Mafia 3's Lincoln Clay is one of at least three black characters fronting major narrative games this E3, the other two being Watch Dogs 2's Marcus Holloway and the as-yet unnamed warrior on the cover of Battlefield 1.
With few exceptions, games companies have been reluctant to portray African-American characters as anything other than villains, sidekicks or comic relief. Big budget American or European video games — usually created by teams dominated by white men — have rarely touched on the issue of race and prejudice.
Clay's story is rooted in a particular time and place where racial division and prejudice are woven into everyday life. He lives in a lightly fictionalized version of Civil Rights-era Louisiana. This is a world where "Whites Only" signs remain on walls.
According to game director Haden Blackman, Mafia 3 will tackle racial prejudice and identity.
"Race is part of the story, part of the plot. It’s part of who Lincoln is."
"The Mafia experience is about organized crime," says Blackman. "It’s about crime with a hierarchy, with traditions and rules. So we’re very focused on that for the story. But at the same time, we didn’t want to shy away from the reality of the time and the place. There are quite a few moments in the story where race is referenced and race is part of the story, part of the plot. It’s part of who Lincoln is."
Characters use the language of the time, including the worst racial slurs and insults, words that are rarely used in video games.
"We’re trying to be authentic to the time period," says Blackman. "A bunch of gangsters are at war with one another. There are racial slurs that are used in order for their language to sound authentic.
"It’s not always directed at Lincoln, or referring to Lincoln’s ethnicity. We have Italians. We have Irish. We have other groups in there. There’s harsh language you’ll hear related to that. We’re not trying to do it to be salacious or sensationalist. We’re trying to do it to make sure these characters sound authentic. They sound of the time and the place. It feels like 1968."
Clay is a war veteran and a criminal, operating in a world of organized crime. These criminal activities give this open-world, action-stealth game its missions and its plot. He is skilled with weapons and combat.
But he is also a man in pursuit of power. Through his criminal empire, Clay is able to effect vengeance on those who cross him. He is able to control his allies. Mafia 3 isn't just about sneaking up on people and killing them. It's not just about shoot-outs in abandoned warehouses. It's about maintaining relationships and managing people. Ultimately, the mob is a hierarchy.
Clay is an orphan who feels a deep lack of belonging in his life. He joins the army and is sent to Vietnam. When he returns to his home town of New Bordeaux (based closely on New Orleans) he gets mixed up in an African American criminal gang. In a turf war, his friends and much of the black mob hierarchy are wiped out by Italian gangsters. He creates his own criminal empire, seeking revenge against the Italians.
In this, he finds allies from other criminal gangs. Making use of these allies and keeping them sweet is all part of the game. As a major mover and shaker in New Bordeaux, Clay can hand out territory and favors to his friends. They reciprocate by supplying weapons and special abilities.
These allies include Cassandra, who runs a Haitian gang. There's an Irish mobster called Thomas Burke, who has some of the local cops in his pocket, like so many nickels and dimes. There’s also Vito Scaletta, the main character from Mafia 2, older now and carrying a grudge, having been sidelined by his former friends.
"These characters are integral to the plot, but also to shaping gameplay," says Blackman. "Deciding who you give territory to changes the game for you over time, on both micro and macro levels."
Funnelling territory and income to these underbosses yields bonuses. Burke's relationships can divert the cops away from operations. Scaletta has a hit squad, always a handy asset in the world of murderous criminal gang wars. But neglected friendships has nasty repercussions. Underbosses can and do turn against Clay.
"We‘re hoping the player will not just look at it in terms of, what can I get from these characters, but what are my relationships with them?" says Blackman. "Who am I emotionally invested in as well? All that plays out in these sitdowns we have. You’re constantly trying to decide: Do I want this new weapon, this new service, this new associate? Do I risk pissing off one of the other characters to get it?"
Mafia 3 is an open world action game in which players progress by choosing and executing missions. Blackman says that a skilled shooter can work their way through the game just relying on a deadly eye and fast reactions. But players are encouraged to find their own play-style, making use of stealth and cover.
"It’s very much a third-person cover shooter, albeit set in an open world," he explains. "You make use of stalking, which is Lincoln’s ability to move silently and unseen, with the purpose of putting him in the right position to take somebody out.
"We’re giving you a lot of different tools at your disposal. Lincoln has the ability to draw people toward him with calls. You have the ability to distract enemies. He has various stealth takedowns and brutal takedowns, which stun enemies around you.
"We try to support multiple play styles. As people play through the game, there are definitely people who like to run and gun it, some who like to use stalking or some combination, and others who rely on things like the hit squads in order to come in and wipe out their enemies before they mop up. It depends a lot on your personal preference and comfort level with the mechanics."
