Mafia III's NPCs can teach you a lot about history, so long as you don't murder them first

November 21, 2016 by Robert Whitaker

Incidental and ambient NPC dialogue in Mafia III is actually pretty rich with history.

My name is Robert David Whitaker, and I am one of the great NPC killers of our age. My victims are many and varied. Their bodies lie stranded across the 8bit, 16bit, 32bit, 64bit, and modern eras. I’ve killed in FPSs, RPGs, and RTSs in equal measure. My death toll is difficult to calculate, but must be in the hundreds of millions if we count NPCs in 4X games. Were these murders justified? In the case of Fallout 3’s Allistair Tenpenny, Red Dead’s prostitute killers, and Assassin’s Creed bards, I can give an unequivocal “yes, they deserved to die and I hope they burn in hell.” Beyond those victims, however, things get a bit more difficult morally. Did I need to kick that Eclipse Mercenary out of the window in Mass Effect 2? Was it necessary to nuke Gandhi’s last remaining arctic island city in Civilization? Could I have responded differently to that Skyrim guard when he told me for the millionth time that he “took an arrow to the knee?”

Normally, I never question my digital slaughter of NPCs, but I’m beginning to think differently after playing Mafia III. Open world games like Mafia III often pay lip service to the idea that NPC deaths have consequences, but there’s rarely a strong punishment associated with them and, in some cases, the deaths are incentivized. Sure, those civilians on the street corner I accidentally ran over while practicing my high-speed drifting in GTA V might bring police attention, but my play is not going to be significantly impeded because of it. In fact, it might lead to a new upgrade in a game like Infamous. Given this, I usually go from open world to open world like Ed Harris in Westworld: mindful of an objective, but not terribly concerned with collateral damage.

I expected to continue this senseless open world slaughter while playing Mafia III, but then something strange happened: I discovered NPCs worth listening to. NPC chatter has become a hallmark of the open world genre, but rarely does this chatter go beyond “hey, watch it!” or “ahhhh, he’s got a gun!” Mafia III includes this same sort of chatter, but it also features NPC dialogue infused with an impressive amount of historical detail related to the game’s setting in 1968. As a history professor, I picked up Mafia III expecting to see this historical detail reflected in the game’s main story. Instead, I learned that much of Mafia III’s best historical material is delivered by nameless cannon-fodder.

The first example of this type of NPC dialogue in Mafia III comes during an early story mission in which the player character, Lincoln Clay, waits at a bus stop while staking out a garage controlled by the Haitian mob. While waiting for the Haitians to arrive, the player overhears a conversation between three black female NPCs about the recent capture of James Earl Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King in April, 1968. One of these NPCs declares that the idea that MLK was killed by a lone gunman is “too easy, too pat,” implying that the assassination was part of a larger conspiracy. Another NPC relates the event to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X, and concludes by saying that “nothing in this country’ll ever change.” Although brief, this sequence provides the player with several important historical topics to consider: politically motivated assassinations in the 1960s, the tenuous nature of the Civil Rights Movement, and the assumption that conspiracies played a major role in American politics during this era.

When I first heard this conversation, I assumed it would be an outlier. It was, after all, a staged sequence near the beginning of the game – something that might have been part of a preview build of Mafia III for the press. Yet as I continued the game I discovered that this type of NPC chatter represented the game’s norm. I soon heard NPCs on the streets discussing the state of the Vietnam War in the wake of the Tet Offensive, the progress of the anti-war movement, and the violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. This type of chatter also went beyond major political events. For instance, I came across one white NPC in the River Row district complaining about having to turn off Star Trek because of the interracial kiss between Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura. All this historical chatter occurs in addition to the context based dialogue and racial epithets yelled by NPCs at Lincoln Clay in segregated shops and predominately white neighborhoods.

In addition to the NPC dialogue that can be overheard while walking around New Bordeaux, Mafia III also includes a lot of historical detail in the car radio. Many writers have already discussed how the game’s use of licensed music adds to the historical immersion, but few have mentioned Mafia III’s original radio bulletins and talk-radio segments in this regard. The radio bulletins on station WNBX include notices about real historical events during the late summer and fall of 1968, with most of the bulletins relating to the 1968 presidential election and the course of the Vietnam War. Station WBYU (country and pop music) and station WVCE (soul and R&B) feature competing talk-radio shows that often weave actual events from 1968 into the game’s fictional storyline. Remy Duvall, host of WBYU’s “Native Son” show, delivers racist rants against the Civil Rights Movement, which he often calls a plot against America run by the Soviet Union. Conversely, players can hear Charles Laveau, host of “The Hollow Speaks” on WVCE, rail against the oppression of the black community by the New Bordeaux Police. In both shows, Mafia III delivers more than mere surface level historical trivia. Remy Duvall provides an extended soliloquy comparing the Prague Spring to the fight for segregationist rights in the south that seems inspired by the speeches of George Wallace. Similarly, Charles Laveau’s discussion of the push to diversify the New Bordeaux Police as well as military draft boards reflects a real effort made by Civil Rights protesters in New Orleans from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s.

The revelation that Mafia III’s NPCs were walking founts of historical knowledge caused me to avoid my usual open world hijinks. This is no small feat because almost all story and side missions in this game involve killing everyone at a specific location. I tried to avoid exchanging gunfire with the game’s enemies for fear of inadvertently shooting the history out of a bystander. When avoiding guns proved impossible, I used low caliber handguns –  in part to keep the collateral damage to a minimum but also to make sure that I could still hear NPC chatter over the din of the shootout. When driving, I often stayed in my car after reaching my destination to listen to the end of an in-game radio segment – as if it was real-life and I was sitting in the driveway listening to the end of the most recent In Our Time podcast. I also drove responsibly around police officers to avoid having to listen to a bulletin or talk-radio segment amidst the wailing of sirens. It was my love of history – not a gameplay mechanic, an upgrade path, or a morality system – that finally turned me from a sinner into a saint in an open world game.

Of course, for as much as Mafia III gets right with NPCs, it does not escape the NPC related problems common to its genre. Like many open world games, NPC activity in Mafia III is subject to many bugs involving speech and movement. As several writers have noted, Mafia III’s NPCs are also the main element in an unintentionally hilarious game mechanic: witnesses. If a player commits a crime in front of an NPC, the NPC becomes a witness and rushes to a telephone to call the police. The player can kill the NPC to stop the call, but this murder will inevitably be witnessed by another NPC, which will start the process all over again. Minor open world transgressions, like stealing a car, can quickly devolve into a game of domino NPC death. Furthermore, Mafia III’s historically rich radio segments are often interrupted by GTA-style satirical commercials for fast food restaurants and hemorrhoid suppositories (undoubtedly two interrelated commodities). In another touch reminiscent of GTA, ethnic groups in Mafia III fall into terrible stereotypes: all of the Irish in the game are drunkards who support IRA terrorism, all of the Haitian refugees are drug dealers and gun runners, and all of the Italians act and dress like extras from Goodfellas.

Yet it’s Mafia III’s historical touches and its use of NPCs that’s made me play the game more than any GTA game in the past. I’m not campaigning to turn open world games into history textbooks, but there’s something special about a game in this genre that can cause me to reconsider my open world mayhem and enjoy the experience more without random violence. I think there’s something about Mafia III’s approach that could help future games in the genre. If so much focus in open world games is placed on building an immersive experience, then adding historical details is in the developer’s best interest. Why take the time and money to write intricate fictional dialogue when the historical past is so much more interesting and available for free? And besides, who wants more sophomoric satire about suppositories anyway?