Friday, June 14, 2013

Notes on Max Payne 3 (or, Brendan Tries To Explain Why Max Payne 3 Is The Best Game He Has Played This Year)

1. Max Payne 3 is the most pleasurable videogame I've played all year. 'Pleasurable' in the sense that I hate using the word 'fun' as a qualifier for a good videogame but don't really have a choice here. Max Payne 3 is just a pleasure to play. I played it for the first time earlier this year when Xbox Live was selling the digital copy for $5. Just this week I decided to play through a second time. Not on a harder difficulty. Not to unlock or complete more side quests or achievements or anything. I just wanted to go through the motions a second time, to experience it a second time, watch Max's body in its world a second time.

2. Max's body. I could talk forever about Max's body. Rockstar get that a third-person game character's body is as much a spectacle to be looked at as a vehicle to control. They know how to give that body weight. Max controls well and, importantly, he looks good as you control him. He is meaty. He is heavy. He is not just a model with a dot-point list of moves; he is a body that exists in and reacts to a world. He is a presence. It's in the way he tenses and breathes out as a cut scene bleeds into gameplay. It's in the way he holds his two-handed gun by the barrel in his other hand while firing his pistol, in the way he has to drop that gun if he wants to hold two pistols, in the way he wedges that gun under his shoulder while reloading the pistol. It's in the constant changing of his body as the game progresses—in both injuries and clothes. It's in the way you have pull yourself off the ground after a dive. It's in the way he screams "God damn it!" at a locked door at the end of the penultimate level. It is a pleasure to watch yourself control Max.

3. Max Payne 3 is a cinematic game. It is a game that is about the pleasure of moving images as much as it is about control. It is a game about making things look cool.

4. The pornographic fixation on gore and violence is gratuitous but unlike in, say, Bioshock: Infinite, doesn't feel out of place. It feels like it belongs here, for better or worse. I don't think I really need to follow the last bullet from my gun to the final dude's face and out the other side, but there's something undeniably and ashamedly attractive about it all the same. The dynamism. The slow-mo gratuitous deaths are rendered more... bearable because they 'actually' happen in the world. If you keep pulling the trigger to pump more slow-mo bullets into that corpse you will be wasting real bullets.

5. The use of slow-mo and bullet time generally means the world is rendered in immaculate detail. Countless little props waiting to be knocked over by stray bullets. Every skirmish leaves an incidental mess in its wake. A mess that is ironically satisfying to stop and stare at once the fight is done. "I did that."

6. Not being able to go straight from prone (after diving through the air) to in cover is a pain. Having to stand fully erect between the two animations is a huge irritation, and the only time the game reminds me that Max is indeed just a character model with a finite number of moves and not a fluid, existing body.

7. Why do I love some shooters but despise others? It's all in how well the game does what it tries to do. So many games want to be 'about' something else and just use generic shooting gameplay to fill in the gaps because they don't know what else to put there. Max Payne 3 is a game about shooting. It knows it is a shooter and it focuses all its energy on being a good shooter in the way Die Hard spends all its energy on being a good action film (yes, I just called Max Payne 3 the Die Hard of videogames).  For all of Max's waxing poetic and moping, it's all within the self-referential frame of game about a guy who shoots a bunch of people. "I'm a dumb move kind of guy," max says towards the end. He knows exactly what he is.

