How 'Mafia III' Intends to Make Players Confront Racism
We spoke with Charles Webb, the Senior Writer of Mafia III, about how the game leverages history, race, and politics while remaining a pulpy crime story.
Images courtesy of 2K Games
Next week, 2K Games and Hangar 13 are set to release Mafia III, an open-world action game set in a fictionalized version of 1968 New Orleans called New Bordeaux. It follows Lincoln Clay, a biracial Vietnam veteran who was betrayed by the Italian Mafia, and now seeks revenge.
Mafia III offers a story that weaves the history of the era with a classic pulp yarn. From the limited demo I played last month, it's a game that sometimes excels at that blend, and other times misses the mark.
To dig deeper into Mafia III's ambitions, history, and politics—and to get the perspective of a black developer working on the project—I called the game's senior writer, Charles Webb.
Born and raised in Florida, Webb spent the last decade moving between roles as a game maker and a pop-culture journalist and critic. As a developer, he worked as a writer and editor for companies like Microsoft, Twistory, and Longtail Studios; as a critic, he wrote for publications like MTV.com, Paste, and Nerdist, where he reviewed games, comics, and movies (and tackled issues like representation). I spoke with Webb about how he brings that experience forward into Mafia III, a game that also finds itself torn between two identities: pulpy revenge story and racially aware period piece.
VICE: So one of the most unique things about Mafia III is the way it uses a frame story. Lincoln Clay's story is partially told through a retrospective (and fictional) Cocaine Cowboys –style documentary. How did the team decide to do that?
Charles Webb: Thanks! You know, a lot of that came from Bill Harms, our lead writer, and Haden Blackman, our creative director. We were looking for a way to tell this story and give it a sense of place and time. We wanted to communicate that Lincoln had this almost mythological impact on New Bordeaux.
In our opening moments, which isn't giving too much away, the documentary footage kind of frames Lincoln as this force of nature that hit New Bordeaux. We wanted to really communicate that throughout the game: Here's the change that this lone man wreaks throughout the city through the course of 1968.
That mythological notion of one dude coming to town and changing everything has a lot of grounding in grindhouse cinema and pulp revenge stories, but at the same time, Mafia III also touches on the way that change is systemic. It hits topics like the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. So how do you balance that with the fact that Lincoln is a one man hurricane?
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 at them 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?
In the previous Mafia games, players are part of the Italian mob. But in Mafia III you shift to an oppositional perspective, where the player is seeing the story from the view of the criminal groups that are going up against the mob. That seems tricky. When players pick up a game that says Mafia III on the cover, they probably think they're going to get a game where they play as the Italian Mafia. Do you think there's a risk of losing some players with different expectations?
I don't think that's a risk, because we are telling a Mafia story.
If you look at people like Nicky Barnes, you see that straight line from the Italian mob and the so-called subordinate, race-based factions. They were working with poor asians and working with blacks. These are the groups who would deal drugs for the mob, run vice for them, and then ultimately supplant them in a lot of ways.
I don't think we're making anything that would be oppositional to a Mafia game; we're just seeing it from a different angle. We're seeing it from a mythological angle, just not from the mythological angle of the Mafia itself. We're deliberating stepping out of that mythology. What does it mean to actually interact with criminals? You know: pimps, pushers, drug dealers, killers?
Pop culture creates sort of a code of ethics for the mob, but there is no ethos of being a criminal. That's a lot of what we're able to tell with Mafia III.
It sounds like there's almost a notion of vérité. You're leaning into this idea that crime actually hurts people—that even when gangs arise naturally from communities, it can be the communities that suffer. How do you make New Bordeaux feel lived in enough to make it actually feel vulnerable, like it can suffer?
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.
"What happens when the devaluation of black lives—the devaluation of an entire people—intersects with crime?"—Charles Webb
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?"
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.
So, I feel like the thing that's hanging over this release is the moment that it arrives in. We're talking, now, right after Keith Lamont Scott was killed. We're talking a few days after Terence Crutcher was killed. There are more black bodies than I know the names of.
Mafia III doesn't purport to speak to this at all, but it does emerge in this context. And I'm curious where you think it fits in a context where there's been heightened visibility around racism and racist violence.
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 this thing 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 talk about that period.
Having said that... I'm constantly thinking about it.
