The Ugly Paulistano

“Why did you come to kill Rodrigo Branco?”
“We came to kill you!”

Max Payne 3

Max Payne has always communicated through bullets. In Max Payne 3, the only difference is that he is now restrained from relying on any other means. As an ignorant foreigner, unwilling to learn the local language and expecting the impoverish locals to know his, Max forces us to play the role of the ignorant foreigner.

I’ve been living in São Paulo, or Sampa for short, for almost a decade now. A German friend of mine asked me how it felt to play as an alienated foreigner while being able to understand everything being said by the locals at the same time. In São Paulo, I answered, being an alienated foreigner is the only way of life.

São Paulo has 11 million people, but most of them were not born there. They come from all other parts of Brazil. They come because the best colleges in the country are near São Paulo; they come because the heart of the Brazilian economy pulsates from São Paulo’s clogged streets. In other words, they come for their dreams. And the city grows bigger and stronger because of these dreams. In fact, São Paulo is so huge, nobody has a firm grasp of the city’s mazes. The average Paulistano can count the names of the streets he knows in with one hand. In São Paulo, we are all ignorant foreigners.

I wasn’t raised in São Paulo. As a kid in Brazil, was taught in school that the reason for a criminal being a criminal was society’s. Mostly leftists and believers of determinism, these teachers have preached you years that favela gangs should not be blamed by what they do. Who is to blame then? Well, I was.

After all, they said, they have so little, whereas I have so much. I had the opportunity to have a decent education, to be raised in a family with so few needs and so much love. If there is crime, it’s only because of the social gap. You see, they said, you should feel ashamed for what you have. If you flaunt, you will be asking to get mugged and, when that happens, the fault will be yours only.

I actually felt that way until the time I was mugged. Now I realize this is pure intellectual cretinism – and teaching that to kids should be a crime. It’s not about the money you need, but the choices you make. It’s always about the choices.

Being mugged is a dramatic event in anyone’s life. It’s that moment you see a new universe, one that parasitizes on your existence while denying it at the same time. Three were times my world collided with Brazilian criminality and though I was harmed in none of them, these instances shaped the man I am today.

The first time I wasn’t even there.

I was about 12 and living with my parents in Campinas. My mom used to have a black cape I loved. It was one of those you only see at fashion shows and rarely outside it. I called it the Dracula cape. One day my parents and my grandmother went to a party in São Paulo. When they came back, my mom couldn’t stop crying and she wasn’t wearing the cape anymore.

It turned out that they all had spent the last 3 hours going to every ATM they could find while three other individuals keep them under a gun the whole time. In Brazil they call those “Lightning Kidnappings”. These kidnappers hold you hostage a few hours, and either make you get money with them in your car, or make you call someone you know to do this instead.

I was already studying in São Paulo during the second time. One day, while waiting for the bus, this kid wearing white came from behind and touched my back with the barrel of a gun. He was smaller than me; weaker too. There were two other people also waiting for the bus, but I didn’t have any voice to say anything. The perp insulted me the whole time. He then took my wallet, entered my bus and went away. From that day on I’ve started to wear a decoy wallet. In the following months, the most pleasurable image I could conjure in my head was one of me smashing his face on the concrete. I actually still imagine escapades of revenge in which I stop being the hunted to become the hunter.

The third time, my mom had given me a lift and was dropping me home when two guys came shouting for her to leave the car. The scariest thing was how desperate they looked. Mom froze, she couldn’t unstrap the seat-belt. I was already behind my house’s fences when they came, screaming at her to wake up, stop being an idiot, and leave the car. One of the criminals wore a mustache.

She must have snapped out and left the car eventually, but I don’t really remember how. I remember the car was found unscathed two days later. My mom and I sold that car.

These memories now fuel the sadistic pleasure I have with Max Payne.

