The best art in the world, regardless of medium, often yields deep thinking, reflection on important issues and sometimes even personal introspection. Movies, books and TV can fit the bill quite easily, but how many games have made you really reflect? Mafia III wasn't made specifically with the intent of commenting on race in America, but considering that its protagonist is a bi-racial man and the game is set in the South in the '60s (when the Civil Rights Movement was in full force) it's hard not to think about racial tensions, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and problems with police brutality.
Haden Blackman, who led the development on Mafia III at new 2K studio Hangar 13, told me that everything his studio did on the project was to help craft the narrative, not to force the race issue on anybody.
"We didn't set out initially to get on a soapbox or make a comment about [race]. At the time... we had no idea that some of these things were going to happen, things like the Black Lives Matter movement would come to be when we made the decision. So it really was all about how do we tell the best story and who's the most interesting protagonist in the story that we want to tell?" Blackman noted.
While some publishers may have hesitated in letting one of its studios tackle a sensitive issue, Blackman was effusive in his praise of Take-Two, which supported his vision from the start.
"We felt it was important to have [the n-word] there in order to remind people that this was a very shameful part of our past, and in some ways our present, but we never wanted it to become gratuitous or comical or just background noise"
"That's one of the reasons that I love working at 2K," he said. "We sat down - the very first decisions we made around Mafia III were where are we setting it, when are we setting it, and who's the protagonist? Those three decisions evolved together over time. Once we knew, look, we want to set the game in a southern city, New Orleans being our inspiration, we wanted to set it in the late '60s, then we started talking about who would make the most interesting protagonist and allow us to tell the most nuanced and most interesting story at the end of the day. On the team we agreed that a black protagonist and a member of the black mob would allow us to achieve that and also allow us to explore a different side of organized crime the series hadn't yet explored."
Portraying race and racism accurately also meant using the n-word, but writing it into the script had to be done in a way that wasn't gratuitous. "We were trying to find the right balance of keeping it authentic and true to the time period but not just becoming a wall of noise; the last thing we wanted was for it to become comical because of who's saying it and when. We tried to use it in moments when it's contextually appropriate and it was either used to characterize a character in the game or occasionally remind you of when and where you are and who you are," Blackman explained.
"Ultimately... if the game can make people think a little bit about race and remind them that Lincoln's experience in 1968 is very different than the experience most of us would have had, and it's similar maybe to some of the experiences some people of color have today, then we've done our job because we've made people think about something that they're not used to thinking about certainly while playing a video game. We felt it was important to have [the n-word] there in order to remind people that this was a very shameful part of our past, and in some ways our present, but we never wanted it to become gratuitous or comical or just background noise."
Mafia III has been off to a solid start, selling-in 4.5 million copies in its first week, but critically the game has seen a mixture of reviews, with an average in the upper 60s on multiple platforms. Blackman isn't concerned that his game failed to hit an 80 on Metacritic; he's just pleased with the cultural impact he's witnessed his own project having on players.
"I do feel that there is some polarization with the game. I feel like it has something to do with the maturing of the industry," he remarked. "We're a fairly modest size team, I would say almost a small team, so you pick your battles as you're going through development and we really did double down on narrative and the time and place, making sure you never forgot who Lincoln is and where he is. We didn't put as much weight on some of the things like... I think we're a competent cover shooter but for us, there's a ton of other cover shooters out there so if that's really what you're looking for go play one of those. But if you're looking for a really immersive experience that puts you into the shoes of a character that you can't be in any other game - and most of us have never been in real life and won't be able to - then come play Mafia III if you want something that's a little bit deeper, a little bit more mature, and has stronger themes than some of those other titles.
