New Bordeaux Is Almost A Place
When I landed back in Austin on Labor Day, New Orleans was still very much on my mind. It still crosses my mind today. New Orleans felt like a place of contradictions, a raucous party town at the whim of deadly hurricanes, a city full of beautiful historic, and almost un-American architecture that’s in dire need of better infrastructure just blocks from Bourbon Street. In my time there, I waited in the alcohol line at a Walmart in a black neighborhood, the store bustling with what felt like more black folks than I’ve seen in all my time in Austin. I waded through the Bourbon Street crowds beset by hollering white college football fans who flew in, like I did, to experience what New Orleans offers to the rest of the world. Joyous partying, delicious eating, all on top of some mix of underfunding and government neglect of what may be the most unique city in the country. Part of me didn’t want to leave such a unique, confounding place. So when I landed and got home I decided to boot up Mafia 3.
Mafia 3 is set in a facsimile of New Orleans dubbed New Bordeaux. The game's artistic rendering of New Orleans has been enough to keep me playing hours after the gameplay has gotten stale (I still can’t see the dang shooting reticle!). Much of the strength driving the game’s setting is thanks to its protagonist Lincoln Clay, voiced by Alex Hernandez. The game deftly places the black Lincoln in the player’s hands as he returns to his hometown from Vietnam. The game reconnects you with Lincoln’s father figure and mob boss Sammy Robinson, brother-in-all-but-blood Ellis, and a number of other well-realized characters. The game quickly takes all that family away from Lincoln with a classic mafia-movie act of betrayal, burning down Sammy’s HQ and Clay’s adopted home in a wrenching, violent sequence. When Lincoln miraculously survives and comes too, the game's revenge tale begins in earnest.
The game confronts the cost of revenge and what Clay has lost in a way that gives New Bordeaux some weight. The burned out husk of Lincoln’s family home is made into your base of operations. The first time you step foot back into the charred remains Lincoln has a PTSD-triggered hallucination. It happens once, but it expertly sets the tone. Making the decaying house the center of his revenge crusade adds so much color to Lincoln without a word of dialogue. Here is a man so consumed by a traumatic event, he isn’t just mentally reliving it. He set up shop within it.
Every time I return to the old HQ New Boardeaux begins to feel like a place. Walking through the chewed up lumber that crashed through ceilings and tore up steps is a powerful setting to remind the player what they’re fighting (murdering in cold blood) for, and how consumed Lincoln is in his quest. Other reminders are more subtle but no less impactful: being greeted with a “Hello Lincoln” on the sidewalk is an almost arresting experience. Coming from an era where similar open-world games felt more like playgrounds or toy boxes, having an NPC acknowledge the player character by name instantly re-contextualizes the player’s relationship to New Bordeaux. This is a place that Lincoln has known all his life, and it knows Lincoln too. In a comical extension of this relationship, Lincoln will make polite excuses to the men or women whose car you determine is necessary to steal, never outright assaulting them, just firmly announcing they’re being robbed.
Behind the wheel of a car, any deeper connections to the 1968 setting fall away. The first time you ride past the cops and a blue meter appears on the screen feels like a clever design decision. It’s one of the few moments where it feels like a game had recognized and built a mechanic that spoke to the lived experience of black people in America. It’s effective, at least initially. I was a much more cautious driver around New Bordeaux anytime a blue blip showed up on the mini map. I had a revenge mission to complete, and I’d be damned if racist cops got in the way. This feeling falls away quickly though. The cops rarely accost Lincoln physically, especially in a car, which you spend significant portions of time in, driving from mission to mission. In nearly every case, I was able to simply drive away, never triggering the cop’s AI into their search and destroy mode. Eventually this served to turn what starts as a compelling mechanical conversation with 1960s racism into little more than racial window dressing, allowing me to go about my righteous murder spree without much systemic friction.
In another world, Mafia 3 commits to deeper, more systemic racial storytelling and makes getting pulled over or questioned by cops in the open world a sharp gameplay statement instead of just hurling slurs to highlight who the bad guys are. Or maybe it contends with the dissonance of a large black man, freely and angrily, murdering countless peoples of all ethnicities across the city with the backing of the CIA. Because c'mon now.
New Bordeaux is almost a place. It has all the trappings of a well-realized rendition: radio ads hawking discount whiskey on Bourbon Street, really engaging Creole and Haitian representation, blunt 1968 racism, and hints of mechanical consonance between the racist systems of the day and how the game plays. But ultimately, driving down the roads of New Bordeaux feels more like touring Disney World Main Street than the French Quarter.