How “Fuck” ruins video game writing

“Fuck” can ruin video game writing.

Wait, before you say I’m a prude hear me out.

The word is an all encompassing expression that can be used for anything from extreme frustration to supreme ecstasy. The point being is that when used improperly the word is so strong, so disconcerting that it can easily ruin a video game’s writing.

Let’s be clear, we’ve all used it and know what it means, and we were all given the same lecture in grade school. Don’t use bad words… but why not? What stuck with me is that cursing can sometimes be the antithesis of articulation.

“Fuck” can be a powerful word when it is used in an appropriate situation. It can be threatening or it can be funny, but it can also give someone character or take away from it.

We’ve all heard characters cursing their heads off in games. Most of the times it’s just throwaway emotion, but what if the word becomes a quick fix to actually sitting down and creating good characters?

This was the main difference between Mafia and Mafia II.

Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven was developed by Illusion Softworks in 2002. It was more than an homage to the Godfather, the game told a story with a protagonist who was well written.

Tommy Angelo is the wheel man of Don Salieri’s crew and he makes some pretty immoral choices over the course of the game. He’s in no way a good guy, he’s a mafioso and a bad one at that. Killing countless numbers of mobsters and even innocent bystanders, he’s a bad guy.

Yet Tommy is written in a way that’s compelling. He’s paradoxical, and at the end of the game he offers us this monologue as his final words:

“You know, the world isn’t run by the laws written on paper. It’s run by people. Some according to laws, others not. It depends on each individual how his world will be, how he makes it. And you also need a whole lot of luck, so that somebody’s else doesn’t make your life hell. And it ain’t as simple as they tell you in grade school. But it is good to have strong values and to maintain them. In marriage, in crime, in war, always and everywhere.

I messed up. So did Paulie and Sam. We wanted a better life, but in the end we were a lot worse off than most other people. You know, I think it’s important to keep a balance in things. Yeah, balance, that’s the right word. Because the guy who wants too much risks losing absolutely everything. Of course, the guy who wants too little from life, might not get anything at all.”

He’s a thoughtful, conscious anti-hero, and a testament to good games writing. But who pulled the trigger on Mr. Angelo?

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At the opposite end of this spectrum is Mafia II‘s Vito Scaletta. Really, before I get into this I’d love to know what everyone thought of the game. There was this anticipation around Mafia receiving a sequel, but I was profoundly disappointed by the game.

It was really cliché to make Vito and Joe the triggermen who plugged Tommy. It was so… expected and even though it didn’t disappoint it certainly didn’t impress. I think this was the feeling that permeated the entire game, oh and did at mention it used to hold the record for most instances of “Fucks” in a video game?

Well, I don’t that’s an official statistic, but it’s an impressive number nonetheless. So how did a series go from being one of the best to being one of the most mediocre? It has to do with character development.

Why is there a visceral difference between Tommy saying “Oh shit” and Vito saying “Oh fuck”? It has to do with creating likeable characters. I think everyone can agree that even if Tommy and Vito were created by the same team they are not the same person.

What I think a lot of video game developers mistake for maturity in their characters comes from how bad core they are. The more they swear, the more they fight the more mature they are. It couldn’t be further from the truth.

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Maturity in video game characters can be seen most in his or her interactions with other characters. Tommy is by no means beyond swearing at his foils Pauly and Sam, but with Vito and Joe their every other word is “Fuck.”

“Fuck this, Fuck that, Fuck that Motherfucking fuck head.”

See what I mean about inarticulate?

It just doesn’t radiate a kind of attitude or feeling that’s appropriate for audiences. Unless it’s used in an ironic way, the word “Fuck” really is the worst kind of expression. Sure, if someone is shooting at you say it all you like, but if a character in a game can express his or her frustration through another means they should.

Vito is a young punk looking to make money and to protect his family. The parallels between him and Tommy really end there. He ultimately sells out Joe, he betrays everything he knows, and he does all of this violently, quickly, and without a second thought.

He’s violent, but when he all he has to say about his surroundings is “Fuck” he loses his strength as a character. It takes away any semblance of his character being written and supplants it with a lazy, emotional sentiment.

I think this is where a game like Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days really excels, not to bring in another video game series into this long article. But look at their situation. They are running and gunning through the streets of Hong Kong. They have no idea where they are going. They spend part of the game half naked being chased by dogs. And they spend the majority of the game bleeding.

I think that calls for a little swearing, but is appropriate? Yes because their characters are made to be that way. Joe in Mafia II swears more than Joe Pesci in Goodefellas. It fits his character, but it feels so inappropriate.

When we have great characters like Tommy, Sam, and Pauly in the first game bringing us interactions and real dialogue it’s great. When we have Vito and Joe swearing at each other for the whole four hours… it kind of sucks.

What Mafia II could have done was let the characters breathe a little. During the first game, Tommy spends a few missions just talking to his partners. There’s action, of course, but it also gives his character a chance to develop without having to curse as bullets fly over his head.

If Vito had a chance to sit down with the player, like Tommy did at the end of every chapter, then he might have grown on me a little. They just focused on the relationship between Vito and Joe. In e end, it just didn’t work for the game’s story.

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4 thoughts on “How “Fuck” ruins video game writing

  1. Is it unrealistic to think that these men cannot articulate themselves beyond the word fuck? I understand what you are saying but they were never going to make the two guys the same character. They had to find some way of defining Vito and maybe he isn’t as philosophical as Tommy. Who knows, it is beyond the realms of possibility that people talk like that? You know it isn’t ans so do I.

    • I felt it got in the way of his character. It’s less a problem about Vito lacking definition – him participating in WWII certainly left a mark – it just makes his character feel like he was drawn out to be a badass with them more or less telling us he was – through cursing, violence, etc. – when you just knew Tommy was in the first game.

      I will admit though they did live in different times and maybe the 20-some mafiosos of the 40-50’s had a few more expletives to sling around than those in the 20’s

  2. Original dubbing of Mafia 1 is FAR from non-vulgar. It’s the english localization that doesn’t contain one single “fuck”.

  3. Pingback: The real problem with Mafia III | VR Goggles

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