March 29, 2006

Game Dork

he Cult Revolver:

'Godfather' Another Game Demanding Devotion

Some people say they play video games "religiously." That's a good word to describe ambitious games. They've become so big, structured, and urgent, they're like self-contained sects. Unlike religion, of course, the aim of the games is to aim a gun, often.

Look at the "The Godfather: The Game." It is replete with hierarchy (the mafia), followers (the people who look up to the mob), symbolic icons (machine guns), Sunday bests (pin-striped suits), music (the movie score), and mantras ("Leave the gun, take the cannoli").

There are even competing sects for your followers' zeal (other mafia gangs).

The hierarchy is led by the title character. The godfather looks like Marlon Brando did in the movies. His aura is that of a man who is as all-knowing as a man might be in his own universe.

But in "The Game," you don't play as the don. You play as one of his devotees, a 1940s small-time crook, a man who as a boy witnessed his father getting gunned down. Throughout this long game, you work your way up to more respected positions (a made man). And if you're good enough, you can become a godfather, too.

The icons in your hands are machine guns, which makes the most familiar sound in all of video games, and a revolver. You shake down shop owners for protection money, and if competing mobs are in the vicinity, you rat-a-tat-tat them. You run through a church too, ever-ready to blast rivals and steal their backroom gambling rackets.

Now, don't mistake this analogy as equality. A criminally centered game is not a religion. I'm merely pointing out the parallels. Game makers are using the vast amounts of computer power of Xboxes and PlayStation 2's to create 20-hour and 60-hour video games, featuring exalted storylines, dialogue, and character development.

Hardcore gamers used to expect to blow things up really cool; that was so 1996. They expected games to be cinematic; since at least 1999. Now, we want to feel enveloped, as if a game is part of us. And what could make a gamer feel more involved (or self-involved) than ascending up a large, virtual world as ornate as stained glass?

There's also power to behold in the game's self-creation. In "Godfather" — like in "Tiger Woods" and other games — you must shape your character's body and face. You're asked what you want to look like, not just whether you prefer a bigger forehead and greener eyes, but the size of blemishes and the hue of skin color.

"The Godfather" gets all these cultish details right. But it's not as fun — or for that matter, as creepy — as more traditional establishments, notably the "Grand Theft Auto" ganglands that "Godfather" is most reminiscent of. At its best, "The Godfather" is a solid, cinematic procedural of doom.

At worst, it is a muddy "Grand Theft Auto," looking archaic graphically and playing rather rote. In gaming, there's no worse sin than making the gamer feel as if every action is a routine motion of poor conscience. In that regard, "The Godfather" is among the meek, suffering delusions of grandeur.

("The Godfather: The Game" for Xbox, PS 2 — Plays cinematic, but rote. Looks above-average. Challenging. Rated "M" for blood, gore, intense violence, strong language, and suggestive themes. Two stars out of four.)

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