So, I had just finished murdering a few Ku Klux Klan members in Hanger 13’s 2016 game, Mafia III. I was doing this to satisfy the requirements of a side mission, which tasked me with visiting, and dispersing, KKK rallies that were being held across the fictional 1960s version of New Orleans, New Bordeaux. Upon completion, I returned to the quest giver, Pastor Jeremiah, to assure him the wicked folks had been dealt with, and at his request, I spared him the details. But before I left, he and Lincoln Clay, the player character and protagonist, exchanged a bit of banter, including the use of the phrase “from your mouth to God’s ears”.
These lines of dialogue stuck out to me because, the day prior, I had just seen another action and suspense filled narrative involving the KKK, Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman. In the film, and many of it’s promotional material, the protagonist is heard using the phrase “from your mouth to God’s ears” as well. This phrase isn’t necessarily something specifically common to KKK members, but it does stem from the devoutly Christian beliefs that the organization is founded on, which is ironic seeing the phrase is also used in many Jewish circles.
The folks over at Hanger13 had really done their homework, and that was evident by even the throwaway banter lines having been informed by the setting and characters. It was here that I realized not only why I love Mafia III so much, but why games like it are so important to the future maturation of the interactive medium. And that reason has little to do with graphical fidelity or monetization systems.
Mafia III revolves around Lincoln Clay’s revenge on Sal Marcano, the top Mafia boss in New Bordeaux, and the dismantling of Marcano’s entire criminal empire. Almost every character you come across in the game feels like a real, three dimensional human being thanks to their motivations being grounded in both who they are as a character and the unique moment in time in which the game is set. But this narrative refuses to be a generic revenge story, because many scenes and aspects of the game have a racial context.
In the GameSpot’s mini-documentary series about the game, lead writer Charles Webb said: “His experience is going to be informed by his blackness, and we think that’s really important to the story.”
This fact is felt in so many minor details throughout the game. The entire police system is informed by this. Cops are far more likely to respond to your public crimes in more affluent neighborhoods than in poorer neighborhoods, and even when your not commiting crime, they always look your direction when your in their vicinity. Civilians will even call the cops on you if you enter the few buildings that still don’t allow blacks.
Lincoln takes down many Mafia lieutenants throughout the game, and for most of them, he takes them out in ways that are meant to send the message to Sal Marcano that his life is in danger. But nearly every time he does so, the message is misinterpreted by it’s citizens.
One of the lieutenants you recruit to help take control of the districts of New Bordeaux is Cassandra, the black, female leader of the Haitian Mob. Despite her involvement in underground crime, her biggest concerns are those that effect fellow blacks in her communities.
For example, she makes it a point to make sure that those in her communities have access to weapons equal to those in white neighborhoods. In the 1960’s gun shops in black populated neighborhoods were not common, as many whites feared that arming blacks would have lead to a more militant fight for their equality, not unlike the methods used by the Black Panther Party. This discrimination is also felt through gameplay, as Lincoln must call on a friend to drive weapons to him, as he’s unable to visit gun shops in the city.
In fact, she is sometimes so adamant about her desires for the greater advancement of colored folk, that it sometimes annoys Lincoln. Even random citizens you pass on the street will be talking about then current events, like the recent murder of Dr. Martin Luther King or our recent involvement in the Vietnam War.
So, how does a deep sense of place, characters that are motivated by their own traits, or any of these things make Mafia 3 so important? Well, Mafia 3 is one of the few games, especially AAA games, that uses interactivity to speak from a point of view. The blackness of Lincoln Clay isn’t just a skin to help him stand out from hundreds of shooter protagonists, it’s so vital to his character that the entire plot, characters in the world, and the gameplay itself is informed by it, a feat rare for any game.
Many games are designed to adapt to the player, and most video game protagonists are meant to be avatars, designed for the player to inhibit. There’s totally validity to this, as many of the most popular games out use avatars, and in most cases, they are widely customizeable to the player’s liking. This has proven to be great in games like Overwatch, where the varied cast of playable characters, like Brazilian DJs, queer women, and Hispanic men, allows for player expression, no matter who the player might be. Still, while this type of diversity6 in games has merit, it tends to be pretty shallow.
