Max Payne. Dearest of all my friends. One pessimistic individual. But I love him, and if you haven’t had the experience of playing this trilogy which just turned 20 years old, let me tell you (with no game breaking spoilers) why you’re missing out on not just a fantastic game series but a fantastic piece of art.
“I don’t know about angels, but it’s fear that gives men wings.”– Max Payne, 2001
The first two games of this trilogy, ‘Max Payne’ and ‘Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne’ – developed by Remedy Entertainment in 2001 and 2003 respectively – have a very distinct style of telling the story through a graphic novel. Panel by panel, the story plays out in still images (that are actually photographs of actors edited with filters to look more rough and sketchy) and we hear the voices of the characters. James McCaffrey provides the very distinct and grizzled voice for our titular NYPD detective, and delivers a fantastic performance in the process. The narration that he provides throughout the two games is superbly written to recreate that classic noir style of story-telling. The gameplay itself is very intentional in its homage to John Woo’s cult classic “Hard Boiled” with the use of bullet-time, jumping and dodging in slow motion, giving you time to take out mobsters and look good doing it. The third game, ‘Max Payne 3’, was developed by Rockstar Studios and strayed from the relatively cheap but effective comic-book cutscenes. Although the visual aesthetic changed there, the characters, gameplay and level design (especially for the flashbacks in New York) are present and better than ever.
“There are no choices. Nothing but a straight line. The illusion comes afterwards, when you ask ‘Why me?’ and ‘What if?’ when you look back, see the branches, like a pruned bonsai tree, or a forked lightning.”– Max Payne, 2003
This isn’t a case of style over substance however, the story through all three titles is not only engaging but incredibly thought-provoking. The life of Max Payne is full of just that, maximum pain. Ultimately, the first game is a story of revenge – the murder of his wife and baby by druggies on a new fad called Valkyr – and through the excellent use of dream sequences, enacting how the situation would play on the characters mind, there is actually a layer of slight horror in some levels. The emotional impact is very strong, in between the exploring and shooting of NYC thugs.
“The genius of the hole: no matter how long you spend climbing out, you can still fall back down in an instant.”– Max Payne, 2003
The sequel, set a few years after the original title, still keeps much of the thriller and action concepts from its predecessor but also intertwines a surprising love story as well. We follow Max trying to readjust to life in the NYPD, while people from his past make sudden cameos in his new cases, thus bringing him back into turmoil with the likes of many people, including Mona Sax, Vladimir Lem and the Inner Circle – a secret society we are introduced to in the latter part of the first game. We also play as more than just Max in this game for, even if it is just for a few chapters, which heightens both the gameplay and the narrative. Personally, ’The Fall of Max Payne’ is actually the PEAK of Max Payne, as it’s my favourite of the entire trilogy, and honestly one of my Top 5 games of all time. I find the story telling, the voice acting, the gameplay, the themes, the nuanced world building to be some of the best in any game I’ve played – and I would happily sit down now, to play it all again.
“When entertainment turns into a surreal reflection of your life, you’re a lucky man if you can laugh at the joke. Luck and I weren’t on speaking terms.”– Max Payne, 2003
For quite some time, that was it. It was just two games. Until 2012 with the release of Max Payne 3, now set in São Paulo of all places. Max is now retired from the NYPD working as private security in Brazil. This is where the gameplay element was at it’s finest. The bullet-time aspect, the general firefights, it was immaculately executed and was the genuine modern, next generation experience that Max Payne fans needed. The writing was still there too, with Max giving us more of his depressing narration, complete metaphors, similes and analogies. The visual aesthetic of the cutscenes, this time being fully animated CGI, wasn’t quite as memorable or stylistic as the first two games, but it was distinctive enough in the way it would use typography, which certainly added gravitas to Max’s impeccable quotes.
“In the land of the blind, a one eyed man is king.”– Max Payne, 2001
Speaking of quotes, I’ve been dotting them through-out this write up. My word, if Max Payne wasn’t a detective, he could most certainly be a poet. The way McCaffrey delivers the lines in a serious, monotone yet cool way is effortlessly badass, so couple that with wonderful writing from Sam Lake and you have lines of dialogue or narration that will stick in your mind for years to come. Sometimes it’s on the border of cheesy, which is fitting for the action packed moments, but then it hits you again with a very serious (and sometimes relatable) quote about love/mental wellbeing/depression/mistakes/life and you’re back to feeling engrossed in the media again, and likely feeling sorry for Max, with his alcoholism and painkiller addiction. Now, let’s shoot some mobsters or drug dealers to make ourselves feel better.
“The way I see it there’s two types of people, those who spend their lives trying to build a future and those who spend their lives trying to rebuild the past. For too long I’d been stuck in between, hidden in the dark.”– Max Payne, 2012
So, yes, if you have yet to experience Max Payne, change that immediately. Unless it’s the Mark Wahlberg movie. No-one needs to see that.