There's something like 600, 700 people who have been killed by the police over the course of this year. That's definitely something that's been on my mind over the last few months as the body toll stacks up. That's not necessarily what's going to reflect in the writing of this game, but I feel like some people are going to pick up Mafia III and it's something that's going to occur to some folks.
Do you think that Mafia III has a politics, not necessarily about today, but that it is a political thing? Because it's a historical thing, because it's caught up in questions of crime—which is a political thing—and race—which is a political thing.
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.
Whether or not we're saying explicitly, "This is what we believe, and this is what we'd like as an outcome in this country," that's not something that we're really doing. Like you said, it's really pulp.
Right, but something can be political without being a polemic or a platform or a civics lesson.
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 New Bordeaux. So it's not political, but political elements exist in the backdrop of this game in such an important and, I hope, rich way.
So a thing that I hadn't realized is that you used to be a game critic and journalist.
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."
So, two things there: First, is that sort of the thinking that goes into making sure that Lincoln Clay and the other characters of color have an impact in New Bordeaux? That they're not just side characters, that the world doesn't just flow around them.
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.
Right. So second: How would you respond to yourself from 2014 commenting on the fact that so many black leads are half-black leads? And I say that as a biracial dude myself! [Laughs] I swear I'm not trying to cross-examine you here, but it's a hell of an observation, especially given that Mafia III's protagonist is also biracial. I didn't even put it together until I re-read the quote just now, but it's interesting.
[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.
You might've thought, in that period, that somehow your racial makeup could've mitigated your circumstances. But if you look like you're black, you look like you're black. Even if you're cozy with the Mafia. Even if you think that the son of a Mafioso is going to insulate you from consequences, he really isn't. Because in the minds of these characters: You are a black man. I think that's something we were really deliberate about.
Building on that, you know, I can't have this conversation with you and not talk about the voodoo dolls.
One of the weapons that Lincoln has is a "Screaming Zemi," which is a voodoo doll that you use to distract enemies in the game, because they are superstitious enough to believe that it has some real magical power. And when you throw one, the mobsters respond to those by saying something like, "It's that nigger magic!," or, it might've been "nigger shit" or "nigger voodoo!" but it's something like that. ( I wrote about this last month.)
And the thing that really got to me was that this was just an enemy "bark"—something the bad guys say in the middle of combat in a game. It wasn't a defined, cinematic moment that was built carefully to make you consider the morality of a specific character, which is the way Mafia II used racial slurs (or the way dozens of other mob stories do). It just felt like constant background noise.
So I'm just curious how... How is a player like me, who hears that shit for real—not "nigger magic," obviously, I don't do much magic—but who has had "nigger" hurled at him by dudes carrying bats, who has received lynch threats... How am I supposed to react when I hear that in the moment-to-moment gameplay, and not just in a specific bit of characterization.
Or, not "how am I supposed to react?" That's wrong. It's not your job to tell me how to react, that's bullshit.
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.
"We keep talking about systemic racism, but systemic racism is still personal."—Charles Webb
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.
People have the reaction that you had, where the first time that they hear it and the tenth time that they hear it, they go, "Ahhhh, this is uncomfortable, and this is fucked up. I am not happy that this guy is doing this." And you as the player can react to it.
We want you to feel a visceral sense of rejection of the language being used by racists in the game. We keep talking about systemic racism, but systemic racism is still personal. And we want that to feel personal so that you can react to it.
It comes down to user testing. It comes down to (again) to a gut check. We didn't want it to be every other word out of the enemies' mouths, but at the same time, we wanted to strike the right balance.
It should be in enough that it's always in the background, still in the center of your experience. They acknowledge you as a black man in the South in 1968. They are aware of the power dynamics. We want the player to have an awareness of what their "place" in the world is at this time, and how they're seen. And they're not seen as people by the enemy combatants. They're seen as "that nigger over there that needs to be dealt with."
Yeah, it's heavy, but I'm hopeful. Like, I'm thrilled to be having this conversation. We get to try to tackle these issues in a way that's thoughtful even in regards to something pulpy and revenge driven.
That said, there is a tiny part of me that is like, I wish we could be having a different conversation. There is this weight that hangs over so many interviews with marginalized creators where... It's a weight so heavy that it's a gravity: We can't escape our identities. We can't but talk about race.
Do you ever just want to talk about craft?
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. Zombies 2020 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 Lincoln Clay 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.