This article contains spoilers for Mafia 2.
We stomp goombas on our way to rescue the princess, we save the world from nuclear destruction in the nick of time, and we vanquish the great evil that stalks the land.
Are games a power fantasy? Escapism? They allow us to almost, but not quite, become icons of the ideals we believe in, but that’s a narrow-minded definition.
Throughout history, many have found themselves on the wrong side (such as the Inquisition or the Nazis), but they believed that their goals were the enviable ones — goals that were worth killing and dying for.
When have we played as someone who was on the other side of that coin?
But first, let us examine what a hero really is, and why heroism is so appealing.
The definitions of the word hero are many: "illustrious warrior" and a "mythological or legendary figure [...] with great strength and agility." However, the closest useable definition in our modern world has to be “one who shows great courage,” one of the greatest virtues anyone can possess.
This is most often demonstrated by rescue workers, who in the face of danger put their own life at risk to save the lives of others. But in the world of games, the player can sit safely behind the screen, saving the lives of innocents without risking his own skin. In other words, heroism loses its meaning in video games but not its appeal. Who doesn’t want to be hailed a hero by the cheering crowds?
The word has its origins in Greek (referring originally to a demigod), and only later has the role of the hero been defined as a courageous one. Although the Greek (and Roman) heroes often had some quite cruel ways — methods that today would not be considered noble or heroic. The characteristics of the hero have changed. They are all tied closely to the social structure and ideals that ruled at the time.
Phil Leigh fromInside Digital Media brings Christopher Vogler's outline of the twelve stages of a hero’s journey over to the world of video games by claiming that when gamers undertake the hero’s role in, say, Dragon Age or Call of Duty, they not only vanquish the great evil but undergo a journey that leads to “valuable psychological truths.” In essence, undertaking the hero’s role is an intensification of life.
Ultimately, the role of the hero — however appealing it is — has been done to death. But more importantly, many interesting stories — some of which you’ll get a small glimpse of — have rarely been told in this medium, which is a damn shame as it could use some deviations from the norm. These are games that show the other side of “good,” and the endings aren’t always happy.
About one year ago, 2K Czech released their aptly named sequel Mafia 2. Although the game may not have delivered the sprawling open world some expected, it certainly delivered a different and nuanced protagonist.
Vito Scaletta, rising from petty criminal and war veteran to the inner circle of a mafia family, doesn’t want to do the right thing or win glory. He just wants…well, what does he want, other than the infinite allure of money?
All of his actions stem solely from self-interest in some form or another. And isn’t that the case for most people? Even if an act may be described as selfless — like risking your life in saving someone you love — aren’t the motivations ultimately selfish? We save the person because we are in a giving relationship with the person, not because of some hidden source of goodness inside all of us.
Vito routinely and unquestionably follows orders from the different mafia bosses he serves during the course of the game even if he knows their brutal methods to be wrong. He massacres countless unlucky suckers who happened to annoy Vito’s superiors.
This culminates with the ending where Vito is told to dispatch his current boss, Carlo Falcone, to the beyond just as he gets a tip from his old friend and mentor (Leo Galante, a member of another mafia family) that he's walking into an ambush. With the help of another old friend, Joe Barbaro, Vito manages to take down Carlo and destroy the Falcone family.
But all is not well yet. As Leo and Vito drive from the site of the deed, the car Joe has been placed in drives off in a different direction, and Leo hints that he will be disposed of. Vito is obviously distraught but makes no attempt to the save his friend. And then the game ends.
Why doesn’t he do anything? Because he ain’t no hero — he’s human. After all, what would happen to him if he were to take over command of the car and drive it to his friend’s rescue? He would almost certainly be killed. And throughout the game, Vito has had plenty of opportunities to leave the criminal life behind and start anew. No one’s directly forcing him to stay in this environment.
The reason for why he stays is that the family grants him safety, community, and wealth — more so than if he were to work as some underpaid laborer at the docks. Vito is no evil man, but those benefits make him ignore and endure the brutality. Crime may pay off, but you never abandon or betray your "family."
In essence, instead of playing heroes, I want to play humans. And humans are flawed. We don’t always make rational decisions — or "good" decisions — as it is easy and very human to follow your desires, instincts, and need for self-preservation. Those are some reasons people join extremist organizations across the political spectrum or rabidly and fervently force some religious beliefs onto others. These people are far more interesting and deep protagonists in that they don’t possess the mentioned idealistic trait of selflessness.
So how should a truly villainous character — or just a guy caught on the wrong side — be constructed?
Firstly, I should note that the portrayal need not be a sympathetic one. Just because the protagonist is on same side as the Orcs or even the Nazis doesn’t mean that the game’s creators — or even the game’s protagonist — have the same ideals. Instead, it is a way to show an organization or a group of people — however deluded they have been — from the inside.
Secondly, the character would need to be relatable; although, I generally have only scorn for that term. Unlike the parodic characters of Dungeon Keeper and Overlord, the character would have a human aura. A human existence. Give him a family or a friend to protect. Something that is of greater importance to him than an unknown mass of people.
And then let the player fill that character with his own motivations and ethics. But what is most important — and by far the most difficult — is to create a significant bond between the player’s character and the supporting characters. Otherwise, there will be no remarkable effect other than from the player’s own egoism when the player is faced with making meaningful decisions.
This has just been a very brief look at how protagonists can evolve from the hero template that many stories follow and transform into something more nuanced. as the interactivity of the medium breeds forethought, it is by far the ideal way of dealing with the other side.
Their lives were taken on your command. Can you live with having made such a decision?
Originally published on Nightmare Mode.