Why Mafia III isn’t afraid to deal with racism

Alex Calvin
Why Mafia III isn’t afraid to deal with racism

Mafia should really be 2K's biggest franchise.

It has a brilliant name and is an open-world crime game, which is perhaps the most popular genre in the world. It certainly sounds like it has more potential than 2K's other huge sellers, such as the stylised, and frankly unusual, Borderlands and BioShock.

Yet, although Mafia is popular (the last game did around 7m units), Take-Two acknowledges that the series has a lot more potential. CEO Strauss Zelnick said just last month that the firm really thinks Mafia III could be much, much bigger.

It's always exciting when people put your game in that light,” lead writer Bill Harms tells MCV.

For me the real pressure comes from the fact that Mafia is a beloved franchise, so the stress comes from making sure it's a great game that builds on the pillars of the previous title: rich characters, deep narrative and a cinematic experience.”

But as well as maintaining what made up the core of the original Mafia titles, new developer Hangar 13 has put its own mark on the franchise. For starters, Mafia III is an open-world release, compared with the more linear previous games.

It's the next natural evolution of the franchise I think,” Harms explains. But the way we have done it ties into the narrative. It's not just random stuff that is sitting there waiting to be done, it all ties into the story. [Main character] Lincoln is out to destroy the Italian mob and by doing that he's attacking their foundation and structure. Even though you are starting at the bottom, in the mob the money flows up. So you have to take out the people who make money to cause problems for people up the chain. It ties into that aspect of things.”

The Mafia games have always involved some form of historical realism, and have reflected the mood of a particular time and place in American history. With Mafia III, the team at Hangar 13 has opted to take players to New Bordeaux – a fictional version of New Orleans – during 1968, towards the end of the Civil Rights Movement.

Thus, race is a core theme for the title and not something that the studio is shying away from. Trailers for the game even depict members of the Klu Klax Klan

We simultaneously developed the city, the character of Lincoln and settled on a year at the same time,” Harms says.

The hero, Lincoln Clay, is biracial. By having a character like that during that time period provides a very unique lens. It provides a way for players to see the world. Also, maybe more importantly, it impacts the way that the world views Lincoln.

It's not a game about racism, but it would be disingenuous if we didn't include that and explore it in some fashion. The thing we strove for is authenticity. So we did a lot of research across a wide spectrum of topics. We read interviews and we watched documentaries about the civil rights movement.”

He continues: As a general statement on the industry, I'm excited that we are doing this with Mafia III, that we are exploring the subjects and it's something I hope more games approach. Even having an African American protagonist, or more main characters of any race, would be great.”

Not that other games haven't attempted to cover heavy subject matter like racism. Earlier this year, Deus Ex Mankind Divided hit shelves – a title for which race and racial segregation were central themes.

That title came under criticism; complaints included that the handling of the subject matter was clumsy, and that the use of phrases like ‘Augs Lives Matter' – seen as riffing off the ‘Black Lives Matter' anti-racism movement in America – was inappropriate

It was no question that people were going to react differently to Mafia III based on their experience,” Harms says.

It all comes back to the authenticity. Just to get into specifics, Jim Brown, who played football for the Cleveland Browns, gave a famous interview with Playboy in 1968 where he talks about being pulled over by the police [for getting dust on white people - really]. JamesBaldwin was a civil rights activist who wrote a lot of stuff, and he also wrote a documentary called Take This Hammer where he walks around San Francisco and all he does is talk to other African American about their lives. And it's fascinating and depressing. There's a wide array of people. He talks to one person who says that the only job they could get was tearing down the building where he lived. Once the job was done, he would lose his job and his home, but it was the only job he could get. It's about authenticity. We put a lot of effort into that.”

Not only is racism part of Mafia III's narrative; racial tensions are reflected in the title's gameplay. For example, police will respond faster to crimes that happen in nicer – whiter – areas.

Again, it's striving for authenticity,” Harms explains.

In Delray Hollow, which is the African American neighbourhood where Lincoln grew up, if you commit a crime, people will call the police because they love their neighbourhood, but the response from the cops is going to be very different. They may not respond at all. By contrast, if you are in a nicer area like Downtown, police will respond much faster. If you do something in Frisco Fields, which is a big white area, the police will respond immediately. Even people on the street will respond. It's about capturing a specific time and place and letting that inform how the world would act.”

When looking for a setting for Mafia III, Hangar 13 found its perfect inspiration in New Orleans.

The title's setting, New Bordeaux, is based on that city and with good reason: New Orleans has had a long history of organised crime.

In fact, it was one of the first cities in America to have organised crime, way back in the 1800s,” Harm says.

The French Quarter was originally Little Italy. So it has 150 years of Italian mafia, going up to Carlos Marcello who was the godfather of New Orleans in the 1960s.

New Bordeaux is our version, so we've had to take some liberties with it to support gameplay, like having wider streets so players can drive through the city really fast, power slide around corners and things like that.”

"It's not a game about racism.
But it would be disingenuous to not include
and explore it in some fashion."

Bill Harms, Hangar 13


The narrative focus, combined with the changes that Hangar 13 has made to the series' formula, mean that Harms is in high spirits about Mafia III.

It's a very beloved franchise so it's a lot of fun to work on. But it's also a big responsibility,” he says.

I hope that when people, especially fans of the series, play it, they'll see that we have kept all the things that
they loved – a strong narrative and cool characters, but that we moved forward and put our own spin on it. It's that convergence of narrative and characters with gameplay that's really cool.”<

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