Arjun Mahadevan reviews a new game, Mafia 3, with a black Vietnam vet hero and in the process takes down white supremacy
Mafia III is an open-world action game set in 1968 in the town of ‘New Bordeaux’, a fictionalised version of New Orleans. The protagonist is a black Vietnam veteran, Lincoln Clay, trying to take down the Italian Mafia boss who took his money, killed his friends and left him for dead. And so begins the story – a man betrayed, out for revenge and blood – a classic narrative.
Before you start, a statement appears informing you that the game will contain strong depictions of racist language and behaviour, and assures you that this has been done with the intention of creating an ‘authentic and immersive experience’. This is quite a disconcerting message to read when embarking upon a cathartic weekend of shooting bad guys, after a long week at work.
As you begin to play the game you are confronted with a vibrant visual depiction of 1960s Louisiana and a magnificent soundtrack featuring the likes of Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Lonnie Youngblood. However, the more you play, the more the game’s opening statement begins to make sense. Developers Hangar 13 have crafted a deeply unsettling experience where fictional situations in a fictional world have a very non-fictional crossover into reality. In the rest of this review I will explore some of the ways in which this is achieved and the affect it has on you as the player.
One of the first objectives of the game is a bank job where Lincoln, wearing a security guard’s uniform, infiltrates the Federal Reserve with his accomplice, a white man. The guard on the door immediately looks at you then asks your accomplice “What the fuck’s this shit-heel doing here?” to which his reply is “Affirmative action. You know how it is.” This is your first experience of the environment that the opening statement mentions, but you are prepared for it. Your accomplice warns you about it as you drive to the bank. It happens, you brush it off, you do the job, done.
Later in the story Lincoln begins to assemble a team of gangsters to help him on his mission of revenge. The first of these is a black Haitian woman called Cassandra whose nemesis is Richie Doucet the head of the ‘Dixie Mafia’, who kidnaps black teenagers, takes them to the bayou, starves them and sets the dogs on them, ‘you know, for old times sake’. This is a storyline where a black woman and a black man, who had traditionally fought for control over an area, team up to destroy a white supremacist criminal syndicate for the good of the black population – something that makes you, the player, angry and emboldened to fight. It makes you roll around in your black Cadillac, blasting black power speeches from the radio, only pausing to get out and break the necks of anyone waving a confederate flag and wearing dungarees.
When working for Cassandra, she tells you to meet with one of her associates who goes by the name of ‘The Voice’, a civil rights activist and radio presenter operating out of a shack by the river. His office is plastered with posters containing slogans like ‘revolutionaries unite’ and ‘equality now’ (as an anti-racist revolutionary this stuff is fucking cool). When talking to him he tells you about a Dixie prostitution ring where black women are being held – your objective is to free them. The game paints a horrible picture of the realities of white supremacy, but gives you the ability and satisfaction of being able to destroy it.
Despite occasionally delving into issues of race, the main storyline doesn’t focus too much on this as an integral part of the revenge tale. Instead, it is woven throughout the game and exemplified mostly by aspects of the open-world experience. In many ways the story plays second fiddle to your experience as a black man in the 1960s American South.
For example, there are public places in certain parts of New Bordeaux that you cannot enter without ‘trespassing’ because you are black. Bar and shop staff approach you and tell you you’re not welcome. I noticed my in-game behavioural habits change. In other games of this type, like the Grand Theft Auto series, barging into someone in the street might result in a verbal retaliation, which I would usually ignore and carry on – even though the repercussions of pulling out a gun would be minimal. In Mafia III the stakes are higher, but when someone racially abuses you for accidentally nudging them, I don’t hesitate to shoot them in the head. On the other hand, exploring predominantly black areas, you overhear civilians asking when they will be free, and in one instance exclaiming, ‘Makes me sick seeing property defaced with messages of protest. You got problems, use your fists brother.’
There is only one place you can buy guns and ammunition in the game – a mobile arms dealer called Jackie, who used to own a gun shop before the government shut him down. When Lincoln asks him why, he says ‘They don’t want ‘n*****s’ buying guns. Worried we’re gonna start shootin’ the hell out of white folks or some such.’ In this game, he’s not wrong. The more you play Mafia III, the stronger a feeling of ‘them and us’ is. But unlike GTA ‘them and us’ doesn’t relate to the authorities and the criminal, it relates to white and black. In GTA, you are a target because of your criminal activity or group/gang allegiance. In Mafia III you become a target because of your race.
Police presence and behaviour is a big example of the emotional attachment the player has to the game through racism. Whatever you’re doing, whenever you drive past the cops, the blue marker pops up and points at you, letting you know they’re keeping an eye on you. If you pull up behind them in your car, they will shout out the window at you. If you beep your horn, they will threaten you. If you happen to be walking on the pavement as they walk past, they will eyeball you, sometimes stop and stare, even put a hand on their holster. If you get just too close they will threaten you, call you a n*****, or both. You never know when you’re going to be arrested or shot at. After playing for hours, it conditions you to act with caution whenever that blue marker pops up. When you’re black, you’re not safe around the police, even if you’re innocent – an emotional imitation of reality.
Overall, Mafia III is a unique game in its ability to make the player feel uneasy and uncomfortable as a result of tapping into very real depictions of racism. The discomfort the player feels doesn’t stop you from playing, but encourages you to continue with your fight – both the quest for revenge and the battle for freedom. It is quite rare for a major game release to feature a black hero. More so a black hero who is tasked with taking down a system of white supremacy – a criminal syndicate with the authorities on it’s side. Mafia III doesn’t shy away from depicting the realities of racism. It doesn’t try to glamorise the Mafia in a way that has been done a thousand times. It shows you the real and disgusting world of white supremacy as it really is and gives you the tools to destroy it.