When Mafia III came out this past October, it was widely praised for tackling the systemic racism of its setting in a straight-forward fashion. Set in a fictionalized version of New Orleans in 1968, and starring a half-black Vietnam vet returning to a different kind of war at home, it forces players to confront racism as not just overt violence and hatred but as a daily way of life. It guides the actions and movement of the police throughout the city, and can be seen in how non-playable characters react to your character. Although it’s clearly a revenge story, it feels impossible to separate those strands of racism and revenge. So it’s surprising when its lead writer, William Harms, tries to do that in a recent conversation
“Mafia III is not a game about racism. There’s racism in the game, but our intent was never to make a game about that. It’s what we call a pulpy revenge tale,” Harms says. “A lot of my favorite movies are revenge stories. Like The Crow.”
Again, Mafia III is a game about a black man in the South in 1968 that doesn’t shy away from the social aspects of its setting. It’s still rare for games with the budget, scope and commercial expectations of Mafia III to attempt any kind of social or political commentary, and its unflinching depiction of racism resonates strongly with many players. Paste writer Terence Wiggins hailed it as “cathartic” in his review, and it’s specifically the racial aspect that makes it so cathartic for Wiggins. Racism and its impact drives most of the vengeance that unfolds throughout the game, and as Nathan Grayson catalogued for Kotaku shortly after the game’s release, it’s also driven most of the conversation about the game.
That wasn’t Harms’s primary intent, though. Mafia III’s characters and setting grew out of his desire to tell a classic revenge story. It’s the same narrative itch that drives his new novel, the horror western Let Us Alone Trust in God, which deals with the immediate aftermath of the Civil War on one Union soldier on a personal and supernatural level. Harms is fascinated by the moment when justice turns into vengeance, by what separates a fight for rights or respect from a quest to settle a score. And when thinking about a setting that could support such a story, one that also fits into the historical fiction lineage of the Mafia series, Harms and the rest of Mafia III’s development team landed on New Orleans in 1968.
“The things that people remember from the ‘60s, a lot of that happened in 1968,” Harms says. “The assassination of Martin Luther King, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the Tet Offensive, the Black Power salutes at the Mexico City Olympics, the riots at the Democratic National Convention. We settled on ‘68 at the same time we were thinking about where we want the game to be set and who we want the protagonist to be.”
That protagonist wound up being Lincoln Clay, a mixed race native of the game’s fictional take on New Orleans, and a Vietnam vet who gets pulled into a war between organized crime families when he returns. As Harms explains, Clay is “mixed race, but as we say in the game, if you look black you’re black. Lincoln has a very specific way of viewing the world because of who he is, and also the world has a very specific way of looking at him.”
That’s where the game’s unabashed depiction of racism arises. That racism varies from the blatant to the subtle, from slurs and Klan rallies to background characters clutching their purses or looking away when they walk by Clay. Within a few minutes of starting the game a character calls Clay the N word; later Clay infiltrates and shoots up a Klan rally. Racism is so prevalent throughout this game, and depicted so plainly in all its perniciousness, that it easily becomes the most memorable and commendable part of its story. That story might clash at times with the game’s need to function as a satisfying videogame for the broadest possible console market, but it makes Mafia III stand out from the myriad of similar open-world action games that don’t attempt to say anything about the real world. It makes it more powerful than a typical revenge story.
When talking about Mafia III, Harms points to a second movie, Clint Eastwood’s elegiac Unforgiven, as another inspiration. “It goes from a movie about justice, about who’s going to bring the men who inflicted harm to these prostitutes to justice, and it shifts from that to ‘they killed my friend and now they’re going to pay,’” he says. Like so many movies about revenge, the climax of that film, where Eastwood’s retired gunslinger William Munny single-handedly takes out a saloon full of men who tortured and killed his friend, supports multiple readings; some might see it as a cathartic moment, a celebration of violence or vengeance, but that ignores the unmistakable sense of loss that permeates not just that scene but the entire movie, the loss of both Munny’s friend and of the better man he had become after laying down the gun. Unforgiven is about the ultimate futility and emptiness of revenge, not an exaltation of it. It had higher ambitions than revenge.
Mafia III and Harms’s novel Let Us Alone Trust in God grew out of the same soil, and share a few common roots. Both are planted in some of the most shameful parts of America’s past, branching out of one of the fundamental evils that America was built on. Both use that history as dramatic backdrop for personal revenge stories, which Harms appreciates for their purity. “The world is very morally grey,” he says. “The bad guys don’t always get what they deserve, and there’s an appeal to revenge stories because they’re pure. More often than not the bad guys do get what they deserve. And the historical stuff, I just like reading history books.”
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games, comedy and wrestling sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.