The Lasting Accomplishment of 'Max Payne'

Max Payne accomplished something unique with its mood and narration, creating a journey into the unraveling psyche of one man pushed to a ragged edge.

On last week’s Moving Pixels podcast, I talked about why I liked Max Payne better than its sequel, despite the fact that Max Payne 2 is a clearly better game, and I’d like to flesh out that reasoning a little more. I think the first game accomplished something truly unique with its mood and narration, something that no other game has come close to replicating. While many may remember it as the game to popularize “bullet time”, I’ll always remember it as a journey into the mind of one man.

At one point fairly early in the game, Max says, “There were only personal apocalypses. Nothing is cliché when it’s happening to you.” This seemingly throwaway line explains why the mood of Max Payne is so unique. The game revolves around Max’s own personal apocalypse, the end of his world. Everything reinforces this one intimate idea: the environment, the dialogue, the forced metaphors, the meta humor, the mythical references, and even the medium itself.

The world of Max Payne is very empty. Despite running through streets and across rooftops, you’ll rarely see any civilians; everyone you meet is an enemy. This is justified by a huge blizzard; all the innocents are safely holed up in their homes, leaving only criminals outside. This emptiness helps us focus on Max because he’s our only anchor to this world. He has such a strong presence as the narrator and protagonist that we feel like we’re seeing the world through his eyes even though the game is played from a third person perspective. From Max’s point of view the world seems to revolve around him as he’s the only one who knows about this grand conspiracy, and he’s the only one suicidal enough to stop it. From his point of view, this is his own personal hell because the entire world is against him.

Max understands this, and that’s what prompts all his references to myth and legend. He knows that he’s acting like a supernatural hero. These asides and metaphors act as knowing winks to the audience, a way of breaking the fourth wall without actually breaking it. Such meta humor is apocalyptic in nature because it requires the character to acknowledge that his world is fake. This meta-apocalypse reaches a climax when Max, lost in a drug induced dream, comments on his role as a comic and game character:

All my past was just fragmented still shots, words hanging in the air like balloons . . . Weapon statistics hanging in the air, glimpsed out of the corner of my eye. Endless repetition of the act of shooting, time slowing down to show off my moves. The paranoid feel of someone controlling my every step . . . Funny as hell, it was the most horrible thing I could think of.

All of this is true, and for Max, it is horrible because such revelations mean that he’s doomed to live out these events over and over again with no resolution. In this way, he continues to exist even after he realizes his world is gone. In other words, it was never real to begin with. The self aware life of a fictional character is akin to living on after the end of the world.

While we don’t literally see the world through Max’s eyes (since Max Payne is a third person game), his constant narration allows us to hear what he’s thinking. After listening to his thought process, it becomes obvious that Max is obsessed with the end of his world. He sees references to the apocalypse everywhere even in innocuous objects. When he hears a pass code is 667, a number that has no apocalyptic meaning on its own, he calls it the neighbor of the beast, thereby associating it with the end times. He creates these connections even when they’re not there to begin with, furthering his downward spiral.

There are also more obvious references to the apocalypse and other mythical things: the Ragna-Rock club, the satanic psycho boss at the end of Part 1, the tarot cards in the kitchen in Part 2. These things create an expectation of the supernatural, but going that route would make Max’s obsession prophetic instead of psychotic. By remaining realistic, the game turns Max into an unreliable narrator, someone so obsessed with his personal apocalypse that he sees it everywhere, thereby giving the game a singular mood that even the sequel failed to recapture. Max Payne is a journey into the unraveling psyche of one man pushed to a ragged edge. That’s how I’ll always remember it; that’s its lasting accomplishment.





A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.