Mafia 3 does one thing so very right, that it really doesn’t matter to me what else it does wrong . It of course possess the general teething and memetic funhouse weirdness of a second rate open world simulated city- repeated use of character models and sound files, manic clockwork traffic reversing and accelerating in purgatorial algorithm, the curious crouching and springing motions of a character shifting between regular, stealth and combat poses- but in this instance all that is just the bowl in which the main course is served, a heady, hearty gumbo of obsessively considered and well rendered source material which is far richer and of critical note than smoother gameplay transitions or less visually obtuse shaders etc would have provided.
Mafia 2 was an excellent examination of the failings of the American Dream, but Mafia 3 is an open and insurgent commentary on the nightmare of America’s Imperial foundations and silent aspirations, the place where a White Hegemony formed by vicious dominance will die from the fires it has lit around the world. Protagonist Lincoln Clay returns to the Bayou from time served in Spec Ops in Vietnam, presenting the Black Man as he has always been to White America, a tool and a weapon, either to be utilised for the cause of White Imperialist Supremacy, or as a threat against it to be extinguished with prejudice and extreme force .The First gang you encounter are Haitians, used here not just as a token foreign elements but as the refugees and extension of the lethal outpourings and revolutionary reaction of another colonial project which has turned native against native. Your other allies are the Irish, likewise another Diaspora caught up in the entropy of a crumbling Empire, seeking the means for actualisation but lacking the means to articulate it besides the violence taught and necessitated by the culture of a racist Imperial complex. Mafia 3 is a game of tremendous, fluent violence, and for once the casual ubiquity of guns and deaths as a videogame’s lingua Franca is totally justified given it’s real-world context, in which the most basic expression of power is force and coercion. The Italian Mafia are in interesting juxtaposition to all this, an example of an immigrant community free of a history of colonisation, and it is notable as to the different position this afford them within the society of Saint Denis, the game’s setting, compared with that of their neighbours.
The targets of Clay’s retribution are the White Southern Mafia, who squat over Saint Denis like a repugnant Alligator. The Bayou setting is especially intelligent because it allows room for exploration of the superstition and unease which sits at the heart of white supremacy, centring blacks as an untameable supernatural menace. Clay can hurl voodoo dolls with voiceboxes as a distraction and enemies will approach them with caution, warning their allies not to go too close lest they lose their soul to it. One mission involves Clay creeping through a grotesque blackface funhouse which tells the tales of a Rougarou, a supernatural colonial era entity of the swamps which terrorises the various populations of Old St Denis until it is banished by a pious white Christian minister. Lincoln Clay likewise devastates the various established communities of St Denis, leaving a trail of bodies without trace before disappearing into the fog of places where no white person would dare tread. The presentation of this childlike fear of a creeping diabolic blackness is contrasted with the in media res representation of a black community deeply eloquent and pragmatic in their revolutionary zeal, using not fetishes and spells but education and organisation to plan the overthrow of the status qou.
The presentation of Clay is important to note here. It took me a while to make peace with the fact that in a game which takes paints to establish its realism, the protagonist is a bullet proof balletic colossus able to punch faster than his foes can pull the trigger. Intentional or otherwise, this is nonetheless a realistic portrayal of the black man white supremacists fear- a vengeful, implacable, athletic beast. This is the black man police reports claim they were facing, and why they needed to shoot them in the back, or in the driver’s seat of the car, with their hands held high, sat next to their child, the black man five officers needed to sit on and torture and asphyxiate until he died. Despite the historical accuracy of the setting Mafia 3 presents, the only means by which a black man could plausibly fit within this context and dismantle it’s power structures requires them be presented as something entirely implausible.
For the same reason, the means to enjoy traditional preserves of white privilege as a black character creates moments which are truly iconic. Mafia 3’s car stereo is the best in any game, by far, the sound mix maintains the muddy lows and piercing highs of a transistor radio almost unerringly. Pairing Steppenwolf or John Lee Hooker on the radio with the exhilarating transgression of being a black man driving at ludicrous speed on an open freeway takes a tired videogame trope and makes it something transcendent.
All of the above is really just a simple spell of cultural evocation. The source material is very well researched and presented, and that’s where the heavy lifting comes from. It’s basically an industrial implementation of BioShock’s audio logs but presented in the form of cultural artefacts. But there’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s actually a very intelligent move to let it simply speak for itself . It’s 1968 soundtrack is incredibly potent, and 3 minutes of space to listen to the Motown and Hard Rock et al it delivers via its glorious mix, whatever else it is you are doing, is never going to be time wasted and will always establish a mood and sense of place far out-with the confines of a videogame.
But principally every aspect of its thematic richness simply comes from a considered and sensitive protagonist who is black. It changes everything. Play this game, this exact game with nothing changed besides you being white, and it would become something entirely different. Changed because of the incongruity of being stopped by the police, of being isolated and other, of being an objective of such primitive fear and hate despite only being one man.
Mafia 3 is principally about illusions; illusions of power, of race, of the supernatural, the permanence of Empire and civilisation. But it achieved this by the (depressingly) bold choice to also be about one clear fact, which is that you play as a black man. It remains the fact that within our white supremacist culture, the act of simply telling stories about people who aren’t white is an act of revolution. And for really that reason alone, Mafia 3 is nonetheless nothing short of a revolutionary videogame.