With new media come creators offering new ways to experience America’s rich and sometimes brutal history. Former Wired Magazine “Angry Nerd” Chris Baker has plenty to say on the subject of how a video game narrative can help players experience a different America, evidenced by this video he recently created for COG’s game and literature review series.
As Chris points out, the ability to put an audience member in the shoes of someone else, from another time and place, has taken a quantum leap forward with the continued rise of video games. The 2016 console title Mafia III from 2K Games is a prime example of what a video game can accomplish in this area.
Recently, at the 2017 Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, Lead Writer William Harms presented a talk entitled “The Most Turbulent of Years: Creating the Characters and World of Mafia III”. In it, Harms revealed a number of behind-the-scenes aspects of the video game’s narrative development, as the team strove to put the player in the shoes of a black Vietnam veteran in the Deep South of 1968.
Doing the Research Before Developing the Video Game Narrative
I was fortunate enough to be briefly involved in the narrative effort on Mafia III, and I can attest that the core writing team fully immersed themselves in the time period. They viewed documentaries, read books, and watched movies both fictional and non-fictional.
"The team understood that what we were doing was very risky"
Before developing the game narrative, they compiled a huge amount of historical information, with a specific focus on racism and what it might have felt to be a black man in that turbulent time and place. It was all organized into a substantial spreadsheet, which we regularly referenced as we wrote scenes and open-world dialogue lines.
Taking Risks in the Game Writing Process
“The team understood that what we were doing was very risky,” Harms admitted at GDC. “If we didn’t get it right, we’d not only do a disservice to everyone who worked on the game, but also to the people who lived through this particular time and place in American history.”
But in order to tell this story, it meant writing some very negative material.
“There are some pretty reprehensible characters in this game, and they were hard to write,” Harms said. “But we felt they were very important to include as part of the game story because they helped establish a very specific time and place.”
However, the video game narrative was not intended to be about racism; like Mafia I and II, the game was always designed to present a story about organized crime.
“We didn’t want to climb up on a soapbox and preach,” Harms said. “Instead, we decided it’s much more powerful if we made the elements of 1968 as part of the world, and expose those to the characters, and then let the characters essentially interact with that world and see what happens.”
Building the World for the Video Game Narrative
In order to bring to life the world of 1968 New Orleans (called New Bordeaux in the game), the team used a number of narrative systems already common to other games of this genre.
“Since Mafia III is an open-world game, we decided to use that to our advantage and create a city that could only exist in 1968,” Harms said. “So pedestrians, the police, enemies and the radio were all powerful tools that we tried to use for maximum effect.”
For example, racist language is sometimes directed at the player character, Lincoln Clay, as he moves through the game world. The kind of language and likelihood of hearing racist language from pedestrians is based on what section of the city the player is in at any given time.
“So for example in Frisco Fields, which is a rich, white enclave in the city, there’s a 70 percent chance that racist characters would spawn,” Harms revealed. “But in Delray Hollow, which is where Lincoln is from, there’s a zero percent chance.”
Similarly, because of the time period, the location and the player character’s race, the police in Mafia III behave differently than in other open-world games. Police in this game are automatically suspicious as soon as they see you -- even if you’re committing no crime. They are quick to warn you to move along, and they will come running if you enter a “whites only” establishment.
White, rich sections of the city have the most police presence, while poor, mostly black neighborhoods have little or even none. This allows players to directly experience the sad truth that in New Bordeaux just as in the real world, police often prioritize white neighborhoods over ethnic ones.
As Chris Baker noted, the potential for a video game narrative to allow us to experience – firsthand – the America of another era, warts and all, is powerful. As video game narrative developers, we have an incredible opportunity to directly expose our players to other times and perspectives. With it, however, comes the responsibility to do so in a way that is as authentic and meaningful as possible.