Max Payne 3 stirs something inside me and makes my  darkest, most violent side to resurface. It makes me forfeit my values. I revel in the game’s brutality; I want to shower in its gore. When you shoot the last enemy in an area and camera lingers voyeuristically on his body getting pierced by bullets, I never release the trigger. Ever. I keep unloading and unloading until the game says stop. I take pleasure if the bullet enters one ear and exit through the other. I love it even more when his face becomes indistinguishable by multiple shots between the eyes – the mark of Cain.

The primary enemy for the first half of the game, Comando Sombra, is an analogue to a group called PCC (Capital’s First Commando). The PCC first became notorious when they started a wave of fear in the city, a few months prior to the election, by burning buses and shooting the fronts of banks and stores. This June they have started to kill cops – good cops – when they were off work. Fighting them is not like fighting zombies, Nazis, terrorists of any other evil empire. For me, these are no abstract concepts of evil. They are frighteningly real. They are my monsters.

Oddly enough criminals might feel their way of life is just “part of the game”. There was a magazine feature in Brazil that interviewed a bunch of prison inmates. Their stories were different, but there was always one thing in common: they never blamed themselves for the lives they took. It’s not like they had a choice, see? It was the circumstances: more precisely, the victim’s fault. The victim didn’t behave as they should have. They haven’t played their part in the “game”. They may have tried to scream, to fight back, to run, or perhaps they were simply unable to take their seat-belts off in time. It doesn’t matter. In the minds of the inmates’ interviews, that was justification enough.

I guess that there really isn’t such a thing as “gratuitous violence”. We take Max Payne 3 always from Max’s perspective and, for him, much like the real-life inmates, nothing is without justification. Max is a character defined by his loss. I haven’t really lost a thing and, even still, the mere idea of losing makes me justify any gratuitous stance I take on that game. Max must take even more bitter pleasure in the violence he causes than I do.

I imagine that, like Max, the majority of players won’t be able understand what the in-game Brazilians are saying. They won’t be able to tell they are being cursed from when they are being mocked or praised. They won’t know whether their actions are making Comando Sombra scared or angry. Spewing bullets is the only form of communication left for them – and yes, that restriction may have left some of them upset. Me, however, I understood. The Portuguese, however, didn’t make me relate to the enemies more – quite the contrary. I refute their existence and am even more determined to extinguish it. For me, pulling the trigger was not the only option; it was not a product of the consequences. It was a choice. And one that I’ve made with gusto.

31 Comments

  1. razikain

    Brilliant text, man. I’m also proud that a fellow Brazilian writes for Nightmare Mode. Although I’ve never been a victim of violence, I hate criminals with all my strength. Maybe one of the reasons is because my father is a retired sergeant and because of that I have an idea of how hard is to be a cop and put your life on the line. But certainly, one of the reasons is that I think that nobody should take what isn’t theirs. I value physical and moral integrity and personal property a lot, and I take it very seriously. Every single day I wonder why we just don’t make a “criminal genocide” and kill every criminal, every single one of them we get our hands on, without warning, without mercy. They don’t show any respect for peaceful, law-abiding citizens, so we shouldn’t show any respect to them. We should tell them a message: society is tired of their shit, and it’s about time they have to suffer the consequences of fucking with any of us.
    Also, your text made me actually want to play Max Payne 3, even though I haven’t ever played any Max Payne game.

  2. supersugoinet

    Great article. You said something that really ticks me off everytime I hear it. It is not like I despise the left-wing ideology. Or else, I am actually grateful for it because it has given many contributions to the academic discipline I am from (literary theory). But I can’t simply accept that it is my fault that I am mugged or robbed in this country. It feels the same as in “women are raped because they dress like sluts”. They should teach the other way around: instead of telling “don’t be robbed”, they should say “don’t rob”, and other similar perspectives.

