Sunday, March 12, 2006

"The Godfather" Video Game: The Search for Consequences

March must be Mob Month: the new season of "The Sopranos" begins tonight, and Electronic Arts (EA) is releasing a video-game version of "The Godfather" on March 19.

The game sticks close to the book and movies, using the real voices of some characters. Set in New York between 1945 and 1955, the game
will offer gamers countless choices for solving the family's problems with brutal violence, skillful diplomacy, or a cunning mixture of both. From mob hits and bank heists to drive-bys and extortion, step deep inside the world of The Godfather -- where intimidation and negotiation are your tickets to the top. Players will use their powers of loyalty and fear to earn respect through interactions with characters in the world. Decisions made by the player in the game will have lasting consequences, just as it was in the mob underworld featured in The Godfather fiction.

As the father of a game-playing adolescent, the game's point makes me queasy. Let's focus on the word "consequences."

In both the Sopranos (which I just started watching on DVD, from the first season) and the Godfather book and movies, violence and power exist within a closed loop. Men get killed, women abused, fortunes made and lost, but everything happens in a sort of moral bubble where actions have no ripple effect outside the world of the criminals. All those charming Mafia activities like loansharking, prostitution, and drugs carry no moral impact beyond the tote board of respect, power, and money.

So when I read about the Godfather game, I wonder, what messages are players absorbing? You win by being the best killer and intimidator? Screen shots from the game show a policeman being thrown off roofs, assaults with baseball bats, people flung into furnaces. In the Godfather movies, Michael Corleone ultimately faces profound consequences, e.g., he leads a miserable life. Sonny's dead, he's killed Fredo, and confession does no good. What respect comes from crime? I'm still discovering on the Sopranos if Tony Soprano's therapy confessions to sexy shrink Dr. Jennifer Melfi lead to any insights (don't tell me!)

I'll grant that this is a still-unrated video game, and not every piece of entertainment need have a didactic purpose. Perhaps buried in the Godfather game are moments of doubt and fear, moral revelations. That does not make for good game play; fortunately, my son is far more into "We Love Katamari" than any violent game.

In the real world, actions DO have consequences. For a prime example, see this riveting article in New York Magazine as part of its Sopranos editorial package. "The Lost Soprano" discusses the case of Lillo Brancato, who starred in "A Bronx Tale" with Robert DeNiro and was in the second season of the Sopranos. He put more time into drugs than developing an acting career, and last December broke into a house with his ex-girlfriend's father seeking drugs. Off-duty policeman Daniel Enchautegui intervened, Brancato's companion killed the cop, and Brancato is now at Rikers charged with second-degree murder.

The article has quotes of startling moral rationalization and blankness:
Lillo feels terrible about the dead cop. “Too painful to talk about,” he says. Still, he’s not sure why it involves him. “I was in the wrong place, wrong time,” he says. Like drugs or acting, murder happened to Lillo. People misunderstand. “It kills me every day, being in here, knowing that I’m innocent,” he says. “I’m not a person who should be here. I am a good person.”

In the real world, Brancato is looking at consequences for his actions far different from what is found in the Godfather game and the Sopranos. At some point, the realization will kick in. Put that in a video game.

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