How do you Solve a Problem Like Max Payne?
The man is a high-functioning alcoholic. He spends his nights drinking himself into oblivion while the light of day finds him planting heavy metals deep into the flesh of his enemies with the biologically-ingrained certainty of a fifth generation lead farmer. This repetitive cycle is as precise and determined as the bullets Payne fires off during bullet time. It’s also the entirety of Max Payne 3.
“Every narrative aspiration is upended by Payne’s dime store aphorisms.”
If Payne had a schedule it would read as follows: wake up hung-over, get called into work, drink on the job, and then kill a fuckload of indistinct men with guns before heading back to the apartment to guzzle local rum until throwing up or blacking out, whichever comes first. Rockstar has been parading around Max Payne 3 as a cinematic character study of a man who is “addicted to redemption” when in actuality the game is a lumbering caricature that won’t commit, zig-zagging between parody and seriousness, lacking as it does the nuance and grace required to achieve a less convoluted mixture of both.
Payne spews one-liners that aren’t heavy enough to land, nor light enough to be funny, and every narrative aspiration is upended by Payne’s dime store aphorisms. Like “I didn’t understand everything, and I probably never would,” or, “Sometimes a complex problem is best tackled with a simple solution,” the game often feels as caught up in the shallow ripples of Payne’s catchphrase wisdom as the character himself is, exhibiting a weak self-awareness only enough times to beg the question, what is it aware of?
“What would take the slaughter beyond senseless?”
Max Payne 3 wants to touch on serious things like poverty, violence, and revenge, but can’t tear itself away from the redundant, 300-style bloodletting to do any of these subjects justice. What would take the slaughter beyond senseless? A fresh tragedy or moral conflict perhaps, or a character born of something more than a laundry list of well worn stereotypes. Or, for that matter, a central gameplay conceit that aims to communicate more than the base pleasure of a well placed headshot.
Rockstar, to their credit, attempted to tell a complex story in a difficult genre through a medium that is notoriously inhospitable to such projects. Regrettably though they didn’t succeeded, muddling through with a finished product that would much rather tell than show.
I came to the newest Max Payne somewhat skeptical but also feeling encouraged. In interview after interview, Rockstar explained how Max Payne 3 would be a compelling fusion of story and action where both gameplay and narrative inform one another toward some engaging and deeply human end. I imagined a lesser version of the great American action and noir movies, in which a single-minded violence and nihilistic anti-heroism were filtered through well tuned plots. The game accomplishes none of these things.
“The game accomplishes none of these things.”
Writer Tom Bissell called Max Payne 3, “quite possibly the most ludonarratively dissonant video game ever made,” saying that it amounted to “12 and a half hours of game fiction and game action throwing empty champagne bottles at each other.” And unfortunately it’s the player who’s left in the middle trying to dodge these blunt incongruities while at the same time being charged with picking up the jagged remains and finding some worthy purpose reflected in them.
Irreparably heterogeneous, Max Payne 3 serves as a digital playground for styles and ideas that don’t get along with one another. First there are the game’s glossy and overwrought cinematics. The use of split screen, flashing text, and shake cam are at first sleek and compelling until their over and inconsistent use reveal them to be little more than sexy distractions.
“The result is a vacuous cacophony that is never content to simply to let things be what they are.”
Eurogamer’s Tom Bramwell claims the game’s “overuse of split screen is a bit, ‘Hey, I went to film school!’” Like a young, cocksure artist, the game deploys from its toolbox a slew of masterfully appropriated techniques, but to know substantive or unifying end. From Max’s fortune cookie narration to Rockstar’s insistence on flashing recently spoken words across the screen during cutscenes, the game brings to bear a cache of visual and verbal devices that are sometimes exhilarating, sometimes contradictory, but always demanding of the player’s attention. The result is a vacuous cacophony that is never content to simply to let things be what they are.
Second, the game aims not only to assault the player’s sensory organs, but their intelligence and agency as well. If Max Payne is confused the game will tell you he is confused. If someone deserved to die, the game will make sure to incontrovertibly convey this fact so that protagonist and player alike can acquit themselves of all responsibility or doubt or general complexity.
Lines such as “That was the boss lady, only this time she wasn’t calling for more vodka in her cosmo” and “So I guess I’ve become what they always wanted me to be,” are neither funny nor precient nor dramatically additive.
