After a deep playthrough, I’ve become very interested in the narrative story of the Mafia III video game coming from publisher 2K Games (a Take-Two Interactive division) on October 7.

It’s a simple mob revenge plot on one level, but the writers and designers from Hangar 13 have figured out how to build an immersive world around it, set in the turmoil of a fictional New Orleans in 1968, during the height of the Vietnam War. In that story, Vietnam veteran Lincoln Clay returns to find that his friends in the black mob who raised him are in trouble. He falls in with them and disaster occurs.

The whole game is about how this “gifted anti-hero” seeks to exact revenge against crime boss Sal Marcano by going after Marcano’s criminal organization, piece by piece, district by district, and replacing it with his own (sometimes disloyal) lieutenants. The game begins with a heist and then it moves forward and backward in a series of flashbacks and flash forwards. The game’s cinematic moments have the added perspective and foreshadowing of a faux documentary, which looks back in time about how Lincoln Clay took on the Italian mob.

I played the first act of the game and then interview Bill Harms, lead writer for Mafia III at 2K Games’ Hangar 13 development studio in Novato, Calif.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Bill Harms, lead writer on Mafia III

Above: Bill Harms, lead writer on Mafia III

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: Can you tell me about your approach to this project, how you got started? Did you work on the earlier games in the series?

Bill Harms: No, I didn’t. Hangar 13 was founded specifically to develop Mafia III. I started here as a part of that. I’ve been in the industry about 12 years.

One of the first things we did was look at the first two games and identify what we call pillars, the things that were important about them. One of the important ones we settled on was this notion that we take a gifted anti-hero and put them in a specific time and place in American history. The first game was set in the ‘30s. The second game is post-war America, Vito returning from the war. That helps inform who the characters are.

We knew we wanted to move the series forward in time. We also knew we probably wanted to set it in the ‘60s, because I think Mafia II ends around 1952. Looking at the ‘60s, we quickly gravitated toward 1968 specifically, because it was a very tumultuous year in history. You have the assassination of Dr. King, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy after the California primary, when he probably would have won the nomination. You have parts of the Civil Rights Act still being passed. You have the Vietnam War. You have the black power salute at the Olympics in Mexico City. It’s a very dramatic year, in a good sense.

While we were doing that, we started thinking about our gifted anti-hero and where to set the game. We gravitated toward New Orleans, or our version of New Orleans, because it has a very long history of Italian organized crime. It was one of the first cities in America to have a Mafia organization, pretty much right after the Civil War.

GamesBeat: I was going to ask about that. How much of that mob history is drawn from life?

Harms: We look to that stuff for inspiration. Like I say, the Union army — I can’t remember if it was just prior to Reconstruction or during Reconstruction, but the Union army couldn’t control the docks. Nobody would work for them. So they tapped this Sicilian criminal element to run the docks for them, and that became the mob. That carried all the way through. In the 20th century the city was run by Carlos Marcello, this very larger-than-life mob figure. You can see him on YouTube testifying before Congress, pleading the fifth on everything. They ask him how old he is and he pleads the fifth. So there’s a lot to draw from there.

With the character, Lincoln, even though he’s of mixed race, he appears black, and so that’s how the world treats him. Having a character who’s African-American provides a very specific lens, not only in terms of how he views the world, but also how the world views him. That’s a very different story than Vito’s. The world treats them differently. It’s interesting in a good way, because it helps encapsulate and reinforce the time and place of the game. It’s 1968 in a major city in the American South. Those three things were the starting point for developing the game.

Mafia III

Above: Mafia III

Image Credit: 2K Games

GamesBeat: When you ground it very closely in this piece of American history, are you pulling in parts of real history to make a particular point?

Harms: I wouldn’t say we’re trying to achieve a specific point. We did everything we could, really, to not climb up on a soapbox and preach. Obviously race and racism is an important part of the game, but the game isn’t about racism. It’s about a man named Lincoln Clay who destroys the Italian mob in our version of New Orleans.

