At first I didnʼt understand Max Payne at all. It seemed that Rockstar had thrown the titles through the current gen wash: a new cover system, crisp production value, and a swanky multiplayer suite at face speak to the need to fulfill the expectations of a demographic whose demands have ballooned unreasonably. In a way it has. Max Payne 3 perfectly encapsulates the dissonance games have come to harbor. It is the kind of experience I will never have in any other medium, but one I was no better for having.

The real conflict of any video game narrative is how it connects to what youʼre actually doing while playing it: many games have excellent stories, series of interconnected plot points that can be inherently interesting and keep the action jogging, but this is decidedly different from narrative, the flow of feelings and ideas those plot points tug at. You can set up a stoic war story whose plot beats can be realistic, interesting, and memorable, but itʼs an altogether different proposition to ask those moments to speak to any larger feelings when you connect them with a gameplay mechanic as crass as shooting a gun. Shooting a gun is shooting gun: itʼs not about regret, loneliness, or self-hatred, though it can be informed by it.

So, good games work hard to inform their gameplay with these ideas, contextualizing them with moments that keep them moving in a way that makes sense. Games are ultimately about gameplay and mechanics, but story gives those elements the context that can change the way those mechanics feel. Good games understand the gravity that story and narrative can have on a game mechanic, find a way to connect them, and seldom separate them without good reason.

Max Payne 3 is the antithesis of this synthesis and revels in it, creating an experience that only a video game could offer. It is a game whose mechanics and narrative actively tear one another down, undermining each other after every moment. Max Payne 3 embraces its medium as incapable of itself, a toilet flush of absurdity and uncomfortable realism.

In taking the series to Sao Paulo, Rockstar has strongarmed a reality into Max Payne 3 that doesnʼt belong there. The rich-poor disparity is ever present in Max Payne, and it seems ridiculous that a game bookended with social commentary on a penthouse party and a smug politician paying his way through a corrupt court system should ever be a vessel for a game about a man who constantly lurches everywhere in slow motion. Max is a cop whoʼs lost his wife and daughter, a drug user and alcoholic. Itʼs from this background that he leaps off rooftops, slows down time, and keeps upright while visibly riddled with bullets.

But the game is boldfaced about this disconnect. In his three games, Max has become a cynical sociopath. He vacillates between self-hatred and quippy one liners, deep cynicism and bad word play. Max might contemplate his motives one moment and then kill nine guys in a row while falling from a water tower. This schism in tone detracts from every element, but itʼs also so noticeable that the incompatibility comes to define the mood in a way I hadnʼt thought possible.

And the game as it is could only exist now. The elements of realism are a product of hitting the expectations of what a big game should sound, play, look, and feel like in 2012. It is polished to a ridiculous degree, and that meticulous attention is much to blame for the contrast to the gameplay.

The presentation of it all is even more jarring. The paneled transitions, the emphatic text, the filtered screen jitters, itʼs in service of nothing more than style. The music is feverishly ambient, reinforcing a feeling that matches neither the narrative nor the gameplay but something else entirely, diluting the tone even more. The wailing guitar of “Torture” stands against the tribal rhythm of “Painkiller”.

In noir fashion Max Payne 3ʼs plot starts with a homeric task: protect the beautiful woman. By its end the plot unravels into an unruly conspiracy, a toilet flush of events that reinforces Maxʼs shitty behavior. Between those extremes Max kills indiscriminately, moving from rich environment to poor environment, always killing irrespective of wealth or common sense. When the game is at its best, all the death is an agonizing experience, one thatʼs not fun at all. In one scene as Max begins to over-drink in a favela strip club, heʼs disturbed by a gang of locals, whoʼve want this stranger out of their usual spot. As one of the gang members begins to annoy Max, a sequence is initiated where the player must shoot and kill the gang member, everyone in the club, and anyone throughout the favela Max sees after that. This killing of people who might not deserve it happens more than once throughout the eight hour campaign, and I died often throughout.

Itʼs these sequences, where Max over retaliates, when the game seems brilliant. Max is a terrible person and has lost the ability to care: this realization makes a slow-mo rampage fueled by drugs and booze feel wrong, dickish, and appropriate. The pill popping, the last-death kill cams, the constant failure and punishing checkpoints, it all seems surreal and awful, and I canʼt wait for it to end. As an experience, it delivers a narrative as best it could.

But for the most part Max Payne 3 coalesces in a much more dissonant way. It plays as a story about an old, balding man in life crisis by giving us the power to murder scores of people playfully. The mixture is asinine, brutal, and undermining, but achieves a tone all its own. In fact, the experience of Max Payne could only exist in a medium where it wouldnʼt seem out of place to suddenly have the protagonist dive twelve feet in slow motion––in a place where we can mix the most absurd and cynical of human inclinations. To seriously try to manage a meter that tracks our ability to slow down time right after a man has been burned to death in front of our eyes. To lament at the foot of your wife and daughterʼs fresh grave, then credulously use it for cover and dive over it once the destructible bullet physics has eaten it away like termites.

Max Payne 3 is a series of problems whose solutions always come by way of death. It constantly kills you and asks you to kill other people. It would immediately feel stupid in any other form, but as a video game it becomes strangely smart, a master of its medium. The shooting never becomes fun, and the ideas of pain, loneliness, and regret never hit home. Instead, the incompatibility creates something new, an uncomfortable downward spiral that is a spectacle unto itself. In a tale of black market organ dealers, political intrigue, and betrayal, the raw absurdity of diving over tables with dual pistols is both tempered and amplified. A paradox at its heart, I believe nothing else could produce the same effect quite as wonderfully, quite as uselessly.

QR Code
QR Code max_payne_3 (generated for current page)