Reflecting on Current Events - Mafia 3 and Raging Against The Machine

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LinksOcarina

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Edited By LinksOcarina

It has been a long time, nearly nine years, since I have made a blog post here. Part of that is simply due to life getting in the way, but another part is how I have become almost a semi-professional critic within that time, working for websites such as Blistered Thumbs before it closed and now writing articles for the website TechRaptor. This piece though, is fully based on my own thoughts and opinions and is not affiliated with any website. The current events of the world right now - the COVID-19 Pandemic, the protests against police brutality after the death of George Floyd, and the inadequate leadership of politicians and police commissioners alike - has inspired me to take action, the only way I know how; to showcase a profound lesson found in a video game that many would often dismiss because of its technical shortcomings; Mafia 3.

Mafia 3 is perhaps the most prophetic game on the market right now. With a news cycle of unfiltered anger festering until it finally explodes in massive waves of anger, the U.S is, at times, literally on fire, burning and leaving further scars that make up the underside of our history as a nation. Times like this, ones of great duress and rage, are often reactionary to the conditions that lead to the chaos. A modern-day reckoning has begun across the United States, one that seems long overdue in some respects, but for many it is the backdrop of the reality of our society. Yet Mafia 3, for whatever reason, showcases that rage against the machine in such a pointed way, it is hard to ignore it right now given the circumstances.

A lot of this can be seen through the lens of Lincoln Clay, the games protagonist. Lincoln is sort of a pastiche character, part Django from Django Unchained, part Private Taylor from Platoon. He is a veteran just passing through New Bordeaux in 1968, when he is roped into meeting old friends and given a taste of power by an old mentor, Sammy Robinson, the local leader of a small-time black gang looking to carve up a piece of New Bordeaux for themselves.

Narratively, Lincoln’s struggles are transparent when the Marcano family, the organized head of New Bordeaux, has Robinson and his gang killed after a job that was to make them a more independent outfit. It is important to note that the massacre of Robinson’s crew is not presented as a hate crime, at least on the surface. Rather, it is a necessary action by the Marcano’s to preserve the status quo. Lincoln survives, just barely clinging to life for a time under the care of Father James Ballard and CIA operative and friend of Lincoln’s from Vietnam, John Donovan.

Father James and Donovan are very clichéd characters in a sense, representing the relative morality paths Lincoln can take to sedate his own agenda. Donovan is pompous and smug but encourages Lincoln to burn down New Bordeaux and remove the Marcano family from power. Father James though is the voice of reason, the angel to Donovan’s devil. He knows from experience the anger Lincoln has because he too, once had it. He warns Lincoln early on that his path to burn down Marcano’s world is a one-way road, “and once you start down it, there ain’t no turning back.”

On the surface, Mafia 3 seems to be a game that uses racism and racial discrimination as backdrop, a selling point to fuel the motivations of Lincoln and subsequently the player. Yet the game is much more nuanced in how racism is handled here. Lincoln’s desire for vengeance, power, and respect is almost beat for beat the echoes of any sort of romantic Mafia-styled narrative. Yet it adds a new layer into the mix, one that has past narrative roots are now mired in the language of the modern-day struggles for basic human acceptance. Lincoln nearly becomes Black Rage personified; an angry, vengeful man who has been tossed into the grinding gears of the world machine, only to come out the other side to rip it apart, screw by screw.

To put it another way, Mafia 3 is systemic racism personified as a video game and ignoring that aspect of the framework is to ignore the narrative point of the game itself. It does not try to be subtle about this point either, as many parts of the game’s mechanics pretty much enforce this in ways that overtly punish the player. Carjacking and firebombing in poor, black neighborhoods is almost too easy as the cops are incredibly slow to investigate. Doing this in white, suburban areas however, sees a near immediate response. Hell, these neighborhoods always have your wanted meter ready to go, since a black man in a white neighborhood is already suspicious enough.

All of this, of course, is followed by the saccharine smiles of “gentle southern folk” who take off their masks the moment a person like Lincoln turns the corner. It is enduring the smugness of Remy Duvall, a charismatic radio host with the smugness seen from real life far-right pundits, such as Gavin McInnes of The Proud Boys. It is constantly facing the prejudice and struggles of a world that is seemingly uncaring about the plight of those who need the most protecting, a world of order that mafia leaders like Sal Marcano, the head of the Marcano family, lament is disappearing.

