The Godfather: The Game gets almost everything about The Godfather, the movie, exactly wrong. And yet it’s enjoyable and entertaining. That contradiction won’t surprise anyone who’s played any of the multitudes of games that have been adapted from well-known films, but it does illustrate something that often goes overlooked: The rules and the fiction that make up a game are distinct, if interdependent, elements. And more often than not, while the fiction can make a game more interesting, it’s the rules—and the gameplay that emerges from them—that make a game fun.
The idea that games are both fiction and rules is a relatively new one. Roger Caillois’ canonical 1961 book Man, Play and Games asserts that games are either “ruled or make-believe.” According to Caillois’ analysis, a game must be either an exercise in make-believe, such as “cops and robbers,” or it must be a set of rules to follow, like the board game Stop Thief. Jesper Juul’s recent book Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, on the other hand, explains that games are enjoyable as exercises in make-believe and as logic puzzles and competitions. When we’re playing a video game, we intuitively understand this. As Juul observes, when a video game’s fictional world becomes incoherent—Why does Mario have three lives? Why does Liberty City end abruptly?—we blame the rules, not the fiction.
Juul compares games to “songs, opera, and ballet—cultural forms that can project fiction but can also be enjoyed even when one does not imagine the world they project.” That’s true, but in the best games, as in the best songs, operas, and ballets, the fun comes from both. The Grand Theft Auto series is a blast not just because of its much-lauded free-form gameplay, but also because you get to pretend you’re a murderous thug. In The Godfather: The Game, though, the rules and the fiction work at cross purposes. When the game is fun, it’s because of the gameplay. But the fiction, the make-believe world that the game asks you to project yourself into, is an annoying distraction. Every time the game reminded me that I was playing in the universe created by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, I was disappointed by how much the game wasn’t like The Godfather.
To be fair, there are really two layers of fiction at work here. At its most basic, the fiction succeeds: It’s great fun to pretend to be a mobster, to wield deadly weapons, and to accumulate money, power, and respect by extorting businesses, carrying out contract hits, bribing cops, and fighting the occasional mob war. But none of that has much to do with The Godfather. It’s all part and parcel of “playing mafia,” a generic enterprise that could work as well in the forthcoming Scarface or Sopranos games.
The second, less successful, layer of fiction is the reason the game has sold so well. As a foot soldier in the Corleone crime family, you pull a Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead on The Godfather, filling in the gaps in the movie’s narrative: Who put that horse’s head in the bed? Who drove Fredo to the hospital after Don Vito was shot? Who hid that gun for Michael in the restaurant bathroom? Who killed Tessio? (Answers: me, me, me, and me.) These sequences can be fun, too, but they never feel quite right, and they never evoke emotions and sensations similar to those brought forth by watching The Godfather. The fun of being a foot-soldier gangster, or the journey of a small-time crook to a don, after all, is not what The Godfather is about. That’s closer to the Goodfellas ethos.
As the game begins, it head-fakes at capturing some of The Godfather’s grandeur and tragedy. You start off in the role of your own father as he is gunned down in a Little Italy alley in 1936. Shortly thereafter, however, we jump to a charisma-less, animatronic Don Vito on the day of his daughter’s wedding, and Luca Brasi—who looks very little and sounds nothing like the movie Luca—introduces you to mobsterdom by having you savagely beat the two punks who got a suspended sentence—a suspended sentence!—for savagely beating the undertaker’s daughter. Later, Tom Hagen calls, and he has the voice of the real Robert Duvall. Unfortunately, he sounds like Robert Duvall talking to Cole Trickle. Nor do I believe the line, “Luca was right! You got balls!” appeared in the movies, even in Part III. Likewise, I do not recall a brothel girl who says, “I’ll tell you right now: I prefer to be on top.”
In part, the game has such difficulty evoking The Godfather because games struggle with how to communicate tragedy. (See the King Kong game, which labored with how to deal with the fact that the climax occurs with Kong’s death. The Scarface game will reportedly sidestep this issue by allowing Tony Montana, in the hands of a skilled player, to survive.) “Storytelling is based on empathy,” game designer Will Wright tells Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby in the book Smartbomb. “Games on the other hand are based on agency, causality.”
The difference between The Godfather, the movie, and The Godfather: The Game is best illustrated by their final scenes. In the movie, you see Michael, the new Corleone don, from the perspective of Kay Adams as a door slowly closes in her face. In the game, you walk through the door toward Michael, and he slowly reaches out to hug you.
Before decisions like that make you go to the mattresses, keep in mind that in The Godfather: The Game, the fiction is the dessert. Run through the game’s movie-based missions as a tutorial for the larger, more free-form game, and for the pain of watching Coppola’s most famous scenes rendered in polygon. But stick around for the fun of inciting mob wars and bombing the compounds of the Tattaglias, the Barzinis, and the other New York families. Just make believe that the game you’re playing has nothing to do with The Godfather. In other words: Take the gun. Leave the cannoli.