Why 'Mafia III' Should Tackle Race Head On
<em>Mafia III</em> has all the sights and sounds of the 60s, but are they more than just window dressing?
The first time I'd tried to interrogate one of Sal Marcano's men, things had gone sour: One of the informant's bodyguards caught me slinking down the alley toward him, and in the skirmish that followed, my target got away.
This time, though, I was prepared. I'd learned where the informant's guards were stationed through a tapped phone line; I restocked on ammunition (and put on a flak jacket for good measure); I blocked off a potential escape route with my own getaway vehicle. And this time, I wasn't as committed to going in quiet.
But when the situation exploded—literally, after a stray molotov cocktail caught a barrel of gasoline—there was still one thing I wasn't ready for.
My back was up against a concrete partition, service rifle in my hands, when a voice with Mafioso swagger and Louisiana grit called out: "The nigger's over there!"
Despite the air conditioning, the hotel room where 2K Games was handling the Mafia III demo felt a little warm. All at once the demo's three PR handlers, the game's lead writer, Bill Harms, and I—a black guy—seemed to realize that we'd stumbled into charged, tenuous territory. They obviously knew that we'd wind up here—they had probably run this demo dozens of times. But their response to being in the room with a black person while it happened, unfiltered, felt unpracticed.
As I move with violence down that back alley, I realize that the feeling I had wasn't frustration or offense, it was the nervous energy that comes whenever you spot someone taking a risk. All I wanted, suddenly, was for the team at Hangar 13 to tackle race head on, and with a lot more care than I had while plotting this small mission.
I also desperately hoped that they wouldn't fuck it up.
Mafia III is an open-world, third-person action game set in 1968 and set to release on October 7. It follows Lincoln Clay, a biracial Vietnam vet out for revenge after being betrayed by the Italian mob of New Bordeaux (a fictional New Orleans analogue). As players build their own criminal enterprise across the city, Clay and his own multicultural mob take down Mafia rackets, expose citywide corruption, and manage their own internal disputes. And this all happens in the fraught atmosphere of Louisiana in the late 1960s.
That atmosphere will be both a challenge and an advantage for Mafia III. By setting the game in the 60s, developer Hangar 13 has access to a wide catalog of familiar cultural material: musical touchstones, important moments of activism, huge changes in the national political character. According to Harms—who has been working as a games and comics writer since the mid 90s—the team primarily wanted to tell a classic revenge story, but also felt that it was important not to retreat from the decade's heaviest issues. If handled well, the team could leverage the complexity (and familiarity) of the 60s to create something powerful while still being a pulpy crime yarn.
As I turn this all over in my head, the action in the alley continued to play out. The shouted slurs and gunfire were quickly overtaken by a new sound: police sirens. A nearby civilian had heard the firefight and rushed to a pay phone to call the cops—something I could've stopped by having one of my own lieutenants cut the phone lines, if I'd been even more prepared. Only a few moments after the call went in, the police roared into the alleyway.
As Clay grabs the informant and begins to grill him for info, the police take up positions. I'm cornered. "Shit, I thought I was going to have more time," I tell Harms. He laughs, "Well, you're right near city hall." He explains that the police respond quickly in the highly populated, wealthy, and white downtown district. "But if you were in the Hollows—one of the poorer, much blacker districts in New Bordeaux..." He shrugs. In Mafia III, safety and justice arrive more slowly for some than others. It's the first time I've seen this element of structural racism systematized in a big-budget game. I didn't expect that, either.
I scatter a few rounds toward the police to keep them pinned down, sprint for my car, and drive away. Hendrix blares out of the radio as I dodge through side streets to escape the police chase and figure out what's next for Lincoln Clay. I'd softened up the Mafia's hold on downtown enough that I could now go directly after their corrupt construction business, one of two rackets that they had running nearby—each district offers unique rackets that reflect the local character of crime.
I set a waypoint for the construction site, and as Jimi brings the mood into a sunset sort of place, I find the moment to breach the topic directly, stumbling a bit to find the words. "It's, I... OK, so, I'm glad that you're tackling race head on." Harms nods along as I continue. "But I'm curious how you figured out the right balance on this, so that you can both include the very real and very important history of virulent racism without making people like me too uncomfortable to play this game. Like, how did you figure out how often to use slurs, for instance." I pull into the construction yard and whistle for some backup from some of my own hired goons before kicking in the gate—the absurdity of the situation is not lost on either of us.
