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Why 1968? How America’s Most Turbulent Period Informs Mafia III

by Ben Reeves on Oct 19, 2015 at 09:00 AM

The word “mafia” naturally conjures up images of bootleggers in zoot suits firing tommy guns. The mob had a field day with prohibition, but organized crime has never been isolated to a single time period. For Mafia III, Hangar 13 turned to one of America’s stormiest years for inspiration.

The Mafia games have always told strong stories, and the studio wanted to honor fans’ expectations by setting the third entry within the same fictional world as 2K Czech’s previous work. While referencing events and characters from the series' past was a part of the plan, the team also felt it was time to move away from the common gangster eras of the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. “To us, the word ‘mafia’ doesn’t just mean the Italian Mafia,” says lead writer William Harms. “There was also the black mob, there’s the Irish gangs, there’s a lot of different forms of organized crime, so we're really trying to expand the definition of mafia to include things outside of the traditional Mafia and incorporate them into the game.”

Moving the Mafia franchise forward seemed sensible, and American history is rife with great settings for gangster stories. Hangar 13 could have delved into the media frenzy surrounding the federal government's attempt to dismantle organized crime in the ‘70s with the initiation of the RICO laws, tapped into the corrupt business practices and cocaine-fueled excess of the ‘80s, or even considered exploring the high-tech workings of modern organized crime. Instead, Hangar 13 homed in on a single year.

“We settled on 1968 because we wanted to tell a more urgent story rather than the sprawling narrative of previous Mafia games,” says studio head and creative director Haden Blackman. “Mafia III literally takes place over the course about eight or nine months in 1968, and we chose 1968 specifically because it’s maybe the most turbulent year in American history.”

The Sounds Of ‘68
“We’re being really hardcore about the music selections, and making sure that nothing in our playlist is from after 1968,” says studio head and creative director Haden Blackman. “That year just happens to be a great cut-off for music. Not to say that there wasn’t a lot of great music after 1968, but there are some really good songs that came out in 1968 and we want to make sure we had what we needed. If we had been set in ‘65 or ’66, we would’ve been in what we consider the oldies era. A lot of the ‘60s most popular stuff, like the Stones, didn’t really break out until the late 60s.”

“The most turbulent year in American history” might sound like hyperbole, but it’s not far off the mark. Countless books have been written about the political turmoil that erupted throughout 1968. It was the year that both Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. It was also the year that North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive against the United States and South Vietnam. The musical Hair launched on Broadway, sparking a great deal of controversy over its use of nudity, illegal drugs, and disrespect of the U.S. flag.

“Literally every other week it seemed like something important was happening in the world; it was insane,” Harms says.

“1968 was also the year that a lot of drafted guys started coming back from the Vietnam War,” Blackman adds. “They started telling stories of what it was really like over there – stories that a lot of enlisted guys may not have been sharing. That sort of ratcheted up the public’s opinion on the Vietnam War. There were protests before 1968, but in 1968 the heat really started to rise. People started to realize that there was a country they couldn’t even point to on a map but a lot of Americans were dying over there.”

It was a time when racial tensions across the U.S. reached a boiling point. Star Trek aired the first interracial kiss. Two African-American athletes named Tommie Smith and John Carlos staged a silent demonstration known as the Black Power salute during their Olympic games medal ceremony. Martin Luther King’s assassination was a particularly powerful moment for the country, and several major cities – including Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, and Kansas City – erupted into riots when news broke about his death.

Hangar 13 knew that the emotional weight of this decade would be better felt if the main character was of African-American descent. The team dreamed up Lincoln Clay, a young man of mixed race who would have to confront the political and social prejudices of the time. The police will reflect the times, and even give Lincoln a harder time if he’s in the nicer areas of town. Average pedestrians on the street can be heard dropping the N-word and other derogatory terms. The team isn’t trying to press a social agenda, but accurately portray the time period and allow players to step into the shoes of another person. The developer wants players looking over their shoulder, thinking about where the cops are anytime they are about to make a scene in public.

“Our end goal is to tell an authentic story and put you in a role that maybe you haven't been before,” Blackman says. “That's the beauty of games, right? Games can immerse you in these roles and identities that you would never be able to experience in real life, in ways that movies and novels can't because you are making decisions and you are that character. You are inhabiting that character. We wanted to take advantage of that and put you in a role of a character that very few of us will have been or will be able to be. Being someone who is viewed as black in 1968 in the South is unique.”

Social strife aside, Hangar 13 also saw 1968 as a unique year for the Italian Mafia. For decades, the American public had a romanticized vision of the mob. During the ‘30s, ‘40s, and much of the ‘50s, the FBI hadn’t even acknowledged that there was a big criminal organization known as the Mafia running coordinated criminal rackets across the country.

“Within city communities, the mob was kind of treated as a social club,” Blackman says. “The mentality was, ‘Oh, they’re dealing with those victimless crimes like prostitution, drugs, and bootlegging. You know, fun stuff.’ Which now we know victimless crimes are bit of a misnomer, but there wasn’t a view that the Mafia was killing people in the streets. By the late ‘60s, a lot of that had started to change.”

Hangar 13 knew that this political, social, and criminal strife was the perfect setting for a powerful gangster tale. The team dreamed up the character Lincoln Clay, a mixed-race war veteran who felt betrayed by the Italian mob. In order to enact his revenge, Lincoln must unite various criminal factions under his wing, take down rival Sal Marcano's rackets, and ultimately rub up against every negative aspect of 1968.

When players enter the world of Mafia III, they’ll step back in time to experience one of America’s most volatile years for themselves. When the game releases next year, it could be one of the most entertaining ways to learn about American history.

Learn more about Lincoln Clay’s story by clicking on our cover hub, where you can watch Hangar 13 break down the gameplay of Mafia III. Later in the month we'll also be doing a deep dive into how the team rebuilt the city of New Orleans for the game.