Warning: Spoilers for Mafia III and Watch Dogs 2 follow.
After playing games such as Gears of War 4 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare this year – two franchises that have been as much about masculine posturing as they were about the bullet porn that they pump onto screen – I’ve begun to notice an interesting trend in today’s AAA games: stories, and particularly their characters, are getting better, more fleshed out, and more relatable. Lack of proper characterization has been a criticism that fans and the press alike have bestowed upon the AAA space for well over a decade, which has only seemed to be recognized by indie developers who ostensibly have the advantage of being unshackled from investors and tone deaf marketing committees to tell more personal, human narratives.
This colossal trend has been hugely represented by depictions of race, where game characters have been consistently siloed into rigid stereotypes. Hispanics tend to have language barriers or are villainized as drug runners, Eastern Asians strictly fit anywhere between the archetypes of ninjas, shamans and martial artists, and blacks have often been seen as thugs, musclebound gun wielders, or your Chris Tucker “You’re crazy for that!” guy. There was even a period of time where many white protagonists were similarly designed as scowling dudes with buzz-cuts.
Coincidentally, 2016 brought us not one, but two open world games with black characters as their main protagonists: Mafia III and Watch Dogs 2. With Mafia III taking place in the late 1960s, and Watch Dogs 2 set in present day, both games cover significant ground of what it means to be black in America in a way that everyone can at least recognize, if not relate to on some level. Here, I’m going to walk through some of the ways in which both games succeed and miss the mark in illustrating blackness, and what that says about the state of the games’ industry.
Mafia III made no concessions on its approach of race relations between blacks and whites, and for good reason. Jim Crow, the assassination of Dr. King, and apex of the Ku Klux Klan defined racism in the 1960s. With that, Hangar 13’s matter-of-factness of black isolationism was surprising to some considering how Lincoln Clay, Mafia III’s main character, is biracial. This may seem like a trivial observation, but a half-black, half-white identity can be interpreted as a half commitment to attract players that might be turned off by a darker skinned character. It’s something I think about when looking back at Resident Evil 5 and how its side-kick heroine, Sheva Alomar, wasn’t nearly as “ethnic” as the rest of the black natives she and Chris Redfield were mowing down. It’s also something that isn’t too out of the realm of possibility considering that similar thought processes are well documented about large game companies.
But Lincoln Clay’s biracial background falls at the mercy of the “one-drop rule” in the ways in which everyone views him, and how he views the world around him. In spirit and identity, Lincoln is as black as they come. This is largely thanks to the revenge story that Mafia III has written, which also doubles as a revenge fantasy for black players. Lincoln Clay, an imposing Vietnam veteran whose war assets make him both a skilled marksman and an effective psychological terrorist, is a perfect embodiment for black men and women to channel their fetishes about exacting video game justice on hooded lynch mobs, racist cops, and white bureaucrats whose use of the word “ingger” is synonymous with describing animals that need to be caged.
Much of how Mafia III illustrates racial oppression comes from existing games and subgenres. Take almost any recent Western RPG that gives players the option to pick different races, and you’ll draw comparisons as to how NPCs in New Bordeaux sneer and mumble in disgust as they walk past you. Mafia III also has bits of Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry where Adewale freed slaves as side missions, which is represented here as Lincoln infiltrating illegal boxing rings and freeing black market servants. Its police system, on the other hand, is a wholly unique source of emergent storytelling where law enforcement arrival in black areas is delayed, and when they actually do show up in response to any of your crimes, the extent of extreme lethal force always seems authentic. Mafia III is the only game that I wasn’t pulled out of the experience after being gunned down by police for a seemingly petty crime, because… well, Lincoln is a black man in the ’60s America.
The race relations between Clay and the people around him are, however, very black and white, with very few shades of grey. The whites that Lincoln hunted down were n-word spewing bigots, and the ones that sided with him couldn’t have been nicer. It would have been great to see more examples of institutional racism, or even supportive whites resist Lincoln because of his skin color. It’s actually rather hard to believe how many whites fell behind Lincoln’s hostile takeover without someone attempting to supersede him or form a sort of coup. Examples in 2016 only validate further that it couldn’t have been that easy for a black man to reach a position of power over whites in the 1960s.
