Why we play games in fictional cities– like Mafia III’s New Bordeaux

Earlier this week, I was driving at breakneck speed through the River Row neighborhood of New Bordeaux when my car’s radio–well, not my car, exactly, as I’d stolen it a few miles back in Delray Hollow–started playing “The House of the Rising Sun,” the number one 1964 single by The Animals, the lyrics of which begin like this: “There is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun…”

As Lincoln Clay, the hardened war vet on a quest for bloody vengeance for the murder of my adoptive family, I had to ask the obvious question: Where the heck is “New Orleans?”

Hangar 13’s Mafia III, released earlier this month, takes place in the city of “New Bordeaux,” which is New Orleans in everything but name. This practice, of taking a real-life city and fictionalizing it in order to create a playground in which a player can be turned loose, is common in games: Grand Theft Auto built a franchise around it, constructing fictionalized versions of New York, Miami, and Los Angeles (“Liberty City,” “Vice City,” and “Los Santos,” respectively) in which to set its crime stories. The Saints Row games have their midwestern amalgams of “Stilwater” and “Steelport.” Even Mafia III isn’t the first to take on the Big Easy: Infamous 2 styled its “New Marais” after New Orleans five years ago.

Mafia III, however, is a bit of an outlier among this crew: though the city of New Bordeaux is fictional, just about the entirety of the game’s cultural context is not. The game’s documentary-style frame narrative places New Bordeaux in the American state of Louisiana and explicitly makes reference to the Mississippi River, so the local geography isn’t fictional. Lincoln begins the game having just returned from Vietnam, a real war in a real place, having met ally John Donovan through their mutual involvement in the CIA’s Phoenix Program, a real (and really brutal) initiative. While Lincoln is convalescing from the injury that nearly kills him, we see footage from the funeral procession of MLK and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy on his motel room’s TV. There’s a very real concerted effort on the part of the game to place its events in a specific cultural and historical context.

So why not call a spade a spade? Well, for a couple reasons. First, there’s the matter of continuity with the previous games: the first Mafia takes place in “Lost Heaven,” which blends elements of San Francisco and Chicago, and Mafia II takes place in “Empire Bay,” which is a mishmash of just about every major American city that isn’t in the South. While there’s certainly precedent in games for a series transitioning from fictional cities to real ones (the aforementioned Infamous games start out in fictional cities before moving to Seattle), the game’s inclusion of Vito Scaletta, the protagonist of Mafia II, might make such a transition awkward.

Secondly, giving New Orleans a fictional moniker grants Hangar 13 license to be loose with the city’s geography. New Bordeaux looks a bit like New Orleans on a macro level: bayou to the south, a downtown area that houses the French Quarter (here called the “French Ward”), a long bridge that spans a body of water (meant to represent the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway), etc.  But as Hangar 13’s creative director Haden Blackman explained to Game Informer in an interview a year ago, the city’s new name acts as a rebuff against accusations of inaccuracy. It is, in a way, a tacit admission of what any AAA developer knows about designing an open world: players expect an exciting playground before they expect authenticity.

This naming convention isn’t a route that a game needs to take–the Assassin’s Creed games, for example, take it for granted that their recreations of historical cities will be read by the player as playground versions (having hooded men and women with grappling hooks and superhuman parkour abilities probably doesn’t hurt in conveying this). But Assassin’s Creed has the benefit of centuries of distance between its players and its setting. Some of us may have been to Rome, but we’ve certainly never been to the Rome of the Borgias (at least, I haven’t). Hangar 13 must have felt that the player needed a fictional wedge between the real world and the world of Mafia III in order to create a measure of ironic distance, despite the game being set nearly 50 years in the past.

This ironic distance is a double-edged sword: On the one hand, it aids in suspension of disbelief and helps the player to accept the game’s over-the-top, stylized violence. Because Mafia III is set in “New Bordeaux” and not New Orleans, the player can more easily accept that it is both a game about institutional racism and a game about stabbing four hundred men in the neck with a combat knife. “New Bordeaux” is a signifier that the story is a fantasy, and quells some of the incoherence we might perceive in the game being anchored in real issues and featuring very unreal action. It helps us to find Lincoln Clay charming even as he gives Nathan Drake and Niko Bellic runs for their money in the mass-murder department. ”The city isn’t real,” the game seems to say, “so enjoy it as a playground.”