Most multiplayer games, such as Fortnite and recent Call of Duty games, have these customization options that allow the player to express themselves. However, these additions feel less like a statement about player identity and more like another hook to keep players playing these games, and in turn, buying microtransactions. Overwatch is the closest thing to an exception here, as the short films and comics outside of the game give a lot more depth to it’s cast. But even in that case, the identity of the characters are not felt much through gameplay.
That is why games like Mafia III are so important. That point of view is felt throughout the entire game in all the ways described earlier, not just because it’s shown to you, but because you feel it through gameplay. However, it is not the only great example of this.
Considering it’s already had the most successful opening weekend in entertainment history, I’m sure I don’t have to do much set up for Red Dead Redemption 2. But for those under a rock, it’s a game in which, Arthur Morgan, the player character, and a gang of women, children, elderly, and other gunslingers live on the road as they flee from the law. This western is set in 1899, almost 4 decades after the Civil War, which means that the lawlessness that allowed gangs, gunslingers, and cowboys to thrive was fading away. Because of this, loss is a main theme of Red Dead Redemption 2, and the player is forced to feel that loss though the game’s mechanics. Without getting too specific, certain characters will no longer be a part of your gang. That impact is felt every time you revisit the camp after their departure, as gameplay features that were once attached to those characters are no longer available. If they had a side mission for you, a place for you to sell animal skins and meat, or if they had interesting dialogue options to uncover, you can no longer see that content, as they are no longer at camp. There’s also a much more direct way the mechanics in Red Dead Redemption 2 hammer home the theme of loss, but for fear of spoiling too much of the story, I shall use a similar example from a different game.
2017’s Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a game that revels in contradictions. In it, BJ Blazkowicz, the player character, and a ragtag team fight against the Nazi occupation of the United States, which was the result of an alternate timeline in which they won WWII. Despite the game being very someber and hopeless at times, there are also many laugh out loud moments juxtaposed to those moments. Despite the game using the setting to show biting criticism of America’s troubled past with race, it also wholeheartedly holds up the purest, most patriotic ideals of the country. And despite BJ being an icon of provado and strength since his debut in the first first person shooter of all time, Wolfenstein 3D, in this game, he’s portrayed as much more vulnerable and fragile. In fact, since the last game ended with BJ mortally wounded, you are constantly reminded of your physical compromises. Not only do you play the first level of the game in a wheelchair, the entire first half of the game caps your health at 50, rather than the normal 100. This makes gunfights more difficult early on, but also forces the player to remember the state of the protagonist. It all helps to increase the impact of the, um, twist, that completely inverts the gameplay dynamic of the game, creating yet another contradiction.
Examples like these are why representation through gameplay is just as, if not more, important than diversity in games. Sure, black characters have existed in games for years, you can look back to games like Final Fantasy 7 to see that. But games like Mafia III are now finally exploring what it means to be black through interactivity. Sure, Games like The Last of Us and Spec Ops The Line have tackled somber topics like loss. But now, games like Red Dead Redemption 2 are able to make those themes felt by the player through the uses of gameplay systems. And sure, games have purposefully handicapped players for the sake of challenge in the past, but now, those handicaps are used to help further develop characters and flesh out a theme like in Wolfenstein II.
Games like these are what keep the video games from merely being seen as products. This is something that much of games criticism has fallen victim to in the past, as many of the metrics we judged video games by to this day have more in common with a review of a VCR or a microwave than a film or book. How long is the game? How many maps, missions, or hours of content does it have? Are the graphics good? These questions tend to pigeonhole games into not being seen as the the creative expressions of a team of creators that they are. This is a pitfall that many game critics are moving away from, as bigger outlets are beginning to drop numbered scores in favor of more nuanced discussion of new titles. This puts the focus less on if a game fulfills a set of categories and more on what the game has to say and if it says it effectively.
I’m not saying that single player games are rising popularity, as that is already clear by the success of God of War and Spider-Man earlier this year. I’m not saying that every game has to have something impactful to say with it’s gameplay, as more disposable experiences have a lot of value still. But what I am saying is that games that not only handle more serious themes, but dive deeper into them through interactivity are just as vitally important for the future maturation of video games than solely the creation of a new mechanic is. Sure, while something like the Shadow of Mordor’s nemesis system, or Titanfall 2’s grappling hook sounds more impressive on the back of a box, a narrative that uses gameplay to treat it’s characters not merely as avatars, but as real people, is just as medium changing. And that’s something every fan of video games should be supporting.