Despite Mafia III’s polarizing white relations, Hangar 13 does an excellent job illustrating the manipulative use of race within black circles. Cassandra, the leader of the Haitian Mob in New Bordeaux, uses her skin color as leverage against Lincoln. She weaponizes it as a tactic to guilt him into granting her territory for her own personal gain. This form of interracial manipulation is, even today, common in the black community, where some will try to undermine one another in the name of a larger identity. The mission “Certainly Was Exciting” was also a profound piece commentary on black history. Disguised as a butler, Lincoln encounters a seemingly self-loathing black manager playing fast and loose with the word “nigger” toward the kitchen staff. His hatred for his brethren plays a striking resemblance to black middle managers in the ’60s, and even dating back to house slaves in pre-Civil War America. The intensity of his racism is also well acted, in that it captures his own internal struggle of wanting to get a piece of white privilege without being punished by it. This sequence closes the loop in Mafia III racial commentary in a way that’s rare and insightful compared to what we normally see in video games.
Watch Dogs 2 also has its profound moments, although they’re more subtle than the historical context of Mafia III. Marcus Holloway’s blackness is established very early on in a way that’s all too familiar to my personal experiences. Once Holloway meets up with DedSec for the first time and gets acquainted with each of the group’s members, the second that Horatio (a black dude himself) is introduced to Marcus, he gives him a warm “what’s up, brotha” handshake followed by a one-armed hug. This subtle gesture says a lot about Ubisoft’s insight into modern black culture, how in certain circles – in this case, a group of hackers existing within the tech sphere – black representation is slim to none, and whenever we do run into one another, we acknowledge each other in a special way.
Horatio and Marcus’ subsequent encounters – as few as they are – mirror the same authentic brotherly acknowledgement. But the mission “Limp Nudle”, which features both characters, is an irrefutably accurate illustration of black representation in the tech industry. Horatio, who works for Watch Dogs 2’s Google equivalent Nudle, light-heartedly comforts Marcus who’s intimidated by Nudle’s campus when he says, “Nobody looks like us”. Horatio talks about his experience of being expected to “represent all of Blackdom”, and times when he’s complimented on how “well spoken” he is – a phrase expressive blacks are all too familiar with when their articulateness is… unexpected. But Horatio continues to keep it light, with jokes like, “Hey, what do you call a black man surrounded by thousands of white people? Mr. President,” and engaging in parodied “white talk” with Marcus, something many of us black folks are guilty of. It’s a truly memorable moment that caught me by surprise, and is likely thanks to writers like Maurice Broaddus, the African American fantasy novelist who consulted on Watch Dogs 2.
Ubisoft’s open world title takes chances and skates into some dangerous territory with race, but it handles it marvellously. Marcus and Wrench, the white guy with the emoji mask, build quite the relationship throughout the game’s campaign, so much so that they even jest about one another’s skin color. Their tit-for-tat exchanges are very much on point, never going too far to be offensive and crystallize just how comfortable they are with one another. Watch Dogs 2 does, however, drop the ball with Horatio’s death. Set aside it being a tonal pothole on the game’s playful stride, killing off Horatio felt like Ubisoft ran out of ideas on how to further the relationship between him and Marcus at the same level they had been all along. And even if his death was necessary, how the game follows this event is the only time I’d argue the game really falls victim to ludonarrative dissonance, where the events that took place in and around his death are long forgotten.
But when the only major complaint about your game is wishing that its narrative did more of what it already did well, you know that you’ve accomplished something. Let me be clear, how Mafia III and Watch Dogs 2 have represented the black perspective in two big budget open world games is no less than a landmark achievement in modern day AAA game development. It signifies the maturation that the teams at Ubisoft and Hangar 13 went through in the last few years, and sets an example for future AAA developers.
In an interview with Vice Talks Film, Barry Jenkins, who directed Moonlight – a movie that explores homosexuality within the black community – was asked if he felt that the film industry was in a special period where movies are putting forth messaging that are unique to the black community. He responds, “I think the fact that we’re seeing this work right now means that we were in that moment a few years ago. It’s great to have this spotlight on diversity in film [today], but that actual work was done before anybody was talking about these things.” To add to that, art is a reflection if its creators reflecting on the lens they see the world through. And the way in which the world has changed recently, especially in 2016, I look forward to seeing new and authentic stories about race in the future from developers that are hard at work today.