It's a tricky balance to strike. We want to respect the period, but we also wanted to tell a story that's, like you said, pulpy and engaging in a way that felt true to Mafia as a game series.Part of doing that was figuring out what we wanted to say about the Mafia in 1968. We didn't want to do something where it's strictly the sort of loving, historical [version of the mob] that we see so often in pop culture; this elevated piece of culture that's—Like they almost valorize the mob?
Yeah. Like, I wouldn't say that we're deconstructing the Mafia, but we're using Lincoln as a perspective to look a tthem from the outside, to look at them through the issues you described, like systemic racism. What happens when the devaluation of black lives—the devaluation of an entire people—intersects with crime?
I don't think that's a risk, because we are telling a Mafia story.
It's tricky to pin down. So much of it was elaborating on what the criminal rackets in the city are, showing how they work, and showing how they hurt the community.You mentioned before that the game was rooted in pulp, and that's something we really want to respect. We want Mafia III to be… I guess "fun" is the best word here—you don't want to constantly feel like you're going through a civics lesson about the impact of crime on communities.
But we do want you to understand that people get hurt. That there is a human cost. In prostitution, for example, often with organized crime–run operations, there wasn't independence offered to sex workers. It was someone saying, "You have to do this." With drugs, it wasn't just small time dealers; it was part of this massive machine of money making that made sure people got hooked and stayed hooked.That's something we try to reflect.How do you know when to say"OK, this thing about the real time or the real city interferes with a gameplay or narrative goal we have, but we can't give up on it because it means so much thematically or historically?"
What happens when the devaluation of black lives—the devaluation of an entire people—intersects with crime? —Charles Webb
Some of those things just come down to a gut check. You know, that's a hard thing to nail down.We've had a clear expectation for what an open-world game feels like, what a Mafia game feels like. We want to be respectful to that, while at the same time using 1968—not just as a backdrop, but as something that informs and infuses the rest of the game.I feel like I'm not giving a super concrete answer here, but it really does just come down to a gut check. At a certain point, you just say, "This is how we want to represent the period and the world." We don't want to overwhelm the player with it. We don't want them to feel like they are being lectured to about the year and the period. We just want them to feel like it's happening around them. We use the radio, we use billboards, we use art. We use every little dynamic piece of our game to tell that story and to cement 1968 as a sense of time and place in the game.
I can't necessarily say until it's actually out,until we have the hindsight of a few months or a few years. There's always thisthing I'm wary of saying: "We've made a game that does this, this, and this,and it's going to say this, this, and this about our current period."Because we just don't know. But we can talk about 1968. We can talkabout that period.Having said that… I'm constantly thinkingabout it.There's something like 600, 700 people who havebeen killed by the police over the course of this year. That's definitelysomething that's been on my mind over the last few months as the body tollstacks up. That's not necessarily what's going to reflect in the writing ofthis game, but I feel like some people are going to pick up Mafia IIIand it's something that's going to occur to some folks.
I think that the moment that you talk about capital R Racism in a certain year in a certain part of the country involving blacks and whites, you are going to be making a political thing whether you want to or not.
Yeah. Politics exist as part of the backdrop of our story. Lincoln Clay is deliberately a Vietnam veteran. Lincoln Clay is deliberately part of the black mob, which is subordinate to the Italian mob in NewBordeaux. So it's not political, but political elements exist in the backdrop of this game in such an important and, I hope, rich way.
Correct!I bring this up, because the notion of Lincoln's actions having repercussions reminds me of thing that you wrote in your review of Assassin's Creed: Liberation. I'm not sure if you remember it.
[Laughs] Probably not.OK, well, I'll read it.Because it feels like a lot of what you're saying about Lincoln Clay relates to this. You wrote that:"Between the colony of grinning, unwitting slaves to the relegation of nearly every person of color to a lackey or stooge, Liberation is possibly trying to say something about one of the nation's greatest sins but has neither the conviction nor coherence to do so (and it's unclear why the only two games in the franchise to feature characters of color in the lead felt the need to somehow mitigate the choice by making them half-white). And the mess that is Liberation's story is only matched by the weakness of its play."
It was absolutely urgent that Lincoln feel like he have agency in his own story. I think it's important that we have a black man's face on the cover of this game. That's incredibly exciting! We don't want to feel like, "Well, he's just a cog in the machine," or whatever. He's the one driving this narrative. It's his purposeful path that drives everything from act one to the very end of the game.
[Laughs] No, it's completely OK! As the father of a biracial child, [I think] these are stories that should be told.I can't necessarily speak about competitors games, but one of the things we kind of establish early on [in Mafia III]is that in the context of 1968 is that whether or not you're half-black, or a quarter-black, if you look like you're black, you're black. I think that was an urgent and necessary part of story there as well.
No, no, no, no! I think there's a relevant question here, which is: To what aim are we doing that? I think that your feeling of revulsion and discomfort is in line with what we wanted there. When a white character shows up and and says just grotesque, heinous shit, you should feel the hairs rise up on the back of your neck, you should feel uncomfortable.What's important to us is striking the right balance with it, so that it's not just a wall of noise. We've been very deliberate; we've done user tests. We've not only looked at it internally, but externally and through having other people play the game, so that we could see how it feels as a player to have racial slurs directed at you. And we've corrected somewhat, actually. At first,I actually fought for more [racial slurs] in the game, and I'm happy to say that we scaled it back a little bit from my initial version of it.
You know, I grew up in the South, my family grew up in the South. For a lot of white folks, the word "nigger" was just a noun. I think deploying the word in the way that it may have actually been used in the period would have probably just created a wall of noise for players.They would just ignore it. It just wouldn't matter.
We keep talking about systemic racism, but systemic racism is still personal. —Charles Webb
If someone wants to have the conversation about craft, I'd dive into it. And I think so much of what you've been asking so far is at the intersection of being black and the craft of making games.A lot of the decision making process that we go through here: User tests, and gut checks, the research that goes into everything—that would go into any other game we make. But we deliberately made a game where you play as a black man in 1968. That's gonna factor in no matter what. So we're going to be talking about race, and that's a discussion I'm going to have.Now, if I were working on Robots vs. Zombies2020 and the conversation still turned to race… then it feels like it's a demanded conversation. Well, what does it mean to be a black guy? Don't just ask me what it means to be a black guy, ask me what it means to be a game developer, ask me what it means to be a writer on this particular title.But my race and ethnicity feel important and a loaded thing in this particular game. It might be less so on another thing I work on. The intersecting identities that I have are relevant to LincolnClay and to New Bordeaux, so I'm happy to talk to you about those things.I'm excited for people to play this game. It's been a labor of love and tears and exhaustion. I really want people to see what we've been cooking up. What this dedicated and exhausted team have been working on. We have loved this experience and want people to love it as well.This interview has been edited for length and clarity.Mafia III releases on October 7 for PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.You can follow Austin Walker on Twitter.Read more video gaming articles on VICE, and follow VICE Gaming on Twitter and Facebook.