"It's interesting to see the press reaction because I think some of the press was really looking for that kind of cookie cutter or repeat of certain mechanics that they see in other titles and we weren't as interested in doing that. But I go to sleep every night and know that we made a game that some people have called a cultural landmark and that folks have called cathartic and how often do you get to do that? I think maybe once or twice in your career you're going to get an opportunity to make a game that's hailed as a cultural landmark, right? And for me personally, as a white developer it has allowed me to make connections with African Americans and people of color, gamers, that to me is... Where else could I have done that? It's just amazing. I'm really, really proud of all that stuff."
Blackman admitted that Hangar 13 took a risk with the game's structure and its open-world nature, and indeed some critics complained that the open-world structure detracted from the main story. Blackman said that the open-world design, however, came directly from feedback on Mafia II. "It's funny; it goes to show that you can't please everybody. The industry's constantly changing. One of the reasons why we did build a more robust open world and did try to put more stuff to do in the open world was a reaction to the feedback from Mafia II - one of the things that they did very well was a sense of time and place as well and it had a fairly strong narrative, but a lot of the critics panned it for being just driving mission to mission. That was a very polarizing game too," he said.
"Not being a game critic myself, I'll never understand, but getting knocked for being too ambitious is something that I'm willing to hold my head up about. If we lose a couple points because we were too ambitious I guess that's better than losing points because we weren't ambitious enough."
Blackman doesn't go so far as to say that his peers in game development have a responsibility to push the envelope on mature subject matter, but he does believe that games and game creators are in a unique position to do so.
"What we did take some time on and thought about a lot and did some focus testing on was, 'How are we portraying race? How are we using racial slurs? Are we going too far? Are we not going far enough?'"
"I do feel like it's the medium that's changing the most if you look at all kinds of entertainment mediums. Maybe television is coming close but we're evolving the most quickly. There are new techniques for telling a story and exploring things every day from indie games all the way to AAA titles... I feel like it's something we have to do if we want to move the industry forward. Me personally, I'm more interested in exploring some of these more mature themes. I do feel like the reason why we don't see it as often is I feel like there's some risk aversion, obviously, in the industry. Again, that's one of the reasons why I'm grateful to be here at 2K because we had a creative vision and the company supported us wholeheartedly on that, all the way up to Take-Two, so it was amazing," he said.
Blackman pointed out that the media has played a role too. "With the players I feel like there's a real desire and almost a hunger for this type of stuff, but I do feel like in terms of the way games are covered and the types of things that kind of bubbled to the top with the press, we're just now starting to see that maturing, which is one of the reasons why, I think, until recently, we haven't seen a lot of diversity in games," he commented. "I think that there's so much tendency to focus on the same thing over and over again that it becomes a cyclical thing, right? It encourages the developers to do that too... I think we're starting to break through that, which is fantastic."
Blackman is no stranger to pushing entertainment mediums. Several years ago, while working on Batwoman for DC Comics, he decided to leave because DC wouldn't allow Batwoman to get married to another woman. While many have interpreted that move to mean that DC was opposed to Batwoman having a lesbian marriage, Blackman clarified that "it was never about the fact that she was a lesbian. It was about that they didn't want any of their characters to be married, which I think, in a way is its own weird anti-diversity stance." It was a learning experience for Blackman, however, and one that he applied to Mafia III.
"The thing that I've learned there is trying to take this idea of, again, that was a complex character and a complex relationship and we wanted to take that into Mafia III. The other thing that I really learned was with Batwoman, the easier thing to do would have been to put her on this pedestal and make her perfect and that would have been the safe thing to do but it wouldn't have felt honest and I think that would not have been nearly as well received. And I took that same attitude with Lincoln. We can't take Lincoln and put him up on this pedestal. This is a flawed guy and he makes mistakes and he's loyal to a fault. And he's a criminal. We didn't shy away from any of that stuff either. And I think that makes it feel, at the end of the day, a little bit more honest," he noted.
In an age when developers are opening up about their game creation process and actively engaging players, that's inevitably led to some occasional toxicity between fans and creators. Was Blackman at all worried about stirring the racial pot among Mafia fans?
