After playing through Mafia 2 again, I couldn’t help but think its cars had a distant cousin in Red Dead Redemption 2’s horses.
The Mafia series tries to perfectly encapsulate the power of working outside the law and having no rules apply to you. It deals with the upsides and downsides of this bygone line of work. But one of the core tenets of any Mafia-inspired piece of media (see The Godfather, The Sopranos) is a lack of care for those outside of “the family.” The everyday man doesn’t matter, businesses don’t matter, and any fun characters…well, they all go the way of any supporting character in a mob movie. All that matters is the money. In Mafia 2, there is only one thing left for players to care about outside of their wallet, and that’s their ride.
Mafia 2 is very much a period piece, and as such it faithfully recreates the cars of the 1940s and ’50s. And while American culture around this time was more akin to a roaring garbage fire than what it’s developed into now (a regular garbage fire), it did produce some gorgeous cars. But it takes more than good looks to care about a vehicle. It has to be vulnerable and unique in some way. For a player, it has to be theirs.
Accomplishing this sense of ownership is easy; it’s as simple as letting a player store something. If you can open up an inventory and access an item, it is no longer some nebulous thing found in the world: it’s yours. In Mafia 2, you always have a garage for that, and mechanics take care of the rest. When your favorite car is beaten up, drive it in for repairs. When cops have your plates, go there to change them so you can drive around in style care-free.
After finishing Mafia 2 and spending so much time in my own favorite car, I realized it has a distant relative in Red Dead Redemption 2. Rockstar’s game is unique in so many ways, with one being how it handles horses. They aren’t simply beasts of burden, but companions, partners out in the mud and dirt of the Old West. And in a lot of ways, the gameplay features attached to these two forms of transportation made me feel the same way when it came to how I treated them.
Horses in RDR2 are — much like everything else in the game’s excruciatingly detailed world — living, breathing things. They get dirty, tired and hurt, and eventually you need to take a break from riding across the west to take care of them. And besides carrying all of your weapons, you never really want to get rid of your horse. Especially not after you name it and customize it until it looks like one of those cheesy shirts you can get at a flea market. You develop a connection with your horse, and it elevates itself from “mode of transportation” to “your horse.”
The same phenomenon happened during my playthrough of Mafia 2. At some point, I’d find a gorgeous car and fall in love with it. Soon enough, I’d spend a boatload of cash suping up my ride and giving it a custom paint job. The only downside was how carefully I’d have to drive from then on. For some reason, cars in Mafia 2 are made of paper-mache, and a single bump can mean a crumpled up hood.
That fragility is what ties my hot rod in Empire City to my trusty steed in Ambarino. Neither are invincible things with limitless potential. In Mafia 2 I had to fill my car’s tank with gas (which is the only time I’ve ever done that in a game), while in Red Dead Redemption 2 I had to feed my horse. In Empire City, speeding past cops leads to a chase, and likewise, pushing your horse too hard causes them to rear up and knock you off. All of these limitations, imposed by the “vehicle” or by outside forces, made me think more carefully about how I was using and treating whatever mode of transportation I used to get from objective to objective.
What’s shocking is how many games treat the way players get around in such a meaningless manner. Mafia 2 and Red Dead Redemption 2 are the only titles that made me actually care about my vehicle. Even Grand Theft Auto, a series whose name directly references cars and puts a great deal of importance on them through gameplay, doesn’t actually care about them.
For a second, let’s step back to Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s 2009 and you’re playing with your friends on Xbox Live. You want to cruise around Liberty City but the only cars around you are brown sedans. But you know exactly where to find the Sultan RS, a badass sports car that spawns in only one space on the entire map. You get it, drive around for a bit, and then it’s summarily blown up by a random player. Thus the cycle repeats. In GTAIV, you can have your favorite vehicle, but it will never be “yours;” and when it’s gone, you’ll have to look for it again.
Grand Theft Auto V challenges the sentiments of its predecessor, but only slightly. In that title, you could finally customize your cars and even store them in garages. But once they were destroyed, and boy is that common, it’s gone. In Grand Theft Auto Online that was somewhat remedied by insurance companies, and being able to buy back my precious ride; but it all felt cheap. Show me someone in GTA Online that took a leisurely drive in their supercar, and I’ll show you someone that got blown up two seconds later by an MK 2 Oppressor.
Mafia 2 and Red Dead Redemption 2 have a perfect blend of vulnerability and personality in their vehicles that other games simply lack. They’re the only two titles where I’ve gone out for a ride at a slow pace following behind other horses in the town of Valentine, or simply obeying traffic laws in Empire City. They’re the only games where the way I got around felt like more than that. In some ways, I found them to be an extension of my character, or even myself. I personalized these things, kept them close and spent time with them. At some point, I gave them meaning beyond “machine” or “horse.” They became part of me, an extension of my character beyond themselves in a virtual world.