But in a lot of ways we bring those things in. As you drive around in the car, we have radio stations. We wrote a lot of news stories reflecting real-world events. Character in the game comment on real-world events. Three women have a conversation about James Earl Ray, who assassinated Dr. King. We use those things to ground the game and give it the feel of a specific time and place. We weave those things into the narrative to help support that, just reinforce where the game is set and who the characters are.

GamesBeat: I noticed there’s a disclaimer at the beginning. People can look at snippets of the game and interpret those how they want to — that the game is racist, that the game is anti-Haitian, things like that. Have you tried to construct this in a way so that people don’t highlight that kind of content so easily?

Harms: Our approach — we have a term for it. We call it “cinematic realism.” As I say, it’s not about those things, but those things are part of the game. We felt that if we didn’t at least include issues of race and racist language, we’d do a disservice to the people who’ve experienced that.

GamesBeat: It’s a way of immersing the player in this world.

Harms: One of the things we strove for across the game is authenticity. We did a lot of research about African-American experiences in the ‘70s. There are documentaries like Spies in Mississippi, about state governments trying to infiltrate the civil rights movement. An activist named James Baldwin made a couple of documentaries, one of them called Take This Hammer, which was actually filmed in San Francisco. He walks around San Francisco and just talks to African-Americans about their daily lives. Whenever possible we strove to capture that authenticity, but not be sensationalist, if that makes sense.

Mafia III

Above: Mafia III

Image Credit: 2K Games

GamesBeat: The acting is very good. Father James almost seems to be a moral counterbalance in the story, like he’s perched on your shoulder. “You have a choice here.”

Harms: Like I said, it’s about not just having things in there to be sensational. Even the African-American characters in the game, they express different views. Lincoln and Cassandra have conversations about it. In a lot of ways they disagree. He also has conversations with Father James where they discuss, essentially, what it’s like to be African-American men in 1968 America. They have different viewpoints.

That’s where we leaned on our research a bit to inspire us. It’s not as if anybody’s a direct analog to James Baldwin or Malcolm X or anyone like that, but those viewpoints—even within the civil rights movement, you have leaders with very different viewpoints. It’s about exploring that and allowing the characters to have different opinions on things and fill in those aspects of the game.

GamesBeat: You have a very compelling narrative, you have a very open world in the style of Grand Theft Auto, which brings up the obvious comparison. The last GTA — if you chose to follow the most anti-heroic character in that game, your choices were mostly about how bad you could be. Is that kind of anti-hero what you’re presenting here? Are your choices just about taking the higher or lower road to being a bad guy?

Harms: Like I say, the gifted anti-hero was one of the early pillars we identified for the franchise. There’s definitely a layer of player agency in how you shape who Lincoln is. That manifests itself even in the moment to moment gameplay. We have both lethal and non-lethal takedowns, if you noticed. You can go up to a guy and stab him, or you can just choke him out. That’s one way of giving the player agency, helping them determine — within the context of their play — who Lincoln is.

Another aspect of that is the sitdowns. I don’t know if you got to those yet. There are 10 districts in the game, including the bayou. The nine city districts each have two rackets you have to essentially conquer. As you take those down, you assign each racket to one of your three underbosses. In the case of downtown, you can assign one racket to Cassandra and one racket to Vito, and then give the district to Burke. When you give the district to Burke you take those rackets away from Vito and Cassandra, which angers them.

Again, that’s player agency as far as, within that context, who is my Lincoln? Is he the guy who tries to balance all three? There are aspects of player choice in there, especially the sitdowns. Those are a pretty significant part of the game in terms of choice and how things unfold.

Lincoln Clay is the "gifted anti-hero" of Mafia III

Above: Lincoln Clay is the “gifted anti-hero” of Mafia III

Image Credit: 2K Games

GamesBeat: But this isn’t necessarily a morality tale where you decide to be good or bad. You’re kind of stuck in this world, with a limited range of choices.

