Bob Whitaker has a nice piece on Zam today on NPCs in Mafia III and how their unexpected role in sharing the fruit of historical research that went into the game affected the way he played it. To quote Bob:
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.
Little bits and pieces of personality delivered through detail, in short, actually detracted (somewhat) from the rather bloodthirsty norms of your average open world game. It’s an intriguing idea, perhaps an unforeseen benefit of the “bottom-up” approach to historical study bleeding into historical research beyond the academy.
From top to bottom Mafia III is a fascinating and flawed game: the game’s developers took an interesting and potentially risky (albeit purely by not taking the most expected route) choice in framing their story around an African-American Vietnam veteran in 1960s New Orleans, but the game ultimately appears to sit in somewhat of a middle ground between an urge to deconstruct and defy historical and other stereotypes and the continued broad brush of terrorist-supporting Irish hoodlums and Haitian refugee drug runners.
Still, the steps in good and bad directions both perhaps fit the willingness to drift away from standard historical retellings. In a genre where the player has the option to follow a central narrative or do whatever s/he feels like doing within the sandbox created for the game, perhaps it fits that there are two broad options between a singular, directed historical tale and the unstructured aggregations of lots of little fictional testimonies. The overlap between the two is inevitably messy. Feels somewhat familiar to this historian.