Feedback Loop – Backward audio progress in Max Payne 3
A company that has a reputation for sparing no expenses spent 8 years in development producing Max Payne 3, a game with sound that belongs on the PS2. Instead of providing the cinematic sound spectacle I expected, Rockstar cut corners in ways I haven’t seen any major studio do in a long time.
In a recent Crude Pixel article Iain Hetherington brought up the pursuit of making a ”cinematic” experience with sound. Talking about Max Payne 3 he concluded that the game was “all-in-all an amazingly innovative, interactive, cinematic audio presentation. At times I felt like I was watching a film when I was in fact meant to be playing a game.” He pointed out that games shouldn’t necessarily aim squarely at emulating movie sound since games are their own thing, and I agree with that. What I don’t agree with is that Max Payne 3 would be a good representation of what game audio can or should be.
Max Payne 3, per definition, does not have “cinematic” sound. It has a kind of audio mix that you will only hear in a game, in a negative sense. I have not heard any movie sound like Max Payne 3 and nor will I ever, as the developers made sound design choices which are frankly baffling.
In a movie, 75% of all dialogue and sound effects play only out of the center speaker. The front stereo speakers play music and the surround speakers play ambient sounds and effects. That’s the basic idea of what “cinematic” sound is like. Most movies follow that formula. There are some exceptions, such as Tron Legacy which dominates the audio experience with its 5.1 music, but for sound effects and dialogue it sticks to that formula as well.
What Max Payne 3 did was to almost ignore the presence of the center speaker and abuse the surrounds. When you shoot guns the sound plays out of all speakers simultaneously, when Max speaks his voice booms out of all the speakers at the same time. What that does is make the weapons and Max voice louder, but also stresses the front and rear speakers unnecessarily. This reduces the clarity of the sound since most speakers can only play a few sounds at the same time before they start smearing over the more subtle details that might exist in the sound mix. The center and front speakers are perfectly capable of producing weapons and voices with clarity and impact without having to use the rear speakers for that as well. Another consequence of playing back those sounds from the rear speakers is that audio isn’t anchored to the screen anymore and is instead “in your head”, as if you’re listening to headphones. This was a common problem in the last generation of console games as titles with no surround mix would play back their stereo cutscenes in quad to trick the players into thinking they were getting surround. Surround sound wasn’t as common back then so this lazy approach was somewhat excusable.
Max Payne 2 did not use any cheap tricks like that to make the sound louder. It instead stuck to the definitions of what makes for a cinematic sound experience and at the time it was by far the best sounding game to have been released. It took a while for other developers to catch up, but these days you can generally expect a game to have a mix which lives up to the definition of cinematic sound, such as every game released by EA in the past 6 years.
There’s one more critical error Rockstar made: not use any acoustic effects for large portions of the game. Proper use of reverb matters when you’re creating a virtual world. It’s of critical importance that what you see and what you hear match. You might not think about it, but your brain notices when something is off. It’s one of the puzzle pieces that, when done right, can elevate a game from “just a game” into a spellbinding experience. There are a couple of sections of Max Payne 3 where Rockstar seems to understand this and those sections are undoubtedly the highlights of the game, not only sonically but for the game as a whole. But for many hours of the game you might be exploring entire hotels and police stations without hearing a single echo at all. This turns these locations into game arenas, instead of the real world locations they were clearly supposed to be. Max Payne 2 had unique acoustic effects for every room in the entire game, just as every PC game around 2003 did. Here we are in 2012 and we’re moving backwards.
Rockstar had cinematic aspirations when making Max Payne 3. The audio presentation of the game however never lets you forget you’re playing a game. Other games such as Metal Gear Solid 4 and Mass Effect 3 stand out as examples of what Max Payne 3 should have sounded like. It and many other games this generation truly do have “cinematic” sound. Max Payne 3 however does not, no matter what Iain Hetherington or Rockstar themselves might say. It’s a throwback to the earliest attempts at surround sound in games from the time of the original Xbox. It might have a couple of flashes of brilliance, but as a whole it’s not a game whose sound I want to celebrate.