It's been almost six years since the release of Mafia 2. Set in a fictional version of 1940s New York City, it paid homage to a time and place that's been portrayed many times in movies.
The criminal underworld of 1960s New Orleans is a less familiar world, and with games today much more detailed and larger than those in the previous console generation, developer Hangar 13 has spent a lot of time and effort on researching the time and place.
"So much excitement and interest around this game has been driven by the fact that it’s New Orleans in 1968," says Blackman. "We’ve gone to great lengths to try and capture that feeling of time and place.
"We’ve gone to great lengths to try and capture that feeling of time and place."
"It’s easy to look at the high level and say, yeah, you want the architecture to look like our version of New Orleans. You want the music to sound like that time period. But getting down to the clothing and the signage, the hairstyles, the language that was used. The amount of research we’ve had to do to capture all those thing. Some of the things we think maybe were outdated by 1968 that really weren’t, like the signage in particular, and some of the vestiges of segregation. That’s something we had to make sure, in all our research, we captured appropriately and accurately.
"But hand in hand with that, you have to keep in mind that you’re building a world that has to support the central gameplay mechanics. As we built our version of New Orleans we had to make sure it supported action driving. Being able to drive fast and reckless in certain situations, using the car as a weapon, making sure the car is a factor in gameplay.
"In some cities in the U.S. that’s hard, with lots of narrow streets and one-way streets and 90-degree turns and not a lot of changes in elevation. We had to be cognizant of the fact that, although we wanted it to really feel like our version of New Orleans in 1968, we had to take some liberties to make sure our game mechanics were supported."
Creating fun spaces in which to play, and missions that challenge players are all part of creating open worlds. Mafia 3 is also innovating is in its willingness to place an African-American character at the center of the action, and have that character deal with issues like prejudice and opportunity.
Blackman is white, as is the game's lead writer Bill Harms. But he says the team they've hired is diverse.
"We hired writers of different ethnicities and different backgrounds," says Blackman. "We don’t have anybody on the team who lived in the South in 1968, but they have relatives who did, who gave us more insight into that. We tried to be sensitive and make sure we were doing our research
"We talked about it on the set when we were shooting with the cast, obviously many of whom are African-American. We’d talk through things with the cast and see what their thoughts were. We talked with people on the team who have African-American relatives who grew up in the 1960s, to see if that felt authentic."
(Subsequent to our interview, Polygon asked publisher 2K Games how many of the team have African-American heritage. A spokesperson declined to give specific numbers, citing company policy.)
According to Blackman, Mafia 3 is primarily about Clay's desire to create a home for himself, through his criminal enterprise, and how he reacts to the murder of those he holds as his own. It's about the relationships he builds and those that are important to him.
One significant character is a priest who helped to raise him and who offers perspective on the world that Clay inhabits.
"His experience is going to be different than most people’s experience in 1968."
"Father James ran the orphanage Lincoln lived in when he was a kid," explains Blackman. "He’s black and he talks about it. It’s always there. You’re constantly reminded of it. But we don’t let you forget that Lincoln is a criminal. His experience is going to be different than most people’s experience in 1968. Race is one component of who he is, but so is the fact that he was a soldier and so is the fact that he was part of this gang. Now he’s trying to take down the mob and take over the city.
"When we started working on this game, we wanted to find something we could relate to within Lincoln and make sure we made that a focus. The search for someplace to belong is universal to everyone. Even if you’re not an orphan, at some point in your life everyone feels that sense of a need for someplace to belong. We made that a central focus of a lot of what we do with Lincoln."
As games companies embrace a more diverse array of characters to tell their stories, identity politics has been thrust to the center of a debate about the function of games, and who they are made for.
The days when games were almost entirely about white men and were assumed by marketers to be consumed by white men are coming to a close. This has caused a backlash from politically motivated groups whose members rage against any kind of progression they characterize as "political correctness."
How aware is Blackman of the scrutiny his game will come under, from those who resist change, and from those who urge for more inclusionary and diverse games?
"I think we’re aware," he says. "But I look at it as, we’re trying to create an experience for the player. One of the great things about games is that it can put players into an experience that very few of us can have, whether that’s going off to fight aliens or recovering lost artifacts or being a mobster in 1968.
"For me, the power of the medium is that we can put you into the shoes of this person and allow you to live out that experience. This is going to probably sound too hoity-toity, but I do look at it as a work of art on some level. I don’t think you can have great art without taking some risks.
"There will hopefully be people who love it, and maybe there will be people who take issue with it, but I can’t try to counter all of that. Otherwise we’ll end up with something that just feels vanilla and generic. I’d rather be true to the vision we have internally here and say, this is the direction we’re going, without trying to second-guess what the reactions are going to be."