  3. FelipeNanni

    You made me proud of being brazilian, without saying anything good about our country. Maybe I’m just happy to see someone from here with a honest vision, clear of bias and (like google tradutor translated “ufanismo”) jingoism. I read the whole text thinking “please, don’t say you’re offended by the way Sao Paulo was portrayed, please don’t!”, and you didn’t, thank you!Like you (I think), I was quite pleased with the game. To us, Sao Paulo can be familiar, but since the vision of the game was to make the largest part of the public feel “unwelcomed” and an outsider, I believe they accomplished it. It also made me think that, no matter where, we’re surrounded by those real monsters. And although I can see some criminals being dragged to a crime life without really wanting to, and there are exceptions to every rule, it’s really sick to teach children that it’s never the criminals fault… A lot like the College Teacher and Humanitarian did in the brazilian movie Tropa de Elite 2.
    I don’t undersantd much about politics, to be honest, so I can’t talk much about it. But living in a city that it’s growing in a lot of wrong ways (Salvador, Bahia), and having suffered some of the same experiences that you and your family lived, I can relate to your angst. And yes, I also kept shooting the criminals in the slow-motion deaths and I’m not even a little sorry for it :)My city it’s not nearly as big as Sao Paulo, but it’s really fucked up to walk in the streets at daylight and feel like a target.

  4. FelipeNanni

    You made me proud of being brazilian, without saying anything good about our country. Maybe I’m just happy to see someone from here with a honest vision, clear of bias and (like google tradutor translated “ufanismo”) jingoism. I read the whole text thinking “please, don’t say you’re offended by the way Sao Paulo was portrayed, please don’t!”, and you didn’t, thank you!
    Like you (I think), I was quite pleased with the game. To us, Sao Paulo can be familiar, but since the vision of the game was to make the largest part of the public feel “unwelcomed” and an outsider, I believe they accomplished it. It also made me think that, no matter where, we’re surrounded by those real monsters.
    Although I can see some criminals being dragged to a crime life without really wanting to, and there are exceptions to every rule, it’s really sick to teach children that it’s never the criminals fault… A lot like the College Teacher and Humanitarian did in the brazilian movie Tropa de Elite 2.
    I don’t undersantd much about politics, to be honest, so I can’t talk much about it. But living in a city that it’s growing in a lot of wrong ways (Salvador, Bahia), and having suffered some of the same experiences that you and your family lived, I can relate to your angst. And yes, I also kept shooting the criminals in the slow-motion deaths and I’m not even a little sorry for it :)
    My city it’s not nearly as big as Sao Paulo, but it’s really fucked up to walk in the streets at daylight and feel like a target.
     

  5. FelipeNanni

     @razikain I have a spare copy of Max Payne 2 in my Steam Inventory, if you want it just add me on Steam 😉 The first one is up to you! Go buy it and never regret it.My Steam ID is “fnanni”.

  6. FelipeNanni

    You made me proud of being brazilian, without saying anything good about our country. Maybe I’m just happy to see someone from here with a honest vision, clear of bias and (like google tradutor translated “ufanismo”) jingoism. I read the whole text thinking “please, don’t say you’re offended by the way Sao Paulo was portrayed, please don’t!”, and you didn’t, thank you!
    Like you (I think), I was quite pleased with the game. To us, Sao Paulo can be familiar, but since the vision of the game was to make the largest part of the public feel “unwelcomed” and an outsider, I believe they accomplished it. It also made me think that, no matter where, we’re surrounded by those real monsters.
    Although I can see some criminals being dragged to a crime life without really wanting to, and there are exceptions to every rule, it’s really sick to teach children that it’s never the criminals fault… A lot like the College Teacher and Humanitarian did in the brazilian movie Tropa de Elite 2.
    I don’t undersantd much about politics, to be honest, so I can’t talk much about it. But living in a city that it’s growing in a lot of wrong ways (Salvador, Bahia), and having suffered some of the same experiences that you and your family lived, I can relate to your angst. And yes, I also kept shooting the criminals in the slow-motion deaths and I’m not even a little sorry for it :)
    My city it’s not nearly as big as Sao Paulo, but it’s really horrible up to walk in the streets at daylight and feel like a target.
     
