Mafia 3 isn't afraid to make players uncomfortable about race

Creative director Haden Blackman says he's not afraid of tackling the complexities of racism in the American South even while crafting a video game primarily meant to entertain.

Creative director hopes action game being released Friday can be both fun and thought-provoking

Mafia 3 puts players in the shoes of Lincoln Clay, a biracial Vietnam vet in the American South of the 1960s. (Hangar 13/2K Games)

Mafia 3, a new game by the California-based studio Hangar 13, might look at first glance like another take on the tried and true Grand Theft Auto blueprint.

You play as a half-black Vietnam vet named Lincoln Clay who gathers a small team of outlaws to wage a war against the Italian mob in 1968, causing general vehicular and explosive mayhem in New Bordeaux, a fictionalized New Orleans.

But previews and marketing for the game has aimed for a different tone than Grand Theft Auto 5's madcap approach to satire, which frequently devolved into farce. Instead Hangar 13 is wading into racially and politically charged subject matter — and not afraid to risk making players uncomfortable while doing so.

"I think it's risky not to try to do some of this stuff, and push the art form a little bit," creative director Haden Blackman told CBC News.

Enemies sometimes refer to Lincoln by using racial slurs during gameplay sequences. (Hangar 13/2K Games)

Enemies use racial slurs

In a hands-on preview with the game in August, Vice's Austin Walker noted that while playing through a mission presented by the developers, enemy mobsters occasionally shouted the n-word at Lincoln.

The use of that word by non-player characters, in the middle of a gameplay sequence, suggested that players might hear this line, and others like it, multiple times in various situations. It's entirely different from a carefully constructed environment like in a film or television show, where a single word or line is used once and then left to linger in the air.

The racial tension affects the game's underlying systems and mechanics as well. If someone calls the police on Lincoln in the middle of a gunfight, they'll reportedly arrive at the scene more quickly in affluent, primarily white downtown districts than if the same call is made in the lower-income, primarily black neighbourhoods.

Previews suggest the game tackles issues of race in America, including intersections of race, class and police. (Hangar 13/2K Games)

Despite his reservations, Walker, who is biracial, professed a cautious optimism to the game's approach.

"All I wanted, suddenly, was for the team at Hangar 13 to tackle race head on," Walker wrote. "If handled well, the team could leverage the complexity (and familiarity) of the '60s to create something powerful while still being a pulpy crime yarn."

Blackman says the studio formed its team of writers, designers and artists with people of diverse backgrounds and experiences to get as many different viewpoints as possible when crafting Mafia 3's world and narrative.

Part of that process was fine-tuning when to use the n-word and when not to.

"We want to make sure we're using that word in particular, because it is so charged, in a way that it doesn't just turn into a wall of noise … and you start to ignore it. That's the last thing we want," he says.

Mafia 3 takes place in New Bordeaux, a fictionalized New Orleans in 1968. (Hangar 13/2K Games)

Overuse of words charged with racial or gender tones have sparked debates in the past. In 2011's Batman: Arkham City, players sometimes played as Catwoman. Enemy goons she encountered almost universally called her a "bitch," in multiple, repeated lines.

And while Blackman doesn't shy away from the subject matter, neither does he want it to detract from what is, primarily, an entertainment product he wants players to enjoy.

"It's a difficult balance for sure. One, at the end of the day we know what we are making a video game. And so we want to make sure it's entertaining and fun on some level, and that the game mechanics support that," he says.

"But I don't think that means it can't also be thought-provoking and tell a story that makes you care about characters and makes you think about issues that maybe you don't think about on a daily basis or when you're playing other games."

Writing minority, LGBT characters

This isn't the first time Blackman, who is white, has tackled prickly cultural discussions in fiction with diverse lead characters.

In 2014, he was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book for his writing on DC Comics' Batwoman, Batman's lesbian cousin.

"I have very little in common with Batwoman, right? I'm not a superhero, I'm not a lesbian, I'm not Jewish, I'm not a woman," Blackman says. "So for me, going into it, I have to find things I can relate to her so I can make her feel like an authentic, three-dimensional character."

Creative director Haden Blackman previously worked on DC's recent incarnation of Batwoman, a character discharged from the military after coming out as a lesbian. (J. H. Williams III/DC Comics)

He hopes that Lincoln Clay similarly emerges as a complicated and sympathetic lead for Mafia 3, despite the messy, bloody business he regularly finds himself in.

Players can judge for themselves whether Hangar 13 achieved what it set out do to, as the game launches Friday on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC/Mac.


Jonathan Ore


Jonathan Ore is a writer and editor for CBC Radio Digital in Toronto. He regularly covers the video games industry for CBC Radio programs across the country and has also covered arts & entertainment, technology and the games industry for CBC News.