8. Related, Max Payne 3 is a videogame that isn't ashamed to be a videogame. Videogames present so many tropes that players use to stitch together a reality. We know that a medkit 'represents' a character recovering from their injuries. All those individual bullets that our character shrugged off 'represent' near misses that we can make sense in our head. When we play videogames we use our imagination to fill in the gaps of what 'really' happened. We don't suspend disbelief so much as we actively make the game make sense. Which is why I find Max Payne 3 so fascinating because it is less concerned with the player making the world make sense but in Max as a character ignoring the things the player usually has to ignore. The most obvious example is the use of painkillers instead of a medkit. Max doesn't get better from his injuries. He ignores them. He suppresses the pain. In the next cut scene his clothes are still red from where actual bullets passed through his body. But fuck it. He is a playable character. That's what playable characters go through. he just pushes on.
But it also shines through more subtly throughout the game. It's in the way Max acknowledges the simply bizarre number of enemies running at him. In the way he makes explicitly thoughtless decisions to keep getting in a mess. In a way, Max Payne 3 is about the curse that is being the playable character in a AAA game: you are going to do some nasty shit and you going to be a not very good person. It doesn't make sense. Just take some pain killers and push through.

9. I say in Killing is Harmless, I think, that what Spec Ops: The Line changed for me was not that I would no longer play shooters, but that I could no longer accept that the character in a shooter is a good guy. Max is not a good guy. He is the kind of guy that the main character of a shooter would have to be. He is the kind of guy that shoots first then realises maybe he shouldn't have shot the gangster's kid later but damn it felt good so whatever.

10. Also on Spec Ops, Max Payne 3 is the kind of game I really enjoy but can totally see why others might hate it, and I couldn't fault them for it.

11. Max Payne 3 has a conflicted core when it comes to the depiction of poverty. It acknowledges in passing the socioeconomic reasons why kids (well, at least boys) will join gangs in Sao Paulo. it acknowledges that systems of capitalism mean the rich get richer and the poor get desperate. Max snidely comments on a rooftop party of rich people drinking cocktails looking down over the favelas as  a trickle down economy. Yet, despite the occasional quips, the game is still happy to play into the same tropes for the majority of the game where you shoot a whole bunch of dark-skinned gangsters. Max himself acknowledges this is problematic, but the game doesn't.
Though, I do like that it is ultimately the rich people that are at fault, that Max feels some kind of allegiance with the people of the favela. I like that Serrano is allowed to walk away. I like that when Passos says "How many are there??" at one point, Max replies flatly, "How many kids want new sneakers?" I like that when Max walks into the favela, there is the only non-violent sequence in the whole game, that the game makes us stop and tells us, hey, this is a generic and cool place for an action game or film to have skirmishes, but also real people live here, okay? Max and the player are made to feel like outsiders before they shoot up the favela like every other American action hero in South America. But for all its acknowledgements of social issues, you still spend a lot of the game shooting evil poor people.

12. Women aren't treated any better. Max Payne 3 found itself in the second episode of "Tropes vs Women in Videogames", and rightly so. I enjoy the game's story and Max's development over it greatly, but there is no denying that it heavily relies on the damsel trope. Women are reduced to objects against which masculinity can be commented on. Discussing heterosexual, masculine identities through relationships isn't a problem, but it is when it is such a dominant, commonly repeated trope at the expense of fleshed our representations of other identities. There are no women in Max Payne 3 who are no victims of violence waiting for Max to try to save them. Yes, that is Max's schtick: reacting against women being beaten/killed/kidnapped. But the fact that is his schtick is hugely problematic.

13. Rockstar are often commended on the sheer size of their worlds, but it is their attention to minute detail that I fall for. Any single square foot of space in any Max Payne 3 level will be busy with litter, rubble, signs, rust, shelves, props. The dilapidated hotel is alive with rubble. The favela is a sprawling mess of dead ends and chicken coops and buildings stacked impossibly on buildings. There is one bit where some old plastic chairs are atop a corrugated iron roof in a makeshift balcony. So much excruciating detail that brings the world to life.

14. I didn't notice the game's music for my entire first play of the game until TEARS started playing on the final level in the airport. Max has walked into this airport giving no fucks, storming into the passenger terminal. It is the first and only time in the game that he is doing something on his own accord. No more blindly trying to rescue someone else. No more just going where De Silva points him. He is here because he wants to kill a man, and he is pissed off. You move through the terminal and the vocals emerge just as you start to gain ground over the UFE. It just fits.
For the rest of the game, Health's soundtrack is flat and dull, but always in a good way. It perfectly mirrors Max's drug-softened senses. Like the music of a much livelier action game being played two houses away. Even as action picks up, the music hardly does. Maybe adding a drum beat or a guitar to the drone. Always slightly disinterested and not quite there. Just like Max.