Duvall and Marcano are worth exploring a bit because both represent the kind of problems Lincoln must contend with in Mafia 3. Duvall is simple as an overtly racist villain. He is filled with smarm and looking for a fight to punish blacks, hippies, even Italians like the Marcano family, whom he has legitimate business ties to. Duvall feels entitled to put them in their place, out of power from their rightfully owned land. He is also the leader of the Southern Union, a stand-in for the KKK; their grand wizard who uses influence to push the ideology forward.

Marcano himself is contrasted by not being explicitly racist, much like most of the Marcano family. There is a prejudice against Robinson and the black gang, but it's out of greed over hatred. Sal Marcano pines for the old days, where folks would not be “uppity” against him and his power. In a way, killing Robinson and his gang, simply because he can get away with it, showcases the power dynamic Mafia 3 spends a whole game effectively deconstructing, neighborhood by neighborhood, through gameplay.

It is this world, this society that already rendered Lincoln second class due to skin color, that he burns to the ground in his personal war with Marcano. It is a society that is remarkably familiar to many of us; especially considering the powerful messages shown in the wake of the death of George Floyd and countless other black and brown men and women over the years. Floyds death has become a rallying cry against police corruption and systemic racism against the marginalized. It has become a symbol of societies broken system of justice that has empowered the few to rule over the many. It is not the work of some bad apples, but rather the society itself that allows this constant string of injustices to continue. To fester. To boil over with explosive rage.

Yet society is often hypocritical to this rage because many in society do not see themselves as the ones who should be raged against. Take the tech industry, for example. Many tech conglomerates from Google to Facebook to Apple are often touting their more liberal, progressive attitudes towards civil rights and expressions. Yet deep down it too is plagued by systemic racism. There is a lack of black and minority leaders in the tech industry, a widespread gap of gainful employment as well. Constant allegations of oppression and prejudice, even the use of tokenism to satisfy charges of poor behavior have also been noted and clearly seen by many publicly. Tech companies claim to stand with movements to usher in change but are ultimately charged with virtue signaling when confronted with their own refusal to do so themselves. The tech industry, and yes, this does include some video game companies, struggles with this systemic rot because they righteously feel they are beyond reproof. They may not be a Remy Duvall, overtly racist and proud of it, but they are a Sal Marcano, wanting the status quo at all costs, including allowing personal and private prejudices to keep that status.

This is the hypocritical world Lincoln tears down, block by block in his personal war. When critiquing Mafia 3, many critics and fans alike focused on the games shortcomings as a product, while quizzically dismissing or misunderstanding its message. As a product, Mafia 3 is not perfect, the way the game mechanically engages with the player is particularly overloaded with banal repetitiveness in comparison to the storyline. It feels like busywork, too much check listing in a sandbox that struggles to hold attention. Tastes are changing away from that sandbox gameplay as being too derivative.

Yet that repetition also showcases the systematic destruction of the world around them. All of this is punctuated by the violence of Mafia 3 being visceral and raw with each flick of your knife or pull of your trigger. Lincoln's rampage through New Bordeaux is violent and not subtle on purpose; he wants Marcano and, to a lesser extent, New Bordeaux to see the blood-soaked path he carved to the top.

Throughout though, Lincoln is constantly tempted with more power, more control, and in effect, becoming the next Marcano. Donovan is emblematic of this possible character arc. As a CIA goon he is pretty much used to flexing his power over others; Lincoln included. He and Lincoln are friends, and Donovan does care about Lincoln, but they are not equal otherwise. Lincoln, to Donovan, is also a tool that is used to carve the path through the Marcano family, and him not-so subtly saying to Lincoln to take power for himself, even killing the advisors Lincoln recruits along the journey, makes this somewhat obvious. Donovan is portrayed as over the top and smug in a way that is frankly annoying but serves as the perfect foil to the metaphorical angel of Father James.