     

  7. Awesome text!

  8. jhsteinberg

    The idea that people have no independence of action beyond their social risk factors is ludicrous. The idea that one’s life is entirely composed of free will is, however, equally absurd – and the latter has, at least, been confirmed through multiple empirical studies. 
     
    So, instead of a game review, I got a half-arsed political treatise that can’t bother to be any more well-informed than any other ignoramus spouting off on shit outside his sphere of knowledge. Hint hint: ranting nonsense off the top of your head about social science is no less idiotic than doing so about quantum physics. The only difference is that in the latter case most people don’t have an opinion; in the former, everyone thinks they’re a social scientist because they’ve “been around”.
     
     

    • bcsouza19

       @jhsteinberg I thought this article was a gateway for the writer to express his anger, not a scientific paper. You’re the only one who claims the author is a social scientist.

      • jhsteinberg

         @bcsouza19 When people stand around arguing about gravity, they’re arguing about facts, regardless of whether they intend to be scientific about it, nor what their claimed roles are. It’s gravity: you can’t argue about how fast you accelerate /and/ ignore physics. Social issues are where we grant the exception: unless someone puts on a big white hat and claims to be speaking as a Scientist, we accept that it’s a-okay for everyone to pull out their anecdotes and bullshit and ignore completely the entire realm of existing empirical data. Asserting by fiat that g = 13 m/s*s, and couching it in terms of being angry about the time your friend fell of a roof, doesn’t make it a less foolish assertion. The social sciences are far less worked out than the physical, but some things are extremely well established, and hand-waving them away as a “gateway … for anger” is no less incorrect than writing an article that repeatedly makes assertions that g=13 under the same aegis. tl;dr when you say the earth is flat, it doesn’t matter whether you’re not “claiming to be a scientist”, or “expressing yourself,” or what-have-you – you’re still talking out your ass.

        • bcsouza19

           @jhsteinberg What i get from your comments is: unless the wirter is a social scientist, he can’t talk about social sciences, and if he insists on doing it, he will be talking out his ass
           
          I disagree. If the writer wants to talk about social sciences without being a social scientist, I am ok with that. Actually, the fact that he isn’t a social scientist prevents me from demanding a scientifically accurate analysis from him. 
           
          People don’t have to be experts on things to talk about them. There are many physicists who claim to know everything about everything just because they are physicists, but I don’t criticize them for that (and I don’t see anyone doing that, either, because there’s no point: If they want to talk about it, they should; I know I wouldn’t stop just because other people are upset).
           
          That said, you are equally free to have your own opinions on the writer’s opinions, and no one can say you’re not allowed to do, because you probably (probably) wouldn’t listen to them, and rightfully so. If they want to be upset about what you said, let them; at least you’ve said it.

        • ConnorHall

           @jhsteinberg
           I’d like to see you come up wit ha better exmple then
           

    • sahest

       @jhsteinberg Hint: Ranting about how scientific studies has proved this and that, without having any relevant experience on the subject yourself, is no less idiotic than thinking you’re a social scientist because you’ve “been around” 😉

  9. Peter Hasselström

    I had no sympathy for the people I was mowing down in Max Payne 3 as I know of the damage they cause every day to society. In the back of my head I knew I wasn’t exactly solving the root causes that created these gangs in the first place, but at least Max probably made Sao Paulo a bit more peaceful for a few years until other gangs grew up to take their place. I’m sure all victims of crime wouldn’t mind vigilante justice being carried out. When there is emotional baggage involved the quick solution is always very appealing, even if it might have unpleasant long term consequences. It’s not easy to solve these problems, but at least in games we can enjoy the quick and easy solution we wish would be carried out.

  10. PlastVideoComic

    @BenKuchera As a Brazilian living in São Paulo, it is pretty much like he said. Great article.

