There are basically two broad plot arcs in the organized crime genre that tend to do well, given a little inspiration and talent on the writer’s part. We’ll nickname them the Scarface and the Godfather for the convenience’s sake, though there are of course many variations to either of these, and a few other sorts besides (The Departed or The Dark Knight being some great examples; in one the mob suffers from a whopping Greek tragedy complex and in the other they just suffer from Batman). The Scarface style is pretty straightforward — guy joins mob, guy fights steals and kills his way to the top, guy is killed by somebody else in the business. The Godfather style similarly details the rise to power, but is much more subtle about the costs — usually he loses something once dear to him, and then only gradually, like Michael Corleone watching his siblings, his wife, and his children slowly detach themselves from the person he becomes. Sometimes the main character seems only subconsciously aware of these losses, like Tony Soprano.
Mafia II is one of the latter. Vito Scaletta, the main character, is basically a walking amalgam of Michael Corleone and Henry Hill — an Italian-American WWII vet who grew up amidst the mob culture of early 20th-century New York (called Empire Bay in the game, much like GTA’s Liberty City). That said, the developers decided to mostly jettison the sort of “this is how the mob works” narrative that makes up so much of the original Mafia, and countless films and TV shows. Instead, the game seems intent on defying a lot of the typical mob-movie plot twists (see: Tommy DeVito), managing to piece together a fairly unique story even as they continue to fulfill almost every single Italian mob stereotype in terms of characters and culture.
Let’s talk about the game’s ending. As briefly as possible: Vito gets hired by another family to whack the boss of the family he’s mostly been working for throughout the game. The characters of Mafia II rarely seem to put much stock in family loyalties, and neither Vito nor his best friend Joe Barbaro ever get particularly cozy with any of the heads of the city’s three families. But Joe doesn’t have contacts in the other families, so in the game’s final scene he almost ends up executing Vito since he hasn’t been switch-hitting.
I half expected the game to end right there, with Joe putting a bullet in Vito’s head; I mean, 2K has historically been rather ruthless with their characters (see the original Mafia or BioShock), and it didn’t seem unlikely given Joe’s characterization up to that point. But he surprised me by turning on his employers to help Vito in what, for him, would end up being a last hurrah. According to Vito’s new employers, Joe “wasn’t part of the deal,” and Joe’s car takes off in a different direction as Vito rides on to meet with the head of the last remaining Mafia family in the city (yep, you whacked the other one, too).
While I enjoyed the game, Mafia II didn’t blow me away (heh, get it?) like, say, The Godfather or The Departed. But I think this final scene was really well done in that it makes the player feel guilty that they have (vicariously) caused the death of Vito’s oldest friend. As the two cars slowly drive farther and farther apart, I kept waiting for the scene to cut back to the game and let me turn on my employers (again) to go save Joe. But the car just keeps driving, we get a panoramic shot of the city’s downtown complete with Empire State Building lookalike, and the credits roll.
I’ve played a lot of mob-related games; I’m still working on Grand Theft Auto IV, but none of the others that I’ve finished have made it quite as clear as Mafia II that organized crime is really a rotten, awful thing. We understand that on an intellectual level, sure, but most of us will never know what it feels like to be in that situation. 2K took a stab at changing that, and I think for the most part they succeeded. Hell, maybe you never liked Joe — he was loud, crass, and often wantonly violent, and maybe you weren’t especially sorry to see him go. But there’s something so final about watching him get taken away in that car that just made me feel helpless and guilty and ashamed all at the same time.
I think those particular emotions are pretty difficult to get across in a medium where the audience is passive, which exemplifies why video games are such an important art form — because here, the player takes personal responsibility for what happens to the characters around them. Some people choose to make the exact opposite argument, saying that video games cannot be art precisely because they’re interactive, but that would seem to suggest that a game like Mafia II, with all its gritty operatic storytelling and its beautiful rendition of 1950s America, is in fact more similar to Scrabble than it is to Goodfellas.
Here it comes, the obligatory concluding reference to a mob-movie trope: the notion that games are not an art form is a corpse rotting in the trunk of your car, and it’s long past time to drive out to the boondocks and dig the hole.