"It definitely crossed our minds every once in a while, especially as some of these other things blew up in the industry. I think for me personally, though, because I had worked on Star Wars for so long, and that is such a passionate fan base, I was a little bit desensitized to the kind of fringe reaction to anything that we might do. But I was really pleasantly surprised with this. When we announced the game, there definitely was an initial kind of undercurrent of the hardcore Mafia fans going, 'Is this going to be a Mafia game? Why isn't it an Italian-American protagonist?' and there were a lot of questions around that, but I don't think we ever saw the kind of vitriol or anger that we could have or that some of us might have been preparing ourselves for," he said.
"I think it also helped that we put Vito in the game, who was the main character in Mafia II, and we had a lot of nods to the franchise as a whole. Lincoln is a really cool memorable character and I think that helped as well. Over time we weren't as worried about that; what we did take some time on and thought about a lot and did some focus testing on was, 'How are we portraying race? How are we using racial slurs? Are we going too far? Are we not going far enough?' We have some team members that grew up in the South and are black and would give us feedback that we weren't going far enough. We had a wide swath of players, not just African American players - female players, everybody, just to see where we were getting it right and where we were going too far or not far enough," he continued.
"And that informed a lot of the latter half of development and some changes that we made... So we were really sensitive to that I think but without it ever clouding the vision of 'This is a Mafia game and you're playing a criminal who is on this revenge storyline'."
There's no denying that Blackman and Hangar 13 were under enormous pressure from the beginning. Take-Two made Mafia III the focus of E3 with a booth built to look like a Jazz bar from the period the game's set in. The publisher clearly had high hopes, but Blackman was also building up a brand-new studio while trying to craft a AAA experience that would please his bosses and meet his creative vision at the same time. It was no small feat to accomplish.
"I feel like I don't want to do anything in the industry that isn't a little bit ambitious... I don't really want to build me-too games or just retread the same ground from a gameplay or a narrative standpoint"
"It's a really big challenge but one I really enjoy and this was almost the same thing we did on Force Unleashed, with the changes that were happening at LucasArts; we were building a team from scratch, for all intents and purposes we were building a new studio, we were building tools and tech while we were building that game. This is a different challenge in the sense that this was a much more ambitious game. This was an open-world game, which I think may be the hardest genre you could possibly build, so doing that with a brand-new team that had never worked together before as we were building tech and tools is quite a challenge," he said.
"But I think what helped us out was one, we really rallied around the core concept of Mafia III and everybody that was hired here with the exception of me knew that they were coming in to work on Mafia III, so from the outset we had that as our rallying cry as a team. It also really helped that we brought a bunch of folks over from 2K Czech, a lot of guys who worked on Mafia II, and then when LucasArts kind of wound down we were able to recruit a lot of folks from LucasArts. So we had this large influx of folks in a very short timeframe, which has its own challenges, but it gave us that core team very quickly," Blackman continued.
"I think the other thing that's really helped us is that we have remained relatively small as a dev studio in comparison to other teams building open-world games. I think that's helped us remain kind of nimble and allowed for better communication than you might see on much larger teams. I'd be lying if I said there weren't some moments that felt like everything was about to come off the rails because we were moving so fast; that cliché of you're laying down the tracks as the train is barreling down the track at 100MPH, it really felt that way sometimes. I think we all held it together because we knew what the end goal was, which was this strong cinematic realistic, authentic experience built around Lincoln."
At the end of the day, it may be that Blackman was just the right creative personality for the job. 2K entrusted him with the franchise and he never looked back.
"I feel like I don't want to do anything in the industry that isn't a little bit ambitious. I think you have to be ambitious in order to stand out. I kind of feel like if you're not going to reach a little bit beyond what you've done in the past or what people say is possible then it's not necessarily really worth doing. I don't really want to build me-too games or just retread the same ground from a gameplay or a narrative standpoint. I think that's how we push the art forward," he said.