Payne Killer (part 2)

This post follows from my previous meanderings on Max Payne. For those who have not played Max Payne 3, beware: there will be spoilers.

While I am not an outright fan of explicit violence in modern media, I’m not particularly squeamish either. I have no interest whatsoever in the gore extravaganza of much modern horror, but neither am I put off by the viscera of some of Tarantino’s more recent offerings, and some of the TV series (e.g. Rome or Game of Thrones) I’ve enjoyed most over the last couple of years don’t skimp on the red gushing stuff.

And yet, Max Payne 3 almost made me switch off the game, not just once but twice, due to the brutality it depicts.

And this is in no way an indictment of the game.

Max Payne 3 is a brutal game – and more than any shooter I’ve played it does a remarkably horrid job of showing what bullets do to bodies. Does the game revel in showing exit wounds? I think I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t – MP3 does not present its violence with the frat boy, fist-pump glee of other games, but it has a fascination for showing the damage done, both to people and to interior (and exterior) decorating, in slow motion. So much so that checking out some of the videos on YouTube makes me queasy – less with the game than with the Beavis and Butthead-ish tone of the video description and comments.

But it’s not so much seeing the carnage I’m authoring that made me wince, at least not after the first ten minutes or so. (There is definitely something numbing to seeing henchman after henchman dying horribly at the business end of my gun – and it’s this repetitiveness that’s a major flaw of the game in my opinion.) It’s two key scenes: in one, I finally find the beaten, bleeding trophy wife of a São Paolo business man earlier abducted by a favela gang, only to see one of the gangbangers put a bullet through her head. In another, the business man’s brother is covered with petrol and burnt alive. The game has previously shown the man as shallow, narcissistic and rather pathetic – but the way the game depicts his death got to me, and quite possibly more so than a similar scene would have in a film.

I don’t want to get into the question here of whether games are becoming too violent or whether people are desensitised to real-life violence and cruelty due to watching brutal films or playing violent games. That question is much bigger and deserves a longer discussion in a wider forum. What I’m interested in is this: why did these two scenes get to me to the extent where I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue playing (keeping in mind, as I’ve said, that I’m not all that squeamish)?

I think it’s this: games make a big thing of player agency – as gamers it’s our finger on the trigger, we decide who lives and who dies, it’s, like, interactive! – yet in practice our agency is always limited, it’s circumscribed in a hundred ways: by a game’s design, its user interface, our character’s abilities and, often frustratingly, by the story a game tells. You’re Superman while playing the game, you’re John McClane, you’re Neo – and then comes a pre-rendered sequence, and what’s pre-rendered as well is your impotence in the face of the great god, Plot. The villain jumps from the shadows and skewers your love interest with his great big sword. (I’ve never played Final Fantasy VII, but apparently this is one of the primal scenes of so many gamers into Japanese role-playing games… and I wonder whether the cod-Freudian subtext is as heavy when you’re actually playing.)

Many games use this in a frustrating way that feels like the program is cheating, in revenge for decades of players using hidden cheats and God modes to become invulnerable. Think you’re all-powerful, gamer? Take that! Ooh, that must’ve hurt! The two scenes in Max Payne 3 that I mentioned earlier (and there are others, although none as pointed) may have an element of this, but I think the game is being cleverer than that: Max Payne, from the first game onward, told a story about revenge and redemption. I’m not sure to what extent it manages the latter all that well, although there’s a lot of quasi-Noirish verbiage in the game about it – but especially Max Payne 3 never lets you forget that the revenge you’re effecting is finally hollow. Yes, you might get to kill hundreds of bad guys in bloody, bone-crunching ways, but Max’ loss is the constant foil through which the player views this revenge. For every henchman killed, for every villain stopped, Max’ wife and child is not a single bullet closer to being alive. For a game that’s entirely about revenge and redemption, it’s bleakly ironic that revenge is shown to be pointless and redemption all but impossible. Max Payne’s extended trauerarbeit (and I don’t think this is wankerish pseudo-analysis imposed on the game – every second line of dialogue is about Max’ ongoing, futile quest to find some sort of meaning in a life that’s had all meaning shot to hell), like the hundreds of painkillers he keeps popping, only serves to dull his pain momentarily.

I’m not saying that Max Payne 3 is a deep, philosophical treatment of mourning, revenge and the futility of redemption – but it does address these issues within the rules it has set up for itself… and, like Rockstar’s earlier Red Dead Redemption (although my vote still goes to RDR for doing more interesting, complex things with the theme) it goes a long way to disabuse the player of this crazy idea that just because he’s got his finger on the trigger he can make everything all right.

Payne Killer (part 1)

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?