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.
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.