Revenge tales are a dime a dozen. It’s a well-worn story trope that’s been used in videogames almost from the beginning. For me, these stories never felt truly important. They were a means to an end, way stations between gameplay segments. But Mafia III is different.
The game starts you off in the racially turbulent time of 1968. Set in the faux-New Orleans city of New Bordeaux, you’re put in the combat boots of Lincoln Clay, a black biracial orphan returning from the Vietnam War. He’s reunited with his adoptive family of Sammy and Ellis Robinson, and the man who raised him in the orphanage, Father James. Sammy is the leader of the Black Mob, currently indebted to another mob headed up by Sal Marcano.
There’s a line in the song “Get It” by Run The Jewels in which Killer Mike raps “So even if you got seven figures, you still a nigga,” and that’s a good description for most of the story in Mafia III. No matter how much power you have, how much money you accrue, the kind of allies or friends you have, you’re still viewed by your skin color. In the first mission of the game Lincoln is going undercover as a bank security guard and is being briefed that even though his partner will be acting friendly towards the other security, he means nothing he says. Lincoln responds with “It’s not like I haven’t been called a nigger before.” And that statement resonated with me. Because it’s true and blatant. Ask any black person you know, no matter what walk of life, whether it’s in person or on the internet: they have been called a nigger before.
As I stated before, this game takes place in 1968. The game is steeped in the style of the ‘60s. Clothing, hairstyles, the music, the aesthetic are all very much of this era. You can overhear NPCs referring to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. I had NPCs tell me “You don’t belong here boy.” The game will throw up a visual indicator of when the police are watching you, even when you’re not committing a crime. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never felt the watchful eyes of someone on me solely because I have a certain skin color, if I said that, much like Lincoln Clay in New Bordeaux, I didn’t feel uncomfortable in rich white areas because I didn’t feel like I belonged or was wanted.
But unlike real people, Lincoln handles racism with force. After being betrayed by the Marcano family and having his only family murdered, he sets out to get revenge. He raises hell up and down this city, taking over, and murdering without mercy. And I’m not going to say it’s not cathartic. Having an NPC say to me “What are you going to do, nigger?” and Lincoln slitting his throat, stabbing him in the chest, and throwing aside his body as if it was trash is extremely cathartic.
Let’s get this straight: Lincoln Clay is not a good person. He’s violent, selfish, and stubborn. He cares not whether his actions have fallout for those surrounding him. He wants revenge. And this game does not shy away from violence. Not just acts committed by the main character but acts committed by anyone. There’s an area of the game where you’re hunting down Southern Union members, which is connected to the Klan, for capturing black people and selling them into slavery. You’ll run into white gang members beating black people in the street. And Lincoln can and will kill them all. And it’s all cathartic because we live in a time where a powerful man is allowed to run for the highest public office on the ideals of the enemies you face in this game, ideals that should be forgotten detritus from our shameful past.
The story delves into the horrors of war, the horrors of racism, the horrors of those with privilege and power who use this power to execute the worst atrocities against those who they deem lesser. How power in the wrong hands will ultimately lead to ruin. How anger when not focused correctly will inevitably hurt those closest to you. But it also deals with people in a horrid situation surviving the best way they know how. People who are still willing to help even when the worst is out there waiting for them. It’s not perfect but it shows real people in real situations and doesn’t mask them behind analogs like in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided or having stand-ins for racial issues as in an untold number of fantasy stories.
Mafia III is a flawed game. The gameplay is very standard for an open-world crime game and the mission structure does nothing to really shake up its 30 hours plus runtime. I ran into a few issues with weird lighting, characters clipping through objects, and two crashes. But in the end, I would still recommend this game. I would say it’s best to enjoy this game as a slow burn. It’s presented as a documentary and I think it’s best to be enjoyed as a documentary series where you take control of the action and play for a few hours here and there. The message that it has to say about blackness, revenge, and racial tension in America is a nice change of pace from the bloated landscape of other open-world games, and a vital one in 2016.
Mafia III was developed by Hangar 13 and published by 2K Games. Our review is based on the PS4 version. It is also available for Xbox One, PC and Mac.
Terence Wiggins is the co-host of the podcast Whatever We Call It, the creator of the videogame online zine We ? Video Games, the cookie wizard behind The Black Nerd’s Baked Goods, and the Internet’s best friend. He’s on Twitter @TheBlackNerd.