If you’re rocking pearls, the disclaimer at the very beginning of “Mafia III” (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, MacOS) might make you clutch ’em tightly:
Mafia III takes place in a fictionalized version of the American South in 1968. We sought to create an authentic and immersive experience that captures this very turbulent time and place, including depictions of racism. […] We felt that to not include this very real and shameful part of our past would have been offensive to the millions who faced—and still face—bigotry, discrimination, prejudice, and racism in all its forms.
Indeed, playing through the game so far is like watching Rosewood or Django Unchained: All the racism makes you wanna bite your knuckles and keep playing just to see how many cracka-ass crackas you can take out with a dome shot.
“Mafia III” is essentially a historical revenge fantasy that shares DNA with Django: The game tells the story of Lincoln Clay, a black, decorated Vietnam War veteran who returns home from the war to a life as a mobster in a fictional version of New Orleans. He’s out to get even with the Italian mobsters who slew his surrogate family, with the intention of taking their place as the N’awlins version of Bumpy Johnson.
I’m still in the incipient stages of the game, but it’s already in the running for the blackest-ass video game I’ve played in my 30-plus years as a gamer.
The beginning of the game conjectures about the protagonist’s mixed-race heritage, but he slightly resembles my father, a Creole boy from rural Louisiana who was just a couple years younger than Clay in 1968 (albeit with smaller muscles—sorry, Pop). Clay isn’t Luke Cage-dark, but he’s Negro enough to be a problem for the Southern whites.
In an early sequence, Clay is dressed as a Louisiana Federal Reserve officer to pull off a heist. An actual officer says to Clay’s undercover white colleague, “Sad day when a God-fearin’ white man can’t get a job, but any old nig–r who staggers in is hired on the spot.” Clay is within earshot but says nothing, as was routine when a black man encountered egregious racism below the Mason-Dixon Line in the 1960s.
White men openly question Clay’s choice of dress; white women passing by him pull their purses closely. I’m about to play through a sequence in which Clay squares off against a rebel-flag-waving crew called the Dixie Gang—imagine how that s–t’s gonna go down.
“Mafia III” doesn’t just handle racism with big-boy drawers—it depicts black Louisiana with attention to authenticity. I’ve spent enough time in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and the small black river town where my pops grew up to recognize the game’s accuracy in distinguishing the accents of the rich whites from the poor blacks. Sammy Robinson, the ill-fated black mob leader and Clay’s surrogate father, is voiced by an actual Jamaican actor with a thick West Indies accent that vacillates between English and French.
It also doesn’t capitulate to potential critics by making Clay some type of black savior; he’s our hero, but he’s a complex character and not exactly a good guy.
The game even takes us to history class, teaching us that the Haitian gangsters against whom Clay squares off are refugees who fled the bloody, mid-20th-century presidency of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his brutal Tonton Macoute paramilitary force.
Clay catches a lot of Haitian Creole profanity from the gangsters as they lick shots off at him; the boss fight with Haitian gang leader Baka is probably the closest thing you’ll ever see to Ox’s death scene in Belly; it is, without question, the single blackest s–t I’ve encountered in any game ever.
And, of course, there’s the soundtrack, which will appeal to anyone with good taste in old soul and rock cuts: Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, and Martha and the Vandellas round out a playlist that’ll bring your dusty-ass uncle in the room to watch you play; Dixieland jazz scores the loading screens.
Video games often get lost in the ever-evolving discussions concerning racism in the media, which is interesting considering that gaming is roughly a $25 billion industry—the most popular games rival sales in all media. While the whole gamer-gate fiasco forced the industry to confront its wanton sexism for the first time, there have been few conversations regarding the storied history of racial insensitivity in mainstream gaming.
When I was a boy pumping quarters into arcades in the 1980s and 1990s, the only black characters I saw were either real-life sports figures or chain-and-bat-wielding, muscle-bound bad guys for the white heroes to beat down in games like “Double Dragon” and “Final Fight.” I didn’t realize until I was older how groundbreaking it was to see a playable black protagonist in 1991’s “Streets of Rage” on Sega Genesis, but that didn’t exactly usher in a trend.
Even some of the most beloved gaming franchises have issues: Though I got up in the ass of many a white boy using Dhalsim and Blanka on the “Street Fighter II” arcade, they’re both culturally insensitive depictions. All of the ethnic stereotypes in “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!!” would never make it out of a developer’s studio in 2016 (never mind Little Mac’s trainer, who arguably looks a little Bamboozled).
It’s why I appreciate that a AAA video game (one with a high development and advertising budget) like “Mafia III,” created through a studio run by a bunch of white boys (as most are), tackles racism head-on and not allegorically (“Deus Ex: Mankind”) or half-assedly (“Bioshock Infinite”). In a zeitgeist that demands we take a closer look at our media for aggressions, micro and otherwise, I enjoy the idea of a bunch of gaming nerds forced to think about racism for 30-plus hours of a campaign.
Unfortunately, “Mafia III” as a game itself seems like an epigone of numerous open-world sandbox titles before it; its mechanics are decent and the gameplay fun, but if you’re a gamer, you’ve done this before ad nauseam, and you’ve done it in better games.
But unlike the last few episodes of Marvel’s Luke Cage, you won’t struggle to stay awake during the many cutscenes that unfold the narrative. It’s not the gameplay that keeps me coming back—it’s the unabashedly black-ass story that I’ve been waiting for, for more than three decades.