by Jed Pressgrove
Mafia III is the most pretentious game of 2016, opening with a few lines about how it takes racism seriously but operating like a Grand Theft Auto clone that uses violent superficial visions of minorities like countless other crime stories. Although the game admits its setting is a fictionalized (read: BS) version of 1968 New Orleans, it seems unaware of its many other facades, including the unconvincing conscience of a minister.
Director Haden Blackman and writer Bill Harms so casually display moral cowardice and contradictions in their messaging that you have to consider the possibility that Mafia III has an unpleasant gimmick: exploiting current U.S. racial tension for dramatic intrigue, regardless of whether anything pressing or meaningful is communicated. You play as Lincoln Clay, a black veteran of the Vietnam War on a quest for vengeance against the Italian mobsters who killed his family. As its introductory statement implies, Mafia III doesn’t shy away from racial slurs directed toward Clay and other black characters, but that the story takes place in the late 1960s both makes the game more politically correct (hindsight is 20/20) and lets audiences, both conservative and liberal, off the hook for present-day racism. After all, who would want urgent moral consideration to get in the way of enjoying Mafia III’s serviceable (but historically unimpressive) driving, shooting, and stealth sequences?
At first, Mafia III appears to want to shed a sympathetic light on oppressed people of color who are driven to extreme actions because of their circumstances. Clay shares an observation about Vietnamese soldiers that Mafia III intends as a parallel to black Americans: “You put people against a wall, they will do anything to survive.” The problem is that Mafia III, much like the sci-fi film District 9 that a lot of white people loved, portrays droves of darker-skinned people as inherently violent rather than recognizable human beings. Before Clay is betrayed, he is shown and described as a natural killer, and the game wants you to get off on not only this idea but also insensitive perspectives on ethnic groups, as demonstrated in the mission titled “Kill the Haitians.” By trying to make violent black stereotypes fun, by juxtaposing its understanding for Vietnamese people with the usual crime-fiction disregard for Haitians as a group, Mafia III shoots its claim about good intentions in the head and robs its revenge story of the intended moral outrage. (Imagine the conservative commentary that might come after the “Kill the Haitians” mission: “All of that black-on-black crime.”)
In every attempt to provide moral commentary, Mafia III comes off as hypocritical or amoral. The game offers Father James as a character with a conscience about Clay’s path. When Clay informs Father James he intends on killing everybody in the Italian mob, Father James says killing anyone beside the leader would be immoral and inadvisable. Later, Clay tells Father James that his “turn the other cheek” philosophy doesn’t work in the real world, but this debate is laughable given that Father James endorses murder as long as it’s controlled and in the best interests of one’s family or community. One of the game’s endings even confirms that Father James has little moral or spiritual conviction.
Mafia III believes that it can be serious about historical discrimination without acknowledging how racial and ethnic stereotypes in crime fiction might confirm long-standing prejudicial views and assumptions. The Italians in Mafia III don’t just illustrate the notion of white violence against blacks; their one-dimensional characterizations conform to the caricature of the Italian criminal. But this sort of cliched writing is a logical antecedent to a wealth of missions involving racially and ethnically charged violence that is supposed to be pleasant. Those who criticize Mafia III’s action as too repetitive might miss a larger point: the creators of Mafia III are all for cyclical violence because, as the Grand Theft Auto series has demonstrated, that type of rush sells more often than articulate, compassionate, and self-reflective discussion on race. As long as Mafia III convinces people of color that it cares and white people that they don’t have to feel as guilty anymore, it will appear to transcend its genre’s typical lack of originality and sensitivity.