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Writing Mafia 3: 'We had a lot of very uncomfortable conversations'

Today at GDC, Hangar 13 narrative director William Harms took the stage to break down how the studio wrote a racially-charged game set in the American South in 1968 without totally blowing it.

Alex Wawro, Contributor

February 28, 2017

8 Min Read

Hangar 13’s Mafia 3 caught a good bit of positive acclaim last year for the narratives and characters that weaved through the fictional town of New Bordeaux, an analog of New Orleans in 1968.

Today at GDC, Hangar 13 narrative director William Harms took the stage to break down how the studio pulled it off. Most notably, in the face of some praise for how Mafia 3’s pulpy revenge story effectively treats with themes of racism and discrimination, Harms pushed back against the notion that tackling racism was a core goal of the game’s narrative design.

“The game’s story is not about racism,” said Harms. “But since racism permeates so much of who Lincoln Clay is since he’s an African-American man living in the South in the ‘60s, we felt we had to include it in some way, and address it as part of Lincoln’s world.”

Mafia 3 was meant to be a revenge story, something well in line with the two previous Mafia games (which were not developed by Hangar 13) but set in the '60s and with a more personal twist: retribution for the player's adopted family.

Making a revenge story meaningful

“At its core, Mafia 3 is a revenge story, so in order for that revenge to mean anything, we have to feel the same loss that Lincoln felt," said Harms. “You can’t make the player hate someone, but maybe you can make the player love someone. And if you take the people that they love out, maybe they feel that same sense of loss.”

Hangar 13 redid the opening act of the game "at least five or six times", according to Harms, in an effort to ensure the player would have the appropriate emotional reaction to Clay's loss and his ostracization in '60s-era Louisiana. 

“Because he’s an African-American he has a very specific way of viewing the world, and more importantly, the world has a very specific way of viewing him,” said Harms. He went on to note the studio ultimately set the game in ‘68 because of how many notable things happened that year: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the Tet Offensive, and the ongoing turmoil around the Vietnam war.

“New Orleans is a very aspirational city. It’s also very iconic,” said Harms. “If you see an image of it, pretty much anyone can identify it as New Orleans, regardless of where they come from.”

Many players responded well the Hangar 13's decision to couch Mafia 3's narrative in the visual language of documentary films, and Harms suggests it to other game makers as a useful way to "ground" your work in a specific time and place.

“We decided to frame the whole game as a documentary,” Harms said. “The reason we did this is it’s part of the franchise -- the previous Mafia games had these. It also grounds the story in what we think is a pretty realistic way.”

The studio licensed real-world images and video footage to splice together with cinematics featuring characters from the game, giving Hangar 13's writers room to have their creations talk directly about events in the game without it feeling obtuse.

“For the writers, it’s a great way to deliver exposition,” said Harms. “It’s a great way to move your story along without it feeling ham-fisted.”

He acknowledged the risk Hangar 13 took in trying to write a pulpy revenge game that unfolds in a reflection of a very real place and time, and said the team took the responsibility of accurately representing '60s-era New Orleans very seriously. 

“The team understood that what we were doing was very risky, because if we didn’t get it right we’d be doing a disservice not just to everyone who worked on the game, but to everyone who lived through this time in American history," said Harms.

So the studio went hard on research, watching documentaries (as well as movies like American Gangster and Platoon), reading books (like Matterhorn and American Desperado) and studying first-hand accounts from those who lived through the era.

Devs familiar with the time period may appreciate that in walking through this process, Harms called out the documentaries Take This Hammer, Spies of Mississippi, Cocaine Cowboys and Mr. Untouchable. He also called out the firsthand account of onetime Cleveland Browns player Jim Brown, who spoke about what it was like to be an African-American moving through the South in a 1968 Playboy interview.

Harms says this didn't take place during any specific research phase: it went on constantly all through development, encompassing everything from regular documentary screenings at the studio to long, drawn-out discussions with writers and actors about whether characters were authentic and appropriate.

