The problem with war films and mob films is that their message – “this is hell” and “these are bad men,” respectively – is undermined by the glamor of the medium. In order to make them interesting, they’re made likable, and suddenly you have mobsters not only enjoying Goodfellas but emulating it, and soldiers pumping themselves up for war by watching Apocalypse Now.
So how far would a director go in order to drive home the point? Would he make his film a documentary on the seediness and ugliness of the whole scene, to the point where there are no protagonists, only antagonists? He could inject the naif, a la the main character in Richard Price’s Clockers, or the hapless squadron in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but even then by doing so he’s saying, “you can be moral and do this bad stuff,” lending credence to it. He could also devise the “seeking redemption” theme, a la Nico Bellic from Grand Theft Auto 4 or, well, any and all anti-heroes Hollywood seems to love so much nowadays.
Two game sequels that seem, in my mind, to form the logical extreme of this debate have come out in the past week: Kane & Lynch 2 and Mafia 2. The originals of each were panned, one of the reasons for which was the fact that the protagonists – in this case the player avatars – are unlovable, unlikable soulless amoral bastards who are personally responsible for a great deal of death and misery about and around them.
So in that stead, Kane Marcus, James Lynch, Vito Scaletti and Joe Barbaro are bad men. They’re not in it to save their loved ones, because their loved ones’ misery is directly attributable their actions. They’re not in it for a just cause, except to get money and not die – everything and everybody else is expendable. In fact, the latter two are racist, sexist thugs and the former two are ugly, violent sociopaths with no redeeming qualities. And you play them.
In a way, it’s refreshing.
It’s, to say the least, visceral and immersive to hear your comrade-in-arms causally wax prose about how the moulinyans are “fucking animals, too busy selling dope and killing each other” to bother with you as you set out to rip them off on their turf, literally on the far side of the tracks. “Where’d he find the money to get a car this nice? Probably stole it himself.” Even the (licensed, actual) top 40 songs 2k Czech chose for the soundtrack to the game from the 40s and 50s are just as bad if not worse than the most reviled gangster rap lyrics today. (That’s right, you old folks got nothing to complain about.)
Just as it hits home that your wife is kidnapped, tortured and murdered by a local Shanghai mob boss because you blithely fucked up on his territory.
And both games are getting panned for it. Eurogamer UK especially didn’t like how bad the professional criminals were depicted in either of the Kane & Lynch games, and gave a scathing review of Mafia 2 for not living up to the bow-tied costume drama that was Godfather. (Eurogamer France loved it, tho.) To that I say, hey, real life mafiosi are and have been the very epitome of goons. They’re not nice guys. Hell, they’re not even well-dressed guys.
Likewise, Gamespot’s magazine Game Informer wrote a blistering review of Kane & Lynch 2 because the characters were “unlikable.” I disagree. I found them to be compelling tragic figures.
In that stead I wish we were to go back to the days of James Cagney films – villain protagonists that get theirs in the end. Or even, for that matter, Tarantino’s heyday films: Guys you don’t want to emulate, but are yet interested in seeing how they cope with their lives. Is this honestly not allowed in today’s works? Are we that bound to conventional plot formulae?
The one thing I’ve been bemoaning in computer games for a long while was the lack of decent writing. Now that I see people attempting exactly that, they’re getting punished for their efforts. Why bother?