***Ed Smith contributes to Vice, The Observer, Edge, Play Magazine, and Kill Screen. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.
Lincoln Clay Versus The Man
“Dedicated to all the Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of the Man.” —from Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song It's a shame Mafia 3 doesn't have such a direct tagline. Instead, the game opens, in typical fawning, bet-hedging videogame style, with a message from creators Hangar 13 reassuring us all that it takes racism and its depiction very seriously. The optimist in me wants to say the game-maker is genuinely concerned about disturbing or doing wrong by its audience, and is making an earnest effort to explain itself. The critic in me has seen this too many times before. With this kind of exiguous humility, game-makers crawl up their players' legs—“don't be too hard on us, we tried our best.” At the same time, using disclaimers and content warnings, they try to inject their game with unearned gravitas. Before you even start Mafia 3, it's assuring you, informing you, that it's a deeply important game. If after several hours playing you don't agree, the implication here is that you're just being insensitive. Which is to say, Mafia 3 incorrectly sets its tone. This isn't a game where you pause, reflect, lament. This is a game where you beat, blast and righteously fuck up The Man. I'm white. I'm middle-class. I am The Man. No matter how liberal, aware or educated I make myself, I'll be forever humbled by first-hand experience: I can't know what it's like to be Black in America, or anywhere. Nevertheless, I feel like I am with Mafia 3's protagonist, Lincoln Clay. I can't presume to empathise with him. His catharsis, as he lays into old-country gangsters, Dixie hicks, and racist cops, is not my catharsis. I am The Man, and I refuse to let myself off the hook for that just because I hate racism, too. But my word, does Mafia 3 make me love watching Lincoln Clay work. It's the rare, perhaps unique example of a game where the power fantasy is not mine but the characters'; I get off watching Clay get what he wants, not on using him as a vehicle to get what I want. I'm an ally and by controlling him, killing his enemies and keeping him alive, I'm helping him to win. But his victory is his victory. If anything, the more Clay succeeds, the further weakened Mafia 3's white society,which I vicariously represent, becomes. To the deconstruction of that system, Mafia 3, at its noblest, is dedicated wholeheartedly. Playing it as one might Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto, taking time to imbibe the surroundings, enjoy downtime with the character, and hand pick missions and side-missions, is a disservice. Just look at Lincoln. His huge shoulders. His steely glare. His jeans tucked into his boots. The way he carries a shotgun in just one hand. And listen to Mafia 3's soundtrack: "Born to be Wild," "Paint it Black," "All Along the Watchtower." From these naked aesthetic choices, to the way guns are delivered to your feet at the push of a button and missions are walked in and out of without even a loading screen, you are encouraged to tear through Mafia 3 like a force of nature. Get your weapons, jump in a car, hit the stereo and go after The Man. There is no ambiguity. When they're living, enemies can be overheard discussing how Black people are genetically primed to be “trained like dogs.” When they die, it's in a delightful plume of runny red blood. You can't resist. And nor should you. Mafia 3 is designed so that Lincoln may course through white America like raw alcohol, at once cleansing and corroding. It's easy for me to say this, but Mafia 3 seems to make thinking about racism, carefully, meticulously, a moot point. The lines are clearly and indisputably drawn. By bucking the system of how you would normally play a sandbox game, you bring the fight relentlessly to The Man. This way of thinking about and playing Mafia 3, however, exposes a thematic inconsistency. A Black man in America, Lincoln is striking at the system from the bottom up, yet at his disposal are a plethora of weapons and tools. Seemingly from just existing in the game, I was able to accrue, inside an hour, $10,000, the 2016 equivalent of around 65 grand. Lincoln's actions are a violent, urgent crystallisation of rightful Black substantiation, but one only has to look to modern America to know his ability to both rapidly and irretrievably stake societal claim is, at least, a wild exaggeration, at most total fantasy. And so Mafia 3, gratifying, cathartic and very capable of making a single, thunderous point, has only limited resonance. The way other characters talk about Lincoln, as a kind of myth, is absolutely appropriate. His money, his tools and his power to summon, at will, all he needs to succeed, when compared to the realities of life for innumerable Black Americans, render him a sensational superhero. As such a figure, Mafia 3 acknowledges—openly depicts—Lincoln Clay. When in the game's opening mission he is gunning down racist guards inside a branch of the American Federal Reserve, and in doing so hitting directly at the political and economical forces that isolate Black Americans, it's clear he is capable of impossible victories. But as such, Lincoln is relatable only in an acute, wishful sense. As satisfying as his strikes against The Man often are, they remind one also of an inescapable social void and the many Black lives which it continues to engulf.