Harms: We made a conscious decision, in a lot of ways, to have fewer, more significant choices. We had a press event in New Orleans last week, and it was interesting to watch people agonize over that decision and move between the characters to strike a balance. Hey, I played Mafia II, I really liked Vito, I want to keep Vito happy. But Burke offers me bulletproof tires and this cool gun. What do I do? It’s a balancing act. I like these characters because of who they are as characters, but there are also gameplay ramifications based on your choices as far as things you can unlock and upgrade.

GamesBeat: How did Lincoln come together as a character?

Harms: It was a few things. Like I said, we had the year, the city, and him — all those three elements were raised together. But when we dug into Lincoln, thinking of who he is as a character, he’s an orphan. He lived in the orphanage run by Father James. The city shuts down the orphanage and he falls in with Sammy Robinson, who runs the black mob. He’s never really had a family or a place he feels he belongs.

And then he joins the army — he’s not drafted, he volunteers — and goes to war. He has a hole inside of him that he’s trying to fill. He thinks the army might do that. If you look at it strictly as a character in a game, the Vietnam experience informs him both in terms of the narrative and in terms of gameplay. He’s very proficient with weapons. He’s very good at moving through combat spaces. I don’t know if you saw the intel view?

GamesBeat: Yeah, I did.

Harms: That’s part of it. He sees someplace and he creates this memory map of what’s happening. So it was leaning on the specific era and incorporating elements of that into the character.

Mafia III sit-down meeting. Lincoln has to choose who gets promoted.

Above: Mafia III sit-down meeting. Lincoln has to choose who gets promoted.

Image Credit: 2K Games

GamesBeat: You have flashbacks at different points in the story. Is there something those are building toward?

Harms: The overall narrative framework of the game is that it’s a documentary made in the present day. Father James appears in the context of 1968, but then you also see the elderly Father James in the present day, reflecting back on these events. Then we have an FBI agent, who spent his career trying to bring Lincoln to justice.

The cool thing about that is it allows us to deliver a few different things you can’t normally do in games. We can deliver exposition in a very natural way. People understand the format of a documentary as question-answer-question-answer. It allows characters, especially Father James, to reflect back and comment. “What was my part in what happened?”

GamesBeat: Did you have any temptation to go back to Vietnam at all?

Harms: During development you think about a lot of things like that. You always have a lot of ideas coming and going. But we wanted to focus the game on this specific — the game is basically the middle of February, 1968 to the end of that summer and beginning of fall. We wanted to focus on that specific time and place.

GamesBeat: So you flash forward and flash back to seminal moments, significant moments they reflect back on, like this bank robbery.

Harms: Right.

Lincoln Clay in stealth mode in Mafia III

Above: Lincoln Clay in stealth mode in Mafia III

Image Credit: 2K Games

GamesBeat: That makes the open world very different. You deliberately move from place to place and event to event that’s important.

Harms: It was important to us to have a true open world. It’s a first for the franchise. But we also wanted to narratively contextualize that open world within Lincoln’s missions. As you go around, you might run across a pimp in the street and take him down. But within the mob hierarchy, he’s not just a pimp. Everything feeds up the chain. It’s all about contextualizing that. You’re hitting every rung of the ladder until Sal Marcano is isolated. The game goes wide, into the open world, and then we focus you back in on specific narrative moments, like when you’re going after a lieutenant who controls a district.

The other thing we do with the documentary framing, once you take over a racket, we cut away to documentary segments. Once you assign the racket, you’ll see a documentary snip. It could be Father James reflecting on what you’re doing, or providing biographical information. Even though we have that open world, we put a lot of work into having narrative hooks every step along the way.

GamesBeat: To what degree does it turn into a sort of racket economy simulation?

Harms: It’s all based around money. The mob has a very specific hierarchy, and it’s all about money flowing up. It naturally fit with our game that you lean on that hierarchical structure. You take guys out and work your way up.

