He is one of the most beloved characters of the seventh generation and possibly the face of an entire franchise. Even now, almost a decade on from his role in the spotlight, you can find a myriad of blog posts and forum messages detailing why Vito Scaletta is one of the greatest characters to ever grace a computer screen.
Vito Scaletta is a central character in the Mafia series. An Italian-American immigrant brought into the fold of Cosa Nostra, we play as Vito in Mafia II through the 1940s and 50s as he rises through the ranks of organised crime. Despite only being a playable character in the second game, he has featured in the series from the start.
While not named in the original Mafia, a mission near the end of Mafia II retroactively inserts Vito into the story, being the hitman that kills previous main character Tommy Angelo. After playing through his story in Mafia II, he is brought back in Mafia III as an underboss.
It is cool having this unique connecting thread through the series, rather than a more standard sequel with a returning cast. Other series such as Assassin’s Creed and Timesplitters have had similar through-lines, but not as clear as Mafia’s (AC’s are usually just cameo appearances such as Charles Dorian in AC: Rogue, and TS had the Jones family featuring in the years 1853, 1965, and 2243).
So what made Vito such a compelling character? Well, I thought about doing a little character study. Let’s jump in.
“You look like a protagonist…” (Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell)– A Look Back At Vito Scalleta
The first thing we have to address in looking back at a character, any character, is how the story or text is framed. Context is important, how the creator presents it can affect how it is received. The entire Mafia series is presented by flashback format; Tommy tells his story to Det. Norman, Vito looks over his family album, and Lincoln’s story is told through interviews of other characters in a documentary format.
Characters retelling a story can lead to embellishment, skipping over points that may seem inconsequential to them, but would aid a greater understanding of their life. This is nothing new; games ranging from Battlefield to Silent Hill, Dragon Age to Monkey Island have used unreliable narrators for action set-pieces, antagonist reveals, or even just for a laugh.
It seems that the team at 2k Czech were aware of this aspect. Games Radar mentioned that the original Mafia,
“…centered on the most significant events in [Tommy Angelo’s] life while largely ignoring his day-to-day life as a mobster.” (Reparaz, M. 2008)
In response, writer/director of both games, Daniel Vavra said,
“The player is going to experience more of everything…those action sequences will always be in context to the story and the mafia theme…[but aren’t] mutually exclusive to the ‘nitty-gritty life of a mobster’”. (Reparaz, M. 2008).
We also have to keep in mind the aspect of the nature of the avatar. Depending on who is playing Vito, he could be a bloodthirsty psychopath or a pacifist, a road rageaholic or someone who never passes 30mph. It is both one of the great foibles and assets when trying to dissect a videogame, as there is never a “concrete” personality to a character when in gameplay.
Personally, I will be working off the idea of the only characters that the player is under obligation to kill die during the narrative, as it is a good medium.
So with those addendums given, let us start on the game proper.
The first aspect ties in with the nature of the avatar, but from a designer point of view rather than a player. Jack Scalici, Director of Creative Production on Mafia 2 listed Vito’s character traits,
Scalici: “…he’s a nice guy. He has strong morals. He doesn’t kill people because he wants to, he kills because he has to.” (FAIR/PLAY, 2017).
I’ll add a few more; he is quiet, unassuming, and rational. He is the complete opposite of “shoot-first-ask-questions-later” Joe, that’s why they make a great pair. But all of these terms to describe Vito are rather nebulous. There is nothing standout about him, he is tabula rasa, a blank slate.
The technique of tabula rasa is used a lot in games, as it helps develop quick player identification. If there is no set personality, we can project whatever we want onto a character. Some of the most iconic and beloved characters are like this; Gordon Freeman, Link, Crash Bandicoot, Doom Guy, none of them have any notable character traits besides vague concepts like “brave’ or “wacky”, but they are often found at the top of ‘Favourite Game Character Lists.’
Tabula rasa can also lead to great narrative twists. Characters like James Sunderland in Silent Hill 2, Nilin in Remember Me, and Walker in Spec Ops, these characters are kept vague in the beginning, before their personality is revealed later into the narrative, leading to shame, shock, or abhorrence at their true colours.