Yet even Father James, for all his screes, knows his power as a voice of reason is shaky. Throughout the game, Father James becomes more and more despondent, almost depressed, at seeing Lincoln unravel as he sated his rage with fire and blood. His monologues throughout the game, which uses a semi-documentary feel as a framing device, become incredibly morose and bitter, to the point where Father James admits to something he learned decades ago; that the world will always have systemic problems, and no amount of destruction will stop it.

It is a bitter, almost nihilistic scene, one that showcases the hopelessness Father James has seen throughout the years. Great change, no matter who is pulling the trigger, is always mired in the final revelation that the world does not work the way he tried to live. More than any other scene in Mafia 3 sums up the narrative themes than this; Lincoln knows his path is one of rage. He knows how the world works, how the world will judge him, brand him a criminal, another thug amongst the downtrodden who is gotten too big for his own good.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said in an interview in 1968, that “violence will only create more social problems than they will solve.” He has condemned riots by the black community as the way forward for African Americans in the 1960s, believing his path of non-violence, now almost propagandized by history, to be the only solution to injustice. Yet even King was wise to note why riots occur. His now relevant The Other America Speech sums this up cleanly:

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard, and what is it that America has failed to hear is it has failed to hear the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years, it has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met, and it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo, than about justice, equality and humanity.”

King is prophetic ultimately, that violence begets violence, and that proper justice and humanity is how we break that chain. Father James tries, in vain, to break Lincoln from this cycle. Lincoln is too myopic to see that, and much of the game itself, a well-crafted, bloody massacre of racists, criminals and establishment scum on constant repeat almost shows how fruitless true vengeance can be.

Can Lincoln save him from himself? Can one really rage against the machine and come out better for it? The gameplay of Mafia 3, and the whole thesis, says no. Yet there are a few moments, and one key ending, that contradict this. Lincoln kills all the Marcano family except for two members. The first, Vito Scaletta, was the previous protagonist of Mafia 2. Vito is himself an outsider, a ‘carpetbagger’ dumped onto the Marcano family. Vito later becomes one of your advisors and can be optionally killed if ignored or deciding to betray them like Donovan suggested. The second is Enzo Conti, the only member of the Marcano family to acknowledge and justify Lincoln's actions by apologizing to him personally.

Enzo is particularly interesting because that acknowledgement shows Lincoln can, in effect, offer forgiveness. Enzo is even more ‘old school’ than the Marcano’s, but he recognizes the injustice of the system, the injustice of the wrong committed against Lincoln and the Robinson gang. The death of his friends is inexcusable, and Enzo acknowledges this fact and walks away from his position.

There is also Marcano himself. After the death of his son Giorgi, Marcano acknowledges Lincoln as well, grieving as a father would over the death of his child, coming to terms with why this happened. For a moment, Sal Marcano is totally sapped of his power. For a moment, Sal Marcano finally understands what it means to be grinded up by the system. Lincoln has won; vengeance and justice, intertwined, has been served and Marcano, knowing his fate is already sealed, cannot ask for forgiveness despite this.

Sparing Enzo and finally killing Sal Marcano are just steppingstones to the real moral, the real choice Lincoln must decide on, and that is whether or not to continue the systems rot. Violence has begat violence, but what did it solve for Lincoln? In this case, old school Mafia leader Leo Galante, the man who Sal Marcano answered to, offers Lincoln a gilded cage to take over New Bordeaux for himself. Like Father James prophetically claimed, there will always be another Sal Marcano, another Sammy Robinson, another Lincoln Clay.

Does this solve anything in Mafia 3? No, it just continues the rot, now painted over with the blood on the hands of Lincoln. This ending is also incredibly bleak, leaving Father James to assassinate Lincoln himself in the end. The other option, however, is to walk away. Lincoln's fate was sealed the moment he took to the path of vengeance, it is a path that once he started down, there was never any turning back. The games ending though is resonant because it tries to justify the wisdom of Dr. King’s own words, that caring for the status quo of society is standing against freedom, justice and equality.

New Bordeaux changes, depending on who is in charge, but ultimately it never recovers from the baptism of fire in 1968. Lincoln Clay destroyed the machine in his rage and can possibly destroy himself in the process. Yet, the machine is rebuilt, re-wired exactly as it was before making nothing change at all. The final epilogue shows Lincoln on the run across the world, finding some solace, but at the same time never acceptance, in the world around him.