The other aspect, though, is there’s a lot of player choice in there. Say you have to do $50,000 worth of damage to a racket to bring down the boss and take over. You may choose to do things in the process of accomplishing that goal that I didn’t do. You don’t always have to do everything. It’s just about doing enough damage to the racket to get the attention of the guy running it, and then you can take him out and progress that way.

GamesBeat: I guess I can’t go straight at Marcano, then?

Harms: No. That’s actually something the characters discuss in the game a couple of times. It’s something [they] discuss, and then one of them says at one point. “Why don’t we just go in and shoot him? We’d be up there in an hour, depending on traffic.” That goes to who Lincoln is as a character. He says early on, “That’s not enough.” His goal is to systematically destroy not just Sal Marcano himself, but his life’s work, the Italian mob in New Bordeaux. They watch as he destroys it and replaces it with his own organization.

GamesBeat: Since he’s doing this so slowly and deliberately, does that bring a lot of heat down in the process, whether from Marcano or the cops or the FBI?

Harms: I don’t want to get too much into story spoilers, but I will say that Marcano isn’t just going to lay down. There are definitely moments where he reacts. We show him reacting as you progress through the game. He takes steps to try to stop Lincoln.

GamesBeat: Do you feel like you have a kind of balancing act between cinematic elements and the open world? Were there times where you felt like you were wandering too much and needed to bring a cinematic moment in?

Harms: Not really? One thing we did fairly early on is we had an off-site. We mapped the entire game on I don’t know how many whiteboards, six or seven. This is a cinematic, this is the gameplay that follows, this is the open-world gameplay. But inherent to the way the game is designed is there’s a lot of player choice. The structure is such that there are lieutenant districts that feed into capo districts. You can do the three lieutenant districts and then the three capo districts, or you can move between them. That’s up to the player. The narrative is designed to support that.

For us it was important to allow the player that freedom. But it’s also one of the reasons why the open world has that narrative context to it. If the player does that, they never forget why they’re doing it or who they’re going after. Everything they do is related to Sal Marcano in some way.

Mafia III

Above: Mafia III

Image Credit: 2K Games

GamesBeat: The direction finder in the car was very useful. In so many games, I get totally lost. I’m supposed to be going somewhere on a mission and I have no idea where to go. Street by street direction is very useful.

Harms: For us, fictionally, at least in our minds, that ties in with who Lincoln is. He has a mental map of the city. The turning directions are him projecting that to the player. It sounds a little pipe-smokey, but that was our thinking. It’s driven by who Lincoln is as a character. And you always want to provide clear signs and feedback to the player. “I’ve made a decision and I want to do this thing. How do I get there?” You need to have the signs and feedback to help them get there.

It’s also why, when you look at the map and you mouse over the icons, there’s narrative context. It’s not just some random dude you’re going after. All those characters have names, and in some cases bios or descriptions of what they’re doing. Again, that’s to help immerse the player in this specific time and place.

GamesBeat: I just finished the new Deus Ex and went back to play it a second time. There were points where I’d have maybe four missions open, and I’d always be wondering what’s the next step in this mission or that mission. Are you always focused on one mission in this game, or do you have a chance to do a lot of multi-part missions at the same time?

Harms: It depends on you, really. You could take downtown, and then [certain mission] is unlocked. But you could decide not to do that right away, and instead you go to Barclay Mills and start going after the rackets there. Or there’s another section of the city, this industrial port area, and you could go and do that. Then you could go back to the mission. If you want to have a more guided experience, you could do the regions and missions in a very defined order that you create. Or you can bounce between them. That’s totally up to you.

GamesBeat: Is there a way to easily navigate between what you’re supposed to do?

Harms: All of your objectives are in the menu. You can go through and see — let’s say there are racket activities you still need to complete. You can use the D-pad to move down and select the next one, and right away you have a waypoint that shows where to go.

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