of said process. The most important difference between games and movies is one is an “active” engagement with a form of media, the other “passive.” You watch a movie. It happens to you. It can happen in the background while you do other stuff. You play a game. Nothing happens unless you interact with it. In terms of simulating the actual day-to-day life of a criminal, Mafia III is several rungs above Grand Theft Auto.
That’s because GTA exists in a more “heightened” reality, one informed initially by crime cinema and increasingly by the chaotic narratives created by players themselves as they go on cheat-fuelled rampages (Trevor from GTA V was basically your standard Grand Theft Auto player, incorporated into the scripted plot). Mafia III also exists, necessarily, in a reality more “heightened” than our own, inspired as it is by pulp crime novels and films, and of a version of sixties America informed by the popular culture it references, most heavily with its licensed soundtrack of The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. For a game which is, as most triple A titles are, a kind of wish-fulfilment fantasy for the people who play it, however, reality does intrude from time to time.
There’s the reality we started off with, the one we live in. Where time is linear, and we can’t just skip the parts we’re not arsed about. Even drinking heavily and blacking out results in a hangover, regrets, and a hefty Domino’s pizza bill your inbox. Much of the playtime of Mafia III revels in both that wish-fulfilment of being a criminal, as alternately decried and glamourised in Hollywood cinema since the thirties, whilst also pulling back the curtain and revealing that, like any job, there’s a lot of time spent organising things in organised crime. You get the occasional blockbuster set piece, like racing through an alligator-infested swamp or robbing the Federal Reserve, but even more time is spent smashing up the contents of mob-protected liquor stores and collecting bits of electronics to solder together makeshift wiretapping devices on the hoof. This commitment to the prosaic daily rituals of criminal life, like a law-breaking game of Harvest Moon, is what sets the Mafia franchise apart; it’s the defining characteristic which makes it more than a cash-in on GTA’s mega-successful formula, as Hamish Black explained in Waypoint article on the second game in the series
Mafia II does not attempt to glamorize the gangster life. Instead, it very deliberately paints a picture of brutal mundanity. In fact, it ends up treating the life of a Mafioso with all the pomp and circumstance of a menial day job…This isn’t like GTA, in which you can race along at whatever speed you want as long as you don’t careen headfirst into the oncoming cops—Mafia II makes you adhere to traffic regulations. Characters called me crazy for skipping red lights, and the game even has a speed limiter that I’ve kept active most of the time, anything to keep the cops off my tail. Hell, missions often require you to literally perform in-game menial labor—whether it’s packing boxes, cleaning floors, or whatever else. This world is not yours for the taking—it’s bigger than you as a player and utterly indifferent toward your presence. You’ve just got to get through it. Everyone’s gotta pull together for the common cause, right? There’s a war on.
The question you’re probably asking yourself at this point is this: How is any of this compelling to actually play? The answer is fairly simple: The mechanics of the gameplay perfectly line up with the ambitions of the character. It’s thematically coherent, which is something that so many gangster games seem to put to the wayside in their attempts to make the player feel important. This game isn’t about opening up the possibilities of the world to the player—it’s about very deliberately closing them off. It makes you relate to the character’s struggles in a way that simply would not be possible if the mob was seen as this conquerable force that Vito simply needed to overcome.
It’s unusual that Mafia III doubles down on the relative mundanity of a mobster’s life, since it actually does borrow a significant amount of cinematic grammar. The game’s story is framed entirely in flashback, with a framing narrative of key players being “interviewed” in the present day in the style of a documentary, complete with captions to explain who they are and their relationship to the narrative. Lincoln’s friend, Father James, now elderly, reflects on the unfortunate path of violence he witnessed a member of his flock go down. Your regular CIA contact, John Donovan, appears in “footage” from a senate hearing distorted and letterboxed to suggest it’s a piece of archived film. The game’s story is told through dialogue whilst you play, cutscenes, and also by cutting away from the action at key moments back to this framing device; there’s a couple of moments which borrow the cute “no no no, that’s not what happened” Game Over screen of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time where an interview subject ruminates on Lincoln Clay’s untimely, sudden death halfway through his criminal career. Otherwise, it doesn’t skip anything in your rise to the top of New Bordeaux’s criminal underworld. Including the rough stuff.
