Mafia III begins with a striking developer message, confirming the depiction of racism to come. Set in the 1960s deep south, Mafia III’s judicious use of epitaphs and slurs warrants the alert. In game, ambient conversation constructs an uneasy society, struck by communism’s grip, Vietnam, MLK & JFK’s assassination, and the “worrisome” influx of anyone of color on television.
Rival mafia goons pour on crude slurs as they engage. Police respond slower to calls coming in from poorer areas. Store owners panic as black protagonist Lincoln Clay walks into their store. In this sense, it’s startling – Mafia III uses the medium to elevate the uncomfortable sensations of racism, especially for those who may not otherwise be impacted. Some white eyes leer at Clay as he walks down the street, and the racial bias bleeds into conversations. Inappropriate words surround and suffocate.
Then within minutes of opening, Lincoln Clay drowns Haitians in swamp waters, and a crocodile snaps up the bodies for dinner. Achievement/trophy unlocked. Big videogames are dumb.
With their most public face, meaning the well advertised, massive blockbuster holiday offerings, videogames refuse to endure more than a few seconds of genuine discourse. It’s guns, it’s blood, it’s user controlled mayhem. There’s no greater sign of the medium’s frustrating immaturity than espousing about racial intolerance, then casting Lincoln Clay into a blaxploitation mafia revenge epic equivalent to 1974’s Sugar Hill, albeit without zombies.
Look upon Mafia III with innocent eyes and it’s indistinguishable from the flaccid satire of Grand Theft Auto. Placing a handful of ambient n-words and post-WWII Asian slurs isn’t discourse – it’s rendering the opening message childish. Nothing of social consequence peeks from the derivative, dull shell of Mafia III. No one marches for civil rights and Clay isn’t fighting for greater racial clarity; he’s as cruel as the rest.
Those who truly hate are those expected to – low level gun runners and mafia kingpins. Their hate speech cannot be of surprise, and their existence as targets only obliterates the attempt at perspective. Evil people say evil things, while the rest of New Bordeaux’s citizens typically act passive toward and around Clay.
Maybe it’s not fair to poke at videogames. Cinema’s big entertainment shows discontent for the audience too. 2016’s Legend of Tarzan spent two hours with Tarzan routing British slave traders from the African Congo, then had Tarzan battle an all black jungle cannibal tribe. The dialog isn’t any richer in blockbuster film either.
It’s been 15 years since Grand Theft Auto III. Technology grew, yet place GTA III and Mafia III in front of an antsy congressional hearing, and what changed? Both protagonists car jack, run over people at will, run from cops, and violently kill impossible numbers of enemies (with spurts of extreme gore). Neither project is more defensible than the other. Adding offensive stigmas into ambient conversation doesn’t inherently convey design bravery; actions do. Here, that only means drive, shoot, drive. The color or sex of the protagonist alone isn’t inherently progressive when taken alone either.
No wonder the immediate conversation around Mafia III concerns frame rates rather than racism – there’s no other conversation to have. At least a quarter of Mafia III’s progression is draining, uneventful filler. Content matters. Right now, the content in this sector of the industry is too frequently terrible.
Undoubtedly, Mafia III took an inhuman amount of time to produce with throes of people tapping on keyboards. In all the huddled meeting rooms and expensive idea farms, Mafia III didn’t sprout any allegorical power. It’s all played straight, but laughable. Bodies pile up, and this isn’t meant to be funny.