It has to be said: as a gamer it’s sometimes difficult not to be embarrassed by video games. Most people with a modicum of taste would take one look at a game called Max Payne (its central character of that name the proverbial Cop With Nothing To Lose, which doesn’t exactly make it less embarrassing) and snort derisively. It sounds about as classy and grown-up as one of those superhero comics where the women have breasts the size of battleships and waists with the circumference of a ripe peach.
The surprising thing was that Max Payne, while not exactly A la recherche du temps perdu (or even Pulp Fiction), was fairly smart and knowing in its writing, at least for a video game in the early years of this millennium, and its sequel, The Fall of Max Payne even more so. Mixing neo-noir cynicism and post-Matrix bullet time with comic book aesthetics, surreal dream sequences and a parodic style that was more Scream than Scary Movie, Max Payne didn’t take itself overly serious, yet it still pulled off that neat trick where we come to care about the characters. They’re funny, but they’re not just the punchline to a joke.
Not even poor, doomed mob underboss Vinnie Gognitti in his Captain BaseballBatBoy costume. Okay, perhaps a bit.
Max Payne 2 pulled off something strangely akin to Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. It shouldn’t work. It should be an incoherent mess of incompatible parts. Dark romance, surreal comedy, cartoon noir and self-referential humour shouldn’t come together to form something that’s somehow more than the sum of its parts – yet it does. Or perhaps it’s a variation on Stockholm Syndrome, where someone who enjoys playing computer games but also enjoys good writing and interesting characters convinces himself that purple prose such as “There was a blind spot in my head, a bullet-shaped hole where the answers should be. Call it denial. I wanted to dig inside my skull and scrape out the pain.” congeals into something that by some process of video game alchemy manages to transcend the clichés it’s assembled from.
What’s the occasion of all of this reminiscing about old games? Call it exposition, call it setting the scene – it’s basically a glorified lead-in for my thoughts on Max Payne 3, the latest (and possibly last?) game in the series, coming soon to a blog near you. Did the series manage to reinvent itself, almost ten years after its last instalment, by transposing its New York neo-noir bullet ballet to the sun-drenched favelas of Sao Paolo viewed through the camera lens left behind by Tony Scott?