Lighting is inherently evocative. What it can evoke is varied, nearly endless—the dissemination of sunlight through trees and cityscapes can speak to a facsimile of reality and the everyday. Videogames love how the everyday looks. From the lighting and rain in Forza Horizon 4 to the intimately detailed and lively forests of Red Dead Redemption 2, these works speak to a visual realism that is grounded in how light works in tandem with the environment it shines through, in, and on. But what happens when light breaks?
Mafia 3’s visuals speak to a period-set sense of realism. New Bordeaux is New Orleans in everything but name and scale, and the game emphasizes its grounded experience in an effort to inform both its core themes and overall prescience. Yet, that aura of realism—beyond regenerating health and gunplay—constantly breaks at a fundamental level. The lighting in Mafia 3 is thoroughly broken. A near-constant glitch that never feels or looks quite right, and through that breakage brilliant abstraction emerges. Moonlight and sunlight are always becoming one and the game often looks torn out of time, forever lit in the dreamscape where the sun is nothing more than a giant candle flickering just above, just out of view.
A deep orange hue engulfs Mafia 3 and the entire world takes on the feeling and look of a nuclear sunset. Too bright, too orange, not right. But it is in not being right where abnormal saturation starts to feel right. The near-constant too-orange-lighting becomes familiar, and it allows the fracture between the realism and unreality of Mafia 3’s story and mechanics to fold in on one another. Telling a thematically resonant and “real” narrative does not mean that the story has to be told through the lens of a direct recreation of normalcy, of the now that is and once was. To introduce some abstraction is to allow a visual voice to speak in tandem with that of the narrative. If Mafia 3’s core narrative is about needful revenge and violently resisting against the oppressor at every level, then the broken lighting speaks to that in showing how portraying the mundane and the visual rel is not necessary for all stories; especially in the AAA space. In the breaking of the light, Mafia 3 resists and pushes against general expectations and big-site review scores. If you cannot see how fundamental, beautiful, and necessary this glitch is—even though it is unintentional—then you probably won’t be engaging with what Mafia 3 has to say, anyway. To you, it will just be a broken and repetitive experience when, in fact, it is a game about the power and necessity of violence, resistance, and the breaking of gross institutional norms at every level—the unnatural lighting shows that resistance doesn’t have to look a certain way and that the every day is not a cemented concept. It can be broken and changed. It should be torn up and built anew.