Mafia 3 opens with a documentary-style montage and potted history of the game's main character, Lincoln Clay, whose body and life you jump into shortly after he returns from the war in Vietnam. But the game didn't always open this way.
Once upon a time Mafia 3 had a far more explosive start, a 'cold open' sequence to play out before the opening montage. It was controversial stuff - so sensitive, in fact, developer Hangar 13 scrubbed it from existence lest footage ever get out.
"That whole cold-open has been burned from our servers," said Andrew Wilson, executive producer, speaking at Brighton's Develop Conference yesterday in a session hosted by GamesIndustry.biz. "It literally does not exist. Because if ever that had come out without any context in any form it would have looked terrible, because disconnected from the game it's obviously even more shocking."
Game director Haden Blackman went on to talk about what the cold opening was.
"I ended up directing that day's mocap shoot because it was such sensitive subject matter..." -Haden Blackman
"We've never really talked about this anywhere," he said. "We went back at the eleventh hour and added a cold-open to the game that was a really violent prologue which basically shows Lincoln and a couple of his friends getting ambushed by the mob. It's super-violent and Lincoln has to resort to violence to escape.
"This cold-open was going to explain why he left for Vietnam," he said. "He ends up killing a cop and has to flee to Vietnam."
The problem, Blackman said, was the prologue was both powerful and polarising, and because it was added so late in the game felt tacked on. "Lincoln never really talks about it," he said. "I think we added one scene where he has a conversation with this Priest, Father James, and they talk about it a little bit, but we never really paid off on it. There were characters involved in it who he encounters later but doesn't really acknowledge.
"It felt exploitative instead of something that really grabbed you and put you in Lincoln's shoes and made you afraid for him and want to help him, so we ended up cutting it because of the feedback, which was super-painful for me personally because it was something I'd pushed forward and championed, and I ended up directing that day's mocap shoot because it was such sensitive subject matter, and we worked on it for a couple of months. But it was absolutely the right thing to do in hindsight."
Mafia 3 most notably dived into the hotbed of racism in southern America in 1968, as witnessed by Clay, an African American lead. It was an inescapably political set-up Hangar 13 tackled head on.
"We find the racist beliefs, language, and behaviours of some characters in the game abhorrent but believe it is a vital to include these depictions in order to tell Lincoln Clay's story," reads a statement in the game which appears on the screen before the opening montage.
"Most importantly, we felt that to not include this very real and shameful part of our past would have been offensive to the millions who faced - and still face - bigotry, discrimination, prejudice, and racism in all its forms."
It is commendable work Hangar 13 is rightfully proud of, and this kind of strong narrative is a feature Hangar 13 feels defined by and will continue to pursue in the new game it's working on - a new IP (not Mafia 4 I'm afraid). But there's a suggestion this time the tone may also be lighter.
"I am incredibly proud of Mafia 3 on every level," said Blackman. "The fact we tackled this really tough subject matter was fantastic. But at the end of the day it's a dark game - it's a violent exploration of damaged people. We want to continue to be able to do character studies and dive into what makes people tick, and universal human truths, but a lot of us on the team also want to do something a little more inspirational and more uplifting, so the tone of this new thing we're working on is a little bit different than Mafia 3, but it has a lot of the same underpinnings in terms of strong characters. It's got weight and heft. And it's mature - not necessarily the rating but the subject matter."
I was concerned about the "uplifting" remark so during the audience Q&A I asked about it, and whether Hangar 13 felt a sense of responsibility to create politically-charged stories following the work done on Mafia 3.
"I feel a responsibility, yes," answered Blackman, "in the sense we have the capability to tell meaningful stories so we should tell meaningful stories with meaningful characters - and characters who you would not usually encounter any other way. It's important to me we have a diverse cast. I might say the tone is a little more uplifting [but] we're still dealing with really weighty subject matter and themes, and we're not afraid to tackle those things.
"It's really important to me we tell the truth in our games..." -Haden Blackman
"At the same time," he added, "I never want us to be a studio that gets up on a soapbox, and we were really careful about that with Mafia 3. One of the first conversations Bill [Harms - lead writer] and I had about Lincoln was, 'He can't be perfect. He has to be flawed.' We cannot put him up on a pedestal and say this is the idealised African American lead character, otherwise it won't feel true, or honest, and we wouldn't have enough to relate to with him while working on the story.
"It's really important to me we tell the truth in our games, and we try to make people think, but the moment we get up on a soapbox and start preaching we're done - everyone will see right through that."
"It's better to go completely wide at the beginning," Andrew Wilson added, "and talk about the game we want to make, and then start talking about the characters we want and how we're going to make those characters reflective, perhaps, of what's happening in the world at the moment. There will probably be some of that but it's too small a box to have at the beginning."
"We follow the same patterns," Blackman went on. "We know the setting, we know roughly the type of story we want to tell, we know the high-level details of the game. Who is the most interesting character or set of characters to be in that story? That's where we start. I feel like we have a pretty diverse cast right now but it came out of that - 'What is the setting and how do we make this the most interesting story possible?'"
Hangar 13 is now a four-location operation, having recently opened a Brighton office in addition to the two offices in the Czech Republic - Brno and Prague - and the original Californian office in Novato. The message Wilson and Blackman were giving was Mafia 3 represented Hangar 13 getting off the ground, but now the studio was in phase two - up and running, structured, and tooled up.
Don't forget Mafia 3 was a bit of a rescue operation, too. The Mafia 3 originally in development at 2K Czech (and the two studios now a part of Hangar 13) had to be rebooted and the studios restructured (Kotaku's Jason Schreier told the story well earlier this year). Even the Mafia 3 which eventually came out wasn't flawless - not by a long shot. "We did a ton of soul-searching after the game," said Blackman.
My point is Hangar 13 is now in a much better position to plan and build a new game, which ought to mean higher quality across the board - something Mafia 3 lacked. And that's an exciting prospect for the future.
But this big new IP isn't the only thing Hangar 13 is working on. "We've got a couple of other side things percolating in the background in order to keep people fresh and help us cultivate talent and have other ideas pop up," said Blackman. What those things are, however, and whether they'll ever see the light of day, I don't know.
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