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Mafia 3’s commentary on racism is undercut by shooter tropes

A real history distorted by fake violence

Mafia 3

If ever there was a franchise in need of a reboot, it was Mafia. The original pair of games pastiched the Italian mob films of the 1970s and ‘80s, giving the player a fedora, a pistol, and a hit on some ruddy-faced upstart on the wrong side of town. Like the actual Italian mob, the games centered on a white male who makes a name for himself by keeping locals under his thumb, and like so many Martin Scorsese knockoffs, fetishized this behavior without vigorous analysis or reflection.

Mafia III inverts the script. Set against the tail end of the African-American Civil Rights movement in a fictional (and oddly hilly) version of New Orleans, called New Bordeaux, the player assumes the role of Clay, a Vietnam vet and mid-level member of “the black mob,” a minor neighborhood syndicate beneath the Italian mob. Through Clay the game attempts to convey the experience of being a black man in the South during the year of Martin Luther King’s assassination. But like so many shooters, it can’t escape the confines of its genre — and ends up being uncomfortable in a more unintended way.

In an interview with Vice, Mafia III’s senior writer Charles Webb regularly refers both to the story’s pulpy inspirations and its larger ambition. “I wouldn't say that we're deconstructing the Mafia,” said Webb, “but we're using [our protagonist Lincoln Clay] as a perspective to look at them from the outside, to look at them through the issues you described, like systemic racism. What happens when the devaluation of black lives—the devaluation of an entire people—intersects with crime?”

The prologue largely realizes these ambitions. In the first hour of the game, Lincoln completes a heist and delivers a cut — 2 million dollars — to his boss, Sammy Robinson. “You know my entire life there has always been someone standing over me,” says Robinson, “telling me where I can go, what I can do, who I can be seen with. But this. What you boys did tonight, this changes everything. It’s freedom. Real freedom. Ain’t no one standing over me again. Over any of us.”

The monologue, which aims to speak, broadly, to an African-American experience that stretches from the nation’s founding to the present, is a powerful climax to Mafia III’s prologue, itself a mishmash of unapologetically long cutscenes and gameplay snippets held together by a novel documentary structure. Interviews with key players, congressional hearings, archival news footage, and other materials from past and present are stitched together to paint Lincoln Clay as the single disruptive force in the history of New Bordeaux, and so when the Italian mob inevitably wrongs the black mob, we know hell hath no fury like this man.

But this can only last so long. Mafia III fits neatly into the “shooter” genre, and so the lead up, while important for historical context, is unnecessary as motivation. Before we even install the game, we know that what we’re getting is an opportunity to shoot thousands of people in the face. Time isn’t wasted: the first thing the player does as Clay is slaughter a dozen cops in the aforementioned heist. After the first couple of hours, the entire city of New Bordeaux opens to the player, and the body count becomes impossible to track.

Like the previous Mafia games, the Grand Theft Auto series that inspired their tone, the Saints Row franchise, which heavily inspires this particular game’s structure, and the last decade’s abundance of open-world games, Mafia III is set in a decadent open space that spans miles of virtual topography. And like those games, the elaborate cities are mostly canvases on which to spatter violence. You can, and often will, kill everything in sight.

Six hours into the campaign, the action is in direct conflict with the intent of its story. The result of this conflict is discomfiting, and not in ways I think it intends to be.

I won’t say the shooter genre automatically disqualifies a game from intellectual merit, from having a message, though I do question a genre in which the most praised entries are self-admonishing meta-critiques, like BioShock or Spec Ops: The Line. These open-world games are set in non-challenging power fantasies (Saints Row), alternate histories broadly stripped of complexity (Assassin’s Creed), or cynical parodies of joyless violent assholes (Grand Theft Auto).

The storytellers, in this case, do a commendable job of putting the player into the shoes of a specific black man living in the American South, facing aggression and prejudice, from the violence of police officers to the racist chatter of talk radio. This opportunity for empathy — to experience life from another person’s perspective, to face their challenges — has long been the ambition of video game futurists, and in some capacity, Mafia III succeeds. Its mechanics sometimes make statements, like when a crime is committed in a poor neighborhood, and cops are slow to respond, or when, in a white and wealthy neighborhood, Lincoln Clay is harassed or outright attacked for the color of his skin. It’s a not-so-subtle commentary on today’s prejudice — in a much more direct way than the generic social criticism of something like the Deus Ex series.

