“They were all dead. The final gunshot was an exclamation mark to everything that had led to this point. I released my finger from the trigger. And then it was all over. The storm seemed to lose its frenzy. The ragged clouds gave way to the stars above.”
If someone asks me what Max Payne is, I would just quote the above line from the opening cinematic of the 2001 third person shooter, for the answer to the question lies beneath these words. At the core of Remedy Entertainment’s shooter is stylistic gunplay, character narration fueled by metaphors, similes, analogies and carving path through the blizzard that engulfs New York city as well as the troubled mind of the protagonist. Max Payne may be just a stylized video game for most people. But for me, it’s an art; an amalgamation of film noir and action movies with far-fetched, nihilistic view of the world. With that out of the way, let’s take a look at the 2001 smash hit video game which pioneered story driven third person shooters and yes: the puns are coming.
A History of Payne
It was 1996 and Remedy Entertainment had just released their first game for MS-DOS: Death Rally; a top-down vehicular combat title that received mostly positive reviews. But for future efforts the company wished to expand. For their next venture Remedy wished to continue their working partnership with American-based publisher Apogee Software, which had transitioned to releasing all future games under the name 3D Realms. They decided to focus development on a top-down isometric shooter called Dark Justice. But for the project to take off, they needed a catchy marketable name. The first word of the name was decided to be Max but the studio fell in doubt when choosing the second word. The name Max Payne was chosen from a list of names Remedy mailed to the publisher. 3D realms designer Joe Siegler recalls this moment fondly; “… and I was looking over this list of about thirty to forty names, and BOOM, there was Payne. It was a ‘holy shit!’ moment because I immediately knew it was perfect.”
The studio quickly abandoned the top-down perspective and moved to third person view. One of the many narrative devices brought in by writer Sam Lake was the inclusion of graphic-novel-style cutscenes. Apogee Software founder Scott Miller states that : “I was visiting Remedy and they were showing me a very cool feature they’d added: slow motion enemy deaths. I was immediately struck with the idea that we needed to not just have this slow motion technology be cool eye candy, but that we needed to make it part of actual gameplay. My insistence on this idea got the Remedy team thinking about how to do it, and I suggested having a button the player could press that would shift the game into slow motion mode, with the exception that Max could still aim in real time”. Thus the most iconic aspect of the game; ‘bullet time‘ was born. This mechanics was also the reason the team decided to omit any potential multiplayer features from the game. This also meant that they wouldn’t be able to implement traditional hitscan method of firing and had to render bullets in real time, so that it may complement bullet time.
To accurately capture the look of New York City, Remedy staff members traveled to the famous metropolis, using photographs to create textures for the in-game environments. Lacking motion capture technology and sporting only a moderate budget, the team had to pool every resource possible to create character models (this led to character models having static faces and no lip movement). The face of Max was modeled after the lead writer Sam Lake and now has gone onto become one of the most iconic faces in all of gaming. Other characters and enemies were modeled after the people working in Remedy, 3D Realms and nenarby offices. The combination of adrenaline pumping action gameplay, slick cinematics and a narrative fueled by vengeance proved to be a winner, with Max Payne selling over four million copies. It’s handling of bullet time and gunplay hugely influenced the action genre, with echoes of its design still being seen today.
Remembering The Payne
Max Payne, from start to the very end oozes out an atmosphere of desperation; a struggle to find out answers yet wanting to get out of the snowy hell at the same time. The story is a cruel mistress, who laughs at you more and more as you strip her down to the bones, yet an answer is nowhere to be found. Let’s be frank; going around this glorified wordgame isn’t going to help me or you. So let’s get down to brass tacks and let me explain my relationship with the game of the day.
Like most of the video games released around that time, I didn’t get an opportunity to play Max Payne when it was originally released. One of the reasons was that I lived in a faraway corner of India where no one gave flying squat about video games, and the other being that I was busy being a stubborn little boy who didn’t want to go to school. I’d rather wear an underwear on top of my pants, grab a crudely made bow and arrow and pretend to be Shaktimaan or Batman rather than sit around in a classroom staring at the strange symbols on the blackboard. I got to play Max Payne in around 2003 I guess. I was 10 at the time and my dinosaur pc had passed away. So I used to frequently visit this internet cafe around the corner with my elder cousin to play the likes of Blood 2, Vice City and Turok every Saturday or so. Little did I know that the same system I used to play these games was also harboring the game which I would soon come to know as the Pain of Max. Seriously. That’s what my cousin told me when I asked him what did the title of the game meant. I still wonder whether that was due to his lack of knowledge or was he making fun of my inability to coin together fancy words. But I digress. We started the game up and that music…that music….
