Mafia 3 (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Mafia 3 (2016)

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Start with his name, "Lincoln Clay."  First name borrowed from the President known for freeing slaves via legislature and the Emancipation Proclamation, last a tip of the hat to Cassius Clay - better known as Muhammad Ali - the greatest sportsman in history with a rich legacy of fighting for Civil Rights.  Neither had it easy, and on name alone the player character of Mafia 3 has mighty expectations to bear on his shoulders.  Whether developers Hangar 13 bothered to think this far with his name or not is irrelevant, this is his name and this is what it invokes.

Had Hangar 13 bothered with nuance in respect to Mafia 3's player character it might have had something interesting on its hands.  Instead, Mafia 3 goes about treating Lincoln and his surroundings with the vaguest understanding of what life was like in the 1960s for black Americans.  Hangar 13 gets the vernacular down just fine with plenty of moments where Lincoln is referred to or calls others the n-word.  But this is like a suburban white kid rapping along with Public Enemy, the energy comes from saying the word instead of understanding the political, social, and economic conditions that make it such a violent slur.Many troubling signs of their shallow understanding bubbled to the surface in the opening hours of Mafia 3.  A popup tells me that this is the south of the '60s and many businesses are still segregated.  Duly noted, game, but this meant not a lick of trouble playing Mafia 3.  I heard the n-word as I entered a few different businesses, usually on the hunt for pickups that are par for the course in open-world crime games, but not once did I suffer any kind of negative effects because a huge, black, heavily armed man entered a segregated restaurant.  I was able to pillage every business in Mafia 3, walking in and out as though racism was something limited to a single word, and went about my way.

More pretensions crept in with another popup (as if oppression can be summed down to factoids in windows) told me that police would react poorly to black men in rich white neighborhoods.  Police murder black men and children for carrying toys today, so this was another avenue for Hangar 13 to try and incorporate a real problem.  Yet again, Hangar 13 showed it was more interested in shallow aesthetics of racism than any understanding of it in Mafia 3.  I purchased a shotgun that would be the envy of Arnold Schwarzenegger, raided a crime lair, and ran out in full view of a police officer.  The display responded by showing a small blue arrow, officer responding with a, "Hrm?" and I ran passed the officer still brandishing the absurdly large weapon.  No call for backup, no attempt to stop or fire on me, and the barest acknowledgment of my existence.This is so ahistoric it borders on profoundly stupid.  Lincoln's already a stitched together conglomeration of white and black history, unable to pass, and the strongest gameplay response Hangar 13 could whip up was a grunt of mild disapproval.  So where Hangar 13 is ignorant of historical fact they're well read on stereotypes.  Lincoln is an orphan to touch on the stereotype of absent parents for black children, is told repeatedly he's only good for killing (Lincoln mostly agrees) to tie in some black savage caricature, and literally relies on the government for the resources to take down the mafia because at this point Hangar 13 has a full stereotype stew going and might as well toss in a dash of welfare leeching.  All of these are persistent stereotypes, all drive the plot, and reveal Hangar 13 as charlatans.

The cumulative effect is one of a decent meal getting ruined because the cook decided to defecate on it.  Playing Mafia 3 wasn't half-bad - I enjoyed the tight construction of New Bordeaux and the standard open-world gameplay was broken up with a great variety of capstone missions as I conquered each piece of the city.  Sometimes they dripped with style like the firefight in an abandoned Cajun theme park, and other times Hangar 13 veers close to marrying Mafia 3's horrid writing with a good gameplay section like the moment Lincoln taints an upper-class (all white, of course) party with drugs and mixes in with "the help."  That is appropriate to history, recalling the LSD testing on troops during the Vietnam war, and turning stereotypes against the very people who kept black Americans down.There's another DLC section that teeters the line between ahistoric nonsense and thrilling amalgamation of cultural tropes.  Lincoln helps out a woman who bears more than a passing resemblance to Foxy Brown, while pursued by a cop acting like the hardassed warden from Cool Hand Luke, and the action is almost all destruction derby as Lincoln races around town causing a destructive ruckus in a manner The Dukes of Hazzard fans will find familiar (minus the pro-Confederate General Lee car.)  It's a great section, as anything that reminds me of Blast Corps from the Nintendo 64 era is wont to do, and remixes touchstones of different forms of art into a section that embraces the strength of cultural signifiers instead of incorporating stereotypes in half-measures.  The other two DLC stories, which feature an inbred cult and Commando-esque firefights (bringing the Schwarzenegger references back around), peddle stereotypes of a different stripe to indifferent affect.

I ended Mafia 3 feeling almost nothing.  Throughout the game I kept imagining a more daring or informed experience, one that recognized the price the USA government made Haiti pay for successfully rebelling (which would give a bare minimum of background to the conservative-baiting black-on-black crime Mafia 3 opens with) or writing that acknowledged the crimes Lincoln commits are as much about economic necessity as rote revenge.  Lincoln's story isn't even his story, as the credits show, and he's a tool for white men to exact their vengeance instead of Lincoln's story being his own.  Mafia 3 provides its own handy metaphor for Hangar 13's development in the end - white men are fine exposing black pain so long as it results in an outcome they want with no hope of changing the oppressive backdrop.

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Posted by Andrew

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