“Scene after scene, Rockstar overplays its hand”
They are unnecessary, and succeed only to cheapen the situation in which Max finds himself as well as how he reacts to it. If things are really about to change, don’t have Max needlessly quip, “Of course, that was about to change.” Just let them change.
When first encountering the favelas, Rockstar isn’t content to let the narrative flow naturally from the player’s brief interaction with the game space. Instead, the game forces Max to explain, “Work with the poor, play with the rich, eventually you’re going to get your life pulled apart,” rather than leave players to observe this truth on their own.
And if, as the game goes to painfully explicit lengths to make clear, Max really has a death wish, is truly devastated by the loss of his family, and is really always drinking on the job, there is no surer way to dissipated the twisted sadness and sublime tragedy from these moments than by belaboring them via extensive inner monologues that wallow in shallow self-pity and pathetic naivety.
“The game is, in other words, over eager, laboring to impress even in situations where less is more”
Scene after scene, Rockstar overplays its hand by trying to fill every conceivable moment with some manner of digitally created and beautifully rendered stimulus. When Max isn’t comparing a shootout to Baghdad with G-strings and “Politics” or “Morality” isn’t appearing onscreen to overemphasize the obvious, the game relies on narration in abundance,, gratuitous gore, and a constant if admittedly excellent soundtrack to fill the void.
The game is, in other words, over eager, laboring to impress even in situations where less is more and pulling back would actually allow its characters and plot some much needed room to breathe. With a few notable exceptions (like the first time Max enters the favelas of São Paulo), the beautifully crafted environments of Max Payne 3 are rarely given the time or attention to become more than just a backdrop for the untold carnage that Max leaves in his wake.
From Portrait to Caricature
His name is pure parody, aimed at evoking the ridiculous levels of agony most action heroes are expected to endure and overcome. The third game doesn’t embrace this though. Unlike its two predecessors which were comic book craziness colored with darker elements, Max Payne 3 tries desperately to reinvent the character as someone who’s deeper and full of more than just booze and ham-fisted dialogue. But success on this front isn’t forthcoming, not least of all because of Rockstar’s schizophrenic approach to mood and characterization.
“Rarely does the plot drive Max or the player to confront them in any meaningful way.”
The company’s VP of development, Jeronimo Barrera, labeled Max Payne 3 a character study, telling Polygon, “We’ve always wanted to tackle complex characters. Max is no different. A lot of people think of him like a cliché action star, but it’s more interesting to dwell in the depression and alcoholism and the addictions.”
Except that’s not where the game dwells, even with its liberal use of passive cutscenes. We’re constantly presented with Max’s night cap debauchery. “And with that I guess I was ready for bed,” narrates Max shortly after we see him vomit. But beyond this the game doesn’t dare explore these dark moments further or more subtlety. Max Payne 3’s supporting cast isn’t asked to push the main character on any of these destructive behaviors, or the nihilistic attitude that motivates them, and rarely does the plot drive Max or the player to confront them in any meaningful way.
The truth is that, as, Arthur Gies wrote, “Max Payne 3 is indicative of the worst of Rockstar’s indulgences, particularly in the story. While there’s characterization in Max Payne 3’s noir-infused conspiracy, it’s composed of sketches of people that can devolve into caricature.” Only the characters in Max Payne 3 aren’t just vulnerable to this devolution, they seem to have a penchant for it.
“Rockstar lets each fade into an obscure, poorly defined tokenism.”
The inhabitants of the favelas are either wolves or sheep. The bad guys are corrupt, and the good ones are ineffective. Politicians are power hungry. The police Payne shoots aren’t just corrupt: they’re hired guns. Rather than bring multiple dimensions to each group, Rockstar lets each fade into an obscure, poorly defined tokenism. “São Paulo is there to be saved or fucked,” writes Filipe Salgado. “For Max, it is a symbol of salvation and redemption. For the player it is a few hours of entertainment for 60 bucks. Houser has made us all ugly Americans.” Because the game needs these cops-and-robbers oppositions. Without them there would be nothing to sustain the repetitive, sociopathic gameplay at Max Payne 3’s core.
Barrera forcefully proclaims Max Payne to be “addicted to redemption” while also noting that his only way to communicate to the world his through his gun. But though his supposed need for redemption certainly could complicate how Max navigates the politics of São Paulo, the game’s reliance on third-person shooting as its only means of player interaction derails any possibility that this will actually take place. After all, when the meat and potatoes of your game is pounding away at faceless thugs from behind cover or during bullet time, what hope can there be of authentically addressing these thornier, more intimate issues?