15. Ah. The airport. I love how pathetic Max feels by that point. He always knew he was pathetic but that self-loathing just made him even more pathetic and by the final stages he has finally realised it. Marching into that police station (well, marching out of it) is a good start, but Max is still doing what he is told to do, and he still doesn't get his pay off at the end. The rage with which he yells "God damn it" at that door is equal parts frightening and therapeutic because your character finally has some emotional release (watching Max go off at the organ harvesting doctor is up there, too). But it is when he just walks into that airport that Max is on the front foot. It's like, right, this character has had a real mess of a life and he is not a good person but here he can finally just do what he wants to do. And he does. He kills everyone in the airport, picks up a grenade launcher, chases down the main bad guy, and breaks his legs. It's not 'good' by any stretch, but Max getting his way, just this once, is a good place to end things. As he walks off into the sunset, there is no more voice over narration. There's nothing more to say. He got his way.

16. I have a thing for non-diegetic writing. I like words splashed on my screen in a stylistic matter utterly disinterested in 'immersion'. I loved it in Splinter Cell Conviction, in the way it was like a projector splashing Fisher's thoughts and memories on every surface like the game is an exploration of a conflicted mind. Max Payne 3 doesn't try to put its words 'in' the world; it just splashes them on top of it. I think perhaps they could've been more restrained with the approach. Some of the words they highlight as not as clever as they think they are. But I like the idea and, for the most part, I love the execution. I guess I just like words.

17. Max Payne 3 is the first game I've played for a very, very long time that I will concede, yes, probably is better on a PC. The pixel-wide crosshair demands pinpoint accuracy. The need in places to shoot grenades out of midair is near impossible on a controller without aim-assist.
But the aim-assist is great and makes the game perfectly playable, to be sure—except when it decides to lock on to that guy behind the pillar instead of the three in plain sight. The lock-on-to-torso and need to manually aim for the head is a good compromise of Max looking like a badass and the player feeling like a badass. I also was not too concerned with pinpoint accuracy, and was far more interested in creating an interesting, chaotic mess of a gunfight, much like in Tomb Raider. But another run of the game on a harder difficulty with only free-aim is not something I will be doing with a controller.

18. I liked finding the bits of golden guns but Christ I hate having to carry golden guns around. I liked the extra story elements of the clues on each level.

19. It is hard to over-estimate the sheer polish of the presentation. The way all the things I've already talked about come together to create this seamless experience from start to end. The care in modelling a different Max for nearly every level. The blood on his t-shirt from when he got punched in the face on the previous level, still lingering. The care paid to the world. The care paid to the music. Max Payne 3 is one of those cinematic blockbuster games where it all just comes together to be a work that—for the most part—is a joy to just sit back and have wash over you.

20. So many games over the past two years have turned me off with unnecessary boss battles. With maybe two exceptions, all of Max Payne 3's notable bad guys are given insignificant cut scene deaths, or have 'boss battles' that simply ask you to kill all the dudes around them. No glory. Just dead and move on. I loved the ambivalence.

21. QTEs where I have all the time in the world to press the button. That is how you do QTEs that I don't hate.

22. There is a character in the game that, on my play, I hated. The retired American cop that you first meet locked up in the nightclub then again working at a charity organisation down in the favela. Max asks him to help shoot the gangsters in the club but he refuses, having retired. In the favela, he is just some chummy, baffoonish man who is more interested in smalltalk about his family than anything else. But on my second game, I realised that this character wasn't some throwaway sketch. This is exactly the man that Max wants to be but never can. The cop who had a normal family life, then retired to do charity work. The ex-cop who refuses to get in a gun fight because he is retired. That isn't Max. The fact you meet him for the second time right at the end of the nonviolent sequence, when Max goes for his longest time without shooting anyone, speaks volumes. I love how much the game doesn't linger on this. Max doesn't have some smart one liner to compare himself to the other ex-cop. He probably doesn't even notice the irony. He just moves on and shoots up a stripjoint.