"You know, it has to be meaningful," Harms tells me. "It can't just be something you hear nonstop without any context. There's always got to be a reason behind it." I duck behind a block of concrete—apparently everyone at this construction site is carrying weight.
I get my third surprise as I fight through the yard, while Harms and I chatter amicably about historical context—the RICO act, the decline of the Italian mob, the long march of civil rights. There are two goons on the second floor of the building I'm assaulting, and they have me pinned down and low on ammo. I flip through my arsenal to find a solution, and Harms stands up and walks over to the TV to point out a strange device I'd missed until then—a voodoo doll.
Again the room goes quiet. I slowly and curiously select the doll from my inventory. Harms explains with a sort of young writer's enthusiasm. "See, Lincoln Clay, he was a psychological warfare operative in Vietnam." I see where he's going instantly, but I'm not quite eased by this knowledge. "So, the thing is, he understands that these Italian Mafia guys are very religious, very superstitious. He doesn't believe in voodoo, but he knows they do!" There's a sort of magician's flair to his pitch: Ta-da.
So I toss the device up the stairs, and it makes a few strange noises, like if Tiger Electronics made a handheld magical fetish. And then the Mafiosi see it, and it's with a blend of terror and anger they shout. In my memory, what they're shouting is "That's NIGGER MAGIC!" but it might have been "nigger voodoo" or "nigger shit." The weighted word was there, though; it put that familiar smirk on my face, the one normally saved for awkward dinners with the casually racist parents of ex-partners or for when a movie that hasn't aged well slips comfortably into stereotype-driven humor.
Even now, with the distance of two weeks, I can't quite parse this moment. There's a version of it that probably works. I can imagine a film where a mid 2000s Wesley Snipes uses this trick to great effect, coming off like a badass who's turned the mob's own racism against them. Here, though, it falls flat. Maybe it's because it's not just a one-off gag but a mechanic that is returned to again and again over the course of the game. I'm just not sure if the brief distraction the device offers is worth the sonic assault it puts me under.
As I play, I wonder if players who look like me came up in the meetings where Hangar 13 writers pitched one another on this bit; players who've had the word "nigger" hurled at them as (and sometimes, along with) a weapon as we move through our days and nights. I know that the Mafia III writing team has at least one black writer on staff, and I wish he was here so that I could get his take. I wish I could ask him if this was what Harms means when he says that each time "nigger" is used, it's used with purpose?
If the purpose he imagined was this familiar instance of narrative shorthand, used to quickly vilify the random gangsters, then it has a long history of similar usage in Mafia stories. In explaining his love for Goodfellas, Anthony Bourdain zeroes in on this technique: "I think one of the things that's really interesting about this film is how every time you start to like Henry, and when we find ourselves rooting for what is essentially a murderous psychopath, they'll throw in some totally extraneous casual racism that they could have easily done without. ... You're constantly reminded that these are really disgusting people that you're liking and enjoying spending time with."
It is an old and well-worn technique—used in The Godfather, The Sopranos, and A Bronx Tale, too—but when deployed in these other Mafia stories, it still works, largely because it's done strategically. But here it seems scattershot, not working to characterize the villains of Mafia III so much as to fill auditory gaps. Video-game enemies "bark" to give the player information, from where they are in the environment to what tactics they're going to use. Sometimes these barks are ridiculous, sometimes they're frustrating—but they're always communicating something.
When I spend every firefight in Mafia III being called a nigger, though, the attempt at communication becomes more noise than signal. It is harshly textured and painful to hear, especially with this frequency and vigor. Maybe that is the desired effect, but I'm not sure that matters when the effect is so sharp a stab.
But Harms is right when he says that the solution isn't to retreat from the complexity and political nature of these issues. If Hangar 13 only leans on a poorly mythologized version of the 1960s as an aesthetic and narrative crutch, then Mafia III would be a missed opportunity.
Instead, I want Hangar 13 to lean in harder, to tackle the racial and political tensions of the 60s directly. When it releases in October, I want to adore Mafia III. The hours I spent with it showed me a game that is taking risks while simultaneously delivering on the fundamentals. I want Hangar 13 to bring to bear the skill they've used to make New Bordeaux feel vibrant and alive to this new challenge. If they can bring the harsh noise into tune, they might find the harmony between historical drama and pulpy crime thriller.
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