“Every solution to every problem comes in the form of a bullet”
Thus when Max is busy killing thousands of anonymous thugs, trying to vindicate the game’s more melodramatic moments becomes near impossible . In Max Payne 3, every solution to every problem comes in the form of a bullet. A realistic character study requires more than this though. But Max has nothing else to give, each of his abilities (“bullet time,” substance abuse, narration, etc.) stretching his character thinner and thinner until the archetype upon which it is built tears irreversibly apart.
Max Payne is a two trick pony. His first is to unoriginally look for absolution at the bottom of a glass. His second is to look for peace at the end of a massacre. The fact that neither of these works doesn’t stop him from trying them time and again, imploring the player to continue enabling him with each new attempt.
The game’s cinematic ambition is matched only by its death toll, and in this way Max Payne 3 bears more than a passing resemblance to the Uncharted series. No one will ask where the bodies are at the end of this game: they are everywhere. First they came in casual clothes, and then they came in paramilitary gear, but by the end of the game they’ll be decked out in the finest S.W.A.T. gear blood money can buy, and you’ll kill them all; each and every one.
“But by the game’s end I reveled in these gorey exploits for too long.”
Whenever Max eliminates the final person in an area, the camera slows and moves to a tracking shot until the kill-shot makes contact with its victim. Once this has occurred, the camera lingers voyeuristically over the sometimes twitching corpse in case the player wishes to unload any last minute rounds. Let me just say that there are lots of areas in Max Payne 3 and these kill-cam moments occur frequently. At first I innocently took part in them, lingering only as long as the game required. But by the game’s end I reveled in these gorey exploits for too long.
Despite the waste of crucial ammunition, I gleefully pummeled the blood-soaked, mutilated bodies of my lifeless foes for as long as the cinematic would allow. Max’s motivations remained muddled in impotent cliches, but mine were now clear: primitive and unadorned bloodlust. This was what the game encouraged though; it was a result not of accident but of design.
“Frustration inevitably ensues”
From a purely conventional perspective, Max Payne 3’s biggest missteps are its difficulty and checkpoints. The game becomes increasingly hard as Max muddles through its meandering due mostly to brute force alone. Max doesn’t change throughout the game but his enemies do. The extent of the enemy AI is to once in awhile attempt to flank the player. Beyond that tactic however, the game’s challenge relies exclusively on increasing the number of enemies, and the strength of their body armor, with each subsequent chapter.
Frustration inevitably ensues, which in turn leads to a sense of chest thumping delight when a new area is overcome. I was one with the slaughter; I welcomed the rush; of blood, of guts, of unfettered adrenaline. Please oh please, oh please let the bodies hit the floor, and let me be the one that put them there. This Lord of the Flies descent into inhuman ferocity only continued as the game went on, except for one particular instance of authenticity.
“I climbed up, floor after floor, having just given away all that remained of my mercy.”
Late in Max Payne 3 the player is required to storm a police headquarters, remaining on each of the building’s floors just long enough to leave it awash in oozing flesh. It was on one of these floors that I encountered the only person I’d met in the game who attempted to surrender. I thought it must be a trick, but reminded with each respawn that this was only a game I unwisely decided not kill the man. It turns out it wasn’t a trick. And I went my own way, leaving him to ponder the uncontained butchery I’d recently committed, while I climbed up, floor after floor, having just given away all that remained of my mercy.
This was a genuinely interesting moment, and one of Max Payne 3’s more believable ones. Too often Rockstar paved over these uncomfortably realistic scenes with sugar coated and easily consumable visuals and auditory cues. This human moment was unique in this respect, like the few seconds of silence in the favelas, or the early nights watching Max nurse himself to sleep, and in which the understated impresses more than the in-your-face presentation of something so drunk on its own bravado.
“There is no transformation.”
Up until and including the end, Max Payne, and by extension the game, remains talkative, seemingly unphased by surreal destruction that’s taken place, his and the game’s penchant for perfunctory reflection left intact. There is no transformation. Instead, what the game indisputably conveys is the pleasure of finishing, or more accurately, release. Max Payne 3 is not a pleasurable experience, and what relief does arise from it comes as a result of its completion. The end of the game means freedom from the violence, from the looping bloodshed, from the hundred million dollar Ludovico technique Rockstar has spent years crafting.
If any part of me thought it had been worth it, I wouldn’t hesitate to say so.