    • vvecchi

      @PlastVideoComic @BenKuchera As a brazilian with a history very similar to this guy, this made me sick. It is more complicated than that…

    • vvecchi

      @PlastVideoComic @BenKuchera Blaming only the criminals or only the environment are two great bullshit explanations for the problem.

  11. GusLanzetta

    @BenKuchera great read. I live in Sao Paulo as well and had to give an interview this week about Max Payne 3 and the local violence.

  12. GusLanzetta

    @BenKuchera too bad the finished story (it was a TV news piece) was nothing like that article.

  13. AndersVaktdal

    My immediate response to this text, is that the author obviously, and naturally, feels that all the violence and crime in Sao Paulo is decreasing the safety and life quality for the city’s people, author included. That’s easy to understand. It’s also understandable, that being able to vent the anger and frustration created by this situation, by shooting criminals in a game, feels good. The  author’s explanation of why crime and criminals exist however, is so oversimplified it is startling. The text conveys quite a lot of emotion, and relates the harsh reality  in Sao Paulo, to the fictional version of it,  in Max Payne 3. Good, and socially relevant stuff.  But the analysis and explanations of complex social structures like the links between poverty and crime, or family relations and psychological development in youth, cannot be reduced to the author’s one-word-explanation, “choice”.

    • sahest

       @AndersVaktdal Every human being has a choice, no matter what the circumstances if their upbringing is. The key factor is how an individual copes with the pressure to make the ‘right’ choice.

  14. NateTehGreat

    @BenKuchera The writer justifies pleasure in brutalizing fictional people because he was brutalized. Not sure I understand why that’s great.

    • BenKuchera

      @NateTehGreat Most games ask us to take pleasure in brutalizing fictional people.

      • NateTehGreat

        @BenKuchera Most games? Maybe most M-rated console games, but I don’t see what’s worthwhile about justifying it.

  15. HunterVanguard

    @BenKuchera incredible read.

  16. zer0hvk

    @AGTURBO9000 If Max Payne 3 had been set in Monterrey, I would’ve shared his thirst for gore.

    • AGTURBO9000

      @zer0hvk Latin American street gangs are scary.

      • zer0hvk

        @AGTURBO9000 Very. Everyone’s perpetually paranoid around here. Really sad.

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  18. Henrique

    The dehumanization I felt through Max Payne 3 was exactly the same I see everyday on TV (I’m also brazilian). Eventually the graphic violence was part of the game, and one I did enjoy. A sadistic pleasure that has reason to exist, let alone enjoy. After I finished the game I would sometimes think about it. And I felt absolutely nothing by the murder, by my hands, of the criminals in the game. I started feeling bad, when I realized that wasn’t exactly my fault: the game was designed that way. The slow-motion graphic violent show of a head exploding is your reward for clearing a room. And clearing a room is only means to an end of finishing the game, of making progress. The enemies become a part of a puzzle that you have to resolve. By exploding heads, by killing fiction human beings.

    I can relate to how you feel: I, too, was mugged, and for a long time I also imagined becoming the hunter, like you said. It’s a horrible sensation when somebody makes you feel powerless, with your life or a loved one’s on a brink. It’s something I wish I could forget and pretend it didn’t happen. But I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to take a sadistic approach to a game like this. It’s a dangerous one and something we should be concerned about instead of praising it. It’s easy to fall on the intolerant side of the fence, specially when you have experiences like that to back it up. I live in a very poor neighborhood, even though I’m somewhat privileged, and it’s easy to forget that bad deeds aren’t necessarily done by bad people. My father is a PM (a police officer) and he has told me before about some horrible things he used to do when he first joined the force. Imagine being a twenty years old man with a gun and power: it can drive you mad. And he is one of the most loving and caring people I know. I’m not saying it is like this for criminals, but it could as well be. And when we enjoy the sadistic mechanics of a game that makes us kill our countrymen (be them brazilians, arabs or else), we are threading dangerous waters.

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