The flip side of this coin is that such ironic distance allows the player to disengage from the robust cultural context the game crafts. While it’s admittedly difficult to turn off your instinctive reaction to having racial epithets hurled at you by the goons you’re gunning down, the game’s fictionalized city offers a small window of plausible deniability for those who’d prefer not to take the game’s presentation of racism at face value. Hangar 13 opens the game with a message to countermand this: “Mafia III takes place in a fictionalized version of the American South…” it reads. “We sought to create an authentic and immersive experience… including depictions of racism. … 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 – …racism in all its forms.” In other words: “This is a fantasy, but we’d like you to take it seriously.” 

If it seems as though the game wants to have its cake and eat it too, well, it kind of does–but it often threads the needle well enough to succeed. The first enemy that Lincoln crosses off his kill list is hiding in the ruins of an abandoned amusement park called “Baron Saturday’s,” which seems to be based both on Pontchartrain Beach and the defunct Six Flags New Orleans, flooded and abandoned in the wake of Katrina. As he makes his way to his target, Lincoln has to sneak (or fight) his way through scores of enemies, including a trip through a ride which is one part Splash Mountain and one part “Journey to the Surface,” the animatronic nightmare from Bioshock 2. It doesn’t feel like an amusement park ride from the ‘60s–it feels like an amusement park ride from a videogame. But it fits thematically: the ride is a condescending, racist look at the legend of the Rougarou, and you’re on your way to murder a white supremacist. There’s no real analogue to Baron Saturday’s in New Orleans; the location is only possible in New Bordeaux. Whether you think this fictional location dovetails with the actual cultural backdrop against which the game sets itself or whether you find it jarring and incoherent is going to depend a lot on your own individual experience. If you do find it a bit over-the-top, however, Mafia III has an excuse ready at hand: Remember, this is all a fantasy. It’s not like we’re actually in New Orleans. 

To be clear, I’m picking at a game that is much more ambitious in this regard than most of its peers. The ironic distance inherent in Mafia III’s world is considerably smaller than in other games of its type: Grand Theft Auto takes place in a fun-house mirror America where everything is similar to our current society only demonstrably more awful in every way. Saints Row is basically a cartoon. Infamous is a story about superheroes. Maybe the closest analogue to Mafia III is L.A. Noire, which takes place in 1947 Los Angeles and takes great pains to recreate that city with as much verisimilitude as it can manage. L.A. Noire’s protagonist Cole Phelps is, like Lincoln Clay, a damaged man returning home from war. L.A. Noire doesn’t lean as hard on stylized violence as Mafia III does, and so perhaps it doesn’t need the fig leaf of a fictional city to aid players in suspending their disbelief. With the exception of L.A. Noire, Mafia III might be the open-world game that hews the closest to real-world history and culture, and even L.A. Noire doesn’t put a spotlight on that culture like Mafia III does. When your car’s radio plays a news story about how George Wallace is running for president as the “law and order” candidate, it’s hard to deny that the game wants you to draw a line connecting the game’s world and our present-day one, even as the game itself draws a line between the two.

Whether you find the ironic distance Mafia III creates with its fictionalized New Orleans a cop-out or a clever way to frame the fantasy the game presents, one thing is undeniable: going forward, if big-budget blockbuster games are going to use real-world cities and real-world culture as a backdrop, they’re going to have to tangle with this dilemma or else continue to come across as neutered and tone-deaf. Just look at the critical reception to Deus Ex: Mankind Divided if you want to see how a game can fail at this, or keep an eye on the upcoming Watch_Dogs 2 to see whether its take on San Francisco is incisive cultural commentary or a toothless genuflection to Silicon Valley’s status quo. In the wake of Mafia III, any game that wants to pretend to be apolitical is going to look especially feckless.