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The Sexual Misadventures of Mafia II
by Aaron & Alex Leach on 09/29/10 12:25:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[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]

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Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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I agree absolutely with you. Honestly though, I didn't think at the time that more nudity (or rather actual nudity) was missing. But now that you make a point of it being of service to the narrative, it strikes me as true. Another interesting argument that games just need to grow up, from adolescent giggle content (a hidden BJ for stupid laughs) to actual maturity where it makes sense and strengthens the intensity (shower scene). So yeah, 100% agreed. Thank you for making a good point here

Jonathan Jennings
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I don't know I both agree and disagree with you. I think the saboteur did an excellent job of portraying what a strip club/ " cat house" should look like. there's women all over the place, flirting with men, serving drinks it too is a lively venue and while I don't have access to the " midnight show" dlc I know it contains topless women .

I think you also make an excellent point, it's laughable that the game can display actual nudity and yet censor virtual nudity and considering the mature rating and subject matter of the game it makes a lot of sense and most certainly would greatly enhance the depiction of a whore house.

however with that said I personally think our society ( and this is just my opinion) is ready for full frontal male nudity. hell we can barely be exposed to such nudity in film without hearing dislike and disdain from people, I have not seen it but I heard quite the uproar with GTA: the ballad of gay tony and how it depicted a male penis. I believe that lasted a short time at most but many players did not appreciate it and really it's funny because that too was meant in a humorous way. if players can't handle seeing a virtual penis as a joke, how will they accept in a serious manner ?

As i said I am conflicted, I agree with your arguments, in fact whenever I disagree with someone who wants games to be more " mature" it's usually because they want it for maturities sake...more boobs, more guts, more swearing just because. I am absolutely for meaningful maturity though, however at the same time I think mafia 2 would have caught a lot of flack for not only having a prison rape scenario but also showing fully nude male. I don't know, it's more of a societal issue than something I would place squarely on the heads of 2k czech, not every game can be a beacon of controversy like the GTA series and weather the public media storm,and while I feel we should be able to appreciate maturity for arts sake I also feel like to some extent many gamers aren't quite ready for a step in that direction.

as i said though it's just my opinion, very interesting article though and you make excellent points. I do feel like mafia 2 should receive major points for putting vito in a situation like that though, very few games tackle mature subject matter like that and putting the player in a vulnerable and potentially emasculating situation shows they definitely approached this game with a very mature vision in mind.

Aaron & Alex Leach
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I definitely understand your apprehension here. I definitely agree that the right road to take is not just adding more mature imagery for the sake of it being mature because then it becomes gratuitous.

I also think it varies from game to game. My experience with The Saboteur (admittedly somewhat limited) doesn't give me the same overall tone and vibe that Mafia 2 does in it's portrayal of mature themes across the board, and therefore, in my opinion, is ok to let some nudity slide. My take on that game is that it's more about the adventure and the mission of the character. Mafia 2 on the other hand uses the world, "the mafia life," and the tone as major immersion building tools.

And for the most part, the game really nails it. As I said, this wouldn't have been such glaring discrepancy had the game not done such a good job of hitting the nail on the head with all the other mature themes. There is little to no glamour to be had in the mature themes of the game. Vito's cause is not the same as The Saboteur. The game does a great job of painting the world in a great "this is just his life and that's the way it is" matter of fact way. It's that tone that made the mishandling of sexual content really seem like they hid from it rather than dealing with it the same way as everything else. And the inclusion of humorous sexual situations and the Playboys to me says that it was a conscious choice to go a certain direction with their sexual themes. To me it just seems like the wrong one.

As for drawing heat and attention, 2K is a subsidiary of Take-Two and can fall under the same protective blanket as GTA. And unlike GTA, this was an opportunity to come under fire with the legitimacy of a response that says, "we did it for the integrity of the story," and not the shock value that is automatically associated with GTA.

But I do agree, hats off to the developers for having the guts to put the player in such a vulnerable situation in the first place. I just hope the next time, they have the footing to take a scene as far as it should go, no more or less, and then the next time great mafia narratives are brought up, Goodfellas etc, maybe a game will get to be in that conversation too.

Jacob Pederson
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The Eastern Promises scene you mention, is so so so good. The incredible actors help, also the editing and pacing, but when you do something that's a first for film . . . that's what can really send a scene over the top into legendary status. I think games have been rightly hesitant to do this. The huge overreaction of reporters, religion, and government to forms of media may be laughable to the generations that gave birth to them, but it's nevertheless threatening to publishers business models. Hence, there is no question in my mind that the truly amazing scenes in video games, will come from independent developers.

Alexander Jhin
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Excellent post. I would mention that the article's introduction and title seem to suggest that nudity and rape are forms of sexuality, but the body of the argument actually seems to be stating that nudity = vulnerability and rape = power/violence. Neither are "sexuality." I guess this is more the fault of our society, in that we label nudity and rape as "sexuality" which is probably why we have such a hard time dealing with them in a serious way.