Swift, Violent Death in 'Mafia III' Makes Its Storytelling Great
In 'Mafia III,' everyone dies fast.
All Mafia III images courtesy of 2K Games
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Every fight in Mafia III goes the same way. Lincoln Clay creeps up on the drug dealer (or the enforcer, or the cook) with a handgun tightly gripped. He listens to what the target it talking about. He observes the patterns of enemies walking back and forth. He keeps his eye out for a man with suspenders. Suspenders is sometimes wearing a hat, but he's always packing something that bites just as hard as it barks, so Lincoln has to be careful of it. After a couple seconds of paying attention (because it only ever takes him a couple seconds to figure the whole deal out), he pops out of cover.
The handguns blaze in Mafia III. They make this chunk chunk chunk noise, like they're trying as hard as they can to just throw the bullets out. Lincoln Clay is a good shooter, and the shots find their marks. Huge splats of blood fly out. The bodies convulse. Suspenders has pulled his shotgun, and he's making his way around to Lincoln's left so he can get the optimal angle on snuffing out the protagonist's lights. He's so confident, and despite the knowledge that Lincoln is controlled by me and Suspenders is controlled by a fairly delimited AI script, I still get a little shaken up. Suspenders has gotten me a few times. This could be another time.
Lincoln pulls a machine gun and fires wildly, jumping from cover to cover, and the blood leaps out of Suspenders. Did it want to come out? This whole situation, over and over again, is created so that the blood can fly out of these character models. An entire beautiful world is made so that the blood can come out. Every fight is Sonny Corleone. Every fight is Mr. White making his escape. Every fight in Mafia III goes the same way.
I've been writing this Postscript column for a few months now. It's forced me to pay attention to the things that the column is about: endings, finality, death, and all of that stuff that you're reading these pieces for every Friday. As I've been writing it, I've realized that the two things that matter me to me the most about death in video games are: 1. Who is dying? 2. How fast does it happen? How any given game answers these two questions gives me a lot of information about how that game views the world that it is presenting to players.
Mafia III answers both of those questions in a simple way. Who is dying? Everyone. How fast do those people die? Incredibly fast.
When I wrote about the speed of death in some contemporary shooter games, I came to the conclusion that dying fast in a multiplayer context minimizes the player. It's a way that the game can diminish the player, humble them, and get them into the right mindset for how they exist in the game world. In that diminished state, doing something extraordinary really does feel special. You're not a superhero, you're just a person, and a person doing something superheroic is more interesting than Superman doing the same thing.
In Mafia III, everyone dies fast. In a crunchy, cramped firefight, Lincoln Clay can get flanked in a number of really bad ways. A molotov cocktail comes over the chest-high wall while three enemies have Lincoln pinned down, and boom. Time to try again. The same goes for the enemies, however, and a well-placed grenade can clear out half a dozen gunmen in the blink of an eye. This world of sink-or-swim firefights has the effect of making it seem like the entire world is always balanced on the razor's edge.
After all, the grand narrative of Mafia III is both about revenge and grinding it out in the world of corporate capitalism via organized crime. From the perspective of the story, Lincoln Clay's death is at the hands of some backwater racists with shotguns in the collapse of a building crime empire.
Any shot, any ambush, any flank is a place where the world of the game could change irrevocably. As the game hints over and over again, Lincoln Clay's experiences in Vietnam are a part of him, and one gets the sense that the tenuousness of his life in these situations is both expected and desired. Lincoln Clay could become the most powerful crime boss in the region, or he could be dead in the ground. One gets the sense that that either is ok with him.
Mafia III's shootouts do more to deliver that core narrative than any of the extended cutscenes, pieces of recorded dialogue, or one-on-one acting scenes. We constantly see Lincoln Clay as a man on a mission, and we know what revenge is, but the narrative stakes are relatively stable across the thirty hours of the game. If you just watched a supercut of the cutscenes and necessary dialogue, you would get the sense that the game was about setting up a criminal empire in the best way possible. You might think that it was a managerial simulation.
It isn't. It's a story of revenge. It's a story of a man driving toward an ending, whatever that is, and it is only by the grace of the video game trope of infinite life that Lincoln Clay makes it all the way to the end of his story. Full of justified rage, put in a world that is doing its best to kill him, Lincoln lives on the edge of a razor.
Every fight is the same. The handgun, the submachine gun, and the finish. That part shifts from time to time. Sometimes Lincoln Clay, bleeding and out of ammunition, charges out of cover. He has a rifle, but he has no bullets, and he can't stop here. There's no possibility of retreat. The enemies are in front of him, and he charges. I'm hitting the melee button, and between that character and myself there's some yearning desperation. We've gotta make it out of here. This desperate repetition, not its exposition, is how Mafia III makes its story.
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