Phil C. said...

I adored Max Payne 3 as soon as I played it, but I couldn't pinpoint why, save for a vague, niggling "it just works right." Then I read this and found myself nodding every other line.

Thanks for reminding me again why I follow this blog.

For all the going about the narrative and how it entwines with the game/level design, what really sticks to me is how Rockstar seems to have identified a specific feeling. Instead of targeting the usual ethereal "you are Big and Powerful and Baddest of Ass" that just about every action-oriented game aims for, or just throwing in thoughtless design with the hope that having an upgrade system and parkour elements and other contextless slices from other games at the same time! magically results in a coherent sum, every bit -- the camera trickery, the hazy trance-like music, the twisting narrative, constantly chomping on painkillers, even the pressing linear design -- serves to create this atmosphere of...

Well, you already described it:

" are going to do some nasty shit and you going to be a not very good person. It doesn't make sense. Just take some pain killers and push through."

It's rare that you see a devleoper wrangle all these disparate elements along such a focused purpose. Playing as Max isn't just absorbing in and of itself; it feels completely unique from any other game. What sticks in my memory isn't really any individual moment, but that overall mindset.

Great game, great piece.

Brendan Keogh said...

Well, thank YOU for reminding me why I write this blog :)

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed the piece, Brendan, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the game. I really loved Max Payne 3 as well and I think you touched on all of the relevant points of why.

It is hard to deny the absolute mastery Rockstar puts into their games, especially when it comes to music and attention to detail (both as you mentioned). One of my most memorable moments in gaming was the transition between Act Two and Three in Red Dead Redemption, when Marsten is returning to his ranch as "Compass", by James Lidell, starts to play. And the attention to detail offered in RDR, or LA Noire, or even GTA4, is rivaled by very few games.

Having just finished The Last of Us, I couldn't help comparing it to some of your points above. Naughty Dog certainly provides a huge attention to detail that rivals Rockstar, especially when it comes to how the characters move and react to the environment. Both games also create realistic depictions of emotional subject matter (at least as far as character development is concerned) and both strive to stay within the confines they established for themselves; as in Max Payne 3, where Max doesn't pretend to be someone he isn't and lives as a stoic action hero with substance abuse, The Last of Us showcases Joel fighting the urge to be someone "better" than he is in spite of the world he lives in. Both worlds create very interesting character studies, though most times the issue is buried under layers of subtext.

Have you played The Last of Us yet? I would be intrigued to hear your thoughts on it, especially given the celebration it has received in critical circles.

Getting back to the original point, thanks very much for such an interesting read. You've really inspired me to go back and play through the game a second time, if only to try focusing on the little things a bit more closely. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

This one lost me really early on with the lack of any real attention to continuity in the series: Max Payne 2 was already about Max dealing with his survivor's guilt and learning that to move on wasn't the same as to forget ("I had a dream that my wife was dead. But it was alright..."). 3 seemed to just rewind him back to where he was at the start of 2.

It also had the issue of Dan Houser's writing, where every fourth line is just there to show how clever Dan Houser is. Watching Max smug like he's in a Joss Whedon script isn't exactly what I was looking for in a sequel.

But what really threw me was a throwaway line at the very start, when Max first picks up a pill bottle. He smugs that he can "at least be thankful for big phama's grip on the world."

Um, big pharma murdered his wife and daughter. That was when I realized I wasn't playing Max Payne 3, I was playing a GTA game with no cars.

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