Split Screen Series: Reflections on Max Payne 3

Max Payne Pic 1

Split Screen Series is a critical dialogue of videogames by Justin Keever of Virtual Narrative and Miguel Penabella of Invalid Memory, investigating the stories, themes, aesthetic choices, gameplay, and formal properties of videogame art.

Justin Keever: People often forget the utter absurdity of the original Max Payne – the prolix monologues of the eponymous hero obscure a profoundly stupid noir-ish story of an undercover cop with an eternal smirk squaring off against corrupt city officials and Italian-American stereotypes over the distribution of a drug called Valkyr, whose effect is not unlike that of bath salts laced with Scarecrow’s fear gas. Max is forcibly injected with this drug at several points during the game, and in the final of the accompanying “trip” sequences he suddenly becomes conscious of the UI elements that surround him, finally coming to the grand realization that he is a character in a videogame – a realization that he doesn’t seem to carry with him when he returns to a state of lucidity. Neither Max nor the game he belongs to are invested in exploring the implications of this newfound self-awareness; it’s just an iota of absurdity buried in an abundance.

Max Payne 3 is perhaps best explained as the residual effect of that cognizance. Loosed from Remedy’s penchant for ludicrousness and absorbed by neo-Rockstar’s proclivity towards straight-faced drama, Max Payne is finally imprisoned in a world that’s less parodic than it is abjectly cruel. Max Payne 3’s São Paulo is a world of puppeteers, where the poor and desperate fall victim to the whims of the rich and petty in the name of microscopic gains in power – a world of deep systemic corruption whose agents permeate every level of society, like sickly veins extending from a diseased heart. Self-determination is a myth, a falsity for all but the affluent and empowered. And Max Payne 3 is a power fantasy, but not merely in the sense that it stars a man of supernatural killing ability: its power fantasy runs deeper, aligning the player with the puppeteers that perpetuate the system that you are ostensibly helping Max fight.

Why did you play Max Payne 3? I’m almost certain it wasn’t to enjoy the dismantling of a fictional corruption. It was because of the action. And you’re not to be blamed: the physical feeling of controlling Max’s trigger finger as he dives in slow motion is one of the most pleasurable experiences of any action game, period. But to control Max is to be the epitomic puppeteer; for when the player has agency, Max has none.

Max Payne 3 has the least challenging quick time events of any game I’ve ever played. Whereas most games use quick time events as a means of ensuring the player is paying attention, and testing their instinctual mastery of their controller’s layout, Max Payne 3’s QTEs just linger, waiting for the player to press start to play. A commonality amongst these QTEs: every single one ends with a death. With the element of challenge so utterly deemphasized in these sequences, one can’t help but wonder why these murders are playable. The answer is simple: Max Payne is not a killer. Every trigger pull, every blunt force trauma, every action that Max takes that ultimately proves fatal is initiated by the player. The Max Payne we control during gameplay simply isn’t the Max that we watch struggle in cutscenes: the Max we play is elegant and skilled, the Max we watch is drunken and clumsy; the Max we play is vicious and spiteful, the Max we watch is almost merciful. This is the game’s ultimate cruelty: a twisted duality wherein a broken man is called into action against his will to perform evils he never commits of his own accord for the entertainment of an omniscient force he can’t resist; for I too am Max Payne, I own him more than he owns himself.

Max himself acknowledges as much in a brief flash-forward in the first cutscene:

“I guess I’d become what they wanted me to be: a killer. Some rent-a-clown with a gun who puts holes in other bad guys. But that was what they had paid for, so in the end, that’s what they got. Say what you want about Americans, but we understand capitalism: you buy yourself a product and you get what you pay for. And these chumps had paid for an angry gringo without the sensibilities to know right from wrong.”