"Do not be afraid to write characters that you disagree with"

“Do not be afraid to write characters that you disagree with,” advised Harms. “There are some really reprehensible characters in this game, and they were hard to write, but we felt it was important to create them because they helped establish the game’s time and place.”

As an example of how the studio took some basic (non-reprehensible) characters and fleshed them out with period-appropriate details, he points to the “angel” and “devil” characters that are meant to sit on the metaphorical shoulders of the player: James Ballard and John Donovan. The former cautions the player to forsake revenge, while the latter encourages the player to “give in to their dark side.” With that on the table, Hangar 13 fleshed them out based on research into the time period: Ballard became Father James, a Vietnam vet turned local priest, while John Donovan became a South-hating East Coast CIA operative with a general disrespect for power.

And in the course of producing this game, Harms said he had to constantly remind himself that the protagonist of Mafia 3 is a bad person who goes through terrible things and (may) ultimately come to a bad end.

“Even though I like Lincoln Clay and I feel bad for what happened to him, he is a criminal. And all of his friends are criminals,” said Harms.

However, Harms said “We didn’t want to get up on a soapbox and preach.” Instead, the studio tried to flesh out a world that could convey period-appropriate themes and narratives by filing it with incidental details like conversations among bystanders, or radio broadcasts. At the same time, Harms said the studio took pains to dilute the “serious” conversations with lots of background chatter about Star Trek, area-specific urban legends, and the like.

He also spoke a bit about how the studio handled designing the police presence in Mafia 3, which stands apart from just about every other open-world game by including a "police attention" on-screen indicator which lets the player know when police are nearby and how hard they're looking at him. 

“Police in open-world games usually act as a guard rail for the player’s actions,” said Harms. “We wanted to keep that, but one of the things that kept coming up was how we could essentially allow the game’s systems to express what it would be like to be Lincoln Clay in a southern city in 1968.”

“The police in our game are always watching you,” said Harms. “We decided to populate the world with persistent police, both on foot and in cars. And unlike in other open-world games, when the police in our world see the player, they become suspicious.”

Harms says Hangar 13 built this system so that if police officers were on foot they would warn you, or they would tell the player to get out of the area. They will also become immediately hostile if a player commits a crime, and the police presence increases or decreases based on which neighborhoods the player moves through.

“We also have systemic lines from the pedestrians that are directed at the player as they move through the game world,” said Harms. “Part of that is racist language, unfortunately.”

In terms of game design, Harms said the likelihood of players hearing those lines would go up or down depending on where they were. So for example, in the area where Lincoln starts, Delray Hollow, there’s a zero percent chance of hearing those racist lines; by the time the player gets to the Frisco Fields area, Harms said that percentage rose to 70 percent.

Moreover, he claimed that all dialogue lines tagged as racist were on a timer so that the game wouldn't throw too many at players.

“All racist lines are on a timer,” said Harms. “If an enemy says something, it’s then ten minutes until another enemy, pedestrian, or police person says something that’s racially insensitive to the player.”

He added that these lines were initially more common and more egregious, before focus testing convinced the team to take it down a notch.

“Initially we pushed that as far as we could, thinking it would make for a more authentic experience, “said Harms. That means basically, “the most racist language you could imagine.”

But in focus testing Harms says the game’s enemies came off as aggressive and hateful, so much so that players were actively turned off. So the team dialed back a bit, limiting the racist lines to specific enemy types and adding in enemy conversations that provided the player context on who these people were (bad people) and where they were coming from.

Still, in the end Harms acknowledged that there’s a crop of vile characters in Mafia 3. The studio agonized over how to portray them as terrible people who the player would care about -- pulpy gangsters and politicians the player could take satisfaction in working with, or against.

“My primary goal with this talk is to encourage other developers and publishers to take risks, and not shy away from controversial topics,” said Harms, closing out his talk. “But I’m not going to lie to you: working on this game was hard. We had a lot of very uncomfortable conversations about race, about class, about how the world views our country’s history.”

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