Thoughts on Max Payne

on Saturday, May 19, 2012

  • Remedy Entertainment, Rockstar
  • Action, third person shooter
  • Release: Dec 6, 2001 (US)
  • Platforms:  PC, PS2 (version played), Xbox, Mac, iOS, PS3, Xbox360

Max Payne is a game of legacies. The character is driven by the legacy of his past, a past that he can't escape. The game itself is driven by the legacies of media. It never lets the player forget its love of film noir, but it knows that it is bound by the conventions of action video games. It all comes together quite well, most of the time, and it remains one of the highlights of its era.

I'll start by noting that I played Max Payne on the wrong platform. This is a PC game through and through. The precision required for the shooting demands a mouse instead of analog sticks, and flexibility in saving makes the whole thing more enjoyable. Even among console versions, the PS2 port that I played is probably the worst. The frequent and lengthy loading screens are excruciating, and the system's shortcomings continually remind you of what you're playing on. But I don't want to dwell on such details.

The game begins in media res, with Max atop a sky scraper. As in so many film noir titles, the game convolutes itself, and we find ourselves taking control of things years earlier at the senseless death of his family. The loss of his family leads Max to go undercover for the DEA, and he quickly finds himself embroiled in a mess of a violent conspiracy.

The game quickly makes it apparent that the initial plot and structure similarities to film noir are no accident and that a comparison to those works is meant to be noticed. Max seems to think of himself as a noir anti-hero, comparing himself to Bogart in his dramatically-phrased voiceovers. The third person perspective works well to emphasizes this comparison, as it affords the player a more cinematic viewpoint than would a first person shooter. The much-discussed bullet time mechanic, in which the player can slow time and execute a series of difficult shots, ties into this cinematic perspective in addition to working as a fun shooting mechanism. It allows the player a new viewpoint, one in which the scene can be taken in with the leisure that watching a film affords. Indeed, upon firing a sniper round or eliminating the last enemy on a level, the game shows a slowed down, up-close rendition of the gore.

But why is the game doing this? Perhaps the developers are commenting on the elevation of gaming media to the level of cinema in terms of artistic respect. Noir is an ideal touchstone; once viewed as mere pulp, it now holds a respected position in the film canon. At one point, in a halucinatory sequence, Max even acknowledges that he may be in a game, and that that is a horrible thing. It is horrible for two reasons. He is doomed to play out his role in one linear direction, and he is doomed to pulp status as a game character instead of a film character.

Most of the story is told through graphic-novel-like stills with Max's voiceover.  This is a really great way of delivering the narrative. By using an inherently broken-up, episodic delivery, it keeps the momentum going between play sessions by keeping the game from feeling interrupted. It also suggests a comparison to TV, which is prevalent throughout the game world. The voice work for Max does a lot for making this work; it hits just the right combination of pulpiness and realism.

But the game doesn't execute its thesis perfectly. Certain levels, especially a series of hallucinatory ones, are contrived and aggravating. There are two instances in which the player must balance on a thin line in the dark while solving a maze. These feel like instances in which the developers needed a level to convey the mental state of the character but also wanted it to have a game-like challenge. The failure to integrate the gameplay of these levels into that of the whole weakens the game and frustrates the player. The game also devolves into action a bit too much. By the end, Max is more the mindless action superhero of most shooters than the noir anti-hero. The developers failed, to some extent, to maintain the consistency of his narrative character while also attempting to match the consumer demands of a prototypical shooter; it's an instance of ludonarrative dissonance causing problems.

The game world conveys a remarkable atmosphere. A cold, uncaring city is rendered about as well as could be done with 2001-era graphics. The world learned the lessons that Half-Life taught us, too: around corners, people are talking, and TVs and radios left on by their last users flesh out the world with both fiction and news. As we have fun exploring and collecting weapons, we see the sort of world building that video games can offer.


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