But we are not given the chance to play as an ordinary man. From the first moment we are Clay, he is a ruthless killer motivated less often by social cause than greed and revenge. Mafia III isn’t, on its purest level, a game about race. It’s a game about killing and controlling people.

Maybe that’s the whole point. In interviews with Mafia III’s team, the conversation Webb had with Vice along with the many other stops on the game’s press tour, individual designers have been careful to both promote its historical setting, and unique viewpoint, while also emphasizing the game as a work of pulp. But the two — a lighter-than-air power-fantasy set in a believable world that is thick with characters and events inspired by real human injustices — rarely gel.

“It’s just a game” is a popular argument meant to forgive this type of dissonance. But as video games attempt to tell more human stories, the inhuman behavior of characters will be increasingly difficult to justify. And in some cases, like this one, the sheer abundance of violence is an outright disservice to the specificity and power of any individual violent act.

Let me unpack that a bit with an early scene set in the game’s abandoned amusement park. A theme park is also a cheeky opportunity to comment on the perverse pleasures of the the world in which a game is set, and for that reason it has become something of a genre staple. But gameplay-wise, Mafia III does little with the trope, other than push Lincoln Clay through a swarm of bad guy clones, each being pumped with bullets, until every ride is gravied with limp corpses.

And yet the mission culminates with an intriguing and loaded cutscene. With his target cornered, Clay nooses the low-level mobster to a ferris wheel cart, sending the ride in motion, until the lifeless body hangs high above the park for all to see. A black man lynching a white man in the American South in 1968 is an arresting image, except its power is undercut by the game’s pace. It takes no time to unpack what we’re seeing, let alone acknowledge that, below the hanging man, fester dozens of other men murdered by Lincoln Clay.

The creators have not only produced a remarkably beautiful and realistic open world, but they have done the noble service of giving it historical, human, and political context. Unfortunately, your mode of interaction is a gun. The game makes a number of points about the indignity and brutality of policing in black communities, but asks you to play as a man who steals cars to travel a couple blocks — and when someone spots you, you’re directed to choke the witness out, or just run them over.

Sociopathic behavior has fueled so many games starring white leads, and there is a risk of holding a black hero to a higher level. Those games, from Grand Theft Auto to Saints Row, were schlocky, glossy love letters to crime and crime fiction. Mafia III’s ambition is more reminiscent of BioShock Infinite, a first-person shooter that mixed extreme violence with philosophical message to poor effect. On the other hand, saying violent shooters, or pulpy video games in general, shouldn’t incorporate the injustices whites have committed upon blacks is naive.

Lincoln Clay is complex in that he is so clearly inspired by this fashion video game sociopath, and yet, he’s more complete in his reason to be. Generic shooter missions take on a greater meaning when you are a black man culling the KKK or massacring white men running a black brothel. And I hope, as I progress, Mafia III’s hyper-violent structure makes a larger argument about how civilians turn to vigilantism when the judicial system can’t effectively and justly maintain its monopoly on murder. If it doesn’t, though, there’s still the simple, crucial pleasure of playing a video game, and inheriting, however briefly, a perspective so rarely given in this medium. Moment to moment, the game is marred by an artificial and shallow violence, but that doesn’t erase the colossal effort and, yes, in this industry, guts, to produce a AAA game that shines the spotlight on the racial dynamics of our past, drawing a line from 1968 to today. If given the choice: I will take one compelling and challenging video game about race burdened by its genre over a million serviceable action games with nothing to say.

Mafia III, at its best, is a reboot of the most common video game power fantasy. Here the joyless white dude “underdog” murdering everything in his path with minimal justification is replaced by a black man getting revenge on the embodiments of a history of injustices (and then Lincoln Clay drives over a pedestrian, kills a stranger, or shoots the face off the 700th foot soldier). With its setting, the South in 1968, Mafia III has the opportunity to show how black men and women weren’t treated as people. But how can a game comment on the value of human life when it treats every person as target waiting to be shot?