The element of Mafia III which caused the most discussion prior to its release was its handling of racism. It’s a game where you play as a black man, in the American South, in 1968. It’s a game which empowers you to mow down scores of corrupt cops, mobsters and redneck criminals with heavy artillery, but where entering a general store with a “NO COLOUREDS” sign prominently displayed in the venue will result in the owner coming round the corner to try and intimidate you into leaving. Other games have tried to tackle issues of race, both contemporary and historical, although most have done this in a way that’s merely paying lip service to the topic, are openly hateful or satirical, or else are small indie titles which provide a short, powerful message with limited play time and resources.
Mafia III is a game with a significantly bigger budget, and one which fully commits to racism as part of its premise. Lincoln is up against not only the mob, but institutional prejudice, and both of these seem at times insurmountable. You experience these obstacles in the same way. Racism appears during those intermittent, large set-pieces and cut scenes, sure. But that’s not the totality of it. The taking over of the city’s criminal rackets involves the step-by-step banality of breaking up and then reconstructing systems of extortion, narcotics and prostitution, and the hate Lincoln experiences is mostly not big “moments”, but smaller, almost incidental, yet ever-present. Blue markers appear in your HUD and minimap, making you aware of the presence of police in your vicinity at all times, which works as both gameplay mechanic (commit a crime in their eyeline and they’ll fire up the sirens) and as a simulation of being a black man in a country where institutional racism is rife in law enforcement. Like Mafia II, it “makes you relate to the character’s struggles”, but your characters is now an African-American in an America which is actively hostile towards his continued existence, let alone his attempts to conquer an entire city. It’s a game which forces you to confront the “reality” of criminal life, but also the “reality” of being a minority in a country built on white supremacy, on a history of enslavement. Making this part of the process of playing the game, as a system unto itself, shows what games can achieve which the compression of time offered by films or TV cannot manage. It shows that racism is a sustained barrage to be endured, rather than a handful of incidents isolated within a montage.
That said, one of the other strengths of Mafia III’s world is its frankness about Lincoln’s goal. You are given objectives to complete and, as in most games, you do not question their veracity. Of course these are the right things to do. Why else would the game tell you to? As time goes by, though, you start to get an inkling. An itching at the back of your skull. The faint voice of a Jiminy Cricket character wondering out loud if maybe you’re not such a great guy. Playing as Lincoln, you bust up prostitution rings…and then instigate your own prostitution ring. You stop shakedowns of local unions…and then begin extorting them anew for you own gain. You gain control of the Hollow…and continue dealing the drugs that have ravaged the local community. It is upfront about the process of putting together a criminal empire, and of being an African-American in the sixties, and also of the consequences of both those processes. It allows, across its mammoth play time (How Long To Beat generously suggests an average 21 hour playtime, without straying outside the bare minimum of missions completed to reach the ending), for a level of nuance in its characters and motivation which, again, would be lost in the space of either a two-hour feature or even a more sprawling miniseries.
There’s a lot of criticism that could be levelled at Mafia III. Its open world feels somewhat empty of an NPC population (it’s harder to hustle up extras when you’re relying on processing power and the production of character models as opposed to struggling actors at low pay rates), compared to others. The motion-capture performances and voice acting during the fully “directed” cutscenes are fantastic, possibly the best we’ve yet seen in this type of game, but there’s some slightly naff in-game dialogue exchanges that trigger or end missions. At a certain point, playing through forty hours of every single step of taking over illegal smuggling rings can even get a bit dull and repetitive. But the game commits.
It commits to taking you through every part of its premise, of its characters, of showing you their reality and the reality of their actions. It doesn’t provide any easy route to Lincoln’s ultimate goal, nor any easy excuses about how he gets there, or what the goal is. It does not try to justify the criminal’s life. It doesn’t cut away, in short, and it implicates you in all this violence in a way that’s far more compelling than, say, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. It’s strength as a game, rather than a film, is the argument it makes for depicting every step of a process in a character’s story, for the richness of narrative and identification it provides. And it does, sometimes, give you the satisfaction of abandoning that careful process for a moment in favour of a single, violent yank. No editing required.