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A look at how the immature misuse of sexual content in Mafia II squandered both narrative potential and immersion for the player in some scenes, and how handling the material differently would not only have been good for the game, but gaming in general.

Aaron & Alex Leach, Blogger

September 29, 2010

7 Min Read

[Written by Aaron Leach.]

I think we’re all adults here, so I feel confident that I can safely make a statement regarding a certain aspect of 2K Czech's content in Mafia II without getting any giggles from those that would be easily amused by words like nipple or foreskin. The statement I’d like to make is a simple one. Mafia II needed more topless women and more male frontal nudity. Oh come on, I said no giggling! Let me explain.

Mafia II is a very mature game. Given its subject matter and the time period in which it is set, players would expect heavy doses of violence, drugs, foul language, racism and sex. The game owes a great deal to Scorcese films like Goodfellas and Casino, and for the most part, does a great job at handling many of those “not for the faint of heart” themes with an air of sophistication and maturity.

Violence is intense and often graphic, but not glamorized. Racist remarks are used to show the appropriate ethnic tensions and distrust of the era and are not just thrown in haphazardly. Weighty stuff, indeed, and it’s all done quite well…except for the sex. Anything remotely sexual, developer 2K Czech has handled with all the finesse of an elephant trying to walk through a tulip patch without squashing any flowers.

Now, before I get into why this is important, let me start by saying that this is not a soapbox speech on how ridiculous it is that our culture is fine with portraying the taking of life but not the making of life. We’ve all heard that one before, and it doesn’t completely apply here anyway.

Instead, the problem with Mafia II’s mishandling of sexual content that I’d like to address is that it creates moments of broken immersion within an otherwise beautifully painted mural of its subject matter. Additionally, the insincerity of the game’s sexual content also keeps it, and by extension gaming in general, from being taken seriously as a legitimate narrative medium capable of delivering a full variety of adult oriented themes in an appropriate and fearless manner. Looking at a couple of examples, you’ll quickly see what I mean.

[WARNING: SPOILERS] The remainder of the article will deal with some plot details for Mafia II. While I think they are fairly minor, I don’t want to be blamed for not warning you.

Mafia II takes place over the course of a couple decades, and like most gangster stories that span many years, we get to see the protagonist, Vito Scaletta, do some time in prison. And we all know prison isn’t a very nice place. Of course Vito manages to make some enemies, and in one particular instance, finds himself in some hot water, so to speak.

The scene goes something like this: After being forced to clean some rather nasty urinals, Vito is ordered by the guard to strip down to take a shower. While in the shower room, a trio of unfriendly inmates wishes to intimately acquaint themselves with your character. The situation begins to look grim as the men surround you, and you start fighting in the hopes of avoiding this humiliating violation. However, in the midst of this terrible scene, you, the player, notice that something isn’t quite right here. Something’s a bit off. Then it hits you: These men are all wearing boxer shorts in the shower.

Because of this laughable and illogical visual, the player never gets to feel truly exposed or vulnerable. They are emotionally protected by that little bit of fabric. They never feel the heightened levels of insecurity that a similar scene from the film American History X delivers, and they never get fully taken in by the primal nature of the ensuing fight like they would by the movie Eastern Promises when it portrays two exposed men fighting for their lives.

This was a moment in which the nudity would not only have served to take the scene to a higher level of emotional immersion, but also would have been completely appropriate to the narrative context. No one showers with their shorts on. To portray otherwise is so nonsensical that it only serves to remove the player from the reality the game is trying to create. Immersion broken.

The other major mishap happens directly after Vito is released from prison. He meets up with his buddies for a celebratory night out on the town. So where do they go? To a house of ill repute, of course! The boys refer to it as a “cathouse,” and the conversation on the way to the establishment leaves no room for error in guessing why you are going there. Once inside, the place looks like an upscale strip club. There are stages with women dancing, girls sitting all around you and hallways and doors that presumably lead to places where “transactions” are made.

It’s a wonderfully busy and alive scene. But again, as the camera pulls back, you notice something is not quite right in this den of sin. Every one of the working girls, even the ones dancing on stage, is clothed. Now it could be argued that this was a more modest era, but I don’t think that’s what was at play here. The girls are dressed in highly revealing lingerie that look like anything you might see today. The dress isn’t used to indicate the time period here at all. Instead, it just looks like another instance in which the game isn’t willing to take that extra step. It’s nudity that would have made complete sense and would not have felt gratuitous. Without it, the scene just doesn’t ring true and, again, immersion is broken.

What’s more alarming about this scene is that the developers do depict a highly sexual act, but it’s done for laughs. While Vito is sitting around talking to his buddies, you can’t help but notice a head bobbing in and out of the bottom of the frame as your friend is “orally serviced” right in front of you. Without describing it, just know that the act is portrayed humorously. So rather than have the nudity that made sense for the scene, we get what appears to be the result of childish designers leaning over to each other during a development meeting and saying, “Hey, you know what would be funny right here…?”

Let’s not forget that the game features nude Playboy centerfold pictures as collectibles. These are actual photographs of nude women. Viewing them stops the action of the game, or has to be done from a separate menu outside of the main game. So these images don’t technically exist in the game space. They are simply for the player and add little to no narrative value to the game other than a passing connection to the time period. But realistically, their inclusion makes as much sense as if a game set in the 90’s featured centerfolds from the 90’s in it as collectibles. How is this ok, but contextually relevant sexual imagery is not?

If these choices were made due to issues with the ESRB, then both the developer and the ratings board are at fault. Shame on the ESRB if they wanted to censor portrayals of sexual imagery that were more than warranted by the narrative, and shame on the developer for not sticking with the authenticity of their vision and fighting for their content. This could have been a landmark opportunity to make sure a game’s narrative integrity remained intact.

Now, if 2K Czech made these choices of their own accord, then the blame is solely with them. The choices to censor the game in the moments I described are not only artistically gutless, but extremely immature when viewed in light of other sexual content that does appear in the game.

It’s these types of misguided directorial choices that keep games firmly planted in the lowbrow column of entertainment, and shines a negative light on those that create them. As I said before, these problems wouldn’t be such a big deal for Mafia II if the entire game was a little more tongue-in-cheek like Grand Theft Auto. However, the thematic mishandling of sex here shows such glaring tonal inconsistency that it really is hard not to notice. It’s time to grow up guys. We can’t beg to be taken seriously as an art form at every opportunity, and then do stuff like this. Respect your product, respect your narrative and respect your audience. Doing that will make sure that when it comes to being taken seriously, we won’t have to beg.

 [Reprinted from www.pixelosophy.com.]

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