By then I had been godsmacked by the soundtracks of Doom, Quake, Fallout and Planescape: Torment. But the only music that was anywhere near close to Max Payne’s music was Jesper Kyd’s chilling theme from Hitman 2:Silent Assassin. But this was a different beast altogether. It was haunting but tranquil, a storm but calm. The theme perfectly set up the tone of the entire game and boy…it was just icing on the cake.
The game starts with a police helicopter hovering towards the titular hero atop a skyscraper towering over the snowcapped structures of New York City. The hero narrates that everything was over and how he made his foes pay in blood for the tragedy that befell his family. It’s one of the few games that starts at the very end, goes back to the beginning and ends where the game started. From this moment you can see the cinematic inspirations for Max Payne. The other standout factor about the game is the constant narration from the hero himself. It’s very different from the likes of Half Life, where the environment sets up the story and uses the player character as the medium to move the story forward. In Max Payne, it’s as if the hero is self conscious to him being in this grand game of revenge, loathing and betrayal. He drives the story forward and fills in the role of a reliable narrator who is effectively voicing over the incidents that took part in the span of a few years. In truth, Max is still standing with the player at the top of the building from the first scene and the events that unfolds are just a faint whiff of memory, like a fart in the wind.But of course, I didn’t understand any of this the first time I played Max Payne. It took me several years of on and off-school learning to ‘git gud’ on my English and I had to go back and experience it again to get the full picture, just like I did with most of the games at the time. It was then that I understood that Max Payne was trying to imitate or to bring to pixels and polygons, two genres of film media. One was film noir, a sub genre in which American crime and detective films released following the second world war followed a thematic trend of dark, downbeat and black visuals in both the frame and the scripts and the other being Hong Kong action flicks of the 80s and 90s.
A Neo-Noir Tragedy
Noir stories were often developed around a cynical, hard-hearted, disillusioned male character [in this case, Detective Max Payne] who encountered a beautiful but promiscuous, amoral, double-dealing and seductive femme fatale [Mona Sax]. “The criminal, violent, misogynistic, hard-boiled, or greedy perspectives of anti-heroes in film noir were a metaphoric symptom of society’s evils, with a strong undercurrent of moral conflict, purposelessness and sense of injustice. There were rarely happy or optimistic endings in noirs”. Max Payne ticks all the right marks. Max Payne, a NYC undercover cop goes rogue in order to find the murderers of his wife and baby child and what he ends up finding is a conspiracy involving an old shadowy organization and a capitalist drugs manufacturer. Remedy used stylized strips of graphic novels with washed out colors in the place of cutscenes to further solidify the noir influences, and used the concept of a snowstorm engulfing NYC as a representation of the evil clouding the eyes and mind of the common people. Hell is often described as being smoldering hot and red, but for Max, hell is nothing but a freezing dark void that is the streets of New York. One foot in grave, and the other in hell.
John Woo Meets The Matrix
While the narrative and tone of the game reflects film noir, the gameplay is a loveletter to Hong Kong action movies and The Matrix which was released two years prior. Hong Kong film director John Woo’s distinct style and the high octane action scenes from his works like Hard Boiled and The Killer serves as a direct influence on Max Payne. The firefights are tense, messy and a hail of bullets and debris. All that’s missing is John Woo’s signature use of doves which are often pictured flying away as the shooting begins. The inspiration from The Matrix comes off directly in the form of Bullet Time; the game’s aptly named slow-motion mechanic. Max Payne was the first game to implement bullet time which was trademarked by Warner Bros 4 years later. Max Payne was also the first game to fully render bullets as 3D objects rather than use the true and tried hitscan method. The word slowly seeps into a crawl when bullet time is activated which lets Max quickly dispatch his foes in succession. This slow-mo mechanic was explained as being Max’s innate superior reflexes developed in his time in the force. Max can also ‘shootdodge’ ; jump into the air with his guns drawn in slow-mo to fire upon enemies and which also let him dodge projectiles. That also means that since bullets travel in real time even in slow-mo, you have to shoot a bit ahead of the actual target if you want to hit anything other than dead air. This bullet time, combined with the chaotic flair that is the shooting and particle effects made the whole thing something unique, a feeling of adrenaline rush only a few games could provide back then. In simpler terms, Max Payne had style as well as substance up its sleeve.
