There is a moment early on in Hangar 13’s Mafia III that sets the tone for the rest of the game. A moment that establishes the utterly believable humanity, not just of protagonist Lincoln Clay, but of the world he inhabits as well. It was the moment I realized that this was a game that was actually seeking to build a world rather than simply craft a playground. It was the moment Lincoln Clay went to bed.
Clay has recently returned from a tour in Vietnam as a special forces soldier. He is welcomed enthusiastically by his employer and mentor Sammy, a mousey middle-management type and more or less impressive-sized fish in the tiny pond that is the Delray Hollow organized crime syndicate. But despite the fact that the game opens with a heist—Clay and his associate-turned-obvious-soon-to-be-bad-guy Giorgi robbing the Federal Reserve—the game’s early expository setup is all about letting us get to know Lincoln, not as a protagonist or a moving gun for the player to control, but as a character in his own right. When Lincoln returns home from the war, he is given a hero’s welcome by his de facto family. A night of drinking and merriment ensues. And afterward, Lincoln, properly feted out and drunk, is given one single mission objective: Go to bed.
Lincoln Clay orchestrates heists and robs banks and even commits murder, sure, but he also loves his family and enjoys spending an evening drinking and celebrating. He loves his community and spends his time serving food to the underprivileged at a soup kitchen. He loves his country, at least as much as any U.S. Army serviceman, but it’s an unrequited love that weighs heavily on him (that lopsided relationship between Lincoln and the U.S. is, arguably, what the game is actually about).
We know all of these things not because we are told, through cutscenes, stilted dialogue, or, worse, through on-screen text prompts or shudder-worthy “dossier” files; we know all of these things because we are allowed to experience them both with Lincoln and through him.
Admittedly, the game is heavy on cinematics and cutscenes, especially during its early moments. Some sections can feel almost Kojimian to play through, but there’s a method to the madness. By making us privy to the conversations Lincoln has with his family and friends, as well as enabling us to experience his day-to-day moments as players controlling the action, we get to see something rare in games: We get to see how the protagonist lives, not just how he kills.
The standard videogame interactive monotony—run, shoot, drive—strips any life out of characters and turns them into robots only capable of killing. This is fine in Call of Duty or Gears of War—games casting players as soldiers operating under specific contexts with concrete goals. But in Mafia III, or, more egregiously, in Grand Theft Auto, the Don of the open-world crime thriller game, it feels false. If a game that boasts an entire living world up to and including the daily routines of individual citizens can’t inject life and relatability into its protagonist, that game has failed.
Contrast Lincoln Clay with Niko Bellic, the hardened protagonist of Grand Theft Auto IV. Both are violent men who turn to crime as a way to make up for perceived social deficiencies: Family, friends, a support network, and of course, a legitimate form of employment. As new arrivals to their respective cities (Grand Theft Auto IV begins with Niko illegally immigrating to Liberty City from an unnamed Eastern European country, while Mafia III features Lincoln returning to his home after years away in Vietnam), they must build their own lives up even as they tear down the lives of others—the rich elite and the criminal monarchies of their hometowns. Narratively speaking, you couldn’t ask for a better setup. A true tabula rasa with an entire world in service of fleshing out New Bordeaux’s own Macbeth or Richard III.
While Mafia III pulls this off well, GTAIV fails. Despite hand-wringing dialogue and a progressively bleak narrative that raises the stakes incrementally seemingly as a dare, Niko remains little more than a videogame protagonist, going where we move him and speaking to whom we choose to have him speak because the markers on the screen tell us to.
Even the ostensibly social aspects of Grand Theft Auto, the relationships, the outings, the fucking bowling, come across soulless and mechanical (Roman’s Friendship Meter is down again, time to go to a bowling alley or a bar with a dartboard.). Because the game shies away from simple mundanity, these attempts come off as what they are: awkward and stilted, with little or no actual bearing on the characters they are meant to personify. It’s the reason why the game’s impossibly nihilistic ending fell flat for me. I couldn’t connect the tragedy on the screen with the character I’d been inhabiting for the past dozen hours. There were two different Nikos: the one I was watching, and the one I was playing, and there was a very firm divide between the two of them.
In contrast, Lincoln Clay is a videogame protagonist in all the usual ways, yes, but he is not just that. This victory is subtle, but it comes down to natural and unremarkable moments. Some of the things that made me feel the most for Lincoln were seemingly throwaway lines.
Like the moment Lincoln returns triumphant from his Federal Reserve heist and meets up with his associates and his adoptive brother Ellis. As the scene closes, indeed, almost as the screen is fading to black, Lincoln, euphoric and on top of the world turns almost imperceptibly to his brother Ellis: “What’s up man,” he asks, tapping him on the shoulder as they continue to walk toward Sammy’s bar. Or when Ellis meets Lincoln after the latter returns from the war and offers him a beer. After drinking it, Lincoln playfully throws the bottle by the neck before climbing into his car.
There are many such moments, and they achieve an incredible narrative economy. With so little in the way of scripted dialogue or extraneous animations, so much can be achieved in terms of establishing a Character and not just a Protagonist. Lincoln Clay is, hands down, a Character. He is, as the old saying goes, only human. He’s heroic and likable, sure, but he’s also crude, and cold, and honestly kind of an asshole. But these negative qualities don’t detract from his value as the game’s leading man. On the contrary, they signal that this game isn’t a power fantasy. This man is to be understood, but not admired. Empathy and sympathy are two very different things, after all.
And it works. When you spend time with such a well-developed character, it seeps into your own way of thinking. I have an unspoken personal rule forbidding me from killing enemies in games if it can be helped. And indeed, Mafia III allows players to set these boundaries for themselves, as players can toggle “lethal” or “non-lethal” takedowns in the game’s menus. But the more time I spent with Lincoln, the more I saw firsthand not just what his world subjected him to, but, because I actually know who he is, the toll that takes on him. And the more I saw that, the harder it was for me to enforce that rule on myself. I transitioned from meticulously sneaking around enemy-infested areas and luring opposing mafiosi away one by one to be choked out, to viciously slashing throats, stabbing necks, gunning down entire rooms with a submachine gun. It felt good. More than that, it felt right.
Mafia III evolves as you play it. Yes, the game map opens up and new “optional objectives” become available, but Lincoln himself evolves, and that is the game’s major triumph. It is more than just a two-bit revenge yarn playing off of common tropes that saturate our pop culture. It is the story of a country in turmoil, of a world at war with itself. It speaks of change, for both the better and the worse, and Lincoln Clay is both the harbinger of this change and the one who bears the brunt of its onslaught. And it’s only because we know who he truly is—where he came from—that we can truly appreciate where he ends up.
Patrick Lindsey is a Boston-based game critic who likes to focus on narrative and thematic design. In addition to cohosting the Bullet Points podcast, he also co-edited SHOOTER, an ebook anthology of critical essays on shooting games. Follow him on Twitter @HanFreakinSolo.