Despite featuring a side quest that consists of completing a pornography collection, Mafia II is surprisingly prudish when it comes to featuring nudity in its more serious scenes.
Mafia IIPublisher: 2K Games
Platform: Xbox 360 (reviewed), Playstation 3, PC
ESRB Rating: Mature
Developer: 2K Czech
Release Date: 2010-08-24
Mafia II features a lot of nudes. 51 of them to be exact. I know this because the game features 50 collectible Playboy centerfolds that can be viewed (after collection in game) in the main menu. There is also one nude in the in game sequences themselves.
The inclusion of 1950s Playmates apparently is intended to add an air of authenticity to the period in which the game takes place and to the seaminess of the mob lifestyle of the game's protagonist. While the Playmates presence in the game are actually anachronistic if the game were set in a historical United States (since the game's main action takes place in 1943 and 1951, years prior to the release of Hefner's magazine in actual history), assumedly the fictional city of Empire Bay resides in an equally fictional alternate timeline of United States history, in which Playboy emerged on the American scene about a decade early. The authenticity of these nudes is probably derived more from their more demure quality (something that most players would associate with pornography of a period perceived to be more prudish than the current one) than an adherence to real historicity.
In that regard, the nudes featured here are certainly more buttoned up than what one might expect to encounter when performing a Google image search with SafeSearch disabled in 2010. None of these images feature full frontal nudity (as no Playboy pictorial did prior to the 1970s). Many of them feature women merely in sheer clothing or often feature a bare bottom rather than bare breasts and are generally less raunchy than contemporary pornography. Nevertheless, the game makes it abundantly clear that these nudes are here to be viewed.
These centerfolds are featured as collectibles in the game, and as such, they function in a subtly different way than most collectibles do in games. Most often collectibles are items that are hidden away in games. By being placed off the beaten path, they encourage the player to explore the world in ways that that player normally might not because there isn't any action going on in that particular nook or cranny of the game world. Additionally, most collectibles are things that can be retrieved with a simple push of a button or simply by running over them. They rarely intrude much on gameplay, as the player is free to act after picking one up.
What I have described is sometimes the case in Mafia II, the centerfolds that exist in the game world are sometimes down a hallway that you might not otherwise have explored. However, collecting them is time sensitive, as they only appear during missions. They cannot be picked up at any time while exploring Mafia II's persistent world. They do then sometimes make an appearance at times that are not especially well suited to exploration, like in the middle of a firefight. The strangest thing about these appearances are related to what I mentioned earlier. Such moments make it clear that the player is intended to view them, since pressing a button to collect them “takes you out of the game” for a moment. A button press brings up a full screen display of a naked woman, an odd distraction when attempting to avoid a hail of bullets and one that creates a kind of dissonance between immersion in the world with an experience of a passive, voyeuristic medium, rather than play in an interactive space.
In addition to this sense of dissonance that is created between the player and the world though is the dissonance that is created between the pornographic images featured as collectibles and the pornographic (or potentially pornographic) images that occur when playing the game itself.
This game is rated “Mature” and one of the reasons for the rating listed on the ESRB rating sticker is “Nudity.” Obviously, the Playboy spreads are at least part of the reason for the rating, but like the nudes themselves, the game is particularly demure when it comes to animating nudity and integrating it with the “gamey” parts of the Mafia II world and story, despite the seeming effort to include nudity as a way of authenticating the seamier qualities of mob life.
While 50 photographs of nude women exist throughout the game world, there is only a single nude scene in the game world itself. Surprisingly, this scene does not occur in an extended cut-scene in which the protagonist, Vito Scaletta, and several other mobsters celebrate Vito's release from prison at a cathouse. Again, the game is pretty demure when it comes to featuring animated strippers. In the scene, not a single one gets any nakeder than stripping down to lingerie. The one nude scene that does exist is an earlier sequence. It is rather racy though, as the prostitute featured wears only hose and a bra, but again, only a bare bottom is featured.
The reason that I bring all of this discussion of nudity up though is largely due to the weirdest and most dissonant scene in what is otherwise a game world that is very well built because its designers have been so fastidious otherwise in adding details that make the world feel living and authentic. It is a scene that doesn't feature nudity but prudishly avoids it at the expense of that authenticity.
During a chapter in the middle of Mafia II, Vito is sent to prison. While on work duty, he is sent to the shower room to scrub toilets. On entering, Vito is confronted by a room full of prisoners showering . . . in swimsuits? It is a bizarre moment. Mafia II features completely unnecessary interactive items, like lights that can be turned on and off, toilets that can be flushed, and sinks that can be turned on and off—seemingly in an effort to make environments seem like real spaces. It also features period cars, period architecture, period fashion, period music (though somewhat anachronistic, like the centerfolds, and Playmates that (again, while also anachronistic) at least evoke a sense of what contemporary Americans think of 50s sexuality being like. But men in prison shower in their swim trunks? Seriously? This is the same era when men and boys swam in the nude at the YMCA, right? But convicts are more modest than Playboy bunnies? I actually laughed aloud at this moment.
The scene that follows from this one becomes even more problematic as Vito finds himself, having finished up his work and stripped down to his (yeah, you guessed it) swimsuit for a shower himself, confronted by several hostile inmates. While the dialogue is compelling here and should suggest a reason to feel fear for (and as) Vito, the too demure bathing attire changes what should have been a terrifying and uncomfortable moment in the narrative into a strange and less than unnerving one. American History X features a prison rape scene made horrific by the vulnerability of the nudity of the protagonist and the threat of the bodies of his rapists. It seems to me that vulnerability is a big part of the terror of this violent act in general. While not a rape sequence, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises features a bare knuckled fight in a sauna in which nudity serves to emphasize the animal brutality of violence by stripping it down to its most basic embodiment. Violence becomes real and immediate because there are no “tools” of civilized engagement present here, only rage and bodies are on display. The absurd violation of a suspension of disbelief in this scene in Mafia II strips all of the potential power out of the scene and turns it into a bizarre and absurd farce. It embraces a prudish aesthetic at the expense of reality.
It may be that the development team feared an “Adults Only” rating from the ESRB. While Rockstar already tested the waters with male nudity in Lost & The Damned and more subtly in Red Dead Redemption, perhaps the threat of sodomy coupled with male nudity wouldn't make it past the ratings board. However, from a pure storytelling perspective and for the sake of maintaining an authentic and potentially emotionally powerful scene, it seems like it might be worth the risk of the rating. At the very least, some effort could be made to shoot the scene without revealing swimwear as shower attire. This game does so many things well in terms of story and world that it is a pity that the unnecessary nudity of anachronistic centerfolds made it in as “mature” content while a dramatically compelling use of nudity that could be used to heighten the emotional impact of an actually mature scene is presented so very immaturely. Mature subject matter needs to be treated maturely, and if the assumption is that the game is intended for a mature audience, that we be treated as mature enough to handle uncomfortable material.