When one wants to analyse something, the proper way to go about it is by picking its components apart and demonstrating how they do (or don’t) work together. What do you get, then, when you try to show how Hong Kong action cinema, Norse mythology, corporate conspiracy, drug abuse, two metric tonnes of hardboiled sardonicism and a BAFTA award go together? Well, you get Remedy Entertainment’s Max Payne.
On the surface, Max Payne doesn’t come across as a particularly brilliant item of videogame history. My first taste of it was discovering that on modern operating systems (anything after Windows 7, word has it) the sound will not work and the game requires an overhaul patch to get everything up to speed. Bothersome, but when you live in a flat where playing pirated Mario Kart games on a Wii U emulator is a past-time, these things are second nature. More baffling is the game’s plot, whose premise has seen so much use it might as well be its own genre by now: NYPD cop goes home to find wife and newborn daughter brutally murdered by drug-addicts, and he goes undercover with the DEA to find those responsible.
Max Payne is filled with incongruences that should have completely unmade the experience. The first of these – and perhaps my favourite – is seeing Max’s family be brutally murdered in a cutscene, admittedly an emotionally heavy and dark episode in the protagonist’s life… Not particularly well reflected by the shit-eating grin he wears on his face throughout the rest of the game, courtesy of writer Sam Lake. That’s right, I forgot to say – the later games in the series (Fall of Max Payne, and Max Payne 3) portray Max in the likeness of his voice-actor, James McCaffrey, but in this first entry Max’s face is none other than the writer’s. A stroke of genius, depending on how you look at it – the game constantly flirts with the fourth wall, with a highlight of the story being later on that Max’s life is completely out of his control, being led by foreign wills. What better way to convey this than to acknowledge he’s being driven by a mysterious, higher entity (the player) and to give him his maker’s likeness?
A step further in nit-pickiness, Max’s attire choices make him look ten years older as a cop in a tie, at the start of the game, than as a punk in a leather jacket for its remainder. Things become stranger yet when he assumes McCaffrey’s face in the second and third games, making this first entry seem more like The Young Max Payne Chronicles than otherwise. Perhaps if Sam Lake ever returns to the franchise he’ll find the room to add a twist involving a defective body-double between the first and second games.
These small, superficial incoherencies don’t ruin the experience, obviously – on the contrary, I’d say they give Max Payne a third of its charm. Far from feeling lazy, these extravagancies form a sort of ‘stylistic sarcasm’ to echo its protagonist’s. How seriously can you take, at face-value, a scene where a prostitute stops mid-blowjob to pull out a gun and shoot at a man with a porn-star’s name? (Funnily enough, the game’s working titles ‘Dick Justice’ and ‘Max Heat’ do appear in the second game – as porn films). This tongue-in-cheek attitude is the only way our protagonist, and the game itself, can face the increasingly absurd situations he’s placed in. Enter the Norse mythology elements of the plot, with secret government projects carrying names like ‘Valhalla’ and ‘Valkyrie’ (Scandinavian paganism is weirdly in vogue these days, with Thor: Ragnarok, American Gods, Hellblade and the upcoming God of War digging their teeth into it).
More bothersome, though, are mechanical incongruences which aren’t absent here. The combat is infinitely addictive and the slow-motion bullet-time feature the best thing since figuratively-sliced bread, but rough edges gradually become noticeable here and there. The weapon selection is fairly extensive, with more killing implements than it feels proper to comment on, but these are not balanced terribly well. The first few guns you find will become obsolete roughly-halfway through the game (shotguns in particularly seem to start shooting peas instead of buckshot after a certain point, and there’s no sane reason to use the single Beretta pistol when you can wield two at once).
If you were limited in the amount of weapons you can carry, of course, this would feel like progression. Far Cry 2 comes to mind, where you start out with two or three very crude weapons, but end up with much higher-end versions of these items. The problem in Max Payne is that you get to carry all your useless weapons with you throughout the game (and find them across each map) but will mostly only need one or two of them, which just leaves a bad aftertaste. This is somewhat salvaged by the combat, nevertheless, simply because you’ll be constantly tempted to play around with different weapons in bullet-time. Interestingly, this third-person shooter with pistol-wielding, acrobatic men in leather jackets was in development a good deal of time before the release of The Matrix, suggesting perhaps that there was simply something in the tap water of the late 1990s that put the aesthetic in everyone’s minds. The game’s philosophy towards combat, I think, is well illustrated by its ubiquitous use of the Ingram machine-pistol, which can famously eat through a magazine in about two seconds: Max Payne is not about surgical violence, but about spectacle and extravagance. This, I would add, it does much better than other games who pride themselves in giving the player a firework buffet of varying lethal calibres, only to smack him in the back of the head for using them (this is something that plagues most stealth games, from Dishonored to Deus Ex to Metal Gear Solid, but that’s a discussion for another day). Max is, by his own admittance, so far gone that one of the biggest joys in the story for him comes from finding out he’s ultimately justified in massacring hundreds of people when he discovers it will bring down a shadowy government conspiracy. Not that it matters to him, of course: he is a man driven by impulse and emotions he can’t rationally explain (these being, of course, us controlling him from behind the screen). He, like us the players, is really doing this for the bloodbath and the kicks he gets out of enabling it.