The Fall of Max Payne and the Rise of true storytelling in games.

I know this is very late in the making as Max Payne and MP2 have both been out for some time. Be that as it may, I thought I’d talk a little bit about them both, as they are perhaps the most fun games I’ve played in a while. Understand first that my taste is likely not that of a typical gamer, and that the game I have played more than any other this year is without a doubt Dance Dance Revolution.

Max Payne was to me the first sign of a video game industry interested in taking the storytelling aspect of gaming to a new level- one where the story is not merely the icing on the ultra-violent cake, but the truly engaging end to the game itself. The story in Max Payne 1 takes center stage and not only draws in the player, but does much to explain Max’s own motivation in a why that might actually get you to empathize with him!

Update: Interviews with the Creators here and here. Turns out that the head writer also starred as Max in the original, and that not only do you get to interact with NPCs, but how you interact with them will apparently have some effect on how NPCs react to you later in the game. Guess I’d better go try the next difficulty level…

Max Payne was from the start a different kind of game. Instead of in-game cut scenes or CG rendered movies, we are treated to the story as told through a graphic novel. Is this any better than any other means of story telling in games? The story’s post-modern noir look and feel do in fact seem perfectly suited to the comic form. The images themselves are painstakingly rendered and more often than not quite clever and even funny. Though the story uses a well known form- cop seeks revenge after the murder of his family- its the way its told and the fact that you get to play through it that makes it so fun.

For the first time I can remember in a video game, you genuinely feel that there is some justification for the murderous rampage that Max ultimately goes on. This is a man who has lost it all- and the losing is shown to you in pretty graphic terms. To add to the (dare I say) realism in the game, you have a man who is popping pain killers in order to keep the killing on at all costs. Pain killers as power-ups! In Max Payne 1, Payne is really psychotic, and in a way that psychosis allows you to feel okay for killing and killing and killing. The actor who portrays him in the game lacks the kind of chiseled machismo that will show up in MP2, but instead is a scrawny, tired looking creep who genuinely looks like the drug addled killer he has become. Make no mistake, Max isn’t completely a good guy here, as he kills indiscriminately but his intentions are there at least. Gameplay is varied and fun and is a somewhat typical mixture of shooting and puzzle solving. But all of the villains and in game characters are very well drawn and have actual personalities- bizarre though they may be.

There are a lot of touches that make it more than just a game though, even though all the while it recognizes that that is exactly that. A satan worshipping capo, running a vice-themed night club, a mob bruiser who loves comic strips, the noble russian mobster, the former government spook turned corporate mogul, the mysterious hitwoman, the illuminati-esque secret socialite- all of these characters stand out and make you want to keep going to see what Max has to go through next. To add to the realism, you have scenery which is highly destructable and levels that actually feel like the buildings they are supposed to be, not overly elaborate mazes like many games. When Max dreams the game-world becomes suitably nightmarish- right down to the crying baby loops and endless trails of blood. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a dream sequence treated so well in a game. TV’s give you the news during the biggest winter storm NYC has ever seen, and you can listen in while searching random apartments for weapons or more pain pills. You can also watch soap operas and other programs if you happen upon them before blowing up the TV. When you finally reach the end, you are left satisfied with an ending that is entirely appropriate to the genre and not at all tacked on and you really feel like you’ve helped max earn a break from this cruel game-world.

Max Payne 2 builds on the greatness of part 1 in a lot of ways. The game world is even more painstakingly rendered, with almost any part of any room movable in some way. A room full of explosives and packages will yield quite a beautiful display if blown up in just the right way- as boxes, people and weapons fly around in a very realistic way. People also fly and crumple in a much more realistic way, thanks to the so-called “rag-doll” physics of the “Havoc” game engine. The models are all beautifully rendered and the heads on the characters really look real in a way I’d never seen in a game. However, as much as has been improved, a lot of the rooms are no longer as searchable as they were in the first game. I’ll get to that in a second.

