When the developers of the latest version of the “Mafia” franchise revealed their protagonist last summer, they surprised a lot of people with a very risky decision.
Not only was Hangar 13, the new studio at mega-publisher 2K Games, going to change the franchise by making a “Mafia” game that was not centered around Italian Americans — it decided to make the game's protagonist a half-black man living in the American South in the 1960s. With a setting like that, there was no way to avoid confronting the character's race or the broader hot-button topic of racism.
The risk paid off: 2K Games’ parent company, Take Two Interactive, reports earnings Wednesday, confirmed that “Mafia III” is now the fastest-selling title in 2K Games's history — overtaking other franchise juggernauts such as “NBA 2K,” “Borderlands” and “BioShock.” The game sold and shipped more than 4.5 million copies digitally and to retailers in its first week, the company said.
In an industry often criticized for endorsing the idea that the “default” person is a white male, the protagonist of “Mafia III,” Lincoln Clay, stands out. There have been other biracial characters and protagonists in video games before. But Hangar 13 put Lincoln — out for revenge against the Italian American mob that killed his own crime family — at the front of a major franchise and in such a way that his race was an essential part of his character.
The designers did not want to make a character whose race could be generically swapped in and out with no story effect. “Lincoln's racial identity came from a desire to have the game tell its own story, and to look at who would be the most interesting from that time period,” said studio head Haden Blackman, who said in an interview this week that he had been very nervous about how the game's risks would be received.
There were some early discussions about whether this choice would narrow the game's audience, said Strauss Zelnick, chief executive at Take-Two Interactive. But that quickly turned into a discussion of how to authentically depict the time period without being exploitative or preachy, he said.
“It’s tough to take on a subject material like this and treat it realistically and sensitively,” Zelnick said. “We have to be sure not to put our words in the character's mouths, but to make sure the words belong in the mouths of the characters.”
For research, Hangar 13 developers read through hundreds of firsthand accounts from African Americans in the 1960s South and watched documentaries in search of the right stories and voices to lend the game authenticity.
Not all of their choices have been universally well-received. “Mafia III,” for example, generated some controversy for making the “n-word” a recurring part of its dialogue. Blackman said he understands the debate but underscored that the decision to use the slur was carefully considered and balanced. And they modified the game in response to the criticism.
“There were moments in development where that word, specifically, was used with a frequency where it became comical or it became background noise,” he said. “Based on feedback we got from others as they played the game, we dialed it back.”
Throughout development, Hangar 13 relied on feedback from many places to build in such checks. One of the writers was African American, said Blackman, who is not black. Hangar 13 also worked very closely with its voice actors for the game, sometimes asking them to ad-lib or revise, based on what sounded natural. The studio also took pains to include characters of differing backgrounds within the black and white communities.
“We were making sure there was no one single black experience or white experience in the game,” Blackman said. Even the decision to make Lincoln biracial, rather than fully black, was a thoughtful decision — partly to leave the possibility open that the protagonist could be half-Sicilian himself but also to show that in that era, looking black at all earned you bad treatment.
Of course, Hangar 13 set out to make a mob video game, not to change the world. Even a good video game may not be the best vehicle for sophisticated social commentary. And at the end of the day, Lincoln is still a gangster, and “Mafia III” has its share of over-the-top violence. Blackman said that they wanted to be sure the game was fun and fit its genre and also that Lincoln had his share of flaws.
“The worst crime would have been to make him perfect in some way that doesn't feel true,” Blackman said.
He takes criticism that the game went too far in its social message — or that it did not go far enough — with good humor.
“The reaction from most critics and players has given me the validation that we walked that tightrope pretty well," Blackman said. “We received a lot of feedback from African American players who appreciate a character that represents diversity and that we weren't shying away from what that means.”
Video game protagonists on the whole are becoming a more diverse group. “Watch Dogs 2,” due out later this month, also stars a black protagonist, a hacker named Marcus Holloway. That decision also sparked some controversy, as Fusion reported, including at least one complaint that it's unrealistic to have a black hacker because “black people don’t know how to use technology.”
If the sales of “Mafia III” are any indication, the inclusion of a diverse protagonist certainly has not hurt the game's bottom line. “I do think consumers are searching for a representation of our exceedingly diverse world in our entertainment and art,” Zelnick said.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story failed to specify that the 4.5 million copies of "Mafia III" sold in its first week were sold and shipped digitally and to retailers. The story has been updated.