The lack of context changes the context: this flash-forward serves the dual purpose of promising violence, and acknowledging what the player literally paid for. We didn’t pay for Max, we paid for an avatar – a puppet with the capability of violence, without the means to protest the things we make them do. But the nebulous “they” that Max refers to doesn’t simply mean the player. Max speaks of all the people who’ve used him – the people who exist within the diegesis with him, that is – structuring Max’s life, and his game, by giving him orders. Their control always ends in death: the Brancos aim, the player shoots, and Max is left with the guilt.

The resulting game feels like a bizarre inverse of the anti-shooter: the complicity of the player in the game’s violence is deemphasized as the player-character internalizes their own sense of blame (compare this to Spec Ops: The Line or Kane and Lynch 2, where the desperate self-righteousness of the player-characters refracts that same blame towards the player). The violence is vulgar and horrific but immensely enjoyable, each killcam evoking a deep, animalistic satisfaction of which I hardly feel any shame of while playing. But Max’s comment hangs over every gunshot, a condemnation of my perverse enjoyment. And when the red leaves my vision, replaced with the faded purples and greens of the color separation of Max’s drinking binges, I can’t help but feel responsible.

Max Payne Pic 2

Miguel Penabella: One thing that’s always impressed me about Max Payne 3 is the profound character growth that occurs in the space of about ten hours considering the titular character’s stasis in Remedy Entertainment’s previous two games. Like the amusingly permanent smirk you mentioned, Max remains doggedly stuck in place. Here’s a character so mired in the past that the triumphant restoration at the last act of Rockstar’s entry to the series feels so refreshingly earned. Now, I haven’t fully completed the first two Max Payne games, but I know enough about Max’s hardboiled, brooding inertia in those stories that I can really appreciate the forward push towards sun-drenched salvation here. That’s not to say Max Payne 3 loses touch of its cynical noir rhythms; it just pushes deeper into the extremes of neo-noir.

Painting on a huge canvas with a heftier budget and relocating the series to an unfamiliar locale, Rockstar reinvigorates a previous generation relic with assured stylistic and narrative focus. Max Payne 3 stands tall as one of the medium’s best-executed contemporary crime stories, analogous to a top tier Tony Scott film like Man on Fire or a Michael Mann epic like Heat. The game looks and feels gritty, with expressive imagery and a finely defined sense of place. I often think of that masterpiece Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days as an equivalent work, matching Max Payne 3’s deep-set cynicism and ultimate dourness starkly thrown against a ramshackle foreign setting. Here, Rockstar crafts an aesthetic of poverty, seemingly eye-pleasing but rotting from within. The dilapidating favela canyons of São Paulo are like a corrective to Remedy’s titles, swapping the cold streaks of nighttime darkness for sunny baroque grandstanding. Indeed, the booming grandeur and thunderous report of bullets that define its gunplay spills into the realm of reflexive excess. Justin, I like your remark observing that the game’s power fantasy stems from puppeteering a reluctant protagonist in the service of satiating player bloodlust. The ensuing aftermath of a protracted shootout strengthens this argument, indulgently and voyeuristically lingering on the player’s inflicted carnage to the last man standing in fetishizing slow motion killcam. Make no mistake: this savage stylistic flourish breaks from Max’s subjectivity for the express purpose of titillating the player’s privileged perspective. Yes, Max Payne 3 is the inverse anti-shooter, condemnatory of its violence but simultaneously and paradoxically exhilarating to play. It’s less Spec Ops: The Line as it is Hotline Miami.

The reductive, nonsensical argument frequently alludes to the damaging term “ludonarrative dissonance” as a means to undermine this tension between repulsion and pleasure, reluctance and aplomb. Writers criticize Max’s seemingly contradictory attitude towards killing and his eventual violence as jarring and invalidating rather than investigate the thematic effect of this binary tension. Rockstar’s decided positioning at a crossroads between player and character makes Max’s perpetually hungover state feel all the more meaningful. This is a man losing control of his motor actions yet gracefully gliding through space like a rehearsed ballet seconds later. Identity here is fluid, unfixed. The pseudo-comic strip cutscenes that go out of focus or depict a distorted doubling effect not only visualize Max’s intoxicated state but a fracturing identity torn between the worlds of the diegesis and the player. These tensions reflect an authored story with carefully considered visual schema and certainly not any kind of unintentional dissonance. To call Max Payne 3 anything like “grounded” or steeped in “realism” is fallacious; this game boasts hyperbolic, baroque styling self-conscious of its inconsistencies and uninterested in total order.