A few other great things about Max Payne 2- in this game, almost anyone you happen upon (provided they aren’t trying to kill you- and sometimes even then) has something interesting to say- about their job, about video games, about Duke Nukem Forever- if you listen there is a lot of well written and funny dialogue. TVs play commercials, more episodes of “Lords and Ladies”, and two max payne parodies (or homages) called “Dick Justice” and “Address Unknown.” Address Unknown also appears as the themed fun house that details a rogue cops descent into madness- sound familiar? In a few instances, you can get bystanders and even bad guys to give you a hand. There was nothing more surprising then a hooker and a hobo in Max’s building helping him out with cover fire as he scaled the rooftops while fighting off the “Cleaners!” Need a gun, maybe the old lady down the hall has one- if you don’t kill her first. Oh and she might have some extra pain killers too! See, she needed them for her back but she’s better now. Happen upon the room where the Cleaners where watching you and you can listen to Max’s recorded phone calls, including an aborted attempt at phone sex. Its touches like that that keep a game interesting and fun.

With that said, the game doesn’t work quite as well as the original. I’m told that the entire MP1 staff was fired after the first game. I don’t know if thats true or not, but 2 definitely has a different feel. While MP1 seems like a true labor of love by a group of people trying to make something great, 2 really feels like a sequel. The story- while somewhat interesting- doesn’t grip you like the first one, and this time there’s no real justification for Max’s actions. Not much of one anyway. Am I the only one who thinks Max’s unending obsession with a woman he met twice who tried to kill him both times is not enough of a justification for him to do what he does? Max’s motivation is not nearly as clear cut as in the first game and I just didn’t feel like I had a reason to be doing what I was except to get to the end of the game. There are some other inconsistencies that maybe I’m making up- was it Vinni Cognitti who loved Baseball Bat Boy in the first game? Or his hit-man? Why did they use all new actors? Why does Vlad look like Carson from Queer Eye? What was the point of the case I’m on again? I can’t seem to remember…or maybe it really isn’t that clear. Someone is trying to kill somebody…me? Mona? Once I got to the end, I was glad I got through it, but I just don’t feel that the end justifies the means, or vise versa for that matter. Max is still popping painkillers, though he is no longer the maniac cop hellbent on revenge. You can still kill indiscriminately, but you are not punished for it, even though you are no longer a rogue as in the first game.

The game makes a much bigger use of game-rendered cut scenes this time around, and one comes to wonder why they even retained the graphic novel format, as much of the drama occurs in-game and the comic parts really come off as an afterthought more than anything else. They are really well designed once again, but they just don’t grab you like in Max Payne 1.

Level design is again top notch and the creators were quite clever- the fun house, vinnie’s Captain Baseball Bat Boy outfit, the endless in game conversations. The self-awareness is there again in spades and its never too clever for you to get sick of. Dream sequences are back again but this time lack the horror of the first game. They do make good use of your graphics card and are suitably dream-like but also don’t feel as justified as in max payne 1.

In all, Max Payne 2 is a good sequel to a great game, but with standards so high in the first one, you’d think Rockstar and Remedy would have taken a little more time to make it a truly worthy successor.

Oh, did I mention bullet-time? Its great! The first game chalks it up to Max’s “Heightened awareness” and while max slows down, his crosshair does not. In MP2 Max moves faster with every kill in Bullet-time which really makes no sense at all. Its still a lot of fun and much better executed than even Enter the Matrix. There is also a big mod-scene for Max Payne. The Kung Fu mod for MP1 adds a whole new level of playability and pretty much makes Max Payne what Enter the Matrix could have been.

These games herald in something that I think is slowly going to become a standard in video gaming as people begin to take games as an art form more seriously and more and more people begin talking and writing critically about games. That something is craft. Be it story-telling, playability or addictiveness. I hope that soon the days of purely mindless video game violence will end in exchange for games that cause you to question your motivation, that of your character, good, evil, our own morality and a bunch of other wacky shit. These things are coming. I grant you that there will always be mindlessly violent games, as there are movies, Tv shows and books, but the industry must begin to take itself more seriously and there must be some kind of accountability if it is truly going to become a form of entertainment for both kids and adults. Max Payne is a first baby-step in the right direction.

2 thoughts on “The Fall of Max Payne and the Rise of true storytelling in games.”

  1. Two games I’ve always wanted to play and now must. Btw I like the idea of games evolving as they always should….I feel at times as the graphics/character abilities evolve the overall feel of the games are not and have hit a simplified version of what they could potentially be. I guess it will just take time to bring all the pieces together.

  2. I am revisiting games that I missed out playing in the past. I plan on playing splinter cell and max payne soon.

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