This is the dark lesson Mafia 3 has for us; that the systemic problems of race, class, status and power are part of the system built around us. Destroying that system is not just tearing down the layers of power, that is busywork and fruitless because ultimately, it can be rebuilt and made more powerful. It will take fundamental change in us coupled with changes to the system, to foster a better sense of justice that does not celebrate violence. In other words, we must recognize that we are part of the problem, and work to become the solution.

It was too late for Lincoln to learn this lesson, but maybe there is hope for us in the real world. The current protests over the death of George Floyd, coupled with systemic leadership clinging to the status quo have sparked something fierce in America today. Systemic racism is just one more problem of a broken society that can be fixed, but like in Mafia 3, if we're not careful it can consume us to repeat the same mistakes, cling to the same power and all of its seductive influence. We rage against the system, that is easy when our voices are drowned out by the systems apathy, but personal complacency creates the negative conditions that perpetuates the cycle to continue.

That is a tougher challenge to overcome, but one that can only be defeated when we recognize that complacency within ourselves.

Thank you for reading.

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Relkin

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Interesting read. There's a lot here, but I haven't played the game myself so I'm not going to really address anything in a meaningful way so as not to look the fool. What I will say is that as someone who doesn't really like the two preceding games that much and had no intention of playing number three, I will definitely check this game out now. Thanks for sharing.

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someoneproud

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That was a very interesting read, didn't think I'd read it all but I did and somehow you've made me wanna try Mafia 3 again. Nice one.

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TheRealTurk

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That's an interesting read. I fell off Mafia 3 pretty quickly when it came out. I booted it back up again a few weeks back and had the same result. A lot of that is gameplay, but some of that is story related, too.

For as much as the cutscenes and voice acting try to bring home the concept of systemic racism, I think that idea is weirdly divorced from the actual gameplay. To the best of my recollection, the cops never just come after Lincoln for being black. There might be a few racist catcalls when you are on foot, but there's no pretextual stops, no extra enforcement when you are in a "white" area of the city, etc. During my play time, the cops were usually chasing Lincoln because he'd just killed 30 people and blown up a warehouse. Granted, a game where the cops are constantly on your case for no reason would probably not make for a very good time, but it feels like they could have found a better balance than they did.

Really, what brought the issue home to me was during the first sequence when you are driving Donovan around. He makes a point of telling Lincoln that Marcano has bought off the police department, so the cops will always come after Lincoln in a dispute. I always found that a little offputting in the context of the rest of the game. The idea that the cops will go after Lincoln because Marcano bought them off, as opposed to being after Lincoln because Lincoln is black and Marcano is white always seemed like a strange explanation to me given what the rest of the story is going for.

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Shaanyboi

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#4  Edited By Shaanyboi

I had a lot of appreciation for Mafia 3 when I first played it. The game engages with racial division, the friction within communities, and the rotten heart of systems in a way that put a lot of AAA games to shame. From mechanical elements of cops keeping an eye on you as you rolled by an intersection, or aesthetic and narrative through its writing, I think the game was extremely successful and forward.

The problems with how the game handles stealth or the overall repetitive structure in capturing districts aside, I think this game does so many things right in establishing its sense of place on a big-budget scale. Granted there are smaller and indie games that can more decisively cut into specifics, but for AAA games, this was a rarity.

I think while this game is dressed as a revenge fantasy, and in-part a power fantasy (through force and action rather than systemic power), I think the case is to be made that violence and rebellion has its place. It has its importance. And justice does not apply when the system is opposed to achieving it. While people in Lincoln's life try maintaining a grip on his moral core, there is fundamentally an understanding that toppling systems means force is a necessary element.

Going back to do the unfinished DLC this week was both timely and reminded me of where this game wasn't afraid to back down. Specifically 'Faster Baby', which doesn't just end once the bad sheriff goes down. There was a real choice there by Hangar 13 that he's hoping for white supremacist groups to take action in his absence that spoke truer than just knocking the racist out of his big chair. Systems of racism and oppression go fudther than who is in uniform. It is an ecosystem, and it is allowed to thrive with the intent of maintaining the status quo, no matter which specific asshole sits at its peak.

I have a lot of respect for so much of what this game does and what it accomplishes.