Vito doesn’t have these quirks. He is kept elusive and quiet, possibly for player connection, but that unfortunately bleeds over into the game. It makes Vito look like someone who only takes orders and has no initiative. He’s constantly the fall guy, from start to finish, always kowtowing to his higher-ups. When Luca Gurino asks whether Vito is willing to “take the next step” by,
Luca: “…taking somebody out, just ‘cause someone points his finger at him and tells you to do it.”
Vito: “I was in the war, Mr. Gurino. All I did was kill people I was told to kill…”
Luca laughs and responds,
Luca: “We need guys like you. Guys who can follow orders without asking questions.”
Throughout the two games that he prominently features in, Vito has this veneration for authority. When Cassandra and Vito square off, Vito falls back on his seniors,
Cassandra: “You can blame Marcano all you want, but it was your men who ambushed us.”
Vito: “My men were following orders. We got rules.”
When Lincoln breaks up the argument, Cassandra follows up,
Cassandra: “…do you know how many of my men this connard killed ‘cause Marcano ‘told him to’?”
It could be that Vito appeals to authority due to his absent father. Throughout Mafia II, Vito doesn’t look too kindly on his father’s memory. When Joe mentions him near the beginning, Vito quickly shoots in and calls him a “deadbeat”. And when Mama Scalletta says she wished Vito’s father could have seen him return from the war, Vito sarcastically replies, “Yeah, sure.”
This could be a reason why Vito jumps in with the mafia, to have a surrogate family. He obviously looks up to Leo Galante as a father figure (although Leo does not see Vito as a son). This could be why Vito goes along with things that are a detriment to him because he’s wanted a security of family.
There are only two times that Vito pushes back against other’s actions, both times weakly. When Vito returns from the war, Joe get him out of the service. Vito objects, saying that he will go to prison if caught. After Joe placates him, Vito never brings up the subject again, even after going to prison partly because he went AWOL.
The second is when he and Joe team up with Henry Tomasino after killing Alberto Clemente. Henry proposes the three go into the drugs business. Vito objects, saying,
Vito: “Drugs are bad. They kill people.”
On top of this, when swearing allegiance to the Cosa Nostra, Frank Vinci, one of the other bosses in the city, says,
Vinci: “Whatever you do gentlemen, stay away from the dope! No dope! That’s our policy.”
Yet, Vito goes along, swayed by the money Henry promises. He is greedy. When his house is burnt down by the Irish mob, Joe tries to console him with the fact that,
Joe: “…all that stuff that got burnt up, it’s just things Vito.”
However, Vito does not see it like that. He replies angrily,
Vito: “Just things? Hey, those were my things Joe. Why do you think I do the shit we do anyways? It’s to buy things, ya know, suits, cars, broads, houses.”
This thin motivation of material possessions is brought up again in Mafia III,
Lincoln: “Nobody forced you to get greedy. You could’ve sat back, been content, watched the money roll in But no, that wasn’t enough.”
So, other than a substitute family, it is a drive for the American Dream that pushes Vito forward. When thinking back on his arrival in Empire Bay, Vito remarks,
Vito: “Never in my life had I seen anything as fantastic as Empire Bay. It was beautiful…on the other hand, I’d never seen anything filthier or more disgusting than our new shithole of an apartment.”
He is always trying to better himself, motivated by an almost loathing of his parents for raising him in poverty. Maybe this is why Vito is notoriously work shy, throwing in the manual labour job at the port he gets at the beginning of the game, as it reminds him of his father. This aversion to the lower class is seen in dialogue with Joe near the beginning of the game.
Joe: “The working man is a sucker, that’s for damn sure.”
Vito: “You said it.”
And when talking to Joe after they exact revenge on the Irish mob for torching Vito’s house (therefore losing all of his accumulated wealth), Vito explains,
Vito: “I promised myself I’d never be poor again, end up a fucking wharf rat like my old man.”
Senior producer Denby Grace shed some light on Vito’s motivations during pre-release promotion of the game,
Grace: “He [Vito] just wants to get a bit of money, a bit of respect and a bit of power. Vito doesn’t aspire to be the Don.” (FAIR/PLAY, 2017).
Unlike Tommy who joined up for safety in Mafia 1, or Lincoln who was raised by the Black Mob in Mafia III, Vito just starts off as a delinquent and never wavers, even after a stint in prison.
The only acknowledgement that Vito wanted to be a gangster is an internal monologue during the scene where he becomes a made man.