Back then I couldn’t care less about this technical stuff. I just wanted to shoot people in the face. The game had a wide variety of arsenal to choose from, including the signature dual Berettas, sub-machine guns, assault rifles and even a goddamn grenade launcher. But what stood out the most was the game’s take on health pickups. Instead of your standard medkits and first aid kits, you picked up painkillers. That’s right, bottle over bottles of painkillers. Other than looking cool, it helped to bring to light the emotional and physical struggles of the main character. Max was addicted to painkillers. They symbolized his torment when words could not. Max would traverse the treacherous underbelly of New York through abandoned subway stations, seedy hotels and ruined constructions to find the truth behind why his wife and daughter were brutally murdered and unravel a shocking conspiracy involving political higher-ups and both the Italian and the Russian mob while chucking in these little white pills enough to bring a fully grown Grizzly bear down.
The levels would often send a chill down my spine even during the warm days of summer vacation, amidst the many cabins of the internet cafe. Travelling through narrow corridors and hallways, soaking in the smell of danger lurking in the corner, bursting headfirst into a dilapidated door and showering bullets at whatever that moves and watching garbage and rotten wood flying forth in a grenade explosion was a feeling that cannot be recreated today, even through all the cinematic and scripted moments in modern video games. It truly was a coming-of-age sort of experience, a progeny in the storytelling revolution brought forth by Half Life a few years prior.
The Pain of Max Payne
Max Payne wouldn’t be able to pull of all the noir flare and feel if it wasn’t for the presence of the titular hero himself. What separates Max from all the other video game protagonists at the time was that he was neither a badass one-liner spewing hero like Duke Nukem nor an unwilling hero like Gordon Freeman who had to rise up to save the day (depending how you look at it). Max was in this mess because he chose to. He embraced it, acknowledged it. He took upon himself to rid the city of scum like Jack Lupino and Nicole Horne, not for the police department, nor for the good of the common man. He was in it for revenge. Vengeance was Max’s driving force. He did not flinch even for one second even when all hell was breaking loose around him. He just wanted some closure. Heaven, hell and everything in between are all nothing but metaphors for his life and the human race in general. Righteousness was nothing but a stranger; morality, a thin line.
A leather-clad homicide detective with nothing to lose going deep undercover to infiltrate the mafia : That’s the definite way to go about if you want to visualize a gritty crime drama whether it be a movie, a novel or a video game. The very first thing you’ll likely notice when starting up the game is that it’s a work of neo-noir (as explained earlier). Max, being the traumatized and broken individual that he is, tends to narrate everything that happens in an overly poetic and extremely verbose manner. He constantly mutters things like; “Outside the mercury was falling fast. It was colder than the devil’s heart, raining ice pitchforks as if the heavens were ready to fall.” Hearing things like this makes you think.; Jesus that’s a very roundabout way to say that it was cold outside. It might seem ridiculously cheesy to people who aren’t familiar with noir. This contributes greatly to bringing Max closer to the archetypes portrayed by the likes of Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney in post-war movies. Max having such a gravely, or sometimes even goofy voice further solidifies this aspect.
It’s when you start to take the game seriously that Max begins to break the fourth wall considerably with a moment that brings a smile to my face every time I see it (No. I won’t spoil it for you). Max is depicted as being somewhat self-aware of what is happening and throughout the presentation, the game carries its influences on its sleeve and sometimes even outdoes them. Moreover he comes off as highly likable and you just fall in love with his stretched out words and cynical view of the world.
How and Why You Should Experience The Payne
I often regard Max Payne as being the first true successful third person shooters. I might be right, or I might be a narcissistic man-child. But whatever the case, I assure you that if you haven’t played this gem already, then your’e in for a ride. From start to finish, Max Payne proves to be an exhilarating thrill ride both in terms of the highly detailed poetic narrative as well as the high octane action sequences. As far as presentation goes it’s extremely dated today. You have very blocky modeling, simplistic animations, and then-fantastic, now not-so textures. But to me, age is nothing but a number and a state of mind, and I hope you think the same way. If not, you might be willingly passing up on one hell of a game. I’m still surprised as to why no other game tried to take influence from the presentation of Max Payne; from the graphic novel strips to the symbolic narration. No other game has pulled off neo-noir like Max Payne, not even its sequels (Max Payne 3 is a different animal and that’s a story for another day). I fondly remember Max Payne and partially owe my half-baked graphic novel venture to it.
All you need to do to run the game is grab it from Steam (as of now, Humble Bundle is offering a nice deal for all three games in the series). Install the game, glance over the community forums for the fix for modern systems (trust me. It’s hard to miss it). Install the fix and hope on and experience 8 hours of awesomeness. If I haven’t stressed it deep enough already, the game still holds up rather well and I played through it again to write this piece, and you know what? The opening scene still gave me the shivers.
Ranting on this much about Max Payne makes me want to play it again and so should you. We’ll meet again next week with a brand new (well, technically old) game on Retro Saturdays.