The Violent Catharsis of Mafia 3

When games give me a choice, I tend to behave morally.  Sure, I’ll steal some precious currency now and then, and kill the odd NPC who gets on my nerves, but generally I try to be a good guy.  I help people, I spare people, I give second chances and the benefit of the doubt.  I played through BioShock twice and never harvested a Little Sister.

But Mafia III is different.  In Mafia III, I’m killing everyone.  Not innocent bystanders, at least not on purpose, but every enemy.  Everyone who looks at me sideways.  Even when the mission objective is fulfilled and I could just as easily hop back in my car and drive away, I kill everyone.  Brutally, if possible.  I’ll spend five minutes crisscrossing a shipyard to track down that one errant red dot on my minimap.  When a phalanx of cops shows up and compels me to flee before I’ve killed every last enemy, I feel a tinge of regret: I didn’t get to kill everyone.

And this isn’t the kind of madcap, chaos-sowing, pseudo-anarchic violence of Grand Theft Auto.  Nor is it the slapstick, over-the-top, juicy violence of Doom.  No, this violence is deliberate, purposeful.  Because the violence in Mafia III isn’t just directed at your typical nameless, faceless videogame enemies; it’s directed at systemic racism and injustice, at one of the most shameful pages in the American yearbook.


Yes, protagonist Lincoln Clay is a criminal, battling other criminals for the right to continue committing more crime.  But Lincoln Clay is also a black man in the South in 1968, a detail that imbues the game with more meaning than the rote “trying to win at crime” storyline.  (More accurately, Lincoln is biracial, but, as a character explains, “if you look black, you black,” an axiom that seems as apropos in 2017 as in 1968.)  This setting, and its mostly unflinching portrayal in the game, creates a backdrop against which Lincoln’s violence – your violence – is surprisingly cathartic.  You don’t just feel like you’re defeating the enemies who are standing between you and victory; you feel like you’re striking back at an unjust system, holding your chin up against an onslaught of racism that has centuries of momentum behind it.

What makes this work is the level of care developer Hangar 13 put into recreating this time and place.  The racism in Mafia III is not employed as a cheap parlor trick to make you feel justified in killing your opposition.  Instead, it feels like a fairly authentic representation of a time and place.  Walk down a busy street in New Bordeaux and you’ll hear dozens of conversations about racism, the war in Vietnam, politics, and other hot-button social issues.  Hop in a car and, between cuts from classic 1960s albums, you’ll hear news reports about racially charged shootings and call-in radio guests opining that It’s white Christians who are the ones really being oppressed.  The classic cars and phenomenal soundtrack root the game firmly in 1968, but the social unrest feels oddly and depressingly contemporary.

Hangar 13’s commitment to their depiction of racism lends even otherwise unremarkable moments a new significance.  To wit: the police in Mafia III adhere to a sort of binary logic that is common in videogames, and particularly in Grand Theft-alikes such as Mafia.  They will ignore you, more or less, up to a point.  But beyond that point, once you’ve done something that brands you a capital-C Criminal – be it stealing a car, picking a lock, loitering, or entering a whites-only establishment (which is not legally a thing in 1968) – they will open fire on you.  No warnings, no tickets, no handcuffs.  You just get shot at.

Now, cops act this way in all sorts of videogames, mostly because it simplifies both game design and gameplay.  Few people want to play a nuanced police-civilian interaction sim.  But in Mafia III, this distillation of policing to a simple binary becomes, intentionally or not, a commentary on criminal justice and racial politics.  And it’s a commentary that feels as apropos in 2017 as it does in the game’s 1968.


Of course, the allegory is imperfect; your Lincoln Clay has probably killed hundreds of people, stolen thousands of dollars, and cut a swath of destruction across his city.  Judged for his actions, he is as undeserving of sympathy as any videogame character.  But, in a roundabout way, this is what makes the game so effective.  As with so many videogame characters, violence is Lincoln Clay’s only source of agency.  The difference here is that the violence feels somewhat appropriate.  This is not to say that there’s ever really moral justification for the level of carnage Lincoln Clay unleashes on New Bordeaux; the math of videogame violence never makes literal sense.  But Lincoln Clay’s violence exists for reason beyond “it’s fun to do shooting in games.”  Lincoln Clay is at war with not just Sal Marcano but New Bordeaux itself – corrupt, racist New Bordeaux.  And he’s winning.

In reality, there was no Lincoln Clay.  Just as there was no Django Freeman.  Just as there was no Shosanna Dreyfus in Nazi-occupied France.  But like those and other works of alternate history, Mafia III gives its audience the means to step into the ugly past and extract a justice that was lacking at the time.  Granted, Lincoln Clay’s justice is imprecise – there was no Hitler of American racism – but New Bordeaux is perhaps best thought of not as a collection of people, but an abstract representation of a rotten culture and a broken system.  Taken as individuals, Lincoln Clay’s victims may not all deserve the violence he visits upon them, to say nothing of the innocent bystanders.  But New Bordeaux certainly deserves it.

In the age of Black Lives Matter and the interminable string of racially charged shootings that necessitate the movement, the age of the Trump presidency and its concomitant hate speech, turning on the news or scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed is a fraught experience.  When it seems that years or decades of hard-won, taken-for-granted progress are imperiled, the social unrest of the 1960s becomes terrifyingly resonant.  And while a heavily armed vigilante, a literal social justice warrior, is not quite what the real world needs, it sure is fun to play one in a game.  But more than fun, in this anxious moment in American history, extracting Lincoln Clay’s brand of justice is satisfyingly, violently cathartic.

Read all about What I Play When I Play.

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