Vito: “You might wonder why I’d take this risk again after spending almost seven years in the can. You see, where I grew up, the only guys who mattered were the ones who had the balls to take what they wanted…
…and after years of doing everybody else’s dirty work, I was willing to risk anything to finally be somebody.”
There is obviously a feeling that he always wanted to follow this path. In Mafia III, Vito’s death mission is literally called “I Deserved Better.” When he is beaten, Vito says,
Vito: “I gave up everything for this life. Everything! And look where I ended up!”
But Vito is wrong. He did not ‘give up’ everything. He lost everything. He lost his family, with his sister Frankie breaking ties with him. He lost his freedom when he went to jail. He lost his friend Joe and lost his way within the Cosa Nostra when he killed Carlo Falcone.
His ‘death’ in Mafia III also sheds light on his character. If Lincoln kills the other two bosses, Cassandra and Burke, he is rather gentle in their time together. He sits with Burke while he drifts away, and returns Cassandra’s pendant with a picture of her dead daughter to her in her final moments.
Vito is the only one that is holding a gun in his final cutscene, dropping it to the ground after realising it is empty. However, he pulls a switchblade out and rushes Lincoln, forcing the latter to shoot him dead. This can be seen as a continuation of his traits in Mafia II. As Vito says in his confrontation with Lincoln,
Vito: “There’s always been someone waitin’ to fuck me.”
The switchblade makes sense; he’s been around for too long and will take any chance he gets to bring some semblance of balance to his world. He’s turned grey with age and anger, only having dominion over a scrap of land given to him more out of loyalty than being an earner.
And once he is dead, his underboss Alma sadly refers to him as “a good little solider.” That is seemingly all he was, even after all this time.
Yet if he takes over when Lincoln leaves, Vito seemingly drags New Bordeaux out of dirt. Unlike Burke or Cassandra, Vito revitalises the city and lives into old age. He builds casinos, arenas, convention centres, turning the city into “the Las Vegas of the South” according to Jonathan Macguire. He finally ‘wins’. It is all material, nothing but bricks and mortar, but as mentioned previously, that is all Vito wants for.
As I said in the introduction, it is rare to find a character like Vito that develops with subsequent games. Even the other famous Italian gaming icon, (no, the OTHER one), Ezio Auditore, doesn’t change much over the thirty-five years we spend playing as him, only really changing in the first act of AC2 when his father and brothers are murdered. And that’s the main difference; Ezio starts with tragedy, Vito ends with it.
I think it is this beautifully melancholic arc, which is why Vito is so loved. Tommy in Mafia 1 doesn’t get as much time to grow, and Lincoln is seemingly indifferent by the end of Mafia III. We see Vito through both the major moments and his everyday life, and it endears us to him.
His nature as a protagonist also makes us look favorably on him. As an avatar, we have a slight bias towards him. I think a character, especially one in a story-driven game like this, digs into a psyche deeper than a general protagonist in an open-world crime sim.
Following on from that, the setting also helps aid our connection to Vito. For all the open-world games we have nowadays, there are very little that have a period setting. And while the original Mafia is a fun game, it is brutally unforgiving. There is an idolisation of the gangster trope, seen in Hollywood since the 30s. This was the intended goal by 2k Czech, as Cinematic Director Tomás Hrebícek said in an interview,
“We want to present the whole game in a Hollywood film like style…” (FAIR/PLAY, 2017).
Sat next to your best friend, both dressed in snazzy suits, wielding a classic Tommy gun, driving a sleek convertible, listening to classic rock-n-roll blaring out of the radio, it is hard not to see the draw. And being the guy we get to experience that with would make him stick in your mind.
And speaking of friends, what of Joe? Even when he kills innocent bystanders and causes havoc for Vito to clear up, it is never questioned, because of that bond. Joe is Vito’s friend, therefore by extension is ‘ours’. The company we keep can be just as enticing as the lead.
In the end I think I like Vito more in Mafia III. There is a history there that is interesting to ruminate on and more to play off. But the simple layers of Mafia II worked their magic, seeing this once promising young lad reach for the dream of something better, but lose everything in the process.
He may not have much to say, but he has a damn good story to tell. And a good story will be remembered and treasured.
Banner Photo Source: goodfon.com