'Mafia III' Is an Incredible Snapshot of a Time and Place

By tackling race head on, developer Hangar 13's depiction of 1960s America goes way beyond set dressing.

2K Games

Mafia III would likely not have been made five years ago. The game’s protagonist, Lincoln Clay, is not an Italian mafioso, but an African-American veteran shipping home from Vietnam. The game’s set in a fictionalized recreation of New Orleans in 1968, the height of the Civil Rights movement and one of the most volatile periods in modern American history. 2K’s Hangar 13 pulls no punches when it comes to the depiction of racism during the player’s experience, which includes prevalent use of racist slurs and seething invective, starting within the first few minutes of the game.

Hangar 13 opens the game with a message regarding this, explaining that it would be disingenuous to leave this abhorrent aspect of society unaddressed in an accurate depiction of the era. Frankly, it’s incredible the idea was approved in the generally sanitized world of safe, big budget blockbusters, especially given that, as Lincoln, Mafia III forces you into a lot of situations that some players will certainly find uncomfortable.

It may be one of the only times I’ve encountered a period game with an immediate sense of cultural authenticity. Hangar 13 seemingly wants to start a difficult conversation with players, forcing them to consider the historical implications of the game’s bigotry in the context of today’s volatile social climate.

As terrible as it may be, getting to know Lincoln’s turf, taken over early on by a group of backwoods confederates, is seeing a snapshot of a time and a place much more than most games invoking certain eras. (There’s the possible of exception of Rockstar, in Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire, though singling them out for what other publishers might deem risky should be a surprise to no one.)

Whereas a game like L.A. Noire wasn’t afraid to address the rampant discrimination of post-war Los Angeles, Cole Phelps encountered it more in passing rather than being absorbed in it; players ended up somewhat complicit to whatever was said, whether they wanted to be or not. That’s not the case here.

Instead, Mafia III chronicles the day-to-day of Lincoln’s life, right down to the game switching into “hostile zone” mode if you happen to walk by aggressive rednecks that hang out on street corners. They’ll even pull out shotguns and start egging you on. Similarly, police officers’ “suspicion” meter will go up if Lincoln gets too close, even if he isn’t doing anything.

Because it’s a game where you strongly feel his point of view — from what I’ve seen it works best to think of the map as a giant film set rather than a GTA-style sandbox — Lincoln’s experiences are vital as much for that societal contextualization as for his dramatic arc chronicling his rise, and his personal conflict, versus the entrenched Louisiana mafioso.

There are a number of other touches, of course, stemming from the Civil Rights movement and society at the time. NPCs express concern over the state of things in reference to historical events like the recent passing of Martin Luther King Jr.; on the radio, hosts — powerful voices of their communities — encourage their listeners to continue rallying against oppression, and it’s impossible not to overhear errant racial epithets.

Sure, there is also midcentury furniture, vintage Playboys, and a jukebox’s worth of fantastic licensed tracks from the era. But it would be equally disingenuous to simply focus on these surface level details over the broader cultural core you’re living.

It results in not wanting to play like a murderous, rampaging criminal callously terrorizing everyone they see — the psychopath players often gleefully embody in so many open-world crime games. I empathized with Lincoln’s perspective to the degree that I couldn’t have forced myself to play that way even if I wanted to and went out of my way to avoid harming black neighborhoods and civilians.

He wants to restore his community — and by all appearances strike a victory for Civil Rights — just as much as he seeks personal vengeance. It’s an important distinction that gives Mafia III an emotional purpose most revenge stories in games lack. (If there are any problems with the game’s narrative ambition, its the dissonance that can result when it chafes against its open-world design.)

And while racism may mean very different things to different people, I think what Mafia III would like players to take away from the experience is reflection, of the self and otherwise. When you’re living in a particular moment as much as you are here, it seems impossible to ignore. No matter where you come from, that’s a powerful thing.

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