Mafia III: A new kind of video game history?

Video game promotion is one of the things that most interests me: how what a game could or should be is communicated to those who are even vaguely interested before the game even hits shelves. There’s lots of different things that usually get mentioned— its story, how the game pushes the medium forward…basically, what’s new. But sometimes game promotion heavily relies on telling people what’s old; more specifically, what’s historical. 

And if there’s two things that Mafia III has promoted more heavily than anything else  it’s the game’s unique narrative perspective (contained in its supposedly next generation open-world), and its attention to historical detail and authenticity.

Arguably, Mafia III is one of the most anticipated new games of 2016, and it came out today. From the beginning the promotion of Mafia 3 has suggested it offers a very particular gameplay experience— the chance to experience life as a biracial Vietnam veteran, returning home to the South of the U.S., at the end of the 1960s.

Biracial protagonist? American South? The 60s?! There’s enough here to set alarm bells ringing furiously in the minds of even the most historically-disinterested people. It’s one of those periods and places that we all probably sort of think we know, even if in reality we know absolutely nothing particular about it. Which is, I suppose, half the job of promoting this game and its history already accomplished.

It’s hard not to take this seriously (perhaps too seriously), as someone with a research interest in the way video games construct history, and to wonder if what Mafia III seems to be offering is going to be a new kind of benchmark for this sort of game.

After starting it today, the set up of the game’s historical content and context is already intriguing. Players are introduced to this historical space and time, and these fictionalised but historicised characters by way of, for example, real and invented newsreel footage (a well-worn feature of a number of historical films). But more interesting is the way the story is initially told retrospectively, from an apparently “present day” perspective. A video promoting “New Bordeaux” (Mafia III‘s take on New Orleans) as a tourist destination, as well as the game’s narrative missions, are intercut with witness testimony “interviews”— framed as though players are watching a documentary unfold, where people who have firsthand experience of the events they are about to take part in, and the narrative they are about to play through, tell them what has already happened. It’s an interesting take on the idea of individual memory, and especially the ways in which we document and mediate memories of violence in what players will already be expecting to be a deeply troubled and fractured time in America’s past.

But also heavily promoted is the way in which the protagonist Lincoln Clay’s racial identity has become a fundamental feature of the game, important not only to the story it tries to tell, but also to the way that the environment responds to him just being there. The very idea of a game responding to a specific person, at a specific place and time, in a highly specific way, is interesting, and builds the ways other video games that have previously done this—though in a less politically-charged way.

Trying to attain a sense of ‘historical accuracy’ means entangling a game narrative in a variety of deeply racist, though ‘historically accurate’ behaviours. Hence the following disclaimer, displayed at the beginning of the game:

Mafia III_20161007130051.jpg

From the very outset, the (often very white) areas of the game world you explore as Lincoln Clay seems immediately hostile to your presence. NPC characters spit at you, women clutch more tightly at their handbags, and people frequently racially slur. It’s aimed directly at your character avatar, but its hard to not feel the force of it as a player yourself. It’s important that the game (and other games for that matter) confront, rather than shy away from these issues, but the possible problems with this (in terms of who the game’s audience is actually presumed to be and how they react) have already been discussed by Vice Gaming‘s Austin Walker, after being offered a demo of the game a few weeks ago, as well as more recently in episode 2 of the new Vice Gaming podcast, which is worth anyone’s time.

So it seems that there’s incredible potential in the way that this kind of feature allows video games to teach people about what it was really like in the past— especially if that gameplay experience is of living and existing as a person entirely unlike you (whether in terms of race, gender, or otherwise). But, in short, there are also many ways in which this could go terribly wrong.

Is it sheer coincidence that a game in which a biracial protagonist can’t go into certain areas of his own city without the fear of trouble or death, amid Black Lives Matter and the repeated violence again black men and women on the streets of contemporary America. Doubtful, considering various interviews with the game’s writers which have been published to date. Do we pick and choose what histories we want to tell to fit the stories we perceive to be unfolding around us? Probably, because it seems like we always have.

Another (sort of related) issue that I have with this game is the way that it builds on a game type (whether we’re talking genre or specific franchise) that comes preloaded with certain expectations— especially the expectation for an experience that is hyper-violent, hyper-male, and until now predominantly hyper-white. Even though the creators have discussed the way that Lincoln offers a different, outsider perspective on the mob as most people generally conceive of it (in Italian terms), is it a problem that Mafia III explicitly tries to emulate this kind of game, with all its associated (often problematic) conventions, despite trying to tell a new, historically important, contemporarily meaningful story— one that that confronts its players with the often deeply unsettling likenesses between past and present? After all, it’s been noted that the game doesn’t “eschew[…] excitement for dry social history“, and so there’s no lack of the sorts of features that you’d expect to be given in a “Mafia game”.

While it doesn’t strike me personally that this ever could have been a period of ‘dry social history’, it remains to be seen whether or not Mafia III can do something more with the way it engages its ostensible historical setting— or whether it even wants to, or not.

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Filed under Games, history, Reviews

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