Obviously the finest example to demonstrate Max Payne 3’s gratifying baroque craft is its cathartic airport shootout, a sprawling action sequence that easily stands as the mother of all videogame gunfights. In a decade’s time we may reflect on this sequence as a landmark in assertively directed videogame shootouts, something that the medium has curiously struggled to execute with confidence. I honestly can’t recall any particularly remarkable, tightly crafted shootouts in videogames other than the deliciously authored on-rails nightclub sequence in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, capturing the sheer sense of kineticism and brute physicality in sumptuous slow motion. Bodies are constantly in movement, and the excellent choice to back this entire segment with the distorted synths of HEALTH’s “Tears” is simply praiseworthy. Not many games use licensed music to their advantage; it demarcates a regular shootout from a show-stopping set-piece with a distinct mood and style in mind.

Experiencing Max Payne 3 entails a world of tensions and thematic bifurcations. It’s a work of urgent artistry, both an introduction of its hardboiled world to a new, high definition generation and a culmination of the grimier imaginings that came before. Rockstar elevates Remedy’s pulp genre franchise with more loaded ideas and more expressive moments, remarkably lucid yet ultimately blurred with an aesthetic of sundering intoxication. Yet the game foregrounds this dissonance rather than back away from it. We enter Max’s world to escape our own reality even as he longs to break free from his misery; his restoration at the conclusion of the game means returning to our own lives.

Justin Keever: I must admit surprise, Miguel, that of all of the salient observations you just made, the one that sticks out to me the most is the thematic significance of the doubling effect at work in the distorted cutscenes. It’s a motif that, now illuminated, is entirely obvious – I can scarcely believe I was unable to connect that aesthetic choice to a theme that I was attuned to.

Thus, your comment led me to reconsider the significance of the distortion effect, specifically, the lack thereof during the games myriad firefights. There’s an easy functionalist understanding of this aesthetic choice: it is hard to shoot people while color-separation effects alter the image you need to read and immediately comprehend in order to shoot said people. But that explanation is as reductive as it is boring. The distortion effects of Max Payne 3’s cutscenes, to my mind, act as a visual manifestation of Max’s own elevated consciousness: it is not just his fractured self, but his singular cognizance of his own fractured identity is what is expressed via that distortion. So that lack of visual effects during shootouts is not simply a means to facilitate murder, but an act of suppression.  20th century philosopher Peter Zapffe conceived of four principal strategies by which humans go about minimizing our own consciousness. In Max Payne 3, shootouts act as the third of these strategies: Distraction, or “to keep our minds unreflective in a world of horrors we distract them with a world of trifling or momentous trash” (Ligotti). Max Payne 3 is, for you and me, that momentous trash: the pointless media we drown ourselves in to forget ourselves for as long as we can. Games are perhaps the lowest form of this trash, as they can, after all, exist as pure tests of skill or thematically empty escapist life-sim garbage. A cynic could argue that Max Payne 3 skirts the line of the former during its shootouts, which, as we’ve already stated, are immensely enjoyable in their own right: so much so as to let the player forget about the tortured man at the center of it all. But there’s a sense in which these firefights are just as much a distraction to Max as they are to us; it’s hard to think about one’s fractured sense of self when death by bullet is an immediate threat. As perverse as it is to think of ultraviolence as a means of comfort, especially given the toll it takes on Max, its secondary meaning is, to me, fully tangible. They are the moments where Max lets go, surrenders his own mind to the will of the player. And for one moment, he and I are united in distracted relief. But, for both of us, the effect is transient.

I can think only of one moment where the nature of Max’s tortured existence escapes the man himself. Just once, our hero laments that the easy way out never comes for him: the elusive bullet to the head, the sudden violent end that he so readily provides for waves of impoverished gangsters and empowered police thugs never seems to give him the quick release from life that he so desperately wants. And yet, it has, over and over again: I’ve seen more gruesome triptychs of Max’s demise than I could hope to count. In the past, I’ve considered this the curse of the videogame character:  combat as a purgatorial loop of death and rebirth, an endeavor that must be surmounted, for the unnatural will of the player commands it. I’m starting to turn around on that opinion. Because what Max doesn’t realize is that death isn’t an ending, not for him: the final shot of the sunset, HEALTH soundtrack blaring, is his ending. So take solace, Max. Your consciousness is resolved by the end of your narrative. The real can only dream of distorted sunsets.

Miguel Penabella: With violence comes Payne. Your pensive observations, Justin, on the nature of violence as a means for our tortured hero to take his mind briefly away from his own personal demons and divert attention towards fight-or-flight basics surely evokes an expressive, noirish plight as dour as it is cathartically redemptive. These shootouts certainly do feel like moments of sobering clarity; they’re Max’s sole opportunity to capture a sense of control in an otherwise remorseless, taxing world. Perhaps it’s all wordplay and elementary semiotics, but I’ve always found provoking the incessant return to painkillers to prolong the violent gunfights under threat of death. Max only knows a life of personal grief and loss, and to take painkillers means to find temporary reprieve from this trauma, a severing from the inner conflict that defines his character and plagues him throughout this series. It’s a Paynekiller, a resource to unshackle himself from his own identity and into the skilled hands of the player once more.

But this quality of life is ultimately ruinous, self-deprecating, and bursting apart at the seams. During one of Max Payne 3’s handful of flashback sequences, one can spy scribbled on a note and tacked on the wall of a murky local haunt in Hoboken the words, “The dream is over.” The narrative context is that Max has just met for the first time his South American connection Raul Passos, and is now deliberating on his future course of action. Max awakens from his lethargic slumber when the player takes control again, rousing him from self-decay in a bottle. The dream is over; the long goodbye begins. From a literary and cinematic groundwork, we begin in the realm of noir storytelling. This series has always fixated us within the subjectivity of a brooding, solitary figure shouldering a sense of moral culpability and an expectedly downbeat outlook on the world. We become familiar with the kind of troubled, restless minds drowning in alcohol and painkillers, vanquishing each night the shivers that crawl from Out of the Past just so we can live In a Lonely Place. Max exists not within the folds of upstanding action hero storytelling, but in an environment where corruption and violence become endemic, and the only human response is to lash out in contempt. There’s recovery in rampage, even if it means embracing the abyss that breeds monsters out of men. From the disconsolate cynics of Raymond Chandler to the rough sleepers of Paul Schrader, many hearts beat the same blood.

The only way out is through, so Max must forge through hell and back because you don’t rest in the valley of the shadow of death, you walk. This valley is steel and glass, monstrous canyons that encompass a big angry city threatening to consume the frail and powerless. Fighting against its countless evils seems like a Sisyphean task, but to bastardize Albert Camus, “The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Max happy.” Every forward push breaks down the trauma that’s haunted Max for so long. The player simply guides him, hand-in-hand, towards the light of a new day, one agonizing onslaught at a time. His surroundings are a world of criminality and poverty, percolating with the resultant malice that endangers any chance at peaceful resolution. Max willfully sets foot in cities of perdition, but only because purgation lies near at hand. Noir fiction writer Raymond Chandler wrote about exactly these kinds of hard-won, internalized personal struggles. “A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness,” he explains. “It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn’t have one. I didn’t care. I finished the drink and went to bed.” And therein emerges Max Payne 3.

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