Mafia III is a departure from the prior games in the series by featuring a black lead rather than the same stereotypical, white mafioso. The game had generated a lot of buzz well before release, partially because your protagonist Lincoln Clay is a black soldier, returned from the Vietnam war to New Bordeaux—or Faux Orleans as I’ve taken to calling it.
The mechanics of the game are solid in terms of running, shooting, driving. You even get a rear-view mirror to check before doing a U-turn or in some cases to watch your back while being chased by thugs sent to wipe you out after you’ve become a little too successful taking over a district as the new boss. The game is beautiful. Many of the driving scenes as you go between your CIA informant and missions all over New Bordeaux are breathtaking. However, the game does suffer from reusing maps quite a bit, to the point where I wondered if I had already done a mission when I went to the exact same warehouse layout as in a previous mission.
Graphics and mechanics aside, Mafia III isn’t breaking any new ground. If you’ve played any of the Grand Theft Auto games or other games with a mix of stealth, shooting and driving, you’ll be comfortable with picking up the third instalment of the Mafia franchise. What made me want this game wasn’t the series’ reputation, in fact I’d actively avoided Mafia and games like it in the past. I never got into games like Mafia because it was all gunplay, same old tropes on repeat. I’ve had my fill of being a scruffy white dude, or in this case a white gangster out to get his before everyone else. By giving Lincoln center stage for a revenge tale, especially without excusing or shying from race, I was hooked.
What got me excited was Lincoln, and the fact that you get to have a black protagonist in the setting of post Vietnam war 1968 using the racial climate present in the US at the time as part of the game’s dressing, not shying away from slurs hurled at Lincoln by passing NPC’s, as well as your colleagues as you build your empire. There is an opening statement that greets you before jumping into play, and it’s something that I’ve never seen in a game, and it was like a kick to the chest to see racism depicted in the game, as well as the horrific conditions that black people are dealing with now acknowledged before playing:
Mafia III Opening Statement:
Mafia III takes place in a fictionalized version of the American South in 1968.
We sought to create an authentic and immersive experience that captures this very turbulent time and place, including depictions of racism.
We find the racist beliefs, language, and behaviors of some characters in the game abhorrent, but believe it is vital to include these depictions in order to tell Lincoln Clay’s story.
Most importantly, we felt that to not include this very real and shameful part of our past would have been offensive to the millions of who face–and still face–bigotry, discrimination, prejudice, and racism in all its forms.
The game’s opening statement was written by Haden Blackman, who came to Hangar 13 from comics and film. I found it interesting that a white dev wrote this, because the industry has jaded me on anyone not black getting these issues, why they are so important. So I was pleased by this small thing, that many people found unnecessary, upsetting or in one odd case, paranoid. It set the expectation that this game would not skirt around race and I was not disappointed.
The fact is that 2K and Hangar 13 don’t give the player a chance to shy away from the reality of being called boy, nigger, coon every few minutes by NPCs and by your enemies. You can’t escape the discussions of how Lincoln is ‘that damn nigger that’s got so and so spooked’, and how he’s ‘unstoppable’ when you sneak around to take out bosses is fantastic. It makes people uncomfortable, it makes them squirm at how prevalent this was (and still is in some parts of the world).
That discomfort is one that has made a lot of white reviewers react to the game unfavorably, the refusal to back down from the slurs my grandparents, parents, and even I have endured over my forty-three years is something they can forget when they turn the game off. One example was a “review in progress” that called the opening statement ‘paranoid’, even going on to say they were exhausted by the use of nigger in the game because they had watched all of Luke Cage prior to writing their article. I and other black players do not have that luxury. We don’t get to conveniently turn off our blackness as we try to go out and survive another day. We don’t get the option to restart a level if we’re hosed down by police. What we get instead is to be remembered briefly for the injustice done to us, until the next victim comes along.
There is a power in words, in slurs that Lincoln, and by extension I as the player, feel as I drive, walk and run between missions. There is cathartic glee of slamming a racist in the chest as he called me ‘boy’ for merely walking by. The name calling doesn’t end there; I encountered another NPC declaring that I’d better respect my white masters. I didn’t care that it would get the cops called on me in-game, I beat him like he owed me money and laughed while I did it.
That joy is only to be had in a digital landscape, and even that was tarnished by trolling when I streamed on Twitch. Anyone who’s been on Twitch who isn’t white or male has likely met with harassment when they are live. That’s nothing new, but it seems that playing a game with a black lead brings all the haters out of the dark crevices of the internet to troll streamers. I’m used to the occasional fool, but since streaming Mafia III? I’ve been told to die, asked to turn up the brightness in the game because they couldn’t see Lincoln. For those not old enough to get that reference, often black people were referred to as darkies and it was said that if the lights were out and we didn’t smile, we couldn’t be seen.
One ‘charming’ person who rolled into my stream chat asked if we had to play as a black dude, following it up with how much of a shame it was we were forced to play as a black guy. Well, maybe, just maybe if that person had an ounce of empathy they could think about the thirty years or so of video games that I’ve played where I’ve been forced to be the white guy, or on rare occasions, a white woman.
Gaming is a place where I’ve been othered, ignored and forgotten since I first stepped into an arcade until very recently, gaming has felt like this:
It’s getting better, slowly and seemingly one or two games at a time. While we have Lincoln Clay, Luke Cage and other media with black leads, there’s still people who think that tiny slice of the pie is too much, and don’t want us to have that much going for us now, or ever again. I’m very glad that 2K and Hangar 13 took the chance to give us Mafia III, to run the risk of tackling race head on, to not ignore it, since so many people can’t. Thank you to writer Charles Webb for this game, and for making it authentic, for the ways in which I know that someone who gets it, who knows the taste of strange fruits, wrote Lincoln for us.
There are other ways in which Lincoln spoke to me that relate to the injustices going on now, in 2016, as I run around a fake version of New Orleans in an attempt at vengeance. In a recent play session, Lincoln had riled up Marcano’s folks in Southdowns while trying to help out Grant Purdue who’s got in bed with the mafia, and wound up tangled in the sheets. Over the course of the mission, Lincoln has to steal back Grant’s truck, so that’s when Marcano’s goons forced him out to the street for a gunfight.
You’ve got a black dude, pinned down by mobsters in the middle of the day, but the police go after Lincoln who’s crouched and trying to find a way out. Sound familiar? He’s got no weapon, is under fire and he’s the ‘suspicious black male’. That was an eerie connection between past and present that disturbed me as I guided Lincoln to run for cover, hoping he could lose the cops before he was gunned down for walking while black. That ran a little too close to what we’ve seen over the last couple of years with black people being shot by police in broad daylight with no consequence for my comfort.
While Mafia III is by no means a perfect game mechanically, in terms of discussing race it comes close for me. It hammers home the point that things were fucked up then, they are still fucked up now, by reminding the player of slurs that they may have heard—or never realized existed—as you walk and drive around New Bordeaux. Some players may have that light bulb moment of ‘racism is real’. I hope non-black players can see that, that they can confront the systemic racism that the game shows you uncovered and raw. I hope that non-black players have that a-ha moment, even one, so they will realize what it means for people like me to have the naked, blunt racism we deal with still in this day and age on digital display.
It’s a game that shows that games can unapologetically and willfully deal with issues, and not do it half-way. I never in my life thought I’d be recommending a Mafia game, but Dear Reader: get